Will human engineering save us from environmental disaster?

Illustration for article titled Will human engineering save us from environmental disaster?

"As a species we're in deep trouble, worse than anyone's saying. They're afraid to release the stats because people might just give up, but take it from me, we're running out of space-time. Demand for resources has exceeded supply for decades in marginal geopolitical areas, hence the famines and droughts; but very soon, demand is going to exceed supply for everyone. With the BlyssPluss Pill the human race will have a better chance of swimming."


So proclaims Crake, bioengineering prodigy of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, who, in the mid-twenty first century, designs a flesh-eating supervirus, disguises it as the BlyssPluss libido-enhancement pill, and distributes it covertly across the world. Within several weeks, the human race is all but annihilated. Why would Crake commit such an act? Apart from being an empathy-bereft, unhinged narcissist, Crake has a vision for a new type of Homo sapiens, one that lacks the "destructive features responsible for the world's current illness". In humanity's final hours the first "Crakers"- physically flawless, humanoid laboratory concoctions, are unleashed from their sterile biodome (aptly named "Paradice") into the ruins of human civilization.

The Crakers, while similar in appearance to humans, have been genetically altered to survive in an ozone-depleted, plauge-ridden, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Their skin is UV-resistant, repels insects and bacterial pathogens. They can obtain all of their energy and nutrients from grass, leaves and roots. But it's their neurological rewiring that really sets Crakers apart from Homo sapiens. Crakers lack many of the psychological attributes that cause humans to form hierarchical societies: "The king-of-the-castle hard-wiring that had plagued humanity had, in them, been unwired." Aggression, territoriality and mistrust of others have been eliminated. The Crakers' sexual rituals are streamlined to minimize reproduction, jealously and lust. Copulation becomes a biological necessity that occurs only during hormonally-induced mating seasons.


Atwood is not the only science fiction writer to consider human engineering as a potential solution to environmental catastrophe. In Paolo Bacigalupi's short story, The People of Sand and Slag, humans reengineered themselves to survive on a far-future Earth otherwise as lifeless as Mars. Thanks to a technology called weeviltech, humans no longer require oxygen for breathing and can now obtain energy from all sorts of inorganic materials, from shale to sand to metal. Their limbs spontaneously regenerate, allowing them to regularly engage in violent amputation games. Many have taken body modification to extreme lengths: one of the main characters, Lisa, implants knives along all of her limbs, transforming herself into a human "razor blade from all directions."

While many science fiction authors envision dark futurescapes in which human engineering comes into the picture only after we've pretty much wasted the planet, I'd like to think reengineering ourselves could help prevent an eco-apocalypse. Put another way, what if the solution to our climate and resource crises involves not only designing more efficient machines, but more efficient humans? What if humans of the future don't take as much from the Earth because they don't want or require as much? What might such engineered people look like?


For one, their organs may look entirely different, thanks to the blossoming business of bioprinting, or building living tissue with a 3D printer. Researchers at Organova, the world's first publicly traded 3D bioprinting company, are now printing up strips of human liver, lung, kidney and heart muscle. Roughly 80 other research teams around the world are attempting to print small bits of human tissue using various technologies. Ultimately, scientists at Organova hope to one day print entire replacement organs. While 3D printed hearts and livers may not be hitting the market next year, Organova is currently testing "mini-organs", patch-sized tissues that can restore lost functions.

When printed organs do become a reality, there is no reason they have to look or function exactly like our own organs. It's possible we could design them to be more efficient. Cat-like eyes that see better in the dark could enormously reduce nighttime electricity use. Skin that naturally heats and cools our bodies more effectively could reduce our need for heating and air conditioning. Lung tissue that sucks more oxygen out of the air? Kidneys that do a better job retaining nutrients?


While improving individual human organs may be part of the solution, some academics are looking further, trying to imagine what a more "sustainable" human being might look like. In a paper published two years ago in the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment, NYU philosophy professor S. Matthew Liao argues "human engineering is potentially less risky than geoengineering and could help behavioral and market solutions succeed in mitigating climate change". Liao suggests numerous biomedical modifications that could make humans better at mitigating climate change. For one, engineered meat intolerance. Livestock farming accounts for up to 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to recent estimates. Even a small (< 25%) reduction in global red meat consumption would lead to roughly the same emissions offset as complete localization of all food production. Mild meat intolerance may be inducible using "meat patches" that stimulate an immune reaction to bovine proteins. Another possibility is engineering smaller humans so as to reduce our per-capita energy requirements. This could be achieved either through preimplantation genetic screening for smaller children or hormonal treatments to reduce somatotropin, the primary growth-regulating hormone in the human body. Liao even proposes "cognitive enhancements"- increased intelligence, altruism and empathy- which could lead to reduced birthrates and stronger environmental tendencies.

As an environmentalist, many of my favorite science fiction stories focus on how humans may cope with looming ecological disasters, from climate change to global pandemics to growing resource scarcity. One of the things I love about science fiction is that it provides a forum for ideas that are too "radical" to be discussed seriously among conservative academies or slow-acting bureaucracies. It is so often through stories, rather than pure scientific advancement, that ideas like human engineering seep into popular culture, allowing us to envision new possibilities for the future. And, like many ideas that were once pure speculation, human engineering is rapidly advancing into the realm of possibility. We should start considering what those possibilities are.


Madeleine Stone is author of this blog and The Lonely Spore. Follow her on Twitter.

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