It's a good thing we know that bioethicists are so much smarter than we are and only want what's best for us and the Planet, because otherwise we'd suspect they were crazed megalomaniacs bent on enslaving us and taking over the world. (And if you harbor reservations, don't worry; they can fix that too, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.)
One of the authors of a recent paper entitled Human Engineering and Climate Change discussed some of his brave new ideas with The Atlantic. Front Page Mag's Mark Tapson takes a look at what's in their bag of tricks.
First off, they propose the meat patch, to give you carnivores a chemically-induced aversion to that carbon-foot-print-enlarging nutrient. That's kind of an obvious idea, like an antabuse for meat-a-holics. But I'll bet you never saw this one coming: How about we give everybody cat eyes!
. . . we looked into cat eyes, the technique of giving humans cat eyes or of making their eyes more catlike. The reason is, cat eyes see nearly as well as human eyes during the day, but much better at night. We figured that if everyone had cat eyes, you wouldn't need so much lighting, and so you could reduce global energy usage considerably. Maybe even by a shocking percentage.Which would work out well with the inferior lighting they're pushing on us and make it so much easier for us to skulk around in the dark, post-apocalyptic world of the future. So file that under win-win!
But, again, this isn't something we know how to do yet, although it's possible there might be some way to do it with genetics---there are some primates with eyes that are very similar to cat eyes, and so possibly we could study those primates and figure out which genes are responsible for that trait, and then hopefully activate those genes in humans. But that's very speculative and requires a lot of research.
But the really big idea revealed in the paper is a proposal to downsize humanity, literally, one human at a time:
What we really care about is some kind of fixed allocation of greenhouse gas emissions per family. If that’s the case… human engineering could give families the choice between two medium sized children, or three small sized children. From our perspective that would be more liberty enhancing than a policy that says “you can only have one or two children.” A family might want a really good basketball player, and so they could use human engineering to have one really large child.I don't think there'll be any need to bother with that, since humans are becoming less and less keen on having children at all, of any size. But it's interesting to see how the mind unfettered from all constraints might solve the politically engineered "problem" of "climate change." They've got several promising ideas on how to smallify the human race (emphasis added):
One way is through preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). While genetic modifications to control height are likely to be quite complex and beyond our current capacities, it nevertheless seems possible now to use PGD to select shorter children. This would not involve intervening to change the genetic material of embryos, or employing any clinical methods not currently used. It would simply involve rethinking the criteria for selecting which embryos to implant.This needn't apply only to babies made in labs, of course. We already abort babies who are the wrong sex or are defective in other ways, so size-based abortions wouldn't be much of a stretch. All you have to do is test for a propensity toward largeness and define it as a defect.
Another method of affecting height is to use hormone treatment either to affect somatotropin levels or to trigger the closing of the epiphyseal plate earlier than normal (this sometimes occurs accidentally through vitamin A overdoses (Rothenberg et al. 2007)). Hormone treatments are used for growth reduction in excessively tall children (Bramswig et al. 1988; Grüters et al. 1989). Currently, somatostatin (an inhibitor of growth hormone) is being studied as a safer alternative (Hindmarsh et al. 1995).I think that means to close off the growth plates. Clever! How else might we stunt our children's growth?
Finally, a more speculative and controversial way of reducing adult height is to reduce birth weight. There is a correlation between birth weight and adult height (Sorensen et al. 1999), according to which birth weight at the lower edge of the normal distribution tends to result in the adult’s being ≈5 cm shorter. Birth height has an even stronger effect for adult height. If one is born at the lower edge of the normal distribution of height, this tends to produce ≈15 cm shorter adult height. Gene imprinting has been found to affect birth size, as a result of evolutionary competition between paternally and maternally imprinted genes (Burt and Trivers 2006). Drugs or nutrients that either reduce the expression of paternally imprinted genes, or increase the expression of maternally imprinted genes, could potentially regulate birth size.So forget that notion that smaller babies are at higher risk for all kinds of problems. Less is more, people!
And just in case you were wondering, no, they don't consider themselves Nazis or totalitarians at all. But they do think we might need a drug-induced attitude adjustment to help us see the light:
For those not enlightened enough to find this option appealing, these philosophers also discuss the “pharmacological enhancement” of qualities like empathy and altruism, traits that are more conducive to positive attitudes toward the environment. When the Atlantic interviewer questioned whether it isn’t problematic to biologically produce a belief in a person, Liao corrects him; it’s not about inserting a belief, it’s about enabling people to overcome their “weakness of will” and make the right choice:So don't worry your little head over that.
We are interested only in voluntary modifications, and we certainly don’t want to implant beliefs into anyone. But even then, those beliefs might still be considered yours if they arise from a kind of ramping up of your existing capacities, and so perhaps that could obviate that problem.
The authors fully understand that we might not be thrilled with this idea right now, but think we might be induced to come around:
In response to this, we can note, first, that the fact that a particular human engineering solution may not appeal to some people is not a reason to avoid making such a solution available. Many things that are freely available in society appeal to a limited few and are given a wide berth by everyone else. Consider, for example, tattoos, bungee jumping, and running marathons. In the case of particular human engineering solutions with limited appeal, all other things being equal, it seems that it is better that these solutions are available and used by only a few than that they are unavailable to all.But of course. Giant government = tiny people, in more ways than our little minds can imagine. Read the whole paper here.
Second, what may be unappealing today may not be so tomorrow. This could be because people’s attitudes about what is appealing can and do change, especially if there are ethical reasons for a particular type of intervention. For example, people’s attitudes towards vegetarianism have changed as a result of vegetarianism’s ethical status. People’s attitudes towards currently unappealing human engineering solutions may undergo a similar change as awareness spreads about the effects that these solutions could have on the problem of climate change. Our attitudes about the extent to which certain qualities are appealing can also change with changes in the people around us. A recent study shows that those who care about their weight are more likely to allow themselves to grow fatter when surrounded by overweight people than they are when surrounded by slim people (Blanchflower, Oswald et al., 2008). This suggests that, even if a relatively small number of people made their children smaller, this might result in a reduction in the extent to which having a certain minimum height is valued by others. With the right incentives, such as tax breaks, those others might be willing to have smaller children of their own.
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