Good Thinking

OBQ: Should we bioengineer animals to live in our damaged world?

OBQ: Should we bioengineer ani...
Should we consider bioengineering animals so they are better suited to surviving in the world we're creating?
Should we consider bioengineering animals so they are better suited to surviving in the world we're creating?
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Should we consider bioengineering animals so they are better suited to surviving in the world we're creating?
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Should we consider bioengineering animals so they are better suited to surviving in the world we're creating?
Dr Amy Fletcher speaking at the SUNZ Summit
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Dr Amy Fletcher speaking at the SUNZ Summit
Dr Amy Fletcher at the SUNZ Summit
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Dr Amy Fletcher at the SUNZ Summit

In October, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its biennial Living Planet Report, detailing the state of the planet and its implications for humans and wildlife. The report warned that two-thirds of global wildlife populations could be gone by 2020 if we don't change our environmentally damaging practices.

At the Singularity University New Zealand (SUNZ) Summit we met up with Dr Amy Fletcher, Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Canterbury, who spoke on the topic of public policy and exponential technology at the Summit. As part of our regular "One Big Question" series we asked her whether we should consider bioengineering animals that could live in the world we're creating, rather than die in the one we're destroying?

That sort of relates to the whole de-extinction debate, and again, I would pay money to see a woolly mammoth. But I do take the point that the world of the woolly mammoth is gone, whether we like it or not, same with the moa – I mean this comes up a lot in criticisms of the bring back the moa project. You've got to have huge swathes of undeveloped space - maybe we still have that, but we don't have as much as we did in the 16th century.

I guess it comes back to not making the perfect the enemy of the good. Working in conservation, extinction issues like I do, I meet a lot of people who are deeply opposed, actively opposed, say to zoos. I think in an imperfect world, I'd rather have animals in a well run and ethical zoo than not have them at all. But I do have colleagues in the animal rights movement who say, if we don't value them enough to let them live in their natural environment, then we should pay the price of having them go. It's sort of that same thing, I mean, if the alternative to living in a world of simply humans, rats, cockroaches and pigeons is bioengineering animals, I would have to say, alright yeah, we're going to have to do that.

Dr Amy Fletcher speaking at the SUNZ Summit
Dr Amy Fletcher speaking at the SUNZ Summit

I'd like us to make sure we've exhausted every possibility, and that's where I think practical policy is important – I grew up in the suburbs, it was great for my aspirational, newly middle class parents, it was the 60s and the 70s, it fit the moment, but boy would I love to see people moving back into the cities. Cities are the best thing that ever happened to the environment in terms of trying to live with modern man, but our cities are so hollowed out now. Certainly in the States, but increasingly around the world, cities have become a place you can only live if you're very poor in public housing, or you're very rich. The middle class is fleeing.

Another kind of aspirational project that's quite controversial but I hope they make some noise, is rewilding. Rewilding in a sense intersects with de-extinction because the rewilding groups, which seem to be very active in Arizona and California, say exactly that – if we would create these unbroken corridors of wilderness again and just leave them alone, it'll regenerate. But we're not going to be able to have that highway cutting through.

So I guess the answer to the question is I'm kind of one of those pragmatists. I would find it regrettable if we end up having to bioengineer animals to survive us, but I would rather have that than have no animals at all. But my preference is surely to goodness we can come up with ways to avoid that – increasing city densification, rehabilitating the environment, creating these wildlife corridors that we just leave the hell alone – I'd rather try that first than just go, ah bioengineering.

Disclaimer: Darren Quick attended SUNZ courtesy of SU.

15 comments
Brendan Dunphy
We have been playing god with animals since the emergence of husbandry. Lapdogs are designed for the city, urban lifestyles and singles. Only the technology is changing, and maybe the scope?
watersworm
Yes ! Let's give umbrellas and tan solar creams to polar bears !
Bob Stuart
If we would just stop eating animals, we could return half the farmland to wilderness, taking a lot of pressure off the climate as well. Vegans need less health care but live longer. We need to tinker with our warlike tendencies too. Fighting for oil is planetary suicide, forced on us by those who only love money.
Rann Xeroxx
Bob Stuart - Most farmland is focused on growing food, some of which is grown for farm animal production. With more billions of people on the Earth you are less likely to see less farmland but more. If you want to affect farmland, stop growing "fuel".
Robert in Vancouver
This article is a common tactic for enviro group fund raising efforts. Get a prediction of disaster into the media that is alarming, scary, and coming soon. But predicting 2/3 of wildlife will be gone by 2020 is just comical and could only be believed by brain washed enviro-nuts.
Pablo
Playing God is an awful idea. Breeding dogs to suit a purpose isn't quite the same. It still allows God or nature to determine if a particular combination will work. This is not on the same level as modern genetic engineering. Sort of like comparing a kid's chemistry set to nuclear physics. In response to an easier comment, the middle class isn't so much fleeing from the cities as being driven. I lived in a mid-sized east coast city for 10 years, finally leaving due to obscene property taxes and unbridled crime. The least financially able cope by means of subsidies, pay few taxes, and have learned to tolerate the crime. The wealthy simply build a fortress and pay the taxes. Were the cities less inhospitable, more would be willing to return.
Tim Jonson
It's not even worth conjecture until we agree on a way to ease the population pressure on the planet. Do that, and it truly is an end-run around these problems. One child per urban couple, 3 children for rural couples.
techmanmacho
Gee, I thought was the purpose of Evolution?
icykel
By not eating animals or by tinkering with our war tendencies etc, etc, we will only make more room for the expansion of human numbers, clearly already beyond sustainable levels. If humanity wishes to coexist with other species then we have to control our own breading. Our numbers will eventually be controlled through external forces (probably very messy) but the ideal would be to become proactive....... a true demonstration of intelligence ?? Or are 'means of mass destruction' our pinnacle of of intellectual achievement ?
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Having to buy a house and send kids to college has forced population control on the west.