The Magazine

True Enough

Bill McKibben's useful assault on the unfettered biogenetic project.

Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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Staying Human in an Engineered Age

by Bill McKibben

Times, 255 pp.,$25

PEOPLE AREN'T SMART ENOUGH, strong enough, pretty enough, healthy enough, talented enough, or agile enough the way we are. Worse yet, our miserable lives are over far too soon. The human condition stinks, and then we die. That seems to be the vague despair that drives the partisans of an unfettered biotech revolution, ideologues who countenance no limits in their near obsessive quest for human biological perfection.

But Bill McKibben has spotted it clearly, this inchoate and incoherent existential dread that really does--like a character in a Dostoyevsky novel--resent, in equal measure, life and the death that will take it away. In "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age," McKibben sees both the problem and the way in which adherents to the emerging philosophy of "transhumanism" fervently want to believe that Science--the capital letter is necessary, for Science is unto them as a jealous and omnipotent god--will be their savior from this mortal conundrum.

Driven by an ethos of radical individualism that accepts no restraints and disdains all taboos, hubristically believing that they possess the wisdom to improve the human species, yearning desperately for corporeal immortality, transhumanists intend to unleash biotechnology, robotic science, and nanotechnology--and thereby recreate life on a superior model of their own imagining. Some might call this "playing God," but for the many transhumanists that deny that God exists it is simply a matter of "seizing control of human evolution." Just as God did, only this time without His mistakes.

This is folly, McKibben warns. These emerging technologies are so elemental and powerful that, unfettered, they are more likely to lead to "species suicide" than salvation. McKibben is not the first to wrestle with these crucial matters, and he won't be the last. But what makes "Enough" so helpful is that he analyzes the challenges and posits solutions to them from the far political left. He thus reinforces the small cadre of progressive techno-skeptics--people like Jeremy Rifkin, author of "Biotech Century," Stuart Newman of the Council for Responsible Genetics, and Rich Hayes of the Center for Genetics and Society.

Moreover, McKibben's relative youth and his unabashed radical environmentalism (in addition to this book, he is the author of "The End of Nature" and a vocal proponent of "simple living") could positively influence the sort of people who might not otherwise be reachable in the ongoing debate over the proper limits to place on scientific research and technological knowledge.

McKibben begins "Enough" by describing the threats posed to the human future with cloning and genetic engineering, noting that genetic engineers intend to do to human babies

what we have already done to salmon and wheat, pine trees and tomatoes. That is to make them better in some way; to delete, modify, or add genes . . . so that the resulting person will produce proteins that make them taller and more muscular, or smarter and less aggressive, maybe handsome and possibly straight, perhaps sweet. Even happy.

On the surface, McKibben admits, this may seem "a deeply attractive picture." But the game of parental genetic-one-upmanship is certain disaster. Once the fundamentals of genetic enhancement are understood, biotechnologists' ability to alter progeny would increase exponentially. This would result in built-in human obsolescence. Just as today's top-of-the line computer is quickly outdated, the enhanced baby would, within the few short years it would take to grow into childhood, become genetically inferior to the later-born genetically enhanced. Tomorrow's impressive twenty-point IQ enhancement would pale against the next day's forty-point increase. Rather than increasing a child's chances to excel in life, the result of a genetics arms race would actually be to set up future failure as older models find it increasingly difficult to compete against the continual flow of new and improved humans continually entering the competitive marketplaces of school, college, career, athletics, and the arts.