March 16, 2012

Sandberg et al clarify claim that we should 'bioengineer humans to tackle climate change'

Oh, man. Lots of transhumanists in the news these days making quite a stir. First it was Julian Savulescu having to defend his decision to include a paper about infanticide in the Journal of Medical Ethics, and now Anders Sandberg is under the gun for his claim that we should bioengineer humans to tackle climate change. Here's the rundown from The Guardian:
Earlier this week, The Atlantic ran an eye-catching, disturbing interview with a professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University called S. Matthew Liao. He was invited to discuss a forthcoming paper he has co-authored which will soon be published in the journal Ethics, Policy & Environment.

But within just a few hours of the interview going live a torrent of outrage and abuse was being directed towards him online. As I tweeted at the time, the interview was indeed "unsettling". Liao explained how his paper – entitled, "Human Engineering and Climate Change" – explored the so-far-ignored subject of how "biomedical modifications of humans" could be used to "mitigate and/or adapt to climate change". The modifications discussed included: giving people drugs to make them have an adverse reaction to eating meat; making humans smaller via gene imprinting and "preimplantation genetic diagnosis"; lowering birth-rates through "cognitive enhancement"; genetically engineering eyesight to work better in the dark to help reduce the need for lighting; and the "pharmacological enhancement of altruism and empathy" to engender a better "correlation" with environmental problems.

Both the interview and the paper itself include a prominent disclaimer. As the paper says:

To be clear, we shall not argue that human engineering ought to be adopted; such a claim would require far more exposition and argument than we have space for here. Our central aim here 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.

However, that wasn't enough to prevent an extremely hostile reception to such ideas. Climate sceptics were the first to vent their anger. Somewhat inevitability, terms such as "eugenics", "Nazis" and "eco fascists" were quickly being bandied around. One sceptic blogger said that the "sick" Liao and his co-authors should be "kept in Guantanamo". Another said the paper "presages the death of science, and indeed the death of reason, in the West".
Anders Sandberg is among the paper's authors (which also includes Dr Rebecca Roache), and he has provided some clarification on the matter:
Most reactions are not based on what we actually wrote. People who comment on anything online have usually not read it, and then people comment on them, and so on. You are lucky if people remember the original topic, let alone any argument.

People seem to assume we are some kind of totalitarian climate doomsters who advocate biotechnological control over people. What we are actually saying is that changing our biology might be part of solving environmental problems, and that some changes might not just be permissible but work well with a liberal ethics.

Climate change and many other problems have upstream and downstream solutions. For example, 1) human consumption leads to 2) a demand for production and energy, which leads to 3) industry, which leads to 4) greenhouse gas emissions, which lead to 5) planetary heating, which leads to 6) bad consequences. One solution might be to try to consume less (fix 2). We can also make less emissive industry (fix the 3-4 link), remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere (reduce 4), geoengineering that cools the planet (reduce 5) or adapt to a changed world (handle 6). Typically people complain about the downstream solutions like geoengineering that they are risky or don't actually solve the cause of the problem, and say we should go for upstream solutions (where a small shift affects the rest of the chain). So, what would be the most upstream solution? Change human desires or consumption. While this can be done partially by persuasion and culture, there are many strong evolved drivers in human nature that act against it. But we can also affect the drivers.

For example, making people smarter is likely to make them better at solving environmental problems, caring about the environment, adopting a more long-term stance, cooperate better and have fewer children. It is of course desirable for a long list of other reasons too, and many people would freely choose to use enhancements to achieve this even if they cared little about the world. If there was a modification that removed the desire for meat, it would likely have not just green effects but also benefit health and animal welfare - again many might decide to go for it, with no external compulsion.
There's lots more from Anders and Roache.

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