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.

AND WHAT WOULD become of parental pride in their children's achievements, McKibben asks, once parents became "programmers" and their children "products"? Parents would be able to take "precisely as much pride in [their child's] achievement as . . . in the achievements of [their] dishwashing detergent. It was designed to produce streak-free glassware, and she was designed to be sweet-tempered, social, and smart." Not only that, but our children would, in essence, become our slaves. Today, children urged to pursue unliked activities based on parental desire can eventually quit and find their own way. But, how would children rebel against their gene enhancements that would inexorably push them with the power of sheer biology in parentally predetermined directions? In a sense, our children would never grow up and become independent beings. It could mark an end to truly human freedom.

McKibben notes that these hazards of posthumanity do not end with the biological. Robotics, if allowed to get out of control, could result in "conscious" machines. McKibben may be alarmist when he writes that by the end of the century the distinction between humans and computers could cease to exist. But surely it would be folly to build computers so awesome that "a penny's worth of computing power . . . will be a billion times as powerful as all human brains now on the planet."

Nanotechnology, in which machines are literally the size of a few molecules, presents obvious potential benefits. One day "nanobots" might cruise our circulatory systems looking for trouble and making repairs. Futurists even foresee an end to work as agriculture and industry are replaced by billions of "nanotech assemblers" engineered to work busily rearranging carbon molecules to make any food or product their owners would want.

But nanotechnology could also be exceedingly dangerous. Noting that researchers recently manufactured an infectious poliovirus from diagrams contained in a book, McKibben warns that nano-sized fabricated diseases could spread havoc. Worse, the assemblers upon which futurists put so much hope to end human want might learn to replicate themselves and go completely out of control. This could lead, some techno-skeptics have warned, to the end of all things as the hyperactive assemblers eventually rearrange the molecules of the entire natural world--reducing the planet to a huge soup of "gray goo."

Maybe. The idea that molecular-sized assemblers will someday provide instant cups of tea or suits of clothes, as in a "Star Trek" movie, seems too fantastical to force alarm about the apocalyptic scenarios that these technologies could cause if they ran out of control. But even if he sometimes overstates his case about nanotechnology--at least, I hope he does--McKibben is well worth heeding when he demands that we reexamine our reverence for scientific knowledge as by definition good. It is not Luddite to worry, as McKibben does, about the "unlimited development of knowledge." There are foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences to any human endeavor. We should never forget the lesson in needed humility taught by the unsinkable "Titanic."

SO WHAT should we do? McKibben's answer is in his book's title. We should say: Enough. We should accept natural limitations. We should "survey the world we now inhabit and proclaim it good." And we should defend humanity from the nihilism of the misanthropes. Unfortunately, to accomplish this important task, McKibben's resources seem limited. Many in his left-leaning audience--particularly the extreme environmentalists--increasingly seem to see the sheer existence of human beings as a blight on the planet. In answer, McKibben's defense of humanity reads a little like Stuart Smalley feel-goodism: We are good enough, smart enough, and, doggone it, the planet likes us.

Indeed, only a full-throated and unapologetic affirmation of the intrinsic value of human life will be able to counter the misanthropy that McKibben correctly sees as the driving force behind the posthuman agendas. From what he writes in "Enough," I would guess that McKibben does not believe sufficiently in the intrinsic value of human life to make a robust case. And that presents a serious problem for his defense of humanity.

McKibben also isn't necessarily willing to follow his own proposed remedy of self restraint. He insists, for instance, that any potential scientific advance that could have the power to make us "posthuman" should be "presumed dangerous until proven otherwise." Yet he then goes on to accept therapeutic cloning in the name of finding new medical cures.

But therapeutic cloning is a posthuman biotechnology that authorizes the manufacture of human life for the purpose of treating it as a mere thing to be harvested and destroyed. Therapeutic cloning transforms nascent humans into patentable and marketable medical products. And if that were not enough, the information that could be gleaned from such research would be quickly used in precisely the ways that McKibben is against. Why should the reader of "Enough" agree to reject the posthuman endeavors of tomorrow, when the author won't reject those being attempted today?

McKibben also risks alienating potential allies with his condescension toward religion. Religious arguments, he warns, "scare the majority of Americans who, for instance, support a woman's right to abortion." Such arguments offend because "it is too easy to imagine such talk is the chatter of people who don't want evolution taught in the schools." But this is merely to surrender to unfair stereotypes. Indeed, I have heard and read many of the same secular arguments McKibben makes presented just as eloquently and powerfully by explicitly religious techno-skeptics.

These concerns do not unduly limit the book's importance or profundity. Bill McKibben has done a top-notch job of researching and writing about one of the most important topics of the current age. "Enough" is an important book and needs to be read by everyone with an interest in keeping the human future human.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. He is the author of "Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America" and of the forthcoming updated edition of "Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope From Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder."

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