Issue #6: progress

Human engineering

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by Clive Hamilton on January 19, 2015

You know the situation is getting desperate when three bioethicists 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 people to make them white in order to cool the Earth by increasing its reflectivity?

The three bioethicists 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.

The three philosophers are not venturing a satire to high-light 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.

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