Home' Technology Review : September October 2011 Contents 44 Years Ago
technology review September/October 2011
In 1966, a Nobel Prize–winning biologist
named Joshua Lederberg suggested, in
an essay in the Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, that because human evolution
could now be directed by scientific means,
we ought to seriously consider what kinds
of changes we might like to see. A year later,
in a provocative—and bizarre—essay for the
July 1967 issue of Technology Review, a pair
of MIT civil-engineering professors named
Robert Hansen and Myle Holley considered
one such change: making people smaller.
We wish here to comment on one kind of
human change—a change of physical size—
which apparently would be far less difficult
to achieve than the modifications we infer
to be potentially feasible through genetic
alchemy. Indeed, it is our understanding
that controlled, substantial modification of
size may require only the judicious applica-
tion of findings in the area of endocrinology.
The authors never got into the specif-
ics of how humans might be made smaller,
or how much smaller they should be. They
acknowledged that the idea would probably
generate “widespread antagonism,” but they
argued that given our emerging capacity for
genetic engineering, it would be reckless to
ignore the possibilities altogether: “Can we
afford not to consider, in all its aspects, the
question of human size?”
If, as the authors believe, the question
of human size merits thought, it appears
more reasonable to consider a decrease
rather than an increase in size. First, an
increase in size would clearly aggravate
the problems we already associate with our
excessive rate of population growth. Second,
the advantages of large size and physical
strength (in the performance of useful labor,
the resolution of individual and group con-
flicts, etc.) have been almost entirely elimi-
nated by technology.
Smaller people, they wrote, would need
less food and tinier houses. They’d create
less waste. And the smaller you are, the big-
ger the world seems. “A reduction in man’s
size might be compared to an increase in
the size of the earth,” the authors noted.
Consider, as but one example, the rela-
tion of man’s size to the facilities provided
for his transportation. Smaller man could
mean smaller vehicles, either smaller high-
way rights of way or greater capacity for
existing highways, easier provision for off-
street parking ... Similar benefits of smaller
human size become apparent in buildings.
In a section called “What Price Man’s
Shrinkage?” they addressed the “problems
of transition.” For instance: How would
people react emotionally to such a pro-
posal? Would they be less able to endure
cold weather? And at what rate should the
shrinkage occur? Five percent per decade?
Allowing for an inevitable transition
period, will smaller man really be comfort-
able in lesser space (or volume) than his
larger predecessors have come to expect? ...
If a change in size appears desirable, what
incentives, if any, will lead to its achieve-
ment through free, individual choice?
Strange as the argument sounds, it did
resonate as late as 1995, when an essay
in The Futurist briefly cited Hansen and
Holley’s work in TR before pointing out that
pygmies are physically fine at four and a half
feet tall. Hansen and Holley emphasized
that they weren’t necessarily advocating
making people smaller—they were simply
(as Lederberg advised) giving the idea the
careful thought they believed it deserved.
Needless to say effective consideration
of this question will require not only effort
within the scientific and humanistic com-
munities, but frank and sympathetic inter-
actions between the two. The end product of
such inquiry and debate is not predictable.
Possible conclusions range from feasibil-
ity, desirability, and moral acceptability to
impossibility for technical, social, or other
reasons. But need we prejudge the issue? Or
should we seriously study the question?
TimOThY mAh er iS TR ’S ASSiSTA nT mAnAg ing ediTOr.
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44 Years Ago in TR
The Shrinkage Solution
Wherein a pair of m iT civil engineers proposed a novel way
to lessen our environmental impact.
By TimoThy maher
LeT’S geT SmALL There would be all kinds of
perks to being smaller, said a 1967 TR article.
For one, it would be easier to find parking.
Sept11 Years Ago.indd 120
8/2/11 1:37 PM
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