Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Climate Change and Biomedical Modification

There is a great article over at First Things entitled "Tiny, Happy People" by C. Ben Mitchell which outlines the proposal by some to engage the whole issue of climate change by genetically modifying people to have lifestyles that promote a better ecosystem.  The article is interacting with the viewpoint of three ethicists who recently published their perspective in Ethics, Policy and the Environment.  Here is sampling from the First Things article:
Here is the argument offered by Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg, and Rebecca Roache. Climate change is the result of human corruption of the environment—so-called anthropogenic causes. Climate change affects food production, access to water, health, and the environment. Since, in their view, millions could suffer from the consequences of climate change something radical must be done. Recycling, tax-incentives, and large-scale manipulation of the environment are, according to the authors, either too negligible or too grand to be effective. Geoengineering, in particular, is disadvantageous because “in many cases, we lack the necessary scientific knowledge to devise and implement geoengineering without significant risk to ourselves and to future generations” (p. 4). So, in one breathtaking leap, the authors argue that we ought to consider “biomedical modification of humans to make them better at mitigating climate change.”

To be fair, they do offer a caveat: “Our central aim [in the paper] is to show that human engineering deserves consideration alongside other solutions in the debate about how to solve the problem of climate change. Also, as we envisage it, human engineering would be a voluntary activity—possibly supported by incentives such as tax breaks or sponsored health care—rather than a coerced, mandatory activity.” 

The suggestion that we ought to modify the human species as a means of mitigating climate change is at once both naive and hubristic. If they think modifying the environment may be difficult, successfully modifying the extraordinarily intricate balance of human homeostasis is a pipedream at best. Here is what they think might be desirable.

First, humans might be altered to be meat aversive. All one would have to do is stimulate the immune system so as to “induce mild intolerance (akin, e.g., to milk intolerance)” to meat. Or, since the “human ecological footprints are partly correlated to our size,” we can just make humans smaller! “Reducing the average US height by 15 cm would mean a mass reduction of 23% for men and 25% for women, with a corresponding reduction of metabolic rate (15%/18%), since less tissue means lower nutrients and energy needs.” One way to produce these tiny people would be through pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, say the authors. Just select the embryos for transfer to a woman’s womb that have the genes for compactness; toss the embryos will tall genes. Smaller humans could also be produced through hormone therapy and reduction of birth-weight. 

Second, the number of humans could be modified through cognitive enhancement. Why cognitive enhancement? Because apparently only stupid people have more than two children per family. “There seems to be a link,” the authors maintain, “between cognition itself and lower birth-rates.” Since two children per family is lower than the replacement rate (of roughly 2.1 per family in industrialized countries), population would decline. 

Third, pharmacological enhancements could increase altruism and empathy. The result: generous and happy people through chemistry. Modifying altruism and empathy “by human engineering could be promising.” Testosterone, by the way, “appears to decrease aspects of empathy,” according to the authors. So, to follow their logic, since testosterone prepares both males and female for reproduction, reducing its levels in every human body would both reduce the number of people on the earth and, at the same time, make them more compliant. 

Why undertake the re-engineering of the human species? Because, say the authors, “human engineering is potentially less risky than geoengineering. Second, human engineering could make behavior and market solutions more likely to succeed.” In other words, we would be far more likely to create tiny, happy people than we would be to modify the environment or create incentives that would encourage environmental stewardship. 
The First Things article goes on to discuss the ethical implications of all this.  Be sure to read this article.

To see the actual article by these three bio-ethicists see here: Human Engineering and Climate Change.