Should we re-engineer our species to save our planet?

Humans (as a society) have been putting some effort lately into living sustainably, which is good, as far as the future of our planet is concerned. The problem is that we're really not set up for sustainable living: in many ways, we're designed from the ground up to exploit our environment. But we can fix that, or at least make it a little better, with some minor genetic tweaking.

Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University, has written a paper entitled "Human Engineering and Climate Change" for publication in a journal called Ethics, Policy and the Environment. There's been a lot of discussion about using drastic measures like geoengineering to help deal with climate change, but Liao is suggesting that it might be safer, easier, and more effective to alter the human species instead of the entire planet.

Here's some of what we might be able to do; the quotes are from Liao's paper, which you can read here.


Use drugs to make meat taste bad

Eating meat is a terrible idea in a lot of ways: it's horrendously inefficient, contributing anywhere from 10% to 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the animals we munch on don't particularly enjoy the process. Problem is, meat tastes really, really good, so we crave it.

This is fixable:

"…while eating red meat with added emetic (a substance that induces vomiting) could be used as an aversion conditioning, anyone not strongly committed to giving up red meat is unlikely to be attracted to this option. A more realistic option might be to induce mild intolerance (akin, e.g., to milk intolerance) to these kinds of meat. A potentially safe and practical way of delivering such intolerance may be to produce 'meat' patches — akin to nicotine patches. We can produce patches for those animals that contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions and encourage people to use such patches."


Engineer humans to be 25% smaller

There's no particular reason that humans need to be especially tall, and the taller (and more massive) we are, the more we need to consume (in terms of food, material, and energy) to live. Shrinking humans by about six inches would mean a 25% mass reduction and a corresponding reduction in metabolic rates of nearly 20%. We could do this through hormone therapy, by inhibiting natural human growth hormones in childhood.


Control birthrates with education

The root of the problem with humans is that there's a lot of us, and we just keep on making more of us without slowing down. Some countries (like China) are mandating limits on children in the interest of preserving limited resources, but there might be a different way to go about it:

"…there is strong evidence that birth-rates are negatively correlated with adequate access to education for women. While the primary reason for promoting education is to improve human rights and well-being, fertility reduction may be a positive side-effect from the point of view of tackling climate change."


Use drugs to make us better people

Humans, in general, are selfish. We want what's best for us as individuals, and if that comes at the expense of the world as a whole, well, that's someone else's problem, even if it's in everyone's long term best interests to cooperate towards an overall common good. Like the meat problem, this may be fixable with drugs:

"…there is evidence that higher empathy levels correlate with stronger environmental behaviors and attitudes. While altruism and empathy have large cultural components, there is evidence that they also have biological underpinnings. This suggests that modifying them by human engineering could be promising. Indeed, test subjects given the prosocial hormone oxytocin were more willing to share money with strangers and to behave in a more trustworthy way."


Engineer humans to have cat eyes

This one's a little bit farther out there, but if we were able to give humans eyes like cats, we'd be able to see just fine in the dark, and we could drastically cut down the use of lighting at night. We may also be able to do similar tweaks to (say) increase tolerance to heat and cold by a couple degrees to save energy used for heating and air conditioning.

We should be very clear that there are obviously lots of ethical implications to all this, and Liao devotes much of his paper to discussing whether such things as genetic modification of children is morally acceptable (it very well may not be). But if we can accept that our current efforts to mitigate climate change (solar power, public transportation, recycling, emissions regulation, etc) is really not going to cut it long-term at the current pace of adoption, it seems like we can all agree that something else has to be done. Massive geoengineering projects should be on the table for discussion, and it seems like human engineering should be too.

The Atlantic has an interview with Liao, and you can read the entire paper at the link below.

Human Engineering and Climate Change, via The Atlantic

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