Attempting to fix our planet might be easier than adapting to an uncertain future

In "Too Hard for Science?" I interview scientists about ideas they would love to explore that they don't think could be investigated. For instance, they might involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as particle accelerators as big as the sun, or they might be completely unethical, such as lethal experiments involving people. This feature aims to look at the impossible dreams, the seemingly intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of "Too Hard for Science?" suggests that nothing might be impossible.

The scientist: Joan Slonczewski, science fiction author and professor of biology at Kenyon College. Her latest novel, "The Highest Frontier," will come out in September.

The idea: A common trope in science fiction is terraforming, where one reshapes alien worlds to make them habitable. However, in her novel "A Door Into Ocean," "the people that landed on the ocean moon Shora reshaped themselves, genetically engineering themselves to have webbed fingers and toes and be hairless to adapt to a world that had no dry land," Slonczewski says.

Instead of reshaping ourselves for alien worlds, "suppose we thought about reshaping ourselves for our own planet," Slonczewski says. "We are rapidly changing our biosphere, and, playing devil's advocate, one can argue that maybe we should think about adapting ourselves and our children to it."

"One can think of improving our overall resistance to radiation if we have more disasters with nuclear power — the bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans can withstand far more radiation than we can, for instance, so why not think of making use of those bacterial genes?" she says. "We can think of adapting people to live underwater, since a major result of climate change will be flooding. We can adapt ourselves to be more salt-tolerant as much as our freshwater supplies are rapidly vanishing or becoming saltier.

The problem: There might be arguments that altering the human form would be a violation, "like having a tail wouldn't make you human," Slonczewski says. Still, "I think if we have photosynthetic skin or whatever trait we add, we're still going to fall in love, still want to write the great American novel and so on. In the last few generations, you've seen people embrace greater human diversity, and maybe we'll be less afraid of these other changes."

There might also be objections to engineering offspring to possess traits they might not have wanted for themselves, "but what choice do children have anyway in what genetic information they inherit right now?" Slonczewski notes. "Maybe we have a duty to pass on genetic traits that could help them survive in the future." Instead of germline cell genetic engineering, which would lead to heritable traits, people might instead only choose somatic cell genetic cell engineering that would only affect their bodies and not their offspring's as well, she adds.

One major concern with attempting to adapt our bodies to a changing world "is that you're attempting to adapt to a changing target," Slonczewski says. "If we knew that Earth was going to shift to a new equilibrium or steady state, than we could engineer ourselves for that, but the trouble is that we don't know what state to adapt ourselves to."

In addition, while such research might help some people adapt, "it's likely going to be expensive, so what kinds of rights to genetic engineering will people have or lack?" Slonczewski asks. "How will we deal with economic inequalities when it comes to this technology?"

Moreover, although such research could enable humans to adapt to a changing world, "the rest of Earth's lifeforms won't have that luxury — we can't engineer all the creatures of the world to adapt," Slonczewski says. "If we still want people to see tigers and whales and the like in the future, we might want to find other solutions."

The solution? "I'd like to see people working to stabilize the planet as opposed to adapting themselves to it," Sloncewski says. "We have to embrace stewardship of Earth."

Image of Joan Slonczewski from her Web page.


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About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.