Suffering, evolution, nomogenesis


Can’t we just be friends?

The problem of humans inflicting suffering on animals is clearly solvable — it’s not like we intrinsically depend on wild nature in ways we can’t cut or replace with technology. But assuming this problem is solved, the other problem — that of wild animals inflicting suffering on each other — remains. (There’s of course still another problem of animals suffering from diseases or natural disasters, but let’s focus on the wolf-killing-sheep problem for now.)

Is this even a problem? Or is it just how biology works, so we can’t do anything about it? Can we even prove that animal suffering is real — and is such proof prerequisite for us to start fighting it?

Even if we agree that this is something to be addressed, wouldn’t it be a much worse crime if we just morph wild animals to conform to our (current) notions of decency?

I.

Imagine a world where humans have a near-exhaustive knowledge of how biology works — and aren’t shy to apply that knowledge. They’re long past farming and agriculture but they care about wild nature more than ever, and they do everything that can be done for it to thrive — balance species, maintain diversity, minimize surges, prevent natural calamities: all this is as natural for them as, for us, is trimming shrubbery in the backyard. Nearly everyone engages in part-time gardening (in a sense obviously wider and different, if akin, to ours), their collective work covering the entire planet.

Still, predators remain predators even in Everday.

Sure, you can institute a (more or less automated) “wild nature police” that would invisibly interfere to minimize suffering of the prey, selectively protect prey from the predators, push predators to become vegetarians, deliver contraception to those no longer preyed upon… all of which, to varying extent, has been tried. But such interventions are unsustainable and unnatural —essentially compromises that settle for a lesser evil.

As far as reducing animal suffering goes, Everday has already collected all low-hanging fruit. Now the choice it faces is between some drastic reengineering of life from scratch — or a much less showy approach called Nomogenesis.

II.

Even in the distant future of Everday, the concept of Nomogenesis is little more than a vague outline. No one knows if it is the solution although more and more clues seem to be pointing in the same general direction. The bad news is that it can only be an extremely long-term process — it’s not something we can do in one (human) generation: it is natural, and nature works via evolution, and evolution is typically slow. But the good news is that Rething may be the inevitable future of biology anyway, whether we do anything about it or not.

When you look at Earth’s life, it’s hard to imagine that — apart from humans — it can be really different. It’s evolving but at the same time seems to stay more or less the same, just as it’s always been: species fork, flourish, die out; everyone keeps eating and being eaten. Admittedly diversity and overall complexity of biomes trend slowly up, but that seems to be at best a quantitative change.

And yet this perception is — may be — wrong. It’s not always been like that (e.g. very early life could not produce specialized predators because the density of biomass was too low) and may not remain like that forever. Rething is an argument that, by extrapolating the processes that are already detectable, we can glimpse, in an extremely distant future, a biology where death and predation no longer play the role they currently play — and where symbiosis and inter-species cooperation become a lot more important than they are now. In that biology, complex structures tend to be reused and readapted (hence rething) instead of being torn down and rebuilt from scratch.

III.

That is a contentious but exciting idea. And Nomogenesis makes it still more exciting: it calls for the bearers of intelligence to go with (see adverbiality) and speed up (see panpraxis) nature’s flow towards Rething — to hijack, learn from, and amplify this sea change for our own ethical ends.

Fundamentally, Nomogenesis aims to evolve the evolution. There may be many specific mechanisms of morphing the “selectionary landscape”; two of these are establishing feedback links from an organism’s phenotype (appearance, behavior) back to its genotype and expanding sexual selection so that a wider slice of a biosystem may participate in an individual’s procreative choice.

It is unknown how successful or indeed feasible this may be. One thing is sure: an entirely new level of knowledge of biology is required — simply knowing all life as it currently exists is not enough. From a full 3D vision at all spatial scales you must go to 4D — include the dimension of time, learn to model and guide extremely long-term and wide-range biological transformations.

Everday-the-book was written, in part, to pretend that all the easy problems have been solved so I could focus on the hard ones that remain. Nomogenesis is perhaps the hardest of them all.

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