Watch LIVE

NYU Bioethicist Makes Case for 'Human Engineering' to Curb Manmade Global Warming


"biomedical modification of humans so that they can mitigate and/or adapt to climate change."

Most ideas to help mitigate so called manmade global warming involve changing habits or how we use products, such as increasing energy efficiency of electronics, reducing dependence on gasoline by switching to battery powered vehicles or something as simple as making the choice to go meatless on Mondays.

But a New York University philosophy and bioethics professor, who believes humans are the cause of global warming, wants to take it right to the source: the genetics of humanity itself. Matthew Liaoof NYU and two Oxford co-authors (Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache) are making the case for several ideas that they believe are less risky solutions to global warming compared to other ideas, such as geothermal engineering.

(Related: Ethicists argue in favor of 'after-birth abortions' as newborns 'are not persons')

Their argument was presented in the academic journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment in February. The authors explicitly describe the idea as "human engineering," or the "biomedical modification of humans so that they can mitigate and/or adapt to climate change." It should be noted, that the authors are not stating that this sort of engineering should be adopted, but they merely want to make the case for it "alongside other solutions in the debate about how to solve the problem of climate change." If human engineering were ever to be truly considered as an option, the authors state it should be voluntary with the potential for tax breaks as an incentive.

One of these ideas would be literally engineering humans to have shorter statures. For the past 150 years, the human race has been growing taller. In industrialized nations, the average height has increased by about 10 centimeters. Liao makes the argument that if humans were genetically engineered to be shorter, it would reduce their consumption of goods and subsequent effect on the environment -- often known as the carbon footprint:

Human ecological footprints are partly correlated with our size. We need a certain amount of food and nutrients to maintain each kilogram of body mass.


As well as needing to eat more, larger people also consume more energy in less obvious ways. For example, a car uses more fuel per mile to carry a heavier person than a lighter person [...]

The group suggests use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis to "select" for children that would be shorter or use a hormone to help control height during development.

Another proposed idea is "pharmacological" therapies to "enhance and improve our moral decisions by making us more altruistic and empathetic." Those who have these qualities would be more apt to make environmentally conscious decisions, according to the authors. The Atlantic's Ross Andersen recently interviewed Liao about human engineering and pushed him on several points in the Q&A, including this one. Andersen writes:

To me this one seems like it might be the most troubling. Isn't it more problematic to do biological tinkering to produce a belief, rather than simply engineering humans so that they are better equipped to implement their beliefs?

Liao responded with:

Yes. It's certainly ethically problematic to insert beliefs into people, and so we want to be clear that's not something we're proposing. What we have in mind has more to do with weakness of will. For example, I might know that I ought to send a check to Oxfam, but because of a weakness of will I might never write that check. But if we increase my empathetic capacities with drugs, then maybe I might overcome my weakness of will and write that check.

Another example of engineering proposed by the group is creating a red meat intolerance. While some people have already begun following a practice of eating less red meat for a variety of reasons, one of which could be help curb emissions associated with bovine rearing, the authors state that there is still a lack of "motivation and willpower" to give red meat up. Liao et al proposes creating patches, similar to nicotine patches, to stimulate a negative immune response against bovine proteins:

The immune system would then become primed to react to such proteins, and henceforth eating 'eco-unfriendly' food would induce unpleasant experiences. Even if the effects do not last a lifetime, the learning effect is likely to persist for a long time.

In addition to reiterating some of the techniques to "engineer" humans to help reduce emissions by altering their very nature, Andersen also delves into ethical questions with Liao. For example, how is it ethical for parents to choose to irreversibly make their children shorter? Liao says there is a difference between "selection" and "modification." In the Atlantic, he is reported as saying "with selection you don't really have the issue of irreversible choices because the embryo selected can't complain that she could have been otherwise -- if the parents had selected a different embryo, she wouldn't have existed at all."

Andersen also calls Liao on a point in the paper stating that human engineering could be "liberty enhancing." Liao explains saying that suggestions for a one-child policy, like that in China, have been made to curb global warming. Liao said:

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.

In the authors' original article, they also cover why they think human engineering should be taken seriously as well as potential ethical and safety concerns with the concept. Read more about those thoughts in the full paper here. Andersen also has more in a Q&A with Liao that is worth a full read here.

[H/T Gizmodo]

Most recent
All Articles