Sunday, April 02, 2023

Chinese imagine genetically engineered radioactivity-resistant soldiers

A story about the possibility of creating genetically engineered radioactivity-resistant soldiers last week made it seem that life was imitating art. I am currently rewatching "The Expanse," a popular science fiction television series based on a book series of the same name. I recommended it in 2018 as an entertaining and disturbing tale illustrating the concept of systemic ruin, a possibility that our civilization faces on a number of fronts.

In "The Expanse," far in the future as war between Earth and Mars nears, evil men (and women) create an army of soldiers who live on radioactivity and who require no spacesuits. These evil scientists do this by transforming human captives using something dubbed the "proto-molecule." These so-called "hybrid soldiers" are remorseless killing machines and can also infect humans with the "proto-molecule" by merely spreading it around. The general advice is not to get near these soldiers or touch the blue goo that they seem to be able to generate.

Back on Earth in the 21st century—beyond the morally repugnant idea of genetically engineering babies to later become radioactivity-resistant soldiers—we have bioengineers who seem to forget the first rule of ecology: You can never do merely one thing.

First, there is the problem of what a trait is. Eye color has a clear genetic marker. Shyness does not. Words are very slippery and only point to realities we are trying to describe. They are not realities in and of themselves. And, the meaning of words such as "shyness" is not always clear and cannot be precise and measurable the way eye color is. And, of course, shyness is almost certainly shaped by the social environment in ways that eye color cannot be.

Second, there is more than one model of how genes affect traits. When it comes to humans, the idea that one gene was responsible for one trait is in most cases wrong. Instead, human genes are multitaskers affecting many traits. Going further, the omnigenic model suggests that all complex traits are governed by all genes working in concert. That means changing one gene or set of genes is likely to change a lot of other things in unpredictable ways.

Third, changing the genetic make-up of a significant segment of the population—and soldiers are a significant part of nearly every society—will transmit those changes to their children. If these changes make humans less resilient, the changes could threaten the viability of the entire human race as they are spread over time.

Fourth, we imagine that we know what a "desirable" trait is. But in many cases what we think of as desirable is merely a cultural convention. It has nothing to do with what would make humans more robust and healthy within their environment. A naturally trim physique might be thought to be aesthetically pleasing to others. But, in a future time of scarcity, the natural human ability to store excess calories as fat may mean the difference between surviving and dying.

I am doubtful that the researchers mentioned above will get very far with the creation of their own genetically engineered soldiers for technical reasons as well as moral ones. But the ideas such efforts propagate only push us further down the road to ecological devastation as they legitimate one of the most destructive ideas in the modern era: That we CAN do just one thing and that if that doesn't work out, we can always mitigate the consequences with even more technical fixes—which, of course, create their own cascade of problems...and so on.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

Мені, як біотехнологу за спеціальністю просто огидно думати про те що колись я свідомо і з прагненням обрав для себе цю спеціальність, так вона дуже перспективна і приносить гарний дохід. Але шкода...Школа в тисячі разів більша.
Розуміння прийшло згодом, тому я відкинув цю техноутопічну роботу і віддався фермерству для самозабезпечення)

Anonymous said...

A brutally honest post which, I would hope, change the minds of anyone wanting to tamper with us

Kurt Cobb said...

Here is a Google translation of the comment above in Ukrainian:

As a biotechnologist by profession, it is simply disgusting for me to think that once I consciously and with desire chose this specialty for myself, so it is very promising and brings a good income.

But it's a pity... The school is a thousand times bigger.

The understanding came later, so I rejected this techno-utopian job and devoted myself to farming for self-sufficiency

Anonymous said...

Of course, not everyone is as idealistic as our friend, who writes in Ukrainian.

It is more likely that such an engineering effort will be only partially successful, resulting in living beings that serve adequately as soldiers, but are not really good performers in other activities. This would raise vexing problems of civil and legal equality, and perhaps create a permanent (and maybe growing) underclass. Only then is "Version 2.0" of the engineer strain is released, making everything more complex, and raising the prospect of civil war as well.

The vision Kurt writes of is bad enough, consider this comment a gentle reminder that things could have worse outcomes.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kurt, Down the rabbit hole today, are we ? Are you aware of the fact that you refer to an article published on april fools day ? Or are you simply repeating the warmongers ? That doesn't suit you : I apreciated your insights on recources more.
Radiation resistance seems interesting for travelling space, a more interesting view on the matter.
Remember that the only nukes ever used in battle where used by the USA. Or are you referring to the damage done by using depleted uranium ammunition In Irak and former Yougoslavia and now almost poisoning the most fertile soil in the world as it will be delivered with the tanks from the UK ? By the way, I call 4 promille of the population not a signifiant part.
As you know, I stopped working for the car industry decades ago, found a job in the wind industry untill the company was bought by a larger conglomerate that builds also military equipment. We all have a choise to refuse working/parrotting for the military money machine.
Kind regards, Johan, Belgium

Kurt Cobb said...


Thanks for your informative comment. I'm certainly not a warmonger and since you are a regular reader, you know one of the things I fear is military conflict over resources, especially energy, if we don't do something to reduce our consumptive way of life. And, I think my comments about genetically engineering people for warfare make clear that I oppose this crazy idea.

April Fool's Day is certainly a day to be weary of when reading news. However, the underlying story comes from the South China Morning Post and was published in March 29. I'm generally cautious about the sources I cite. I used the ZeroHedge summary of the story because the Post story is behind a paywall.