Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Where do nonhuman mammals fit in our moral hierarchy?

Michael Shermer recently posted Confessions of a Speciesist on his web site which raises the question about how we should think about animals and their suffering. I have replied posting the following comment.
I am currently exploring the idea that the brain's neural code is a protocol which is resistant to evolutionary change and at the biological level works in the same way in all mammals. The model predicts failings in human intelligence such as confirmation bias and the tendency to behave like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants (whether the giants be religious leaders or famous scientists) and unquestioningly accept too much of what we are told as true.
What humans appear to have done is to weaken the power of the neural code to work things out for itself - and instead used language to allow the brain to fast track cultural information without any "security checks". This works because cultural information is much more "intelligent" than  the biological intelligence of the neural code. It has the interesting side effect that, at the genetically controlled level, we may actually be less intelligent than animals - who have to think for themselves - and are unable to fall back on cultural knowledge supplied by others.
If my model can be substantiated it makes one think about animals and animal suffering in a very different light.
I plan to post full details on my blog later this month.
This post was accidentally blocked as spam by an automatic moderation package and I had another try ...
I read Joe's comments about the moderation with interest as my contribution has not appeared, despite the fact that if did not breach the comment policy. Perhaps I did not make my views clear enough – so lets put the argument in a different form.
Religious people believe that God did something special to make humans different, and many scientists are busy looking for that critical genetic change (the philosopher's stone of intelligence) that makes us different. Anyone who believes that humans think in a fundamentally different way to animals is less likely to treat animals as sentient beings which deserve respect. This means that in discussing morality we clearly need to know more about the evolution of the differences between human and animal brains.
One possible model starts from the assumption that the neural code (the brain's internal communication language) is part of the mammal body plan which evolution finds difficult to change. Provisional research on this basis suggests that our apparent greater intelligence evolved because of the ability to fast-track cultural learning (via language) and not by evolving a more powerful genetically controlled neural mechanism. While faster uncritical learning may have significant overall advantages there are also some important disadvantages. The model explains why human thought suffers from confirmation bias and also makes it easier to accept nonsense, such as religion, as fact. As a result we know much more, and can do much more, than animals but the way we do it has some unintelligent flaws.
One consequence is that some animal species, which have to live by their wits because they lack a reservoir of cultural knowledge, may well be more intelligent than we would be if we were denied the benefits of cultural learning. If research shows that some animal brains are inherently more intelligent at the genetically controlled level it becomes very hard to justify treating them as second class creatures. 
The problem has now been corrected, and an apology given, and both messages are now visible.

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