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No modest proposal: bioengineering humans for global warming

You know the situation is getting desperate when three bio-ethicists propose genetically modifying humans to reduce our environmental impact. In a bizarre paper titled Human engineering and climate change…

Tiny humans would consume less and emit less, but who’s ready to genetically engineer their kids? Dylan Luder

You know the situation is getting desperate when three bio-ethicists propose genetically modifying humans to reduce our environmental impact. In a bizarre paper titled Human engineering and climate change, Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache argue we should seriously consider technologies to engineer human bodies to reduce carbon emissions.

One leading idea is genetic intervention to allow parents to select shorter children because smaller people eat less. They also use less petrol in their cars, need less energy-consuming fabric for their clothes, and wear out their shoes more slowly.

If at some stage families have their emissions capped, parents could choose “between two medium-sized children, or three small-sized children” or, if they wanted a basketball player, “one really large child”, although one unintended consequence of using hormone treatment to create smaller children is that the drugs increase the risk of gallstones.

Their other proposals for human engineering include: genetically engineering human eyes to be more like those of a cat because “if everyone had cat eyes, you wouldn’t need so much lighting”; reducing the birth rate by “cognitively enhancing” unintelligent women because “women with low cognitive ability are more likely to have children before age 18”; “pharmacological enhancement of altruism and empathy”; and pills that make those who take them vomit if they eat beef, thereby reducing demand for beef.

The paper, to be published in a respectable journal, is beyond satire and its only likely effect is to bring the philosophy profession into disrepute. Philosophy, it seems, does not have a “laugh test” for filtering out whacky proposals. So why stop at cat’s eyes and midget babies? Why not genetically modify black people to make them white in order to cool the Earth by increasing its reflectivity?

Giving humans cat eyes would reduce our need for light; we might also get more pats. shoseph/Flickr

The three bio-ethicists suggest that people who are appalled at the idea of human engineering may have a “status quo bias”, resisting their innovative ideas because of an inherent conservatism.

They seem oblivious to irony, since their own proposal takes the technofix to a sublime plane, one made possible by an intensely individualistic understanding of the world, which sees the failure to respond to climate change as arising not from political, institutional and cultural forces but from a lack of personal willpower.

Rarely in intellectual history has such a dire social problem been so trivialised by this kind of psychologism.

The authors are keen to stress they would never compel people to produce small children or grow cat’s eyes, which only raises the question of why anyone who is unwilling to buy a smaller car or switch to green power would be willing to genetically engineer their children.

Defending his decision to publish, the editor of the journal claims the authors are engaged in a “Swiftian philosophical thought experiment”. In fact, the opposite is true. Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal” that poverty-stricken Irish peasants support themselves by selling their babies to be eaten by the rich —“a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled” — was a savage satire on the heartlessness of society in the face of mass suffering.

Induced meat allergies lead to a brighter, happier world. Alex Sutcliffe

The three philosophers are not venturing a satire to highlight our disregard of the threat of climate change. It is as if Swift had put forward his modest proposal as a legitimate response to famine. No doubt it could be wholly justified in utilitarian terms; indeed Swift himself carried out a kind of cost-benefit analysis in order to heighten the ridicule.

But perhaps the paper by Liao, Sandberg, and Roache will turn out to be a prank played on the journal, like the Sokal hoax, named after the physicist whose paper deploying post-modern gobbledegook to show that “quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct” was published in a cultural studies journal.

It’s easy to imagine academics sitting around swapping the most outrageous solutions to climate change and then daring one another to have them published. I hope this will turn out to be the case. In the meantime I cringe at the thought of what the long-dead giants of western philosophy would make of their discipline’s response to the climate crisis.

Clive Hamilton is writing a book on geoengineering.

Comments welcome below.

Join the conversation

27 Comments sorted by

  1. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    I would have thought adding a rumen that would allow us to eat grass would result in a lot of CO2 reduction.

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Only if the rumen was really efficient and didn't produce waste methane.

      Maybe we need a rumen and a methane collection and burning incinerator installed as well. Or maybe we could become methane generating plants and once a day we evacuate into a storage container that is then used for household power....

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  2. Dirk Baltzly

    logged in via Facebook

    Look -- I'm no friend of utilitarianism and, frankly, a lot of what is written about the marvels (or perils) of trans-human genetic modification is pretty silly. In truth, we are not close to being able to do these things even if they were a good idea.

    That being said, however, I think that Prof. Hamilton's dismissive attitude toward philosophers is unwarranted. (Yeah, ok -- so I teach philosophy and thus have a vested interest.) Sure, specific proposals in this paper do not pass the laugh test…

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dirk Baltzly

      Dirk Baltzly
      Has philosophy ever pondered the question of whether or not organisms should be genetically modified so they can exist on other planets?

      Seems like there are going to be too many people on this planet in the future, but something has to change with the human form before we could operate for long periods of time in space or on planets such as Mars.

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    2. Dirk Baltzly

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Who knows? My point was rather that thinking purely hypothetically about tweaks to homo sapiens' gives us a better idea of the specific obstacles in our present cognitive and emotional natures that we need to take in to consideration as we try to get ourselves out of this mess. In any case, considering what we've done to this planet, it's unclear it would be a good idea to let us off it!

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dirk Baltzly

      Dirk
      Considering general biology, most species try to extend outwards as much as possible. This is to stop overpopulation if the species increases its population, but stays in one small area.

      Unfortunately, life forms on planet earth are not that suitable for life elsewhere, and would require modification.

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    4. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Dirk Baltzly

      Dirk - I assume you're aware that Prof Hamilton is himself an ethicist, and has written a book already on the very matters you mention. If you haven't seen it, look it up ("Requiem for a Species").

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  3. Jeremy Hall

    PhD student

    I really hope the popular press picks up this article. Even if they're 100% serious it should be great value for making all the supposedly "too hard" climate change solutions look more attractive. Which may well have been their intention...

    Also, given this got past the journal editors I don't see why they'd stop at one paper. There's surely endless potential for theoretical development in this field!

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  4. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    "genetic intervention to allow parents to select shorter children because smaller people eat less."
    Wrong- size doesn't matter- much.
    A dose of GE to change people's brains to want less stuff would do the trick.
    It's the desire for economic growth, bigger houses, travel and possessions that drives humankind's environmental impact.

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  5. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    If one ignores any other morality or ethics and accepts that reducing mankind's environmental footprint is a GOOD thing then history has some effective approaches.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death
    World War I reduced the world's population but influenza was better, cheaper and faster.
    http://virus.stanford.edu/uda/
    Adolf Hitler not content with military casualties sought to wipe out significant minorities of his own population.
    Of course, despite his best efforts Robert Mugabe is an amateur when compared with Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse tung
    India has tried both compulsory and "encouraged" sterilization - transistor radios.
    China has been successful with its one child policy in reducing its birthrate - and setting up a population time-bomb.

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  6. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    In March the Guardian ran an interview with the authors (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/mar/14/human-engineering-climate-change-philosophy) which helps explain their motivation.

    Sandberg says:

    "When I wrote the paper I felt I was to some extent trolling ...

    The problem with arousing emotions is that most people then become very stimulus-response driven. They don't think very deeply about the issue, they react instead. We hoped the paper would be exciting enough to stimulate discussion but not to preclude thinking.

    In philosophy we take ideas and test them to destruction. This means that we often bring up concepts or lines of thought we do not personally believe in and then argue them as strongly as possible to see where they go and what we can learn."

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  7. Shirley Birney

    retiree

    What about a dummy run on the CEOs of Big Ag. and Quarry Australia? Tit for tat?

    Just askin'.

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  8. Marc Hendrickx

    Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

    Gee, do we need another book on this by a non expert? Presumably most of Clive's time will be paid for by the tax payer. Is this the best use of these resources? I can think of a host of more worthwhile activities these funds could be directed towards where they would do much more good.
    Perhaps it's time Clive used his own resources to fund his activism.

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    1. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Glad that you are in a better position to decide on who is and is not an expert than the university which appointed Professor Hamilton to his chair. You might like to write to them offering your services.

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    2. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Byron Smith

      I doubt Clive requires your cheer leading services Do you own a set of Hamilton pom poms?

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    3. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Let me know when the toilet paper comes out.

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    4. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      I wonder sometimes what it says about a culture when you can get toilet paper with prints of little puppies and ducks on it.

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    5. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      Perhaps it says something about our true feelings about puppies and ducks. Or perhaps it means we give a sh!t?

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  9. Emma Anderson

    Artist and Science Junkie

    Obviously this is satire. If it's not, gah, that's appalling.

    Anyway...if we really, really want to stop being having children, we need to make heterosexuality illegal.

    It's not as though people break the law or anything. It'll be fine. Those immoral bastards clogging up our planet with useless people. They deserve the jail time.

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  10. Ken Fabian

    Mr

    Ah, if only we could re-engineer humanity to have sufficient common sense to use the accumulation of knowledge, the powers of observation and intellect and foresight we already posses in the service of our long term future! When more expertise in human behavior is used to exploit our gullibility to undermine what good sense we have and induce us to choose what benefits other interests over our own it's hardly a surprise that we look incapable of dealing with problems like climate change.

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Ken Fabian

      That's a cop out, sorry. It's so easy to assume that people who don't get it actually are stupid, ignorant and selfish, and yes, this can be true but it's not the whole story.

      Even stupidity, ignorance and selfishness have a point. In survival as well as reflecting intelligence, consideration and empathy. Why?

      It's about what we know individually, and the resources we have to use that knowledge. All these mental distortions we've got going, are maladaptive only when the context deems the skill to be inappropriate, but may be formed in other, very different situations where the skills were quite useful.

      Some of the skills that are being taught and reinforced by necessity of individual and cultural circumstance are maladaptive in the longer, broader context that extends beyond the individual and the short term needs of the culture. You cannot bio-engineer for that meaningful. We can however, change cultural circumstance so that individual necessity changes.

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    2. Ken Fabian

      Mr

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      More like flippancy than a cop out I thought. Still, if we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the body of knowledge we have - along with it's capacity to give us foresight, then we are in a state of collective failure. I personally think the political expedience of deliberately arousing mistrust in our scientists by people who ought to know better, for the sake of shortsighted ends has a lot to do with making the climate problem more intractable.

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  11. Arthur James Egleton Robey

    Industrial Electrician

    It gets my goat when someone tells me something is "bizarre" or "evil"' or "wonderful" or whatever.
    As though they need to tell me. Do I not have the nous to decide for myself? It is patronising and rude.

    Yet is Australian culture it is considered acceptable. I put it down to the convict heritage where the convicts needed to be guided due to the lack of moral compass.

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  12. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    All excellent ideas Clive ... but we are still just nibbling around at the edges I suspect. There is one by product of the recent resources binge (industrialisation) that would provide a solid and obviously sustainable solution to world hunger and resource depletion in one hit. And it's right in our laps and under our noses.... some of it is slumped on the sofa playing on the plasma.

    I am of course talking about our obesity epidemic ... all those chubby children and their waddling parents... top notch protein, tastes like pork and not in any danger of undersupply. The "long pig" option.

    My modest proposal adopts a truly multidisciplinary approach: a touch of moral engineering regarding the ethical implications - hand in paw with a bit of gene tweaking - and we'd soon see the development of early childhood development centres doubling as feed lots. It's win-win-win I'd reckon.

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  13. Michael Rynn

    logged in via Facebook

    Climate Change is the ultimate collective Geo-engineering side effect. If customizing humans with genetic engineering had to effectively work, it would need to work on 7 billion people within a generation. Any real solution has to have exponential uptake. The problem modification for behavior regarding fossil fuel burning and destruction of forests, and really bad management of ecosystem commons. This is cultural. Steven Pinker described in "The better angels of our nature", how our violence against…

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