Bioengineering Update – If the Climate Changes Wouldn’t it be Easier to Change Us?

Re-engineering the planet may be tougher than re-engineering humanity argues S. Matthew Liao, of New York University, in an article, Human Engineering and Climate Change published in Ethics, Policy & Environment. With the impact of greenhouse gases and rising atmospheric temperatures, and with the growth in human population expected to exceed 9 billion by mid-century, Liao and his co-authors, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache, of Oxford University, create an argument for altering our species to better adapt to a changing world.

The arguments for this approach include:

  1. Human engineering may be potentially less risky than geo-engineering the planet to mitigate climate change.
  2. Human engineering could decrease human-induced climate change.
  3. Human engineering could solve many of our social and health problems and contribute to a more sustainable planetary footprint.
  4. Biomedical modification is already within sight with the mapping of the human genome and our ability to insert genetic information into the DNA of individuals suffering from genetically induced diseases.

Why would re-engineering us be better than re-engineering the planet?

  1. Geo-engineering is a very imperfect science and climate scientists are still trying to perfect models to explain the interaction between atmosphere, solar radiation, our oceans and land masses.
  2. Geo-engineering requires all nations to commit to a common strategy for reducing our carbon footprint. Humans have shown a disinclination to achieve any kind of consensus on a common approach to date.
  3. Ge0-engineering could have unforseen consequences that further damage the environment globally. We could create a runaway cold event or induce more rapid heating if we choose the wrong technological solution.

What kinds of changes would we consider making to humans?

  1. Make humans smaller so they need less to eat and use fewer resources.
  2. Make all humans vegans by genetically modifying them to not tolerate meat and thus free up land currently used for the meat industry and repurpose it for crops.
  3. Make humans less prolific in reproduction to reduce population.
  4. Make humans more sympathetic and altruistic to reduce war and conflict.

I recently read Margaret Atwood’s messianic novel of the future, Oryx and Crake.  If you are not familiar with it, the subject focuses on bioengineering with outcomes darker than that suggested by the proposals made by Liao et al. The authors freely admit that human engineering solutions may be considered preposterous but if we are to survive as a species in a habitable Earth, it is an option worthy of debate.

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...


  • Mike Lublinski

    This is one proposal I have serious problems with. Firstly, all of the concerns raised in connection with re-engineering the planet apply equally to re-engineering the species . Secondly, it is nothing less than preposterous to think that Catholics, among others, would agree to “Make humans less prolific in reproduction” and many in the developing world would likely view this as a Western plot to further diminish their worth — which means you end up with a two-sized species. But most of all, I think this comes too close to Nazi and other efforts at genetic purity, and if implemented, how do we avoid those who would institute their norms or preferences. There is potentially less invasive human geo-engineering (Biomedical modification) that will be “tarred by the brush” of this overreaching concept.

    Have you ever considered the possibility that this planet would be better off without the human species — either through eventual extinction or mass migration — left to rejuvenate through one of its natural cycles.

    • The original paper by Liao and his colleagues recognizes that bio-engineering humans is controversial. But the truth is we are already practicing selective breeding on other animal species and plants. And indeed we are pre-screening mothers to identify serious congenital diseases and terminating pregnancies in many cases.

      What we’re not doing is altering our gene pool to acclimate ourselves to changing climate. Eugenics as practiced by the Nazis was all about producing an ideal looking Nordic specimen, blonde haired and blue-eyed. It’s interesting that the man so enamoured with this was himself dark haired with a comb mustache. This kind of eugenics, purely for cosmetic display still happens through selective breeding. We naturally do it.

      What Liao proposes is we make a decision societally to reduce or eco-footprint not just in resource use but in ourselves. I agree with you that in general people would question doing this for lots of reasons.

      As for the planet being better off without us – there are eco-crusaders who would argue that point and some would probably say that breeding an eco-friendly human would be preferable to the complete removal of the species because we no longer can feed ourselves, or find the energy to keep us warm..

  • Pingback: h+ Magazine | Covering technological, scientific, and cultural trends that are changing human beings in fundamental ways.()