Written by: Heather Clemenceau
I’ve always enjoyed reading futurists such as Ray Kurzweil and crossover sci-fi writers like David Brin who are inspired by imagination. Savvy futurists envision how society could function differently and better, but prediction also helps make us aware of futures we might wish to avoid. One futurist vision that would theoretically have a very high pay-off is that proposed by one of the world’s most notable transhumanists, philosopher David Pearce. Pearce has advocated for an end to all animal suffering caused by carnivorous predators eating herbivorous animals, whom he describes as being “trapped in the never-ending cycle of blind Darwinian processes.”
Pearce’s abolitionist manifesto, the Hedonistic Imperative, proposes that a combination of pharmacology, reprogramming, GPS monitoring, neurochips, and pushing gene-edits through entire populations of animals are the methods by which we could eliminating the suffering caused by predation. To that end, transhumanists, philosophers, and other followers including some vegans, have created overarching plans to bio-engineer carnivores and omnivores (and presumably other taxonomies such as parasitoids, insects, and possibly viroids too) down to the most granular level of detail. This plan amounts to nothing less than a complete micromanagement of the planet’s ecosystem, staggering in proportion, and one that would essentially turn the wild regions of the planet into zoos. While such a utopian dream could, in theory at least, eliminate animal suffering in the wild, it would also have a high risk of irreversibility — and unintended or hard-to-calculate consequences for other species.
Retro-Engineering the Evolved Characteristics of Animals
The sum total of all the bodily parts and biological functions that an animal’s genotype creates to propagate itself is its phenotype. Millions of years of evolution made
carnivorous animals into what they are today. Not only would it be necessary to “ re-engineer an animal’s consciousness” as Pearce has described, but going forward, physically modify their very phenotype so that they would be equipped to consume plant matter rather than animal flesh. Being a carnivore is part of that animals’ phenotype – they are uniquely equipped with tools to kill, consume, and digest their prey. A herbivore, on the other hand, has evolved to evade predators and derive as much energy from vegetable matter as possible. Omnivores meanwhile, have evolved to process both meat and vegetable matter. In fact, since herbivores, omnivores, and some predators also exhibit behaviours that co-evolved in the presence of top level/apex predators, many of those behaviours and biological functions would also be redundant.
The micromanagement challenge required to innovate and maintain a cruelty-free biopsphere is astonishing in its complexity. To begin, we would need to acquire and map the entire biocode for about 8 million species of animals, many of whom haven’t yet been discovered. It is assumed that CRISP-R gene editing would be required to manipulate genes that control the development of teeth, the processes by which various species break down carbohydrates/protein/fats and lipids, and even the variation in the animals’ gut microbiome needs to be considered.
Herbivores are much better suited to grinding up plants with flat teeth. Herbivores and omnivores have enzymes in their saliva to help break down the plant and other food that they eat while carnivores do not.
Some different adaptations for omnivores include sharp teeth in front and flat teeth in back, which enable them to eat a larger variety of food. Birds have specialized beaks for insect, seed, and flesh eating. Obviously birds of prey are not well suited to transitioning to a cruelty-free diet without some modifications.
A carnivore’s mouth is full of sharp teeth so than can shred the meat that they eat. Their tongues are usually serrated which aids in pulling flesh off bones. A carnivore’s taste buds have long ago ceased to recognize certain carbohydrates. Another adaptation is that some carnivores’ digestive tract enables them to go days even months without eating anything, because catching wild animals isn’t always easy. These are all evolutionary advantages conferred on carnivores that are problematic for wild animal “zoo keepers” in Pearce’s utopia.
Digestion by Diet:
Herbivores only consume plant material which is very difficult to digest. Since their diet includes large amounts of fibre and cellulose, the digestive tract of herbivores is much longer than carnivores. To overcome this herbivores have developed a symbiotic relationship with a population of microflora that inhabit the rumen (of ruminants) where it undergoes fermentation. The microbiome of the gut is able to break down cellulose and use the glucose for metabolic needs. Not only do the micro-organisms break down the cellulose but they also produce the vitamins E, B and K for use by the herbivorous animal.
Omnivores consume both meat and plant matter; they have a digestive system very similar to carnivores but they also possess a working cecum that is not as well adapted as in herbivores. Due to this flexibility they are able to consume a wide diet, which has also prevented them losing the ability to synthesise certain products in the body as with carnivores. Since they are not as efficient processors of plant material as herbivores, as a group the genes that control for the break down of meat and plant material would need to be turned off/enhanced. In birds, the crop is primarily a storage area for food consumed by the bird; certain adaptions in some species allow it to produce a mixture that can be fed to newly hatched birds. Carnivorous bird species usually feed their offspring directly from the carcass of an animal so obviously this is problematic for those hoping to eliminate carnivorous species – they need alternate ways to feed young if they cannot consume meat. The same vitamins that gut flora produce in the herbivore are not necessarily bioavailable in the carnivore, who must source them from their diet directly.
Clearly, it would be an oversimplification if transhumanists believed they could easily reprogram or use pharmacology to put an end to the suffering carnivores cause other species. As Pearce acknowledges, fertility regulation would also be necessary particularly for animals that were previously part of the food chain for animals at higher trophic levels of the food web. Animals would have to be classified according to their survivorship curve so that those who reproduce the quickest and produce the most offspring due to high predation (such as marine invertebrates) would survive longer but with fewer offspring. It’s not about only the apex predators – every single species would have to have their reproduction levels altered to prevent starvation, because all animals would now be consuming only plant food which is available in finite quantities.
What Would The Loss Of Predators Mean To The World Ecology?
The phrase “balance of nature” accurately describes the equilibrium (homeostasis) which exists between populations in natural ecosystems. Because plants are at the base of all food chains they are integral to maintaining the balance essential to prevent the destruction of habitats. Only plants absorb CO2 and give off life giving oxygen. We’ve already discovered that the elimination of just one link in the food chain by either exploitation, hunting, or competition from pests or disease will have a major effect on plants and/or animals above or below it in the food web. So when considering how to re-engineer carnivorous animals in this experiment, considerable thought would also need to be given to how it could be carried out in such a way that the ecosystem is not disrupted.
Eliminating the carnivore populations could result in existing and new herbivorous species driving
losses in plant and tree biodiversity by virtue of their numbers. Additionally, emboldened herbivores no longer have to hide from predators, so their consumption may increase. Plants also evolved in the presence of predators as well – in areas where carnivores preyed on animals, plants had little need for elaborate defenses such as toxins or thorns because plant eater population levels were controlled by predation on the herbivores. Unlike phytoplankton which grows rapidly can support vast numbers of marine life, land plants may take years to reach maturity. In order that the anticipated increase in the number of herbivores and their associated plant requirements be accommodated, the nutrient status of grassland soils would probably need to be improved to increase productivity. Unfortunately, we can`t make the sun shine longer in order to produce more energy at the bottom of the pyramid either.
So it’s very likely that plant material on earth would not have time to evolve defences against millions of new herbivores voraciously consuming them before they were decimated, rendering the experiment a complete failure when all organisms on the planet died as a result.
Dynamics Of Ecosystems and Biogeochemistry
Thus far we have focused the genetics, phenotypes, behaviours of individual animals when considering the feasibility of eliminating animal suffering. An ecosystem consists of the biological community of plants and animals interacting with each other and sharing resources, as well as physical and chemical factors that make up its non-living or abiotic environment. The functional concerns with eliminating predators include such potential problems as how energy flows along the steps in a food web, whether there is enough energy (sunlight) to drive photosynthesis by plants, and the rate at which nutrients are recycled in the new, cruelty-free ecosystem.
Energy enters the biological system as energy from the sun, captured by plant photosynthesis, which then flows upwards through the trophic levels. A trophic level is composed of organisms that make a living in the same way, that is, they are all primary producers (plants), primary consumers (herbivores) or secondary consumers (carnivores). Without the continued input of solar energy, biological systems would quickly shut down.
Biogeochemical cycles can be broken down into two types:
- Local cycles such as the phosphorus cycle, which involve elements with no mechanisms for long distance transfer.
- Global cycles (carbon, hydrogen, mercury, nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur, rock, and water) which involve an interchange between the atmosphere and the ecosystem. It is these global nutrient cycles that perpetuate life for all organisms. Of all these cycles – the carbon cycle is most likely to be affected by this abolitionist project.
When an animal eats a plant, carbon from the plant becomes part of the fats and proteins in the animal. Microorganisms and some animals feed on waste material from
animals, and the remains of dead animals and plants. The carbon then becomes part of these microorganisms and detritus feeders. Quite simply, if we have numerically more animals, or they live longer, or more energy is required to enter the system to support the increased number of herbivores, the number of trophic levels would be changed (because predators would be eliminated) and these cycles will be affected. The risk of irreversibility – and unintended or hard-to-calculate consequences for other species really becomes apparent with this analysis.
How few trophic levels can an ecosystem support? The answer depends on the amount of energy entering the ecosystem, energy loss between trophic levels, and physiology of organisms at each level. The loss, or even reduction in numbers, of predators in an ecosystem can set off something caused a “trophic cascade” in which the change in predator population has effects across the food web and ecosystem. We’ve already seen this happen when wolves have been decimated – the end result is that there were changes in the type of vegetation that elk ate. Humans have already disrupted many biogeochemical cycles and in the process have threatened many ecosystems. Climate change through the use of fossil fuels and animal agriculture are two such examples that have directly affected the carbon cycle.
While Pearce’s ideas are compelling from an ethical and welfare perspective, the suggestion that we can rebuild a Garden of Eden from the ground up after millions of years of evolution is hardly feasible, nor may I add, is it desirable. It’s so difficult to fathom from a technical standpoint that I can’t quite get engaged by it, even though the concept itself is appealing. While Pearce’s main focus is on ending the suffering caused by predation, that’s hardly the only source of pain. Humans would also need to eliminate parasitism and disease, vaccinate animals, provide painkiller at birth, and prevent infanticide and detrimental mating competitions by male animals. What fatally undermines the thought experiment is that it positions humans as a parochial superintelligence over animals. Besides that, what would be the point of eliminating carnivores while humans still raise, kill, and consume animals? We’re but a brief novelty on the evolutionary timeline; humans will probably be extinct long before we get close to having this much power. Either climate change or disease are likely to wipe us out, or at the very least knock the few survivors back to hunter gatherers. If any predator needs CRISP-R, it’s us.
As we’ve learned with antibiotic resistant microbes and pesticide-resistant pests, nature can evolve faster than we can innovate. We would have no idea what would happen when natural selection took over once this utopian abolitionist project had been finished. Attempting to control population levels is incompatible with life, because the ultimate goal for any living being (from an evolutionary biology perspective) is to make as many copies of your DNA as possible, and have those progeny make as many copies and proliferate, to survive while pitted against other similarly evolving animals in a changing environment. This is the “Red Queen hypothesis.”
Human facilitated animal suffering can and should be stopped. And it’s much more realizable. It’s ethical, has a high pay-off for humans as well as animals, and it must happen.