The Anti-Meat Pill: Human Engineering to Combat Climate Change

A forthcoming paper explores the biomedical modification of humans in order to stop us from consuming red meat. This would have a mitigating effect on climate change. 

NYU Bio-ethicist Matthew Liao has caused a stir recently with a forthcoming paper that explores the biomedical modification of humans in order to stop us from consuming red meat.


Liao is no stranger to controversy. He is known to Big Think readers for his dangerous idea that people should be allowed to take memory-erasing "eternal sunshine" pills to cope with traumatizing events.

In a forthcoming paper to be published in Ethics, Policy and the Environment, Liao suggests that humans might take pills to bring about mild nausea to rid ourselves of our appetite for red meat. This would have a mitigating effect on climate change, he argues. 

Liao refers to studies such as a widely-sited UN report that estimates 18 percent of greenhouse emissions come from livestock, which is a higher share than transportation. Another report, from 2009, estimates livestock emissions are significantly higher, at 50 percent. Fact of life: cows fart. Other negative impacts of increased livestock farming includes deforestation and a drain on water supplies. 

As the world population increases, the problem of greenhouse emissions from livestock will only grow worse. Or will it?

What if meat consumption is reduced? Liao argues that even a minor reduction would have a major impact, and the way to accomplish this is human engineering. Think about it. While social and cultural incentives have failed to produce the necessary outcomes in human behavior, what if we controlled our appetite for meat by triggering nauseous reactions? Or if that doesn't sit well with you, how about introducing a "mild intolerance" to condition the immune system to reject 'eco-unfriendly' food? 

And yet, "phamacological meat intolerance" is only one solution among many that Liao offers.

Engineer Humans to Be Smaller

What is your ecological footprint? It depends how big you are. Liao points out the simple fact that we all need a certain amount of food and minerals to maintain our body mass. Therefore, Liao argues that even a small reduction in the average height of humans could have a significant effect on what we consume. How do we achieve this? Liao suggests using "preimplantation genetic diagnosis" (PGD) to select shorter children. This does not involve any genetic intervention. It's simply a matter of selecting the right embryos to implant. In addition to selecting short children, Liao suggests using drugs or nutrients to reduce birth weight as well. 

Lower Birth-Rates Through Cognitive Enhancements

If you consider that each child you have will be responsible for 160 times more greenhouse gas emissions, you might also want to consider, as some researchers have suggested, that no family should have more than two children. 

Pharmacological Enhancement of Altruism and Empathy

Big Think blogger David Ropeik recently alerted me to a surprising study that found young people today don't care much about the environment and are doing even less about it. How can we change that? One possibility is to drug them with the prosocial hormone oxytocin. Liao points out that is one of a number of human engineering solutions to increasing empathy. 

Why Human Engineering?

Liao contrast human engineering with geoengineering, which involves "large-scale manipulations of the environment including reforestation, using space-based mirrors to alter planetary albedo, and fertilizing the ocean with iron to enhance carbon sinks." Modifying humans, as opposed to the environment, is considerably less risky, argues Liao. 

After all, if you've read about so-called "pink slime" and you're as disgusted by it as I am, you've probably started to rethink a lot of your eating habits already. And if a nausea-inducing pill is not your thing, we have provided a literary version of this pill in a separate post, which quotes a passage from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle describing Chicago's turn of the century meatpacking industry. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.