The old eugenicists thought government should steer the future course of human evolution. If a recent interview published in The Atlantic is any indication, sometimes it’s good to be careful what you wish for. The interview is with one S. Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University, and has the intriguing title, “How Engineering the Human Body Could Combat Climate Change.” The plot thickens in the byline, which reads, “From drugs to help you avoid eating meat to genetically engineered cat-like eyes to reduce the need for lighting, a wild interview about changes humans could make to themselves to battle climate change.” The bit about eating meat is a good one. Those who are too fond of a carniverous lifestyle are to swallow pills that will induce nausea each time they eat a steak, “which would then lead to a lasting aversion to meat-eating.” Apparently the good professor has watched A Clockwork Orange one too many times. As for the cat-eye thing, he isn’t kidding. As he puts it,
…we looked into cat eyes, the technique of giving humans cat eyes or of making their eyes more catlike. The reason is, cat eyes see nearly as well as human eyes during the day, but much better at night. We figured that if everyone had cat eyes, you wouldn’t need so much lighting, and so you could reduce global energy usage considerably. Maybe even by a shocking percentage.
I would certainly be interested in seeing a computational study demonstrating a reduction in global energy usage via genetically engineering cat-eyes “by a shocking percentage.” Another of the professor’s great ideas is to leverage the wonders of modern genetics to create shorter humans, based on the assumption that they would have a smaller carbon footprint. We are not informed whether the algorithm used to arrive at this conclusion took account of the possibility that short people might do even more damage to the environment by attempting to overcompensate for their parents dumb decision to produce a litter of runts. They might, for example, have a marked tendency to buy much larger cars, eat large quantities of red meat to enhance their growth unless given especially large doses of nausea inducing drugs, or, as in the cases of Napoleon and Joseph Stalin, their tastes might run to things that are even more harmful for the environment.
The rest of the article contains more similar great ideas, and I will leave the interested reader to peruse them on his own. Mercifully, Prof. Liao assures us that, “We are interested only in voluntary modifications.” If that’s the case, by all means, let Prof. Liao and his like-minded colleagues tinker with the genes of their offspring as they choose. The most likely outcome will be that they and their cat-eyed offspring will go extinct, reducing their carbon footprint to zero, to the great relief of Mother Gaia.
I note in passing that, as is usually the case with the tribe of experts in ethics currently plying their trade in our academies of higher learning, the assumption implicit in all of Prof. Liao’s pronouncements on the subject is that an “ethics object,” the veritable “Good in itself,” is floating about in the ether, free of any base evolutionary origins, and perfectly discernible in all its nuances to anyone possessed of the necessary academic gravitas. I’m sure he’s as innocent of any coherent explanation of why one environmentally relevant behavior is “really Good,” and another is “really Evil” as any of his scholarly forebears since the time of Plato. Get a clue, my dear Prof. Liao. All those noble sentiments of right and justice that seem so real to you, so independent of your own mind, do not exist outside of your own mind. They are utterly dependent on it for their existence, an existence that is purely subjective. They were hard-wired there by Mother Nature in just that way for one reason and one reason only – because your ancestors who were fortunate enough to have similar programming had the good fortune to survive.
Well, be that as it may, that particular bit of news, becoming ever more difficult to ignore as the evolutionary psychologists continue to busily ply their trade, is most unwelcome to the “experts” in ethics. You might say it’s bad for the bottom line. No matter, let us be charitable to Prof. Liao. According to Google Scholar he has published a sufficient number of papers to be at least respectable, and has a tolerable if not imposing record of citation. If you feel that’s sufficient to trust him on the matter, by all means, take a closer look at the feasibility of spawning a brood of cat-eyed children. Barnum and Bailey will love you for it.