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Will Increased Lifespans Cause Overpopulation? – Article by Elena Milova and Steve Hill

Will Increased Lifespans Cause Overpopulation? – Article by Elena Milova and Steve Hill

Elena Milova
Steve Hill

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Transhumanist Party features this article by our guests Elena Milova and Steve Hill, originally published by the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF) on October 30, 2016. In this article, both authors provide evidence that if aging was cured, then overpopulation would not be an issue. Not only is there a common trend among industrialized nations, in which, when the citizens become healthier, wealthier, and educated, they have fewer children, but there are also projections showing that global population growth is gradually falling and will come to a halt around the time the world’s population reaches 11 billion people.
***
~ Bobby Ridge, Assistant Editor, July 3, 2019

Any discussion of rejuvenation biotechnology almost certainly includes the subject of overpopulation and the objection that medical advances that directly address the various processes of aging will lead to an overpopulated world. Such dire predictions are a common theme in many discussions involving advances in medicine that could increase human lifespans.

Overpopulation is a word that gives the simple fact of population growth a negative connotation. It implies that an increase in the number of people will harm our lives in different ways, such as famine, scarcity of resources, excessive population density, increased risks of infectious diseases, and harm to the environment.

This concern, first raised by the work of 18th century reverend and scholar Thomas Malthus, has been a constant theme in both popular fiction and early foresights related to population growth. However, is it actually well-founded? We will be taking a deeper look at the historical and present population data and showing why overpopulation is unlikely to happen.

To get you started, this video with Bill Gates summarizes some of the key points about population and why a longer-lived and healthy society is good for keeping population growth in check.

What is the population, and how will it grow in the future?

Since the 1960s, both birth rate and population growth have been gradually falling. This will probably lead to a complete halt at 11 billion people near the year 2100. Here is a chart from the United Nations Population Prospects 2015 edition showing the corresponding projections [1].

Fig 1. Population of the world: estimates, 1950-2015, medium-variant projection and 80 and 95 percent prediction intervals, 2015-2100.

Here we can see the continuous, red trend line gradually leveling out into a straight horizontal line. However, before talking about why population growth is predicted to stop, let’s investigate why the population is even growing.

In order to ensure population growth, the number of children born per year must surpass the number of deaths in a given country. Typically, a fertility rate index equal to 2.1 is enough for the population to renew without growing in numbers, but a higher birth rate will lead to stable population growth.

In the illustrations below, you can see the global map of fertility and the projection of population growth by major regions [2]

Fig 2. World Population 2010-2100 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Data Booklet. ST/ESA/SER.A/377.

Fig 3. Total fertility 2010-2015 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Data Booklet. ST/ESA/SER.A/377.

The biggest contributors to the present level of population growth globally are India and several African regions, while many countries (especially in Europe) face depopulation because of their low birth rate. In the future, most of the population growth will be due to Africa.

Our intuition may tell us that it is unlikely that the least developed countries would be producing most of the population; after all, the standards of living in developed countries make for better conditions to have more children.

However, in reality, there are many factors that can lead to a decline in birth rate during the transition to a developed country: education (access to education for women typically postpones marriage and childbirth), unemployment (families try to control their family size to use fewer resources), and access to contraceptive techniques and cultural norms of using them, to name just a few [3].

Economic development is known to affect the time of birth; for example, recession encourages childbirth later in life [4]. National policies to combine work and family life also represent an important factor that may affect fertility rate in both directions. Globalization will “deepen” (in a world-systems theory sense) the less technologically advanced countries, making it very likely that the “higher birth rate” issue in these countries will also decline.

There is supporting evidence showing that moving to an advanced, industrialized economy changes the birth rate of immigrants. The fertility rates of immigrants to the US have been found to decrease sharply in the second generation [5]. Other studies demonstrate that the presence of immigrants does not compensate for declining birth rates [6].

Fig 4. Declining birth rate leads to gradual slow down of the population growth. The chart shows a UN projection in population size change in percent until 2100 for major regions[7].

The relationship between the level of the development of a country and fertility can be seen in the next chart. It is worth noting that when the Human Development Index (HDI) becomes higher than 0.85, country development starts promoting the birth rate again [8]. However, this kind of situation is very rare, historically, and therefore not significant enough to shape global population projections.

Fig 5.  Fertility vs HDI Index. Data source: United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), UN – Population Division (Fertility), 2015 Revision, Gapminder. Source: OurWorldInData.org/fertility/.

Thus, the least developed countries are more likely to have higher birth rates because people there have no reason to postpone childbirth, nor are measures for contraception widely accessible. The only factor holding back population growth in these regions may be the high level of child mortality and overall mortality due to infectious diseases and undernourishment.

With sustainable development goals focused on the solution of both problems, Africa has the potential to become the biggest human factory in our history. However, taking into account how fast fertility rates can fall because of the adoption of new technologies, this is far from certain.

Fig 6.  How long did it take for fertility to fall from more than 6 children per woman to fewer than 3 children per woman?  Data source: The data on the total fertility rate is taken from the Gapminder fertility dataset (version 6)  and the World Bank World Development Indicators. Source: OurWorldInData.org.

But won’t we run out of space?

In all projected future scenarios for Africa, its population will continue to grow. Today, there are 7.4 billion people on Earth. We are used to thinking that this is already too much, but is that true? First of all, let’s see how much space on Earth we humans actually take up. In 2012, the team of the project “Per Square Mile” led by Tim de Chant produced an infographic showing how big a city would have to be to house the world’s 7 billion people.

The city limits change drastically depending on which real city is used as the model and what its population density is, but this still gives us an idea of how much of our beautiful planet is really inhabited and how much spare space we still have.

If the projection of population growth by the United Nations is correct, in the next 84 years, there will be about 11 billion people. This means that if all of humanity were concentrated in a land area with a population density similar to New York, it would at most occupy the size of 3 US states by 2100.

2012                                                         2100

Fig 7.  7 bln city with population density of New York/11 bln city with the same population density. From the “Per Square Mile” project by Tim de Chant. Note: the picture at right is modified by the article authors to illustrate the potential growth. The state of Texas is about 700,000 square kilometers, which corresponds to about 7 billion people. The states of Texas, New Mexico (about 315,000 km^2), and Louisiana (about 135,000 km^2) combined represent 1,150,000 square kilometers, which corresponds to about 11.5 billion people by 2100.

Does this mean that population growth is not an issue? From the point of view of the space we humans need, likely so. However, our species’ survival is dependent on many other factors, such as the environment necessary to produce our food and other goods.

Are we going to run out of food?

We should admit that it is about fifty years too late to be concerned about extensive population growth and its consequences, such as famine, because the highest birth rate and population growth was observed from the 1960s to the 1980s. Our population grew by one billion people in just 14 years (going from 3 to 4 billion); however, no big societal or economic challenges were encountered.

Moreover, the next two billion increases in population appeared in 13 and 12 years, respectively [9], but once again, no famine caused by the deficiency of global food production followed [10]. The famines of the second half of the 20th century were provoked by how the food was distributed. Factors such as administrative incompetence of local governments, wars and natural disasters happening several years in a row played the greatest role in creating famine during this period.

Today, global society is taking measures to eradicate hunger worldwide by 2030. This is very likely to be the case, as the number of people suffering from hunger is decreasing fast. In 2012, it was one in eight, while in 2015, it was already one in nine, which corresponds to 795 million people. Below, you can see the Hunger Map by the World Food Program illustrating the progress.

Fig 8. FAO, IFAD and WFP. 2015. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015. Meeting the 2015 international hunger targets: taking stock of uneven progress. Rome, FAO. Sources: www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/ Undernourishment data: FAO Statistics Division (ESS) – www.fao.org/economic/ess

If we compare the food supply in 1965 and in 2007, we can clearly see that overeating is more of a global issue than undernourishment, as in most countries, the calorie intake has grown significantly. This could not have happened if our society was suffering from food underproduction, as the food would not be available to overeat, and problems such as obesity would not be so prevalent.

Fig 9.  Food supply 1965 vs 2007 Source: Gapminder statistics (www.gapminder.org/)

Astoundingly, this means that a population explosion has passed relatively unnoticed – all thanks to the “Green Revolution” (rapid development of new agriculture techniques, such as fertilizers, irrigation and selection). The concern that there will be a food shortage in the future neglects further technological advances such as aquaponics, hydroponics, aeroponics, vertical farming, 3D-printed housing, algae farms, and many other technologies that could provide enough food for all.

The need for more food production represents an excellent opportunity for entrepreneurs, so it is unlikely that the development process of new technologies would suddenly stop, especially taking into account the objective need for rapid changes due to environmental issues.

According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Livestock’s long shadow”, in 2006, livestock represented the biggest of all anthropogenic (i.e., due to human activity and with potentially harmful side effects) land uses, taking up to 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet [11].

Scientists admit that while it is still possible to expand agricultural land in some countries in accordance with the increasing need for food, this expansion cannot go beyond the limits of the carrying capacity of our planet. The report states that livestock is responsible for about 18% of the global warming effect, 9% of total carbon dioxide emissions, 37% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide. Water use for livestock represents about 8% of all human water use (7% of this being used for feed irrigation).

New technologies can provide solutions for the numerous environmental issues related to traditional farming. For instance, hydroponics offers around 11 times higher yields while requiring 10 times less water than conventional agriculture [12]. The energy needs of a hydroponic facility are much higher (up to 80 times more), but thanks to emerging clean renewable energy technologies, this increased demand may not be an issue [13].

Today, there are many companies engaged in the creation of lab-grown meat, such as Supermeat and Memphis Meats. Making a laboratory into a farm is beneficial in many ways, starting from less pollution and fewer greenhouse gas emissions (mostly caused by animal digestion processes).

Sterile conditions in the lab lead to decreased risk of infections and allow the exclusion of antibiotics from the process of meat production. Lab-grown meat can be designed to contain less fat or even fats and proteins with new characteristics (for instance, essential Omega fatty acids).

With less space necessary for laboratory meat production and no waste, it will be possible to ensure disseminated local production in order to cut transportation time and reduce the usage of preservatives. The same system can be used to grow fish meat as well, thus reducing the impact of fishing and fish-farming on the environment. It is interesting to note that not only meat but also other animal-derived products, such as leather, can be produced in a lab, like is done by Modern Meadow.

There are attempts to create new edible products that taste like meat but are completely without animal ingredients, such as Impossible Foods. The recently created vegan ‘Bloody Burger’ by Impossible Foods “uses 95% less land, 74% less water and emits 87% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than its cattle-derived counterpart”. By concentrating on the heme molecule, the mixture apparently “looks like meat, tastes like meat and sizzles like meat“.

These solutions are also great from an ethical point of view, as this technology can reduce animal suffering. The rate of transition to these new ways of animal product creation is widely dependent on political will and social support. It is important to note that there is also significant progress regarding access to drinking water. During the Millennium Development Goals period (1990-2015), it is estimated that, globally, use of improved drinking water sources rose from 76 per cent to 91 per cent. 2.6 billion people have gained access to an improved drinking water source since 1990.

The MDG target of 88 per cent was surpassed in 2010, and in 2015, 6.6 billion people used an improved drinking water source. There are now only three countries (all located in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania) with less than 50 per cent coverage, compared with 23 in 1990 [14]. New technologies for cheap water desalination and water collection from the air are also helping to improve the situation.

If population growth is not exactly an issue, then what is?

What we really should be concerned about is the age structure of the population. Regardless of the level of technological development, its core are the people of working age who are producing goods, paying taxes, and supporting the non-working groups, such as children and the elderly – the latter needing the most resources because of the state of their health.

Due to population aging, the share of working-age people is shrinking while the share of people who are at least 60 years old is growing. Population structure change is the most evident in Europe and Northern America, while the “Global South” has not experienced it yet – but will experience it in the next few decades.

Fig 10. Percentage of population in broad age groups by major area in 2015. Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Data Booklet. ST/ESA/SER.A/377

Soon, one third of the population worldwide is going to be aged sixty or over, which means more social protection and healthcare expenditures and more working age people involved in nursing the elderly. However, it would be wrong and unjust to see the elderly as a burden, while these people have contributed so much to the incredible progress that our society has made.

They have all the same human rights as everyone, including the right to life and right to health. As age-related health deterioration is the main reason why society has to provide so much support to the elderly, it would be only logical to see the development of rejuvenation biotechnologies as the way to improve the situation.

What would life be like if we introduced rejuvenation technologies globally?

Before the era of universal medicine, people who managed to reach their sixties were still in relatively good health. However, once the onset of age-related diseases began, they died very quickly.

Modern medicine has changed that by slowing down the development of age-related diseases, hence extending the period of productivity. The downside is that this has also extended the period of illness, because treatments to prevent age-related diseases are not yet introduced into universal clinical practice.

In the near future, new interventions to slow down the aging process will become accessible, and then a shift will occur: the period of youth and adulthood will be extended due to better health, and the period of illness will be significantly postponed. In their sixties, people will remain as strong and vital as 40-year-old people are today. Some leading scientists predict that this may also lead to maximum lifespan increases of up to 150 years or more.

This is, of course, hard to prove, because as with many other things in human history, it is a unique situation that has never happened before, but some studies have proposed how aging would look given these three scenarios [15].

Fig 11. A:Pre Universal Medicine, B: Current medicine, C: Slowing aging. Source: Blagosklonny, M. V. (2012). How to save Medicare: the anti-aging remedy. Aging (Albany NY), 4(8), 547-52.

Whilst it is too early to be overly optimistic, we still should mention that apart from these three scenarios, there is a fourth possibility called negligible senescence. Negligible senescence in nature happens when a species does not display signs of aging, regardless of the passage of time. A number of species exhibit negligible senescence, including the rougheye rockfish (Sebastes aleutianus).

The ocean quahog (Arctica islandica) and some kinds of turtles are also negligibly senescent, but they still die because the expansion of their shell ultimately limits their movement. More examples can be found here at the excellent HAGR (Human Ageing Genomic Resources) database.

At some point in time, medical technologies may become so sophisticated that they will be able to bring all of the processes of aging under medical control. If that is the case, then aging will always remain at a subclinical stage, because the repairs to our bodies will keep up the pace with damage accumulation, allowing people to look and feel young for an indefinite period of time.

Most likely, it will take decades for medical science to progress this far, but we should also admit that some of the technologies necessary for this transition already exist, e.g., stem cell therapies, early nanorobots, CRISPR and gene therapies, immunotherapies, senolytics, and geroprotectors (drugs that slow down the aging process).

How will increased lifespan affect population growth?

The possibility of significant life extension using medical interventions was not even considered by the academic community until recent years, so there were not many projections of how increased lifespans and negligible senescence would affect population growth. However, a few years ago, such a projection was done for Sweden.

One of the more realistic scenarios is one where only a small share of the population accepts negligible senescence technologies at the beginning (this could be due to a slow dissemination process, ethical or religious objections that people have to overcome, or a high cost of the new technology) with a gradual increase (1% added to the negligibly senescent group each year). It is assumed that some small share of the population will never accept these technologies and will age in the traditional way.

In this case, population change in Sweden will not lead to population growth but can, to some extent, mitigate the process of depopulation over 100 years of medical innovations [16].

Fig 12. Population projection for a scenario of growing acceptance of antiaging interventions. Projection of the Swedish population until year 2105, assuming the negligible senescence scenario for initially small proportion of population (10%), with growing acceptance rate over time. Life extension interventions start at age 60 years, with 30-year time delay from now.

This might be the likely scenario in most developed countries. Taking into account that new technologies tend to be expensive even for developed countries’ middle classes, the developing countries most possibly will reach the same level of implementation later in time, when their fertility rate will be already affected by the index of development. In this case, the fall of their population growth will be smaller due to decreased population mortality.

In a more optimistic scenario, where all the population has access to negligible senescence technologies and they are applied to everyone who is at least 60 years old, population growth in 70 years will be around 22%. The earlier the application, the bigger the population growth. If negligible senescence technologies are applied at the age of 40, then the estimated population growth will be nearly 47% in 70 years.

Fig 13. Projection of the Swedish population until the year 2105, assuming the negligible senescence scenario. Life extension interventions start at age 60 years, with a 30-year time delay from now.

There are three main conclusions we can make based on this data.

  1. The growing share of people using negligible senescence technologies could help optimize the balance between workforce and retirees, hence maintaining economic development. People who are at least 65 years old will be about one-third of the global population in 2100, so we are talking about 3-4 billion old people who could be healthy and productive or ill and frail, depending on which strategy that global society implements.
  2. Negligible senescence is a synonym of good health, which means that the burden of age-related diseases and their social consequences will be mostly eliminated.
  3. Population growth, surprisingly, will not be as dramatic as is often imagined, leaving a significant period of time for adaptation, adequate measures of population growth control, and new territories’ development.

Is mitigating aging not only a need but also a legal obligation?

Even if negligible senescence remains a long-term goal, the emerging technologies to address the various aging processes [17] represent a unique opportunity to maintain older people in good health, allowing them to enjoy healthier lives, remain active, learn new skills, and contribute to the development of society. We owe them our present well-being. Not only have these people contributed a lot to create the things we have now, including better nutrition, healthcare, and a comfortable and safe habitat, they have also worked hard to change traditions and wisdom and helped to carry the concept of equal human rights forwards. This is why it is especially poignant to understand that geroprotective technologies and their potential are being underestimated and that they are not receiving the level of social approval and support that they rightly deserve.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Constitution, the objective of the WHO is “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health”. It is worth noting that WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” [18]. While this definition may seem quite spacious, it was made this way purposefully to ensure that member states’ activities in improving the health of their people would never stop.

Conclusion

The need for constant improvement of health is now a universal consensus.

Aging represents the root cause of severe diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, stroke, Parkinson’s, heart disease, COPD, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and atherosclerosis, leading to disability of the elderly and to a wide range of negative social consequences, which makes it the perfect target for the global healthcare system [19].

These diseases can only be cured if the actual aging processes are directly addressed and halted while the damage is repaired or reversed by medical interventions. Therefore, according to WHO and United Nations policy, this means that global society has an obligation to eventually cancel aging in order to achieve the highest possible level of health for all people.

Literature

  1. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Volume II: Demographic Profiles (ST/ESA/SER.A/380).
  2. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Data Booklet. ST/ESA/SER.A/377.
  3. Mather, M. (2012). Fact sheet: The decline in US fertility. Population Reference Bureau, World Population Data Sheet.
  4. Lanzieri, G. (2013). Towards a ‘baby recession’ in Europe?. Europe (in million), 16(16.655), 16-539.
  5. Nargund, G. (2009). Declining birth rate in Developed Countries: A radical policy re-think is required. FV & V in ObGyn, 1, 191-3.
  6. Camarota, S., & Ziegler, K. (2015). The Declining Fertility of Immigrants and Natives. Center for Immigration Studies.
  7. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. ESA/P/WP.241.
  8. Myrskylä, M., Kohler, H. P., & Billari, F. C. (2009). Advances in development reverse fertility declines. Nature, 460(7256), 741-743.
  9. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (1999). The World At Six Billion. ESA/P/WP.154.
  10. Gráda, C. Ó. (2007). Making famine history. Journal of Economic Literature, 45(1), 5-38.
  11. FAO, U., & Steinfeld, H. (2006). Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options. Rome:[sn].
  12. Barbosa, G. L., Gadelha, F. D. A., Kublik, N., Proctor, A., Reichhelm, L., Weissinger, E., … & Halden, R. U. (2015). Comparison of land, water, and energy requirements of lettuce grown using hydroponic vs. conventional agricultural methods. International journal of environmental research and public health, 12(6), 6879-6891.
  13. REN21. 2016. Renewables 2016 Global Status Report (Paris: REN21 Secretariat).
  14. Unicef. (2015). Progress on Sanitation and Drinking-Water: 2015 Update and MDG Assessment. World Health Organization: Geneva, Switzerland.
  15. Blagosklonny, M. V. (2012). How to save Medicare: the anti-aging remedy. Aging (Albany NY), 4(8), 547-52.
  16. Gavrilov, L. A., & Gavrilova, N. S. (2010). Demographic consequences of defeating aging. Rejuvenation research, 13(2-3), 329-334.
  17. López-Otín, Carlos et al.(2013). Hallmarks of Aging. Cell , Volume 153 , Issue 6 , 1194 – 1217
  18. World Health Organization. (2014). Basic documents. World Health Organization.
  19. Kennedy, B. K., Berger, S. L., Brunet, A., Campisi, J., Cuervo, A. M., Epel, E. S., … & Rando, T. A. (2014). Aging: a common driver of chronic diseases and a target for novel interventions. Cell, 159(4), 709.
Elena Milova: As a devoted advocate of rejuvenation technologies since 2013, Elena is providing the community with a systemic vision how aging is affecting our society. Her research interests include global and local policies on aging, demographic changes, public perception of the application of rejuvenation technologies to prevent age-related diseases and extend life, and related public concerns. Elena is a co-author of the book Aging prevention for all (in Russian, 2015) and the organizer of multiple educational events helping the general public adopt the idea of eventually bringing aging under medical control.
***
Steve Hill: Steve serves on the LEAF Board of Directors and is the Editor-in-Chief, coordinating the daily news articles and social media content of the organization. He is an active journalist in the aging research and biotechnology field and has to date written over 500 articles on the topic as well as attending various medical industry conferences. In 2019 he was listed in the top 100 journalists covering biomedicine and longevity research in the industry report – Top-100 Journalists covering advanced biomedicine and longevity created by the Aging Analytics Agency. His work has been featured in H+ Magazine, Psychology Today, Singularity Weblog, Standpoint Magazine, Keep Me Prime, and New Economy Magazine. Steve has a background in project management and administration which has helped him to build a united team for effective fundraising and content creation, while his additional knowledge of biology and statistical data analysis allows him to carefully assess and coordinate the scientific groups involved in the project. In 2015 he led the Major Mouse Testing Program (MMTP) for the International Longevity Alliance and in 2016 helped the team of the SENS Research Foundation to reach their goal for the OncoSENS campaign for cancer research.

In Support of “Unfit for the Future”: When the Vessel is Unfit for the Task – Article by Sarah Lim

In Support of “Unfit for the Future”: When the Vessel is Unfit for the Task – Article by Sarah Lim

Sarah Lim


This essay has been submitted for publication to the Journal of Posthuman Studies.

This essay is written in support of the ideas presented by Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson in their book Unfit for the Future: the Need for Moral Enhancement. I will argue that Savulescu and Persson’s arguments for moral bioenhancement should be given more serious consideration, on the grounds that moral bioenhancement will most likely be humanity’s best chance at ensuring its future ethical progress, since our current achievements in rapid ethical progress have been highly contingent on economic progress and an increasing quality of life. As a vehicle for for ethical progress, this is becoming increasingly untenable as the world enters a new period of resource scarcity brought about by the ravages of climate change. This essay will also respond to some of the claims against human genetic enhancement, and transhumanism in general, made by critic John Gray. Finally, the concluding remarks of this essay will examine a possible long-term drawback to moral bioenhancement which has not net been raised by Savulescu’s critics thus far – namely, that genetically altering future human beings to be less aggressive could unintentionally result in them becoming complacent to a point of lacking self-preservation.

Maslow and Malthus

Ethical philosophers in Steven Pinker’s camp may argue that the consideration of moral bioenhancement is absurd because moral education has apparently been sufficient enough to bring forth radical moral progress in terms of civil liberties in the 20th and 21st centuries. The 20th century heralded in never-before-seen progress in terms of the civil rights granted to women, ethnic minorities, LGBT+ people, and the working class. As Pinker points out, crime rates plummeted over the past 150 years, and so has the total number of wars being fought throughout the world. Savulescu admits that this is a valid point.

However, Savulescu’s main point of contention is that while the overall rates of violent crime have been drastically reduced, rapid advancements in technology have enabled rouge individuals to inflict more mass damage than at any other point in human history. While overall rates of interpersonal violence and warfare are decreasing, advancements in technology have exponentially increased the ability of individual actors to inflict harm on others to a greater extent than at any other point in human history. It takes just one lone Unabomber-type anarchist to genetically engineer a strain of smallpox virus in a backyard laboratory, to start a pandemic killing millions of innocent people, argues Savulescu. A statistic he constantly cites is that 1% of the overall human population are psychopaths. This means that there are approximately 77 million psychopaths alive today.

I would like to raise a further point in support of Savulescu’s argument. I would argue that the exceptional progress in ethics and civil rights that the developed world has witnessed in the last century has been the result of unprecedented levels of economic growth and vast improvements in the average quality of life. The life spans, health spans, and accessibility of food, medicine, and consumer goods seen in developed economies today would have been an unbelievable utopian dream as little as 250 years ago. One of X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis’s favorite quips is that our standard of living has increased so exponentially that the average lower-income American has a far higher quality of life than the wealthiest of robber barons did in the 19th century.

As Pinker himself points out, the first moral philosophies of the Axial Age arose when our ancestors finally became agriculturally productive enough to no longer worry about basic survival. Once they had roofs over their heads and sufficient grain stores, they could begin to wax lyrical about philosophy, the meaning of life, and the place of the individual in wider society. Arguably, the same correlation was strongly demonstrated in the post-World War II era in the developed economies of the world. Once the population’s basic needs are not just met, but they are also provided with access to higher education and a burgeoning variety of consumer goods, they’re much less likely to be in conflict with “out” groups over scarce resources. Similarly, incredible advancements in maternal healthcare and birth control played a major role in the socio-economic emancipation of women.

Our ethical progress being highly contingent on economic progress and quality of life should concern us for one major reason – climate change and the resource scarcity that follows it. The UN estimates that the world’s population will hit 9.8 billion by 2050. At the same time, food insecurity and water scarcity are going to become increasingly common. According to UNICEF, 1.3 million people in Madagascar are now at risk of malnutrition, due to food shortages caused by cyclones and droughts. There could as many as 25 million more children worldwide suffering from climate-change-caused malnutrition by the middle of this century. This is on top of the 149 million malnourished children below 5 years old, who are already suffering from stunted growth, as of 2019.

This is the worst-case scenario that climate-change doomsdayers and authors of fiction revolving around dystopian civilizational collapse keep on warning us of. There is a legitimate fear that a rapid dwindling of access to food, medical care, and clean water could lead currently progressive developed economies to descend back into pre-Enlightenment levels of barbarism. Looting and black markets for necessities could flourish, while riots break out over access to food and medical supplies. Ostensibly, worsening scarcity could encourage the proliferation of human trafficking, especially of females from desperate families. The idea is often dismissed as wildly speculative alarmist screed by a considerable number of middle-income city dwellers living in developed nations. Food shortages caused by climate change have mostly affected the sub-Saharan Africa and India, where they’re far out of sight and out of mind to most people in developed economies.

However, the World Bank estimates that 140 million people could become refugees by 2050, as a result of climate change. These populations will predominantly be from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, but it is likely that a significant percentage of them will seek asylum in Europe and America. And developed Western economies will only be spared from the worst effects of climate change for so long. North Carolina has already been afflicted by severe flooding caused by Hurricane Florence in 2018, just as it was  affected by Hurricane Matthew which had struck two years earlier. Climate journalist David Wallace-Wells has gone so far as to claim that a four degree increase in global temperature by 2100 could result in resource scarcity so severe, that it will effectively double the number of wars we see in the world today.

Savulescu argues that the fact that we’ve already let climate change and global income inequality get this bad is itself proof that we’re naturally hardwired towards selfishness and short-term goals.

A Response to John Gray

As one of the most well-known critics of transhumanism, John Gray has said that it is naive to dream that humanity’s future will somehow be dramatically safer, more humane, and more rational than its past. Gray claims that humanity’s pursuit of moral progress will ultimately never see true fruition, because our proclivities towards irrationality and self-preservation will inevitably override our utopian goals in the long run. Gray cites the example of torture, which was formally banned in various treaties across Europe during the 20th century. However, this hasn’t stopped the US from torturing prisoners of war with all sorts of brutal methods, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gray claims that this is proof that moral progress can be rolled back just as easily as it is made. Justin E. H. Smith makes similar arguments about the inherent, biologically-influenced cognitive limits of human rational thinking, although he does not explicitly criticise transhumanism itself. And Savulescu agrees with him. Throughout their argument, both Savulescu and Persson hammer home the assertion that humans have a much greater predilection towards violence than altruism.

But here Gray is making a major assumption – that future generations of human beings will continue to have the same genetically-predisposed psychology and cognitive capabilities as we currently do. Over millennia, we have been trying to adapt humanity to a task that evolution did not predispose us towards. We’ve effectively been trying to carry water from a well using a colander. We might try to stop the water from leaking out from the colander as best we can by cupping its sides and bottom with our bare palms, but Savulescu is proposing a radically different solution; that we should re-model the colander into a proper soup bowl.

It seems that Gray is overlooking some of his own circular reasoning which he uses to perpetuate his arguments against transhumanist principles and genetic enhancement. He argues that humanity will never truly be able to overcome our worst proclivities towards violence and selfishness. However, he simultaneously argues that endeavoring to enhance our cognitive capabilities and dispositions towards rationality and altruism are a lost cause that will be ultimately futile. Following Gray’s line of reasoning will effectively keep humanity stuck in a catch-22 situation where we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Gray is telling us that we need to resign ourselves to never being able to have a proper water-holding vessel while simultaneously discouraging us from considering the possibility of going to a workshop to weld the holes in our colander shut.

Windows of Opportunity

There is one final reason for which I will argue for greater urgency in considering Savulescu’s proposal seriously. Namely, we are currently have a very rare window of opportunity to execute it practically. If Gray is right about the likelihood that moral progress can be rolled back more easily than it is made, then he should acknowledge that we need to take full advantage of the current moral progress in developed economies, while we still have the chance to. Rapid advancements in CRISPR technologies and gene-editing are increasing the practical viability of moral bioenhancement without the consumption of neurotransmitters. Savulescu argues that we need to strike while the iron is hot; while the world economy is still relatively healthy and while STEM fields are still receiving billions in funding for research and development.

If nothing else, a rather intellectually sparse appeal to novelty can be made in defence of Savulescu’s proposal. Given that climate change could be the greatest existential risk humanity has ever faced in its whole history to date, we should begin considering more radical options to deal with its worst ravages. The limited faculties of rationality and altruism which nature has saddled us with have brought us millennia of warfare, genocide, radical inequality in resource distribution, and sexual violence. We keep on saying “never again” after every single cataclysmic man-made tragedy, but “again” still keeps on happening. Now is as good a time as ever to consider the possibility that humanity’s cognitive faculties are themselves fundamentally flawed, and inadequate to cope with the seemingly insurmountable challenges that lie ahead of us.

A Possible Future Negative Consequence of Moral Bioenhancement to be Considered

Multiple objections to Savulescu’s proposal have been raised by authors such as Alexander Thomas and Rebecca Bennett. I would like to raise another possible objection to moral bioenhancement, although I myself am a proponent of it. A possible unforeseen consequence of radically genetically reprogramming homo sapiens to be significantly less selfish and prone to aggression could be that this will simultaneously destroy our drive for self-improvement. One could argue that the only reason human beings have made it far enough to become the most technologically advanced and powerful species in our solar system was precisely because our drive for self-preservation and insatiable desire for an ever-increasing quality of life. You could claim that if we had just remained content to be hunter-gatherers, we would never have gotten to the level of civilization we’re at now. It’s more likely that we would have gone extinct on the savannah like our other hominid cousins, who were not homo sapiens.

Our inability to be satisfied with the naturally-determined status quo is the very reason the transhumanist movement itself exists. What happens, then, if we genetically re-dispose homo sapiens to become more selfless and less aggressive? Could this policy ironically backfire and create future generations of human beings who become complacent about technological progress and self-improvement? Furthermore, what happens if these future generations of morally bioenhanced human beings face new existential threats which require them to act urgently? What happens if they face an asteroid collision or a potential extraterrestrial invasion (although the latter seems to be far less likely)? We don’t want to end up genetically engineering future generations of human beings who are so devoid of self-preservation that they accept extinction as an outcome they should just peacefully resign themselves to. And if human beings become a space-faring species and end up making contact with a highly-advanced imperialist alien species bent on galaxy-wide colonization, our future generations will have to take up arms in self-defence.

This raises the question of whether it might be possible to simultaneously increase the human propensity towards altruism and non-violence towards other human beings, while still preserving the human predisposition towards ensuring our overall survival and well-being. If such a radical re-programming of humanity’s cognitive disposition is possible, it’s going to be a very delicate balancing act. This major shortcoming is one that proponents of moral bioenhancement have not yet formulated a plausible safety net for. Techno-utopian advocates claim that we could one day create a powerful artificial intelligence programme that will indefinitely protect humanity against unforeseen attacks from extraterrestrials or possible natural catastrophes. More serious discussion needs to be devoted to finding possible ways to make moral bioenhancement as realistically viable as possible.

Conclusion

The arguments put forth by Savulescu in Unfit for the Future should be reviewed with greater urgency and thoughtful consideration, and this essay has argued in favour of this appeal. We cannot take the great strides in civil rights made in the last 100 years, which have been heavily dependent on economic development and the growth of the capitalist world economy, for granted. As resource scarcity brought about by climate change looms on the near horizon, the very system which the 20th and 21st centuries’ great ethical progress has been contingent upon threatens to crumble. Gray is right in arguing that the human animal is fundamentally flawed and that repeated historical attempts at better models of moral systems have failed to truly reform humanity. And this is where Savulescu proposes a controversial answer to Gray’s resignation to humanity’s impending self-destruction. We must consider reforming the human animal itself. As the field of gene-editing and the development of impulse-controlling neurotransmitter drugs continue to show great promise, world governments and private institutions should begin to view these as viable options to creating a less short-sighted, less-aggressive, and more rational version of homo sapiens 2.0. There are only so many more global-scale man-made catastrophes that mankind can further inflict upon itself and the planet, before this radical proposal is finally undertaken as a last resort.

Sarah Lim is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.