Re-making Man by Choice and Decree

And he said unto them, the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath ….

                        Mark 2:27 (King James version)

A few days ago, the Drudge Report brought me to a link that I thought for a time simply had to be an early April Fool’s Day joke, but is instead dead serious: How Engineering the Human Body Could Combat Climate Change.  In this article, Atlantic correspondent Ross Andersen ably interviews S. Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University.  Liao and his philosopher co-authors (link no longer available) have a forthcoming paper in the journal Ethics, Policy & Environment that proposes genetic engineering and other “biomedical modifications” of body function for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That’s obviously crazy, but it illustrates the absurd lengths to which eco-fanatics will go in the quixotic quest to fix the weather.

Let’s begin with Liao’s defense of his “modest proposal.”  In response to this question, “[s]ome critics are likely to see these techniques as inappropriately interfering with human nature.  What do you say to them?” Liao responded that it’s no different than “giving women epidurals when they’re giving birth,” since that also interferes with human nature.  I think my wife, who requested an epidural when giving birth to our oldest son, would beg to differ.  Liao is clearly proposing prescriptions that are more radical than epidurals — a lot more radical.  By the end of this blog post, you’ll see what I mean.

Don’t worry, says Liao, the reason you get twitchy when you hear that the human race should be re-engineered in some respect is that you “generally worry about interfering for the wrong reasons.  But because we believe that mitigating climate change can help a great many people, we see human engineering in this context as an ethical endeavor, and so that objection may not apply.”  Ah. Until Liao ‘splained things, I failed to see that global warming provides a good reason for changing the human body—even while letting parents genetically select for blue eyes, athleticism, high IQ, or good looks in their future children are all bad reasons for genetic engineering in humans (though Liao never actually explains what an ill-motivated “bad” biomedical modification would be).

If “trust us, we come in peace” doesn’t work for you, consider Liao’s second line of defense:  Your body must be re-made so as to pay for your past sins.  “Andersen:  Taking a look at this from the perspective of deep ecology — is there something to be said for the idea that because climate change is human caused, that humans ought to be the ones that change to mitigate it — that somehow we ought to be bear the cost to fix this?  Liao:  That was actually one of the ideas that motivated us to write this paper, the idea that we cause anthropogenic climate change, and so perhaps we ought to be bear some of the costs required to address it.”  In short, just when you thought hair shirts and self-flagellation were so 1270 A.D., Liao and company are proposing genetic modification as sin expiation — a kind of self-mortification of the bodies of current and future generations.  Alas, this is likely to prove most unsatisfying to the objects of intervention when they hit the age of reason:  “Junior, we’re sorry, but you are misshapen and teased mercilessly by the ‘Tea Party children’ because Papa Treehugger and Mama Vegan have sacrificed you on the altar of climate-change propitiation to atone for their own backsliding ways and as an indulgence for the errors of the non-believers.”

Forget the hearse ‘cause I’ll never die

I got nine lives Cat’s eyes

Usin’ every one of them and running wild

AC/DC, “Back in Black”

The most hilarious moment in the interview comes when Liao is asked what proposals he and his coauthors left on the cutting room floor — because “unfortunately the science is not there yet.”  Reply:  “We looked into cat eyes, the technique of giving humans cat eyes or of making their eyes more catlike ….  We figured that if everyone had cat eyes, you wouldn’t need so much lighting, and so you could reduce global average energy usage considerably.  Maybe even by a shocking percentage.”  Cat’s eyes to save energy sounds instead like the kind of plan my two and a half year-old might hatch after watching an episode of Ted Turner’s Captain Planet in re-runs.  “Dad, let’s all pretend we have cat eyes and can see in the dark.  Captain Planet has cat eyes.”

Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

Luke 18:22

Though it’s cold and lonely in the deep dark night

I can see paradise by the dashboard light.

Meat Loaf, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”

What must a person addicted to meat do to save the planet and achieve climate Nirvana according to Liao and company?  Why, eat “meat alongside a medication that triggers extreme nausea, which would then cause a long-lasting aversion to meat eating.”  Also, for those who want their Pavlovian shock drugs administered on an even keel throughout the day, you could opt for the anti-meat patch, for Liao tells us that he’s “toyed around with the idea of a patch that might stimulate the immune system to reject common bovine proteins, which could lead to a similar kind of lasting aversion to meat products.”  The meat-nausea patch (look for it at your next anti-fur fashion show) could become the ultimate in fashion statements when sitting in a pew at the burgeoning Church of the Green.  Which day is Green Sabbath, anyway?

Gentlemen, we can rebuild him.  We have the technology.  We have the capability to           build the world’s first bionic man ….  Better, stronger, faster.

            Oscar Goldman, “The Six Million Dollar Man

If you grew up on Seventies TV, the immortal words of the Six Million Dollar Man are indelibly etched in your brain.  Who would have “thunk it” that such homely TV wisdom would have application to the evils of climate change?  But wait, in the second knee-slapper Liao unleashes in the same deadpan article (Liao should look into moonlighting as a writer for Portlandia), he says that biomodifications such as selecting embryos for reduced height and using hormone treatment to close the epiphyseal plate earlier than normal could be used to produce smaller, less energy-intensive beings of green enlightenment.  “[G]iven certain fixed allocations of greenhouse gas emissions, human engineering [would] give families the choice between two medium sized children or three small sized children.”  This is ethical, says Liao, because “[f]rom our perspective that would be more liberty enhancing than a policy that says ‘you can only have one or two children.’”  Rounding out the choices on the fast-food menu of children, Liao generously provides that a “family might want a really good basketball player, and so they could use human engineering to have one really large child.” (I am not making this up.)  In essence, parents would be faced with a multiple choice question:  “In light of the imperatives thrust upon the human race by climate change, you may choose to have: (a) one, basketball team-sized child (the Kareem Abdul Jabbar option); (b) two normal-sized children (the Tea Party option); or (c) three, smaller, energy-efficient children that will only be able to sleep in eighteenth century-sized beds (the wise Green choice).”  This is the America we’ve all been waiting for.

In the actual paper, but not in the Atlantic article about it, Liao and company attempt to deflect criticism of their “three-child” monte game of child size selection by saying the following:

Finally and perhaps the most obvious objection to our suggestion that human engineering solutions should be considered is: it’s a preposterous idea!  In particular, who in their right mind would choose to make their children smaller?  We are well aware that our proposal to encourage having smaller, but environmentally-friendlier human beings is prima facie outlandish, and we have made no attempt to avoid provoking this response.  There is a good reason for this, namely, we wish to highlight that examining intuitively absurd or apparently drastic ideas can be an important learning experience, and that failing to do so could result in our missing out on opportunities to address important, often urgent, issues.  History is replete with examples of issues or ideas which, whilst widely supported or even invaluable now, were ridiculed and dismissed when they were first proposed.

Human Engineering and Climate Change at page 22.  All of the examples Liao and colleagues deploy, however, involve objections to physical or market-related feasibility (airplanes will never fly, telephones and computers will never catch on, germs do not exist, etc.).  By contrast, the objections to creating a generation of stunted children in the name of reducing sea levels a century hence are philosophical and ethical, and in terms of implementing them, objections borne of political theory and the law.  Moreover, there is no hint in the Atlantic article of the paper’s concession that the child-stunting idea is prima facie absurd.  Instead, Liao defends to the teeth the notion that there is no ethical problem in his concept because shorter children chosen at the embryo stage would have no standing to object to their plight since the alternative would have been destruction of their embryos and their non-existence.

We’re from the Government, and We’re Here to Help

The authors profess that they seek only voluntary modifications, but this is belied by the “solutions” they consider in the paper and the fact that they sought and apparently have obtained publication in a journal on public policy.  Take the “three-energy efficient children” example.  The example presupposes that the government is considering a population-limiting policy like a one- or two-child policy.  Liao and friends simply offer to give parents the additional Kareem Abdul Jabbar and three, stunted child options on family size.  Look Mom, no coercion!

Noticing the obvious problems, the Atlantic’s interviewer challenged Liao to explain why it isn’t “ethically problematic to allow parents to make these kinds of irreversible choices for their children?”  Liao’s remarkable answer not only heads rapidly toward a slippery slope to eugenics but is already much of the way down that path:  “With selection you don’t really have the issue of irreversible choices because the embryo selected can’t complain that she could have been otherwise — if the parents had selected a different embryo, she wouldn’t have existed at all.”  On this logic, later generations would have no right to complain they’ve been re-engineered because of faddish, foolish, panicked, or even coerced choices.  Later generations would be powerless to protest eugenics as practiced by their parents.

Liao shows himself to be ignorant of or tone deaf to the serious objections in the literature and in public opinion to fertilizing and discarding embryos. Consider the work of Robert P. George, an academic with both Princeton and Oxford credentials and affiliations, ironically like Liao.  George, whom current Associate Justice Elena Kagan has called “one of the nation’s most respected legal theorists,” and of whom Liao must have become aware of while earning his undergraduate degree at Princeton, merits no citation in any of the footnotes in the Human Engineering and Climate Change paper.  Indeed, with one exception, the paper itself cites, as far as I can tell, no bioethicists or noted authorities who could be expected to disagree with the paper’s authors.  I am not a bioethicist, but it doesn’t take one to appreciate that even just opening up the choice to green parents to birth a generation of stunted or low-end of the bell curve for height children with more energy-efficient bodies would create vast problems for such children in gaining social acceptance from children characterized by the ordinary variances in height and size that nature hath bequeathed.  The problems seem so obvious and the prospect of the State standing ready to homogenize the environmentally irresponsible choices of parents seem so plain, that it is hard to take Liao and fellow philosopher-kings’ purported claim merely to be offering a menu of voluntary options seriously.

There is a single instance in which the authors briefly consider the objections that might be raised to their schemes and offer a rebuttal.  Specifically, they quote philosopher Michael Sandel, who has argued that human enhancement is “a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires.”  Human Engineering and Climate Change at page 17.  The authors deal with this objection (a version of which also animates this blog entry) by the device of restating the objection in environmental terms and then attempting to refute their own reformulation:  “[A] number of environmentalists believe that it is precisely our interference with nature that has given rise to climate change.  These environmentalists might therefore object to human engineering on the ground that it too is interfering with nature.”  Id.  The refutation that follows is an attempt to show that, on balance, making children smaller is less of an interference with nature than the anthropogenic impacts of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  But this is to mistake the thrust of Sandel’s criticism, which arises out of disappointing human experiences in trying to change human nature—interventions that often lead to failure of re-education efforts to change hearts and minds, tragically unintended and unforeseeable consequences, and ultimately to human suffering.  The allusion to mythology is apt—Prometheus’s interventions brought Pandora and ultimately the plagues and evil plights released from her box on mankind.

The authors of the paper also stray into dangerous ethical territory by suggesting that people should take drugs that would alter their capacities for empathy and altruism, which the authors suppose would make such drug patients more willing to implement the climate-change policies now in vogue.  A lot of problems are packed into this simple prescription alone.  For instance, no attempt is made to explain: (1) why it is beneficial to employ drugs that alter the public policy predilections of the electorate despite the radical nature of this concept and its dire implications for republican government and democracy; (2) why climate change policy prescriptions are aligned with altruism and empathy—arguably, such faculties are better in line  with allowing people to make their own choices and so recalcitrance to the favored policies may well increase with drug-induced empathy and altruism, rather than be swept away; and (3) whether the climate-change policies favored by the paper’s authors really would help or hinder mankind. In offering up the prescription of drugs to alter the minds of wrong-thinking individuals, Liao and his garage band of fellow philosophers reveal no historical appreciation for the well-known psychiatric abuses prevalent in the former Soviet Union.  Lack of knowledge of history is no excuse, since that policy is making a present-day comeback in Russia.

The most significant hazard that flows from abstract, un-rooted, if not downright evil thinking like this is the claim that re-making the human body to fight climate change would be “liberty enhancing.”  Family-size limitations, belief-altering drugs, and cat eyes are decidedly not liberty enhancing. While the paper’s authors try to hide behind protestations that they are not recommending any compulsory action, they argue that both market-based (cap-and-trade and carbon taxes) and physical interventions in the environment (geoengineering, etc.) will not be enough to avert global disaster.  It would be naïve in the extreme to believe that the authors’ desperate and extreme proposals, should we ever contemplate them, would remain purely voluntary.  It’s the public policy equivalent of inventing a guillotine right before the French Revolution and then claiming that what others might choose to do with it is none of your doing.