Philosophy Goes Hollywood?


Check out the trailer to Downsizing, the upcoming movie starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, and others:


If that idea sounds familiar, perhaps you’re remembering “Human Engineering and Climate Change,” a paper by philosophers S. Matthew Liao (NYU), Rebecca Roache (Royal Holloway), and futurist researcher Anders Sandberg (Oxford), that appeared in Ethics, Policy, & Environment in 2012.

In that paper, they write:

Another more striking example of human engineering is the possibility of making humans smaller. Human ecological footprints are partly correlated with our size. We need a certain amount of food and nutrients to maintain each kilogram of body mass. This means that, other things being equal, the larger one is, the more food and energy one requires. Indeed, basal metabolic rate (which determines the amount of energy needed per day) scales linearly with body mass and length (Mifflin et al. 1990). As well as needing to eat more, larger people also consume more energy in less obvious ways. For example, a car uses more fuel per mile to carry a heavier person than a lighter person; more fabric is needed to clothe larger than smaller people; heavier people wear out shoes, carpets, and furniture more quickly than lighter people, and so on.

A way to reduce ecological footprints, then, would be to reduce size. Since weight increases with the cube of length, even a small reduction in, e.g., height, might produce a significant effect in size, other things being equal (To reduce size, one could also try to reduce average weight or average weight and height, but to keep the discussion simple, we shall use just the example of height). Reducing the average US height by 15 cm would mean a mass reduction of 23% for men and 25% for women, with a corresponding reduction of metabolic rate (15%/18%), since less tissue means lower nutrients and energy needs. How could such a reduction be achieved? Height is determined partly by genetic factors and partly through diet and stressors. While the genetic control is polygenetic, with many genes contributing a small amount to overall height, the growth process itself is largely controlled by the hormone somatotropin (human growth hormone). Given this, there are several ways by which we could reduce adult height in humans… 

They go on to discuss these ways of reducing human height.

Professor Liao also discusses the ideas in a talk at “The Festival of Dangerous Ideas”, and they were covered widely (for a philosophical work) in the press (e.g., BBCThe AtlanticSlateThe Guardian, and elsewhere).

I don’t know for sure whether the movie’s writers, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, got the idea from the original article or the press about it. If they let me know, I will pass that information on. (Their joint writing and production business is called Ad Hominem Enterprises.)

In the meanwhile, if you know of other examples of relatively recent philosophical ideas (say, from the last 50 years or so) making their way into movies, feel free to share them in the comments.

UPDATE: Culture blogger Jason Kottke, who had posted about the film at his site, writes: “Payne wrote the script in the 00’s (Indiewire) and John Smart has been public w/ the idea since 2000 (Accelerating Studies Foundation).

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