A controversial academic paper is garnering a lot of criticism in the online world.
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”.
But prominent environmentalists were also keen to denounce the paper. Bill McKibben tweeted that the paper contained the “worst climate change solutions of all time”. Mark Lynas tweeted that he thought it was an “early April Fool”. It was hard to disagree.
So, were the philosophers who co-wrote the paper surprised by the reaction? Or had all their critics misunderstood what they were trying to achieve? I contacted each of the authors in turn, and a co-editor of the journal, and asked them.
Liao was the first to respond:
First, I think that our paper/position is being grossly misrepresented by some people online. As we specifically say in our paper, a) we are not necessarily endorsing any of the solutions we have canvassed; and b) if these solutions were available, it should be up to individuals to adopt them voluntarily. Ross Anderson, the writer of the Atlantic interview, also makes this clear.
Secondly, the term “eugenics” often gets brought up whenever people mention human enhancements. This is unfortunate because my co-authors and I are positively against any form of coercion of the sort the Nazis had done in the past (segregation, sterilization, and genocide). The way the term ‘eugenics’ is used by some of the people who are against our proposal, it seems that voluntary use of contraception would be a form of eugenics.
Finally, many people who are against our proposal explicitly deny that climate change is really a problem. Given this, it is not surprising that they would find our solution to what they perceive as a “non-problem” incredible. Indeed, some of these people have also said that encouraging people to drive less is an overreaction to climate change. Our paper is intended for those who believe that i) climate change is a real problem; and ii) who, owing to i), are willing to take seriously geoengineering. All bets are off if someone doesn’t accept i).
I then sent the following questions to Liao’s co-authors, Dr Anders Sandberg and Dr Rebecca Roache, both based at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute. (Roache was at the institute when the paper was first being drafted 18 months ago, but has since left to be a “full-time mum”.)
Has your paper been misrepresented online? If so, how and why?
Sandberg: 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.
Roache: Yes. We argue that it might be worth considering making available some seemingly bizarre solutions to climate change, for people to use or not as they wish. We have been represented as arguing – among other things – that people should be forced to adopt these bizarre measures for the good of the environment. I imagine that this is partly because people assume that nobody would dream up such bizarre solutions to climate change unless they believed that they should be implemented. Philosophers, however, spend a lot of time discussing views that they do not necessarily endorse – it’s part of the learning process.
What do you say to those who are claiming you and your fellow authors are “eco Nazis”, “eugenicists” etc, for publishing this paper?
Sandberg: Well, none of us are deep greens or totalitarian. We are fairly typical liberal academics thinking about the world. In fact, in my normal work with global catastrophic risks at the Future of Humanity Institute, climate change is at the lower end of concern. Certainly a problem, but unlikely to wipe out humanity. That probably disqualifies me from being an eco Nazi.
Certainly one can imagine nasty governments imposing various green policies on the population, forcing them to act in ways that benefit the environment. But our paper doesn’t give them any particular ethical support: if you are willing to infringe on people’s reproductory liberty, why not just prevent them from consuming as much as they want? Green totalitarianism might be possible, but it is hardly moral – because it is totalitarian and doesn’t respect individual rights.
Of course, to many people even a hint that our biology might be subject to political considerations is horrific. Yet they do not seem to worry much about the political decisions that are constantly being made about our reproduction (laws against reproductive cloning are political decisons about the desired form of human reproduction), nutrition or health. We are living in an era of biopolitics. It is better to make the issues explicit and discuss them than assume they will go away if we ignore them.
I think parents should be allowed to select genes for their children (“liberal eugenics” in the term of Nicholas Agar) – the reason eugenics in the past has been such a bad thing was because it was 1) coercive, 2) imposed centrally by the state, and 3) often based on bad science. If one can avoid these problems I do think it could be useful: in that sense I am an eugenicist. However, I suspect other technologies are going to change our species faster than genetics.
Roache: I say that they haven’t read the paper! We explicitly state that we do not endorse coercion, and that we envisage human engineering to be a voluntary activity. The solutions we discuss may seem bizarre and unrealistic, but that does not entail they are not worth exploring.
Did you predict this level/type of response?
Sandberg: A bit. When I wrote the paper I felt I was to some extent trolling – I admit I was delighted when some of my normally rather bio-radical colleagues protested against the idea after a presentation we gave here in Oxford. I was a bit more surprised that the blogosphere and popular press took notice of the paper.
The problem with arousing emotions is that most people then become very stimulus-response driven. They don’t think very deeply about the issue, they react instead. We hoped the paper would be exciting enough to stimulate discussion but not to preclude thinking.
You could claim this paper is a reductio ad absurdum of the idea that we should aim for upstream solutions to environmental problems rather than downstream solutions. I’m not convinced about that: there might indeed be win-win enhancements that are both good for us individually, for society and for the environment, and they should be supported. What the paper does is to take environmental goals and collide them with some common bioethical intuitions (the sacredness of the natural, that human biology must not be touched, etc.) – that hopefully produces an uncomfortable itch that will stimulate some real thinking about what we want to give prioritiy. Could there be ethical reasons not to do things that would help the environment? Could there be environmental needs so pressing we would be forced to budge our biological policies?
Roache: It was always a possibility. Our normally unflappable bioethicist colleagues were shocked by the idea of human engineering, so the wider public was bound to find it ghastly. The fact that we presented it as a response to the widely-discussed problem of climate change is also relevant here: it’s not unusual for philosophers to write about wacky and horrifying ideas, but non-philosophers are rarely interested in them because they often have no obvious bearing on real life. For example, I was working on this paper at around the same time as I was working on a paper about whether it is conceptually possible for more than one person to inhabit a single body; but the publication of the latter passed without comment from the Daily Mail.
Ultimately, what were you trying to achieve with the paper? Are
people interpreting it too literally, namely, believing you personally
would advocate for these ideas?
Sandberg: People are unused to ethical analysis. In philosophy we take ideas and test them to destruction. This means that we often bring up concepts or lines of thought we do not personally believe in and then argue them as strongly as possible to see where they go and what we can learn. This is very different from everyday life where most people who state an idea or belief also believe in it – and it makes people misunderstand this kind of thinking. To make matters worse most people debating it will not read the paper and see how we discuss the ethical problems or why even we think it is a preposterous idea… they will just think some eggheads blithely promote eugenics.
The core idea is that we should not imagine that our biological nature is exempt from being part of a potential solution to environmental problems. In our opinion methods of changing people, habits, technology or the environment are all possible approaches, and what matters is whether they work, have good effects, are acceptable and practical, not what kind of method they are.
My personal view is that human engineering on its own is unlikely to fix climate change. The methods we mention are all too weak, indirect and slow. But thinking about out-of-the-box approaches is useful: too much of the climate debate has been forced into doctrinaire camps where any consideration of alternatives is heresy. Big complex problems are unlikely to have simple and neat solutions: we need to investigate (and perhaps use) a lot of approaches.
I do think that in the long run humanity has to become posthuman it wants to be truly sustainable. I have a little essay about it here:
But this is not feasible for the next few decades, at the very least.
Roache: We wanted to encourage people to think about a group of solutions to climate change that have so far been ignored, despite the fact that in many cases it would be scientifically possible to implement them. 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. Of course, human engineering may ultimately be unworkable; but this should be because it is impossible to implement, or because its costs outweigh its benefits. It should not be rejected merely because, at first glance, it seems unappealing. And discussing it is itself valuable: it is by exploring and assessing potential responses to a problem that we make progress towards solving it.
I also asked Benjamin Hale, assistant professor of philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and co-editor of Ethics, Policy & Environment, why the paper is being published and whether the journal anticipated this sort of response. He said:
We accept submissions from scholars across the academic community. The article went through the same double blind peer reviewed process that all of our articles go through. We haven’t received any questions on it yet. You’re our first. By publishing this article, we are not endorsing it at all. We have circulated the paper widely and are publishing between seven to nine critical responses from ethicists across the field.
The things I’ve seen written on it so far appear to miss the point. The article was clearly not a positive policy proposal. Instead, it was a series of Swiftian philosophical thought experiments more designed to contextualize actively discussed schemes like geoengineering, written by a professor who is not otherwise engaged with the climate community. In the same issue, we will be publishing several other articles critical of geoengineering.
In total, the responses indicate that both the authors and journal stand squarely behind the controversial paper and believe its critics have woefully misinterpreted its contents and the reasons for publishing it. One thing is sure: they have certainly been successful in courting attention (not to be sniffed at in the world of academic publishing, or any form of publishing, for that matter).
But if their aim was to generate a pensive, wide-ranging philosophical debate on the subject of human engineering and climate change I’m not convinced they have been successful. Well, not yet at least, if the online reaction is anything to go by. There remains a danger, too, that the paper will be used in the future as a stick to attack any suggestion of environmental action: “Let them do this, and this will be next on their agenda.” However, I agree with the authors that we should not fear debating such ideas – even if the end result is that we still roundly reject them.
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