The Objective

Lots of questions at this site consider how humans could be enhanced with genetic engineering. But, if you are an alien, you may have the opposite priorities.

These aliens are civilized and have their own code of ecological ethics, so they don't want to exterminate humans (and would prefer to prevent massive, sudden population decline in humans, to the extent that this is possible).

But, they do want to prevent humans from continuing to develop into a species that is technologically superior to them that could be a threat to the aliens, should humans gain access to interstellar transportation technologies that the aliens already possess, either developed by humans on their own, or by humans reverse engineering it from alien technology in a manner that would require an ability on the part of the humans to understand the underlying physics with this huge hint available.

The aliens believe that humans are currently at least seventy years away from developing interstellar transportation technology on their own (assuming that they don't intervene).

(This interstellar transportation technology involves fake physics of the usual sort for science fiction, such as space folding in dimensions not known to current science, that is at least as difficult as general relativity and quantum physics to invent, but is easy enough for a trained person to operate. The viability in the real world of this fake physics technology is not, itself, part of the question).

The aliens are also aware that humans are at risk of self-extermination and would like to prevent that from happening. They also don't want to make a change so extreme that the affected people cannot properly be called humans, even though they are genetically modified humans.

The aliens also value elegance and minimalism. They want to make changes that are as subtle as possible to achieve their goal.

Also, the more subtle the effect, the more time it will take to detect it and mobilize a reaction to it, and the less time humans have to respond to the germ line retrovirus threat discussed below.

Precedents In Fiction

The closest analog to this that I can think of in fiction is Asimov's "brain fever" concept.

The Germ Line Virus Mechanism

The aliens have advanced bioengineering technologies and can engineer a germ line virus that would impact as many humans as viruses for the common cold or similar common viruses do today that would change the genetics of human sperm and egg cells causing everyone with at least one parent infected, before the sperm and/or egg cells that give rise to the child are formed, to have the genetic changes that the aliens desire.

This technique would not reach 100% of the human population (at least not immediately) but would reach a very large proportion of the human population and would disproportionately impact humans that are not in isolated (usually technologically backward) communities. It would probably impact at least 90%-95% of the non-isolated human population in each generation, more or less randomly. So, in the second generation, less than 1% of the human population would be uninfected, and assuming more or less random mating, in the third generation, the unaffected non-isolated human population in the third generation could be in the hundreds or less.

So, a solution that it likely to be possible to thwart if there are just a few hundred random people who are unaffected probably isn't sufficient.

The Question

What should the aliens target to modestly devolve and tame humanity in a way that prevents them from making technological progress (and that may even represent a step backward for mankind) without exterminating the species or causing a mass die off from the virus itself?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ May 2, 2018 at 3:44

3 Answers 3


Manage so the IQ lowers by a few points starting around age 20-24 (hormone driven perhaps), and the hit increases for a few generations (release new versions of the same virus). Especially if there are no other effects, this might well go unnoticed, and/or be attributed to measurement errors or statistical flukes. Also use it to reduce aggressivity (adrenaline and testosterone susceptivity), to offset the increased aggressivity from lowered IQ. Nobody will question or investigate that.

This will erode the number of people brilliant enough to fuel progress, but will not be so hard on people just bright enough to maintain things. The focus of most brilliant people will increasingly become how to make technology and other complicated things simple enough for most people to still enjoy them, a scenario seen e.g. in Kornbluth's The Marching Morons and The Little Black Bag.

  • $\begingroup$ How many points per generation do you think would be necessary? What would stop the decline eventually? If it didn't eventually stop, in enough generations all humans would be dumber than apes. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 30, 2018 at 17:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Wait, didn't we do this in the inner cities when there was leaded gasoline? That turned the cities into crime-ridden hellscapes. Also, this makes everyone on average dumber but doesn't stop the really smart/ambitious people who were already much smarter than average. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Apr 30, 2018 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ Lowering IQ by just a few points is not something you can do by manipulating genes, IQ goes up every generation and has a large cultural influence. . $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ @John A significant portion of IQ is genetically determined and any increase in IQ happens for a reason (cultural, genetic or otherwise). People's IQ is changed by genes all the time (see, e.g., genetically caused developmental disabilities, more than half of which have genetic causes). It might be trickier to be subtle and lower it a few points rather than a lot of points, but it isn't in principle impossible or even terribly complicated once you know which genes matter to IQ, even if IQ were only, e.g. 35% hereditary (the real world estimates for a hereditary component are much higher). $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds more like a job for reality TV instead of a virus...... $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    May 1, 2018 at 2:41

Strengthen the empathy gene

Much of what allows current humanity to 'grow' is a healthy ignorance of externalized costs. Wealthy capitalists are blissfully unaware of how bad their employee's lives are because those are costs that someone else has to bear. Polluting companies will pollute because the environment doesn't cost them anything and besides, the people making the money live far away from the disgusting watersheds and ravaged lands. Investors in large tech companies don't care that everyone's privacy has evaporated so long as they get a return on their investment.

With a stronger empathy gene, the emotional cost of all this abuse would be internalized. Wealthy capitalists would have to pay their people more because the thought of their workers suffering would be unthinkable. Currently, the mantra of Capitalism is "growth, regardless the cost". With a stronger empathy gene, it might become "growth, but let's not destroy stuff".

With all those internalized costs, developing new products will slow since there's less demand for new things.

The inability to forget that low-paid employees made your fancy new smartphone might prevent you from upgrading every year, maybe every three years. Or that sweatshop workers made your new clothes, you'll get new clothes when you need them, not when you want them. The knowledge that polar bears are starving to death because you want to drive a huge SUV might get you to trade to a smaller car.

Crime rates on all kinds of crimes should go down too. If everyone is your family member (thanks strong empathy gene!), it's really hard to steal from them or murder them. This won't cure crime but it will cut down on many types.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ this wont last very long, people who are resistant or less empathic will have a huge advantage, since most of the population will be more gullibly to emotional manipulation. Also some of our largest advancements were driven by empathy, if anything the better infrastructure and education this will create will accelerate invention. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ @John I would expect the resistant or less empathic to meet stronger resistance from those who are more empathic. If the majority of the population loses some degree of "It's someone else's problem" or "glad it's not me" then a lot of situations will go away real quick. I'd say most of the major advancements were discovered by some guy in a garage then made wildly successful by a power-hungry, greedy capitalist. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ And we already find ourselves in a situation where the less empathic exploit and manipulate the more gullible. The point would be to weaken the power of those who intend to exploit other people. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ Other way around, most inventions were created through collaboration and a desire to solve a perceived problem. More empathetic people will have a harder time offering resistance, if there empathy is broad enough to worry about people they have never met constantly then purposely causing suffering or discomfort in a criminal will be all but impossible.Your are taking away their ability to rationalize around empathy that cuts both ways. they will be more forgiving and less able to punish or cause discomfort. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ I reckon you could probably muck things up with either dramatically more or dramatically less empathy. Empathy, like most personality traits, shows signs that it is in a balancing selection equilibrium, probably due to frequency dependent selection. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balancing_selection $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    May 1, 2018 at 3:01

A couple of ideas:

A World of Hedonists

Rats will perform lever-pressing at rates of several thousand responses per hour for days in order to obtain direct electrical stimulation of the lateral hypothalamus. Multiple studies have demonstrated that rats will perform reinforced behaviors at the exclusion of all other behaviors [...]

Brain stimulation reward

Give those pesky humans something better to do than to think and work all day. Modify their nervous system to get a considerable dosis of pleasure for mundane activities. Not so much as to become mindless zombies, but enough that almost all of them just want to barely cover their social obligations to lose themselves in a world of bliss. Why spend months and years of hard work researching some arcane tech, when you can get each afternoon the same satisfaction that you would receive by your future discovery?

Ideally, the system would combine with human biology to improve homeostasis: if you have been enjoying a bit too much of those delicious foods and you are becoming too fat you will begin enjoying walking more and more, while food is progressively less atractive.

Of course, given the natural variability both in the humans and in the virus effect, not everybody will just "drop it". But those who still like intellectual work and reward will have their hands full, as the rest of the people will just do the bare minimum and a considerable fraction not even that. The "inmune" will have to manage society; just getting the civilization not to collapse would be a titanic task1.

The most selfless and resistant people will be able to do and/or convince others to do some work (build a road here or there, recover a forest), but long complex tasks will be impossible. Nobody will want to produce that special alloy needed for that piece of that gigantic particle accelerator, when they can spend the day basking in the sunlight.

The best of the idea? You can blame the effects on something else. For example, that manking is like that and that now our technology has freed us of our obligations; reports about the indolence of the new generations and how new technologies weaken people are from new. And if the truth is discovered, most people will just think "So the aliens want us to have a good time? How nice of them!"

Every Man For Himself

As outlined above, science is a complex task that requires lots of interactions with other people: from having other people knowledge available in books, to people providing guidance, others providing funding and management. Not to mention the researchers themselves. In the end, the research return all that work by sharing their discoveries.

And yet there is cutthroat competition to get fame, position, resources.

Increase that a notch or two. Make scientists VERY entitled to their discoveries. Any bit of data discovered, if published, may lead to OTHER scientists STEALING your future discoveries. It is better to keep it secret until you get to the big, definitive discovery yourself and nobody else.

"Inmune" people continue operating at usual for a time, but they mostly get fed of the game and either adopt it or leave for other fields.

In any case, given the stagnation resulting of these changes, funding for science (specially theorical/long term research) shrinks as it provides no results.

The most obvious problem is that such change risks destroying society if it affects too many aspects of life; maybe the virus effects are linked to intellectual capacity.

1I would advise the aliens to provide by covert means a minimal level of automatization of the food procurement and sanitation areas.

  • $\begingroup$ "I would advise the aliens to provide by covert means a minimal level of automatization of the food procurement and sanitation areas." Consultants are just mercenaries by another name. No loyalty to their own whatsoever. ;) $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    May 1, 2018 at 2:59

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