William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Bioengineering Humans To Combat Climate Change

Future of HumanityAren’t bioethicists a fun bunch? When last we met this speculative crew, they were wondering whether we should “let baby live“, and they were developing a pill to eliminate racism.

And now they have figured the Final Solution for climate change. Bioengineering people. Yes: so say academic philosophers Matt Liao of NYU, and Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache from Oxford in their forthcoming peer reviewed “Human Engineering and Climate Change” in the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment.

They call their program Means to Escape Nasty Global Eruptions of Lurid Energy, or MENGELE for short. No, I’m kidding. That one was already taken. They’re still searching for a good name, and I’m sure they would welcome suggestions.

Just what sort of bioengineering do our researchers have in mind? Several, in fact. Let’s look at the list.

1. Pharmacological meat intolerance Our crew doesn’t like that people eat meat, because meat comes from animals, and meat-bearing animals are often flatulent. And then there is the energy expended bringing meat to market: bringing grains and vegetables is, of course, cost free, even though people must eat an increased weight of these comestibles to equal the energy in meat.

While reducing the consumption of red meat can be achieved through social, cultural means, people often lack the motivation or willpower to give up eating red meat even if they wish they could…Eating something that makes us feel nauseous can trigger long-lasting food aversion. 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.

Perhaps there are other ways so that a human body is “primed to react” to ingesting meat, “and henceforth eating ‘eco-unfriendly’ food would induce unpleasant experiences.” They suggest using “‘meat’ patches” like nicotine patches. It sounds like they’d make them in the shape of the animals they don’t want you to eat. It would make for some imaginative policing to ensure citizens are wearing their meat patches.

2. Making humans smaller This one is easy: smaller people eat less than larger people. Now they don’t actually say this—the words “soylent green” do not appear in the paper—but it is a reasonable inference from this premise that fewer people eat less than more people.

Height is determined partly by genetic factors and partly through diet and stressors. While the genetic control is polygenetic, with many genes contributing a small amount to overall height, the growth process itself is largely controlled by the hormone somatotropin (human growth hormone)…

While genetic modifications to control height are likely to be quite complex and beyond our current capacities, it nevertheless seems possible now to use [preimplantation genetic diagnosis] to select shorter children.

In other words, if the baby is too big, abort it and try again for smaller one. Or just shoot up the womb with certain drugs or “nutrients that either reduce the expression of paternally imprinted genes, or increase the expression of maternally imprinted genes.” Girl genes, see, make smaller babies than boy genes.

What if a set of parents manages to slip one past the goalie and pushes out a large child? The authors advocate injecting it with somatostatin, an anti-growth hormone. This way to the Injection Center, fella.

3. Lowering birth-rates through cognitive enhancement Did you know that there is “strong evidence that birth-rates are negatively correlated with adequate access to education for women”? Some kind of smart pill would thus let women figure that having kids is stupid.

4. Pharmacological enhancement of altruism and empathy The first two words of this method are enough to encourage one to take to the hills with a shotgun, but let’s press on.

Many environmental problems are the result of collective action problems, according to which individuals do not cooperate for the common good…If people were generally more willing to act as a group, and could be confident that others would do the same, we may be able to enjoy the sort of benefits that arise only when large numbers of people act together…

Also, many environmental problems seem to be exacerbated by—or perhaps even result from—a lack of appreciation of the value of other life forms and nature itself…

Hold it! They are talking about appreciation of the value of life forms? Good grief!

“There is evidence that higher empathy levels correlate with stronger environmental behaviors and attitudes” so increasing empathy is just the thing. “Indeed, test subjects given the prosocial hormone oxytocin were more willing to share money with strangers.” And let’s don’t forget that once a “noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor increased social engagement and cooperation with a reduction in self-focus during a mixed motive game.” How about juicing our old friend, the amygdala (as seen through the fMRI)? We could do that, too.

The authors don’t say how these chemicals should make their way into human bodies. Regular injections would of course take too long, so it would have to be pills The problem with pills, though, is that not everybody would take them. Even with threatening random blood testing, and jail time for scoffers, too many people would not ingest their Daily Mandated Dosages. Has to be the water supply then. Works for fluoride, so why not for oxytocin and SSRIs?

Justifications

Now, families may “be permitted” to have two children, but this should not be seen as restrictive. Indeed, the authors say it is “liberty-enhancing.” How? Well, human engineering gives “people the choice between having a greater number of smaller children or a smaller number of larger children [emphasis added].” It can’t be bad if there is choice.

I don’t want you going away believing the authors think bioengineering is all beer and skittles. They are aware that there are risks. For example, using somatostatin increases the chance of gallstones. But as serious as that risk is, it “should be balanced against the risks associated with taking inadequate action to combat climate change.”

People should also not be frightened of bioengineering because it is newfangled. “On the whole then, with respect to safety, it seems that we should judge human engineering solutions on a case by case basis, and not rule all of them out tout court.”

Yes, “ethical concerns” will be raised. But because we are now “offering pain relief to women in labor” we should be able to drug people to make them shorter. And the “selection of a smaller child through [drugs], for
example, involves no more interference with nature than the standard IVF process.”

And darn it, drugging people just is “an ethical endeavor” because “mitigating climate change can promote the well-being of many people and animals that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change.” Let’s don’t forget that even now “a great many parents…are willing to give Ritalin to their healthy children so that they can concentrate and perform better at school.” Sure “making children smaller” will be “controversial” but “it is worth reminding ourselves” that “existing solutions for mitigating climate change are likely to fall short of their intended goals.”

No scientist worth his salt is afeared of supposing his theory is false. So the authors know that some will say, “who in their right mind would choose to make their children smaller?” and they admit that “It may turn out to be the case that human engineering is not the best way of tackling climate change.” But to say that ignores “the
widely-recognised fact that climate change remains a serious problem today and we do not currently know which solutions will be the most effective.”

They know their ideas are “prima facie outlandish.” But they “wish to highlight that examining intuitively absurd or apparently drastic ideas can be an important learning experience.” And don’t you dare forget that “History is replete with examples of issues or ideas which, whilst widely supported or even invaluable now, were ridiculed and dismissed when they were first proposed.”

Someday, then, mandatory meat patches will seem just as sane as not allowing undesirables to live.

Update Turns out Liao is pals with the appalling Julian Savulescu whom we have met so often. Liao is also author of the forthcoming “Parental Love Pills: Some Ethical Considerations.” What most depresses is that these folks all have cushy positions, whereas yours truly struggles month to month.

Update This is now picking up steam, being vetted in the press elsewhere; hence my moving it up.

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Thanks to reader Will Hickie for suggesting this topic.

27 Comments

  1. An excellent article, Dr Briggs. I think these folks are a little behind the times. If memory serves, there was an institution active in the 1940s called the National Socialist Institute for Racial Betterment, whose director was, I believe, a certain Mr Heinrich Himmler. Or, at least, that institute was part of the larger responsibilities of Mr Himmler.

    Although climate change was not a major issue for the Reich, genetic tinkering with the human population was. Perhaps this is where they get their ethics from?

  2. I am surprised they didn’t mention modification to live underwater. After all, that is 3/4 of the area of the planet, and I hear seaweed is really good for you. Maybe they could make us smaller and give us gills?

  3. I know people send you links to things – heck, I’ve done it myself – but here’s a challenge: find a peer-reviewed paper that’s not prima facie barking mad. Something that, given the assumption that human activity needs to be curtailed somehow, suggests a quite sensible way of achieving it.

    There must be some.

    Surely.

  4. Snorbert Zangox

    19 March 2012 at 12:30 pm

    Mr. Briggs,

    Why do you waste your time reading the drivel that this gang publishes?

  5. Carmen D'oxide

    19 March 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Concerning #2:

    Short people got no reason to live.
    – Randy Newman, 1977

  6. Snorbert Zangox

    19 March 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Yeah, but they “got little bitty feet” so they must have small carbon footprints.

  7. RickA: I think they would suggest Dolphiplasty.

  8. flunk on basic biology.
    unless the climate change is a significant lowering of temperatures then tall people are better than short people. humans are warm blooded and rely on the skin to dissipate heat, short people have proportionally less skin per unit of weight than tall people and are less efficient at dissipating heat. shorter people would either use more air-conditioning or require more biological energy (food) for homeostasis. tall, thin people are more energy efficient in hot climates not short people, which are more efficient in cold climates (less surface area to lose heat). somatostatin is a particularly problematic choice as it causes obesity (low BMI obesity too, weight is concentrated in the torso with stunted limbs and extremely inefficient at heat dissipation) as well as short height, perhaps a good choice for engineering humans for an ice age but not for runaway warming.

    if they cannot get the biology right they have no business doing bioethics.

  9. Does the rounding up and extermination of Christians under the rule of the Anti-Christ still sound like a fantasy?

    Does a world fit for the actions of the Anti-Christ still seem distant?

    Anyone still under the delusion that Atheism-Humanism will be leading humanity to ever greater heights?

    If so, just wait a while longer, and re-consider.

    I for one will rejoice as the hippies are exterminated by their fellow hippies. They will be coming for me too someday, I guess. But until then, I must admit to finding this descent into darkness, and the little rabbits panicking as their impending doom starts to register in their tiny little minds, highly amusing.

  10. The best way to shorten people is to chop their heads off. It may be time to revive the guillotine, for the good of the planet of course, bioethically speaking. How do you say that in French?

  11. Max

    You got it backwards. Larger objects have more volume compared to their surface area than smaller objects! Smaller objects have more surface area compared to their volume than large objects! It’s actually fairly easy to visualize.

  12. Snorbert Zangox

    19 March 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Max,

    Where do pygmies fit into your theory?

  13. Timothy Denton

    19 March 2012 at 3:02 pm

    See http://www.barrelstrength.com/2012/03/13/bio-engineering-for-climate-change/ for another, and complementary, view. Right on, Professor Briggs!

  14. ‘A camel is a horse designed by a committee’ goes the saying summarizing years, perhaps centuries or millenia of experience.

    Thus, if we judge & extrapolate from history’s lessons we can envision, with a stunning degree of precision, how humans will appear after goverment committees meddle with the design: tall skinny hunchbacks–with the hump(s) filled with water (hump size(s) & location(s) would, of course, be determined by national preferences tempered by geographic necessity). Counntries in regions with higher humidity (“humidity” being a greenhouse gas of grave consequence) would, naturally, give locals some sort of choice (to be sorted out later) regarding hump size/capacity — to thus offset feedbacks by removing some of the H2O vapors (“humidity”) from the air.

    WOW!!…they’re right: “…examining intuitively absurd or apparently drastic ideas CAN [emphasis added] be an important learning experience.” …though…this seems most applicable as prepatory effort for writing science fiction dramas at the comic book level of sophistication.

  15. I PROTEST!!!

    What is UP with all the NAY-SAYERS here about human engineering???

    What a perfectly RIDICULOUS IDEA, to be AGAINST human engineering!!???

    We humans have always taken great pride in engineering the next generation of humans!!! It is a time-honored and time-tested system!!! It’s really, really easy!!! And really, really fun, too!!! You just do some stuff that feels REALLY good, and WOW!!! It happens!!! Another human gets engineered!!! Why, just the other night…

    What? Oh, you mean… powerful people INTERFERING in human engineering. For any reason they please. As long as they have the power to persuade us. Or as long as they can persuade our neighbors, so we’ll feel anxious or left out if we don’t. Or as long as they have the power to do it even if they haven’t persuaded us.

    That’s very different.

    Never mind.

  16. #2: Brings new meaning to “The Little People”.

  17. Scott, obviously you’re a physicist. Human beings are not spherical. Humans and most animals are irregularly shaped objects with certain size requirements that don’t scale with overall size. The brain (for one example) can only be shrunk or grown so much before what you are talking about is no longer human. But the brain uses a significant portion of the blood which means at least part of the heart is proportional to the size of the brain instead of the total size of the human. And blood takes lungs, which are are therefor only partially related to the overall size of the organism. And so on for the other organs, the net result being that the increase of limb size in proportional humans creates far more surface area as humans get taller, and torso length increases at a faster rate than torso circumference.

    Snorbert, I imagine they would wind up on the perimeters of the good land, living in the deserts unable to compete with the more efficient Watusi for the best territory.

  18. GoneWithTheWind

    19 March 2012 at 6:46 pm

    No problem, just fudge a “study” that proves red meat causes early death, heart disease and cancer…

  19. What’s with the black diamond logo? What does that symbolize? Creative block? Logo by untalented committee? “Sorry, but we couldn’t come up with anything better to symbolize the future of humanity than that.”

    What’s the semiotic designata there, other than dullards at work? It’s like a traffic sign indicating nothing ahead.

  20. These are the social science tyrants Feynman referred to in one of his lectures.

    I think I agree with Lewis Wolpert that bioethics is a ‘gross load of nonsense’, and that we’ve found the genuine dismal science.

  21. By golly, it’s Ira Levin’s masterpiece ‘This Perfect Day’!

    What the hate is up with these fighting bio-ethicists?

  22. There is something very wrong with previously distinguished Universities that employ these clowns.

  23. So you judge Matt Liao based on just one of his publications… just as you criticize Steven Chu based on his one-sentence statement about European gas price.

  24. Briggs

    21 March 2012 at 7:49 am

    JH,

    So you offer vague, indefinite innuendo as a substitute for criticism…just as you often do not explicate concrete objections.

  25. No innuendos, simply stating what I see. Is it a criticism? You decide. Do I need to illustrate this point with examples? You like to criticize people, more precisely, academics and smart people. Which is your cup of (poisonous) tea, not mine.

    No objections to the paper since I have not read the paper. No objection to your opinions either, as I don’t understand how you logically reach certain conclusions. For example,

    In other words, if the baby is too big, abort it and try again for smaller one.

    However, I’d like correct the following.

    …just as you often do not explicate concrete objections.

    As a rule, I have always offered you examples to explain why your statistical conclusions are wrong. I assume that you understand them. Your political opinions? As I recall, you still owe me factual supporting evidences to verify some of your claims.

  26. Briggs

    21 March 2012 at 10:47 am

    JH,

    As proof of my claim: (A) do you in fact have any concrete arguments in support of this paper? (B) If so, make them.

  27. #4: Someone watched “Serenity” and thought that would be an awesome idea, what could possibly go wrong? Unintended consequences like the entire plot of the movie are just science fiction, after all!

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