So uplifting

The fictional motif or construct called uplift is pretty well-known, I think. Members of a nonhuman species undergo a technological treatment and are brought to cognitive functions similar to humans. This is typically called “sapience” in a meaning specific to science fiction, meaning not only that they now talk and generally think like humans, but they have attained some ineffable quality, usually tagged consciousness or awareness. They often retain some nonhuman features for purposes of thematic contrasts (see my post I’m a little seahorse for some thoughts on those purposes).

Uplift is widespread throughout science fiction; it’s the whole point to 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance. It is thoroughly committed to human exceptionalism, making no bones about a quantum improvement between “animal” vs. “truly human,” and includes a very Cartesian/Kantian notion of free will and morality. I’ve written about its role in science fiction before in Fuzzyology, but it underwent a certain concretizing during the 1980s, so I want to look at some of it there. It’s easy to think of uplift science fiction as a repeat or extension of The Island of Doctor Moreau, but it’s also flatly wrong, and the eighties works, for some reason, are good case studies to show why.

Brin’s second “uplift saga” book, and I think pretty much the only one to discuss, was Startide Rising, first published in 1983. It posits a many-instances, ancient interstellar history of species being uplifted into “sapience,” to join a complex and highly volatile community of worlds, resources, politics, and wars. Uplift has some odd features:

  • Apparently evolution does not produce “sapience” – it’s an uplift thing, period (but see below).
  • Uplifting another species makes your species its “patron,” typically expressed in socially subordinating them
  • Species’ cultural and political status in the galactic civilization is a direct function of the time since uplift, implying some assumed further development, or perhaps simply grabbiness.
  • Uplifted species are prone to “devolution,” a loss of the “sapient” faculty; it occurs in individuals under stress as a psychological condition, and is variously regarded as shameful, a guilty pleasure, or a desired goal (for some of the bad guys).

Sherryl Vint (2007) critiques David Brin’s version as relying upon and reinforcing human exceptionalism rather than challenging it, and I think she’s absolutely right about that. I’m highlighting her contribution because this insight is painfully rare in academics, criticism, and pop culture. As she puts it:

Although the relations among species are more equitable in the world that Brin imagines than in the one presented by Wells, the two authors’ quite different relationships to the discourse of speciesism demonstrates that Brin’s vision is far more conservative and damaging. The anxiety about devolution in both novels demonstrates, to paraphrase de Beauvoir, that one is not born a human but becomes one. Although the characters in Wells’s novel appear to believe in the certainty of the human/animal boundary as an ontological category, we have already seen how moments in the novel’s narrative, such as Prendick’s need to perform the chant to be recognized as human, suggest instead a more nuanced understanding of the categories of human and animal. Brin, in contrast, appears on one level to be suggesting more directly the idea of a continuum through the motif of uplift. At the same time, however, the fact that only the non-human animals appear to devolve in stressful circumstances implies that, despite this continuum, on some level the world Brin imagines retains a sharp and ontological division between ‘real’ humans, who are able to maintain their sentience no matter the circumstances, and ‘almost’ human animals, who can easily lose their human status. As I have already argued, the status of ‘human’ is something that many Homo sapiens risk losing in specific configurations, which is why the question of the human/animal boundary is of ethical import not merely for the sake of the welfare of animals and not only in the context of animal experimentation and human/animal chimeras. Rather, this boundary is foundational for ethics in total.

She discusses how in the Brin novels, humans are profoundly special, possessing an essential and categorical status which all the SF history and uplift tech validate rather than challenge.

  • Humans are one of the few species that weren’t uplifted by another, but did it their own selves, by their bootstraps. The term for this is “wolfling.” (mild snark: which makes no sense considering wolves are, you know, just wolves even in this setting … but OK, OK)
  • They’re the only “wolfling” species that uplifts others, thus challenging the prejudices of the older uplifts because doing this is also a sign of “sapience” and hence status.
  • They disdain learning about star-traveling technology from the traditional Library and build their own instead.
  • Unlike nearly all the uplift species, they are enlightened and humanitarian toward the species they’ve uplifted, dolphins and chimps.
  • It is mpossible for them to devolve – explicitly, they cannot recapture innocence and are meant for the stars.

Bluntly, Brin’s uplift isn’t “becoming human” or in the pop culture vocabulary, “sapient”/”sentient” at all. Only humans are really these things; for everyone else, it’s a parlor trick. The uplift novels are much more like how Wells’ fictional character Moreau views humans and nonhumans than what the novel depicts as the case via action and events.

A quick mention for the others. S. Andrew Swann’s “Moreau” novels posit human-nonhuman genetic engineering for dramatically animorphic characters, slang-named “Moreaus” in the setting (and unsurprisingly, android characters are called “Franks”).

In this case, uplift is not particularly profound or even interesting. The impact is … nothing, literally. The story is essentially a tightly-plotted action film, and the uplifted animals are pretty much just superheroes with animal powers, with some emotional or psychological features that merely enhance that role in familiar forms. The tiger guy burns with inner rage, et cetera. This is fine as symbolism, but it’s only a device to play with human socializing; nothing about actual carnivores indicates that they roam about in the grip of uncontrollable aggression.

It’s a tricky point, but my take is that these stories reinforce human exceptionalism not because they show how superior “real” humans are (as Brin does), but because the results of the uplift are so flat and objectified. Granted, very much in the way that many protagonists conceived as human in SF are, during this period especially, but the “animalism” is thoroughly employed toward precisely that end.

The third case study,and one of the rare few to swim vs. the tide, is Justifiers, a not-very-famous role-playing game published in 1989, which is surprisingly solid in terms of humanity, animality, and social status. Uplift is a matter of individual intervention rather than a “species” one, and the results are animorphic people who must pay back the cost of their production via indentured servitude. The supplements for the game are particularly biting and thoughtful concerning the possible nuances, and the fictional society is as ripe for social upheaval as its human inhabitants are in denial about it.

It’s clear that there isn’t any “gee are they really human” question at all; in fact, the whole point relies on their functional properties being those of people. Nor do they have any “magical minority” properties such as special empathy or moral views from which the humans would do well to learn. Despite the talons and animal heads, they’re just people, such that the tensions and conflicts arise strictly from discrimination, as their origins are used as an excuse to define them socially as subordinates and property. Of the three, in this, it’s most like The Island of Doctor Moreau – despite the many differences – because the creations are flawed, but specifically in all the ways that actual people are flawed. The “flaws” aren’t failures in being human, they’re the opposite, matching the human profile.

What really matters about uplift is that it’s no more than the techno gussied-up version of the “magic moment” model for human evolution, which is of course made explicit and not even a matter for debate by 2001: A Space Odyssey. This model is alive and kicking even today in academia, that humans did go through one special bit of evolution which catapulted them into “consciousness” – which as I’ve said before is nothing but talk of “the soul” all over again, especially since it’s equated with moral “awareness” – and which no other earthly creature has been privileged to experience (or cursed, to put the Victorian melodramatic spin on it). Its roots really lie in Herbert Spencer’s Great Chain of Being and not in biology at all.

Links: Animals and animality from the Island of Moreau to the Uplift Universe (requires registration), Sherryl Vint’s faculty page at Riverside U

Next: Filthy lucre


9 thoughts on “So uplifting

  1. I have no particular fondness for David Brin, and the idea of a magic moment in human cognition appears to be unaccountably widespread in academia, but the basic premise that artificial methods could theoretically be used to greatly accelerate a species’ acquisition of intelligence doesn’t seem especially controversial to me (with the standard disclaimer that the end result might not be the same species.)

    Are you specifically taking issue with the definition of ‘consciousness’ used, with the idea that dolphins and bonobos don’t already have (greater or lesser degrees of) it, or with the implication that being this way is intrinsically desirable? I think there are perfectly valid objections to each, but the techno-gussying isn’t just stage-dressing. Neuroscience and genetics are real things.

    I confess I’m also a little confused by your contrasting examples. When SF produces uplifts that “now talk and generally think like humans”, this is reinforcing human exceptionalism, but when Justifiers presents uplifts that mirror human flaws precisely, this is doing it right?


    • That’s a pretty dense comment which I think is good, but I’ll try to break it out into bits. Let me know if I left anything out.

      1. I agree that the “conversion” is itself theoretically possible. Chapter 5 in my book presents how it might be done, in terms of modern theory and technology.

      That leads to your question in the second paragraph, because my objection is to the up in uplift, also implied by the second syllable. If we were to alter a tiger into a man, that’s a horizontal change, not an “up.” That’s what I’m trying to stress, and Vint’s article is rare in sharing that perspective. (Her book Animal Alterity is good in this too.

      2. My answer to your question in the second paragraph is, yes, that’s what I’m objecting too. I’m not sure what you mean by invoking neuroscience and genetics – those disciplines support species differences in cogntition, not consciousness, which is a blatantly spiritual term. That latter claim is easily validated by challenging a proponent thereof to distinguish it from cognition, especially since humans are good at certain cognitive tasks, not “better cognition” as a general or wide-spectrum. He or she always invokes a “true” or “real” attunement to morality which nonhumans are not supposed to have, and which is not actually a physical thing at all.

      3. The exceptionalism in the Uplift books appears when one recognizes that the nonhuman uplifts are actually pretty crap at the things the humans are good at, in part because they are always reverting left and right, and in part because the humans are idealized to the point of being mannequins. The uplifts’ flaws are failures to be human, as the latter term is construed by the text.

      The exceptionalism in Swann’s novels appears when one recognizes that the protagonists are simply boring. They don’t have social, psychological, or emotional conundrums; they are vehicles for action scenes and sex scenes, with their thoughts and emotions simply tied into the justifications for those things. In other words, they aren’t people either.

      Whereas in the Justifiers setting, the characters face problems that people face, and cope with them across the spectrum of internalization, assimilation, subversion, and rebellion the way people do.

      I hope that helps to make my point. Let me know.


      • It does, Ron, thanks. I think have a better idea of what you were critiquing in Brin and Swann now.

        For my own part, I define (and unconsciously read) ‘consciousness’ as meaning ‘cognitive awareness of (part of) one’s own thought processes’, i.e, thinking about thinking, which is something both significant and quite possible to have more or less (or none) of. In theory that should be testable and seems likely to have some neurological foundation. (I meant ‘genetics’ as implying ‘genetic engineering’, which I should have clarified.)

        I still enjoyed the hell out of 2001, though. I don’t think it enshrines human exceptionalism so much as places humans firmly along a spectrum of possible developments, and easily gone the way of the dodo if not for a chance encounter. My two cents.


      • I should mention that I did read your spring-break series on how the human-equivalent animal might be achieved in practice, and I do have some thoughts on the subject, but in the interest of not hogging the discussion I might leave that for another day.


  2. Perhaps the attention grabbing quality of the uplift comes from category violation: the intuitions people have about humans (talking, having jobs) and animals (as mobile as humans, don’t wear clothes, furry or feathered) are short-circuted. Artists and storytellers then run changes on frustrating/meeting the expectations that emerge from the resultant complex of mashed-together and overlapping/contradictory intuitions. It would take considerable artistic effort to create texts that so engaged readers that their prior intuitions about what humans or animals would be altered. It would be an even greater achievement to create texts that allowed readers to refigure their whole system of categorization. (Or at least become aware of the difference between the categories untutored understanding offers and the categories developed in the biological sciences).


  3. I came across an unexpected critique of the prioritization of “consciousness” in the writing of sociologist Richard Sennett. It was surprising given the context: examination of skilled human craft work and the structure of human cooperation. He draws on animal behaviour to suggest that what makes craft and cooperation possible is not some miracle of consciousness. Rather, he insists that what makes them possible is the capability to work with the environment, to act in ways to alter or operate within extant constraints, and to work out long-term changes to patterns of behaviour and interaction. And this capacity is in NO WAY particular to humans. The implication is that building up build up human capacities for skilled action and improving relationships in human society — pedagogic, ethical, and political aims — requires attention to the kind of animal that we are rather than on intellectual abstractions, or on what we can articulate in language. He suggests that people can do more with their experiences and bodies than they can say. Fergit exactly who he cites (Lewontin IIRC). But it was a stark rebuke to idealism, Platonism, intellectualism, linguo-centrism all the more surprising because it was undertaken not in a spirit of nihilism or Dawkinsism but out of explicit intellectual and ethical goals.


  4. Sometimes certain sentences stay with you. One that’s stuck with me is from the philosopher Richard Rorty: “As Derrida has warned us, such an apotheosis of language is merely a transposed version of the idealists’ apotheosis of consciousness.” I mention it here to underline that I agree: both with the absurdity of human exceptionalism (in any fundamental sense, anyway – human is the one, exceptional species I am), and with the idea that “consciousness”/sentience is typically used as a science-y end-run to the same place as “soul.”

    But I *do* have a fondness for Startide Rising, in a distant, read-20+-years-ago way. Now, I can easily imagine 1983ish-me cutting Brin slack I wouldn’t today, and even then I didn’t think he paid enough attention to the potential associations between his Patron/Client species setup and human imperial history/racial issues. That said, the thing I remember most strongly about the set of features to Uplift you describe, Ron, is that the clear message of the book is that they’re flat-out WRONG. Sure, humans as sole (especially as sole) “wolfling” species is maybe overly romantic, maybe too much a literary device, perhaps too easily used/understood as Human Exceptionalism. But it is ALSO, within the book, flat-out WRONG – obviously, at some point, some one (Progenitors, was it?) was sentient-without-Uplift. The Galactic society thinks it has solved the nature of sapience/sentience, but it hasn’t. Nor has humanity, though they do see to have an insight of some kind. One of things I remember appreciating about the book is the ever-expanding understanding that what various groups just KNOW to be true turns out to be embedded in limitations, e.g., the limitation of the timespan they’re willing to consider.

    I particularly recall seeing parallels between the “devolutionary” behavior of the human dolphin-client bad guys and the Galactic Patron bad guys, and concluding that it highlighted the problem as flat-out inhumane (that is, bad) behavior, independent of the supposed evolutionary “advancement” of those behaving badly. In the terms Vint used in your quote, I did see a nuanced understanding of the “wolfling”(human)/Uplifted boundary as necessary, given the big picture of the novel. Nuances that characters overall (maybe even exclusively, which is maybe a mistake?) choose to ignore, for various reasons, across the range of grandiose/petty selfishness to thought-by-someone noble/pure – but isn’t that actually often the way of it?

    Well, I could say more, but I suspect all I’m saying is “it’s possible to read Startide Rising as NOT endorsing Human Exceptionalism/reifying consciousness-as-soul”, so having provided some explanation as to how/why, that’s probably enough for now. And even given that, I take to heart the likelihood that Wells did it better.


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