Bio-Engineering Greener Humans


We want to tackle the issue of climate change. So far we have been using technology to help us- wind farms, hybrid cars, solar and wave power, and recycling. What about biology? Human biology?? An associate professor of bioethics and philosophy at New York University has a very different proposal – using medical science and technology to create humans that have less impact on the planet.

In a research paper, S. Matthew Liao argues that engineering humans that, for example, eat less, weigh less or are more considerate could help mitigate climate change.

S Matthew Liao

“Given that climate change is likely to affect many aspects of life for all people around the world, and given that behavioural and market solutions might not be enough to mitigate climate change, we believe that human engineering deserves to be considered and explored further,” Liao wrote in Human Engineering and Climate Change, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Ethics, Policy & Environment.He did not suggest that human engineering should be adopted, but argued it should be considered alongside other solutions.


His proposals include:

Creating smaller people. Larger people require more food, clothing and even energy (i.e. more gas to transport them in a car) than smaller people. One option is to use hormone treatments to influence growth, or use drugs and/or nutrients to influence a baby’s birth weight before it is born. Some of Liao’s ideas are sure to stir up controversy. For instance, he suggests that people could be given pills or patches that make them nauseous whenever they eat meat, effectively turning them into vegetarians. Pharmaceuticals could also be used to enhance people’s feelings of empathy and altruism, because those attitudes tend to foster concern about the environment. My God! Is he trying to turn the next generation into a bunch of hippy-dippy tree-huggers?!

In interviews he has mooted other ideas for genetically engineering superhumans. One is to give us cat eyes, so that less lighting is needed to see at night.  Liao is careful to note that all of these proposals are merely meant to introduce the idea of human engineering as one possible solution to climate change. The paper is not meant to advocate for any proposed solutions in particular. As a philosopher in bioethics, he understands and acknowledges that many of these ideas carry serious ethical concerns, and he is quick to emphasize the voluntary nature of all of his proposed modifications.
Liao went on to say that at least one pharmaceutical company representative has expressed interest in the idea of a pill or patch for meat-intolerance. It could be offered as a choice to meat-eaters who want to become vegetarian but have difficulty overcoming their taste and desire for meat.
Some will see this as “playing God”  and trying to bring about the sort of bio-engineering that has been seen in some computer games such as Deus Ex, and in the film Bladerunner

Rachel, the Replicant in Bladerunner

In the end, the details of Liao’s proposals merely make for good philosophical exercise. But his larger point is deadly serious: there’s an urgent need for real climate change solutions, and the sooner the better. Solutions as radical as human engineering won’t be necessary if we get serious about saving the planet now.
So while the thought of bio-engineering humans for the future might makes us feel squeamish and even fill us with repugnance, what price to save our planet, and our race? Heavy questions indeed.
I was reminded that in an early episode of Star Trek there were green-skinned women. Would it be possible to bio-engineer humans not just to think greener, but to actually be physically greener and have green skin that gives us energy from sunlight, like leaves on plants and trees?
Food for thought!


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