Cat Eyes and Other Radical Ideas to Re-Engineer Humans for the Future

By Sarah Zhang on at

If we don’t do something about climate change, humanity is screwed. But do what? Carbon emissions keep creeping up, geoengineering is potentially dangerous, and we continue to stew in endless political debates. One bioethicist has a radical idea: Re-engineer humans for a better planet.

A few years ago, NYU bioethicist and philosopher Matthew Liao co-authored a paper in Ethics, Policy and the Environment titled “Human Engineering and Climate Change.” It was downloaded from his website 20,000 times in just three days, which pretty much makes it a blockbuster among academic philosophy papers. He had hit on a nerve.

Liao and his co-authors argued that human engineering should be seriously considered as a possible solution to climate change. What if we could create a patch that made us allergic to red meat? Or dole that pills that make us more empathetic? You can learn more about these specific ideas from io9’s coverage of the paper when it first came out.

It all sounds pretty crazy here and now in 2015, but human engineering for the greater good of the public is not unheard of. For the sake of public health, we vaccinate our children and add fluoride to the water supply. Of course, these actions have their attendant controversies, too.

I called up Liao to talk about human enhancement that betters both ourselves and our planet. We also caught up on some new developments in the world of human enhancement.

The challenge with environmental policies is that it’s so hard to get people to change what they do—even when it’s as simple as recycling or using less water. If we can’t convince people to change what their behaviour, how do you expect to convince people to change their bodies?

We were trying to come up with solutions that were win-win solutions, things you would do even if it doesn’t help the climate.

Things like the meat patch. Well, there are a lot of people who would be interested in having a meat patch to cut down their consumption of red meat. I gave a talk once, and afterwards a pharmaceutical rep came up to me and said, “Have you patented that idea? That would do well in Brooklyn.” [laughs] You can see that being desirable. You look at restaurants and they serve these dishes that taste like meat because people like the taste of meat, even vegetarians. If you had a meat patch, you could curb that desire at the start. These are the win-win solutions that could overcome the behavioural limitations.

You seem to posit a world in which human engineering of the kind you talk about is this mainstream. Do you think that’s inevitable?

I think so. Right now, it most frequently comes up in pharmaceuticals. You look at Ritalin and Adderall, and people are taking it. One in five readers of the journal Nature is taking some sort of cognitive enhancement, and we’re not talking about just coffee. Right now, the U.S. government is interested in things like modafinil, basically Provigil. It allows people to stay up for a really long time without a crash and allows you to still function normally. They’re interested in giving that drug to pilots so that they can fly long missions without being tired. In 2007, it was a £635.8 million market, and they estimate that in 2017, it’ll be between a £6.3 and £10.8 billion market. And over 90 per cent of the prescription for modafinil is now off-label use. That’s staggering.

You’re saying that human engineering already happens?

I think in terms of drugs that will enhance us, it’s already happening. Fluoridation in the water is also a form of enhancement, and we do it publicly across populations. And so why couldn’t we do something like it across other areas? That’s generally the idea behind the paper, to think about these things we hadn’t thought of and to try to encourage people to think outside of the box.

Since you’ve published the paper in 2012, have you come up with any new human engineering ideas?

One of the things we’ve been exploring is this idea of cat eyes. Cat see just as well as we can during the day, but they can see about 7 times better than we can at night. If you fly at night, you’ll see all these lights across the U.S. and across the globe. You can imagine that we all had better eyes, we can globally dim the lights and reduce energy consumption at night by almost seven-fold. And that’s huge.

So you’ve probably heard about those biohackers trying to give themselves night vision...

Yeah, why wouldn’t you want to have better eyesight? Or maybe we can use goggles or glasses. There are also mammals that have night vision, and scientists are looking the genetic basis for night vision.

That’s especially interesting to talk about now, with CRISPR and human genome editing in the news.

CRISPR technology is coming. It’s not very good yet, but it allows very selective editing of genes. Initially it going to be used to treat certain diseases. If you have the Huntington’s disease or the breast cancer gene, well, I think people will be interested in using CRISPR if it works.

And then eventually other people are going to use it for enhancement purposes — they’re going to want to have stronger muscles, be able to think faster, etc etc. It seems almost inevitable. It seems like that’s where we’re heading, just like our phones get faster and faster every year. It might be necessary for the survival for the human species as well. Stephen Hawking thought our genetic engineering was our best way to survive. That’s taking a long view, I understand, but I think it’s important look long-term

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Top image: Oculu/shutterstock