Nature Already Bioengineered People To Protect the Climate

The state of the universe.
March 16 2012 6:46 PM

Can Bioengineers Make Human Beings More Sustainable?

Nature already tried that, and look how it turned out.

A dense urban scene.
The cultural shift to sedentary farming, which lead to urbanization would not have been possible without biological change

Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Matthew Liao, Rebecca Roache, and Anders Sandberg are philosophers with a modest proposal on climate change: Let's bioengineer future children for sustainability. We need to reduce carbon emissions, so let’s make people smaller, eat less meat. We need to share sacrifices and work together, so let’s alter our progeny to be more cooperative. It's not exactly Gattaca; it's more like Jonathan Swift meets Craig Venter. As Sandburg later hinted to the Guardian, the new white paper might be seen as academic trolling—lobbing a verbal bomb and waiting for the explosion.

Bioengineer people to protect the climate? As an anthropologist, I had a less dramatic reaction. Been there, done that.

You see, there already was a world where people bioengineered their children to stave off global climate catastrophe. You probably don't know it, but you're one of their offspring.


The last warming trend—the one that created the race of mutants we are today—happened 10,000 years ago, as a result of the Earth’s natural orbit cycles. Our planet rounds the Sun not in a perfect circle but a slightly squashed one. Plus, it spins all wobbly like a top. The combined squashing and wobbling make for a 100,000-year-long carnival ride that plunges the Earth into long Ice Ages interrupted by short windows of warmth.

For most of our existence, humans have reacted to the climate roller coaster by enjoying the good weather while it's around and otherwise hiding in the warm tropics. When the climate warmed by several degrees around 8,000 B.C., it must have seemed at first like a wonderful dream. The glaciers melted. The human population grew and grew. There were more people than ever before, using a broader range of resources and eating a broader range of foods, and they invented beautiful and complex cultures.

That's when these people of the early Holocene did something truly bizarre. They reacted to all this climate change by engineering a new, more sustainable ecology. And they began to foster mutant children who would flourish in an alternate, globally warmed future.

It's in all the history books. Well, the prehistory books, anyway. You've no doubt heard about the birth of agriculture, the dawn of cities, the growth of early civilization. In the years since the Human Genome Project, though, we’ve begun to uncover the massive genetic changes that accompanied these historical events. And many of these natural shifts in the genome correspond to the very modifications that Liao, Sandberg, and Roache would have us insert into our DNA via artificial means.

Consider the philosophers' first suggestion about how we might bioengineer humanity to cut back on greenhouse emissions. Since meat production belches carbon dioxide and methane, they suggest that the future human race should have a built-in genetic aversion to meat.

Well, that's nothing compared to what Holocene people accomplished. In Ice Age Europe, 50,000 or so Neandertals subsisted on a diet that was at least 80 percent meat. Most of that came from large mammals like bison, elk, horse, and mammoth. Modern humans later ate the same foods, helping to drive the mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, aurochs, and many other prey animals to extinction.

But hunting big animals to extinction was not the only option. People in Mesopotamia, China, Mexico, and other places invented a new ecology, depending on more sustainable rabbits, birds, and shellfish. They collected grains so intensively that the grasses began to rely on us to disperse and plant them.