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Eugenics Tackles Climate Change

By Michael Cook

Can a proposal to genetically modify children that are smaller to reduce their carbon footprint be taken seriously?

Newspapers have their “silly season” of shock-horror absurdities in the slow news summer months. How about bioethics journals? Judging from recent media splutterings it must be in February and March.

Exhibit A in the journal Environment, Ethics and Policy is all we have room to discuss here. The authors propose to combat climate change with human engineering. People who are smaller and shorter and eat less meat will help reduce both their own carbon footprint and bovine flatulence (a significant contributor to greenhouse gases).

The details are so extraordinary that some caveats are needed to ensure a fair hearing. First, although engineering of children is clearly eugenics, the authors insist that it is benevolent eugenics: the privatised voluntary kind, not the government-enforced mandatory kind.

Second, these are thought experiments, not practical proposals.

Third, the eccentricity of the solutions is justified by the urgency of the problem. How else will we solve climate change?

Their most eye-popping brainwave is to turn us into hobbits. “For instance,” co-author S. Matthew Liao of New York University told The Atlantic, “if you reduce the average US height by just 15 cm, you could reduce body mass by 21% for men and 25% for women, with a corresponding reduction in metabolic rates by some 15% to 18%, because less tissue means lower energy and nutrient needs”.

Another intriguing proposal is inducing positive attitudes towards the environment with drugs.

Then there is population control. Liao dismisses the one-child policy advocated by some environmental groups as coercive. He favours a child-per-family quota based on volume and weight rather than number. Parents could have three small-sized children or two medium-sized children or one really large basketball player.

Preposterous? Don’t be too quick to judge. Another author, Rebecca Roache of Oxford University, reminded The Guardian that great ideas often seem preposterous at first. “Human engineering may seem bizarre and unrealistic, but this does not mean it could not turn out to be feasible and promising: telephones, ‘test tube babies’ and personal computers are all important aspects of modern life that were once regarded as bizarre and unrealistic.”

“We are fairly typical liberal academics thinking about the world,” says another author, Anders Sandburg of Oxford University.

If Liao, Roache and Sandberg are typical, is there something wrong with liberal academics? What is the source of these common sense-defying conjectures? After all, writing science fiction is not part of an ordinary bioethicist’s job description.

My hunch is that most media wildfires about bioethics are lit by utilitarians. You might think that utilitarianism, whose foundational principle is the greatest good for the greatest number, is a left-brain theory for bean-counters. But there is a right-brain side to this philosophy. Highly logical people are often drawn to odd forms of spirituality.

Jeremy Bentham, the first utilitarian philosopher, is a beacon of incandescent weirdness for succeeding generations. He specified in his will that his body was to be preserved, dressed in his best clothes and displayed in a glass cabinet to inspire “pilgrims [and] votaries of the greatest-happiness principle”.

One of the most significant theorists of utilitarianism, the 19th century philosopher Henry Sidgwick, founded a Society for Psychical Research that conducted sympathetic investigations into spiritualism – séances, communications with the dead and so on.

In the 21st century, the extracurricular interests of utilitarian philosophers may have shifted from spiritualism to trans­-humanism. Utilitarians don’t believe in human nature, so humanity is a work in progress.

Julian Savulescu, an Oxford bioethicist who is originally from Melbourne, dreams of enhancing our present condition with drugs and genetic engineering. Taking his philosophy one step further, transhumanists have fantasised about achieving immortality by uploading their minds onto computers.

Despite the prestige that Peter Singer and other utilitarians have, making headlines may be hard-wired into their philosophy. A utilitarian bioethicist is always going to be a loose cannon, rolling wildly around the deck in ethical storms, splintering and denting the fragile public image of his or her profession.

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics news service BioEdge.