November 10th 2012

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Why Gillard's Asia White Paper will fail

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Coalition must restore the baby bonus

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Folly of the new tax that raises no money

FOOD SECURITY: We need a better water plan

VICTORIA: Victorian sex abuse inquiry is too narrow

CLIMATE CHANGE: It's time to rethink climate change

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Romney draws level with Obama in presidential race

UNITED STATES: Protests at US embassy's 'Gay Pride' promotion

SOCIETY: Steps we can take to strengthen marriage

SCIENCE: Honey, I really do want to shrink the kids

ESPIONAGE: Canada, the CIA and Hollywood: The unlikely success story from the 1979 Iran hostage crisis


CINEMA: The riddle of literary creativity

BOOK REVIEW: Lonely pioneer of trade liberalisation

BOOK REVIEW: Beginning where most other Titanic books end

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Honey, I really do want to shrink the kids

by Bill Muehlenberg

News Weekly, November 10, 2012

A New York University bioethics professor has come up with a bizarre scheme to genetically modify the human race in order to create a new eco-friendly species of pint-sized pygmies, midgets and hobbits, who will consume less and leave a smaller carbon footprint. Bill Muehlenberg reports.

It was C.S. Lewis who once famously warned about those in white coats or white collars offering up Brave New World scenarios. It would not be the obvious thugs or the typical lowlife who would be our greatest threat but well-meaning bureaucrats and “socially aware” elites. This is how he put it in the preface to the 1959 edition of his celebrated book, The Screwtape Letters.

Lewis wrote: “I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin’. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”

Yes, quite so. And, even more worrying, some of the most scary and unethical proposals being made are coming from those who call themselves “ethicists”. Worse still, it is those who teach and write on the ethics of life — the bioethicists — who sometimes offer the most chilling suggestions of how mankind can “advance”.

So often it is in the name of “mankind” and “humanity” that we hear some of the most inhumane and frightening proposals. Consider one such set of recommendations by a certain bioethicist. It makes for disturbing reading, all the more so since he presumably has written all this with a straight face.

I refer to the recent piece, “Hand-made humans may hold the key to saving the world” by Matthew Liao (Sydney Morning Herald, September 30, 2012). He is said to be “director of the bioethics program and an associate professor in the Centre for Bioethics in the Department of Philosophy at New York University”.

So who says having a fancy title means one will possess genuine wisdom? Consider the mind-boggling stuff he has written here. He simply assumes — without providing any evidence — that “climate change” is our most pressing problem, and if we don’t act yesterday, we are all doomed.

He says geoengineering might be one solution, but no, that’s too “risky”. So instead he opts for genetically modifying human beings. That is obviously not too risky. So it is full steam ahead for “human engineering”. Let’s tinker big time with human beings, and save the planet.

So what does his proposed human engineering consist of? Well, for starters, he is proud to tell the world to follow in the footsteps of the 1989 Walt Disney action-comedy film, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. For that is exactly what he wants to do: let’s do a bit of tinkering and tampering and produce “shorter people”.

Yes, he really said that. We need fewer basketball players and more dwarves. Lopping off people’s legs — or part of them, as in the eerie but prophetic 1997 film Gattaca — could be an option. But he prefers instead to mess with our DNA until we have a race of pygmies — all in the interests of saving Gaia.

Dear readers, I am really not making this up. Check out Dr Liao’s own words on the subject.

He says: “One possibility is to use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which is now employed in fertility clinics as a means of screening out embryos with inherited genetic diseases. One might be able to use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to select shorter children. This would not involve modifying or altering the genetic material of embryos in any way. It would simply involve rethinking the criteria for selecting which embryos to implant.

“Also, one might consider hormone treatment either to affect growth hormone levels or to trigger the closing of the growth plate earlier than normal. Hormone treatments are already used for growth reduction in excessively tall children.

“Finally, there is a strong correlation between birth size and adult height. Gene imprinting — where only one parent’s copy of the genes is turned on and the other parent’s copy is turned off — has been found to affect birth size. So drugs or nutrients that either reduce the expression of paternally-imprinted genes or increase the expression of maternally-imprinted genes could potentially regulate birth size.”

It seems this guy has been watching too many Frankenstein films. But he is not finished yet. Here is another proposal of his straight out of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, under the heading, “Pharmacological meat intolerance”.

So what is this all about? Well, we all know — or at least he knows — that cows breaking wind, as they do, are bad news for the environment, so we need to get rid of those nasty old cows.

The problem is, however, that we like to eat meat. So why not let’s bio-engineer humans so that they will not want to eat meat? Brilliant! Readers, you just can’t make up this sort of stuff.

This is what Dr Liao says: “Human engineering could help here. Just as some people have a natural intolerance to milk or crayfish, it is possible artificially to induce mild intolerance to red meat by stimulating the immune system against common bovine proteins. The immune system would then become primed to react to them, and henceforth eating ‘eco-unfriendly’ food would induce unpleasant experiences.”

Hey doc, can you devise one of those babies to help me cut my doughnut cravings? But wait, there’s more!

Being the good eugenicist that he is, he thinks China can come to our aid here. Yes, those communist Chinese with their one-child policy are the way to go.

His euphemism for this is “Lowering birth rates through cognitive enhancement”. And we all know how good China is at such things: forced abortions, forced sterilisations, imprisonment and fines. That’s one way to save Mother Earth.

Now take this sample of Orwellian Newspeak that would make even George Orwell gasp with disbelief. Get a load of this:

“Human engineering could also be liberty-enhancing. In response to climate change, some people have proposed we adopt something akin to China’s one-child policy. For example, a group of doctors in Britain has advocated a two-child maximum. But suppose that the relevant issue is some kind of fixed allocation of greenhouse gas emissions for each family. If so, given fixed allocations of greenhouse gas emissions, human engineering could give families the choice between having one large child, two medium-sized children or three small children. Human engineering seems more liberty-enhancing than a policy that says you can have only one or two children.”

That is one very strange definition of liberty all right. But he is not finished yet. His final proposal involves another lulu of a mouthful (that’s how euphemisms work of course): “Pharmacological induction of altruism and empathy”. This has got to be the creepiest thing he has said so far.

Let’s use drugs to make people more altruistic. Sadly, I think he is still being serious here. He observes: “There might be someone who wants to do the right thing, but owing to a weakness of will, cannot get himself to do the right thing. Having the option to use pharmacological means to increase altruism and empathy may allow this person voluntarily to overcome his weakness of will and enable him to do the right thing.”

And just when I am ready to go back and reread my Huxley and Orwell, he comes out with another zinger: “These examples are intended to illustrate some possible human engineering solutions. Others might include increasing our resistance to heat and tropical diseases, and reducing our need for food and water.”

Eureka, that’s the solution! Let’s create a new species that does not need to eat or drink. And they mustn’t be afflicted with sunstroke or diseases of any kind.

Hey, wait a minute, doc. We already invented that one: it’s called the bowling ball. So forget all this foolishness about “pharmacological meat intolerance” and the like.

Let’s just cull all remaining human beings, and replace them with millions of nifty bowling balls. No more methane-emitting cows, no more pollution, no more risks to the environment. Then we — er, all the bowling balls — can enjoy Mother Earth in her pristine best.

Now why didn’t we think of all this much sooner? Leave it to our bioethicists to come along and save the day with such mind-boggling wisdom and pro-humanity solutions.

Now what was it that C.S. Lewis was saying again? Oh yes! I wonder if Dr Liao has neatly cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks?

Bill Muehlenberg is a commentator on contemporary issues, and lectures on ethics and philosophy. His website CultureWatch is at:

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