Saturday, November 24, 2007

Reviews: The Uplift Universe Trilogies, and "Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us about Human Social Evolution"

David Brin's Uplift Universe trilogies are some of the better "hard science fiction" that I've read, defined as sci-fi that cares about the "sci" part. And unlike most hard sci-fi, the writing's good and the plots move quickly. The two trilogies deal with a universe populated by warring, status-seeking alien species all uplifted to sapience by previous alien species, except for self-uplifted humans who have just genetically enhanced chimps and dolphins. The Earth species navigate through this minefield to survive in a dangerous galaxy cluster.

The ideas are fun, with a decent if speculative grounding in biology, and the first-person perspective for non-human species works well. The chimps in particular are the most engaging characters, with their wisecracking, playful, sporadic heroism. The books would make a great movie, I think.

Downsides are the somewhat repetitive, victory-is-only-achieved-at-a-cost format, and that the best book is The Uplift War, at the end of the first trilogy. I recommend reading the first series, and then if you really liked it, read the second set.

The Uplift Universe's focus on obligations between species influenced how I read the collection of science essays, "Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us about Human Social Evolution," edited by Frans de Waal. The essays are well worth reading, some more than others but you can skip the less interesting ones. I'll write more about it some other time, but I'm very interested in the discussion of chimpanzee culture (p. 248) and how different chimp groups have developed different tools. Chimps in west Africa learned to use stones to open nuts. Nothing stops other chimps from accessing the same food, except geographic barriers stop the spread of knowledge. Similarly, I also saw recently that other chimp groups use tools to extract ground tubers (via Afarensis).

I've argued recently against Denialism Blog that we have a special moral obligation not to harm intelligent species like chimps. Do we have any other obligations? Eli Rabett suggested that we might follow the Uplift Universe path and choose to genetically increase chimp intelligence, in the near future. My spin on all this is that we should, right now, teach wild chimps any tool using technologies currently used by other chimps in separate geographic areas. One could justify this as slightly balancing out all the harm we've done to them by enabling more of them to survive in the decreased habitat available. I don't think that's necessary though - it's justifiable on the basis that it makes their lives better.

What we can do beyond this, I don't know. I don't know if wild chimps could feasibly use or benefit from human-created techniques for improving their lives. Maybe chimps aren't even smart enough so that one group can master all the techniques used by all chimp groups. But then again, maybe they are, or at least can choose the best techniques.

I think this type of uplift is justified.

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