Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age

by Bill McKibben

Published by Times Books

288 pages, 2003


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Future Fear

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning

 

"In 1999," writes science author Bill McKibben in Enough, his warning cry against technological apocalypse, "an artist named Eduardo Kac persuaded a laboratory to rig him up a bunny whose DNA contains genes from a phosphorescent jellyfish. If you hold Alba up to a black light, she glows green from every cell in her body."

If this story gives you a creepy, sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, then McKibben has done his job. Though his 1989 bestseller The End of Nature warned us of the potential catastrophe of global warming, he believes we face a far more immediate peril from exploding information in the field of GNR (genetics, nanotechnology and robotics). "If we aggressively pursue any or all of several new technologies now before us, we may alter our relationship not with the rest of nature but with ourselves."

McKibben believes human germline genetic engineering carries the potential to strip the human race of its identity. Think of it: soon we will be able to tinker not only with bodily traits like physical strength and attractiveness, but with mental, emotional and even social traits. No more shy kids. No more badly-behaved kids. And certainly, no more autistics or schizophrenics, no one burdened with the baggage of "otherness." (Are hypersensitive artists included in that equation?) All will be extroverts; all will be champion athletes; all will have astonishingly high IQs.

Does all this make you feel a little queasy? McKibben believes it should: "By now, the vision of the would-be genetic engineers should be fairly clear. It is to do to humans what we have already done to salmon and wheat, pine trees and tomatoes. That is, to make them better in some way." What McKibben wants to know is: what does "better" mean? And in this race to perfect humanity, what might be lost?

The capacity for self-reflection, for one thing; conscience, for another. And increasingly, if we have this sort of awesome power, children will become a commodity, something infinitely manipulable: "One sociologist told the New York Times we'd crossed the line from parenting to 'product development'."

If genetics goes the way of computers, constant upgrades are inevitable, rendering former products obsolete. "What if you had a second child five years after the first, and by that time the upgrades were undeniably improved: how would you feel about the first kid? How would he feel about his new brother, the latest model? ... The vision of one's child as a nearly useless copy of Windows 95 should make parents fight like hell to make sure we never get started down this path."

Science fiction writers have long been warning us about the potential horrors of technology gone mad, but as McKibben points out, today the actual science is catching up. Though no one would argue with the usefulness of, say, cochlear implants to help a deaf person hear, the farthest extreme of brain implants is frightening to contemplate. (Scientists have already turned rats into fully programmable robots in the lab.)

Then there is the specter of the invention outstripping its creator. At a certain level of sophistication, robots will have the power to self-replicate, giving rise to the awful term replibots. And then there are the nanobots: infinitesimally tiny machines that seem to be able to think for themselves, an idea almost beyond human comprehension. But they're already here, as McKibben points out in one of the book's more chilling passages:

"On the same day in November 2001 that Advanced Cell Technology announced it had cloned the first human embryo, a group of Israeli scientists made an almost equally stunning declaration. They had used biological molecules to create a tiny, programmable computer, so tiny that a trillion of them could 'coexist and compete in parallel, in a drop the size of 1/10 of a milliliter of watery solution held at room temperature'. The computer hardware consisted of naturally occurring enzymes that manipulate DNA; it can be programmed to perform simple tasks by choosing particular software molecules to be mixed in solution."

Manipulating DNA via biological microcomputer: does this sound like playing God? Or is it just a natural extension of human curiosity, the need to know and to explore uncharted realms? McKibben believes we now stand at a crucial threshold, "a technological saturation point, past which we will hit radically diminishing returns ... We need to declare that we have enough stuff. Enough intelligence. Enough capability. Enough."

McKibben's passionate, accessible style engaged me, and his examples of what we might face in the next decade or so chilled me, but some of his arguments came across as rather flimsy. For example, he lost me when he cited the Amish as a fine example of a culture which has successfully resisted technological advances. But his warning ("We have only the vaguest notions of where we might be going") is timely and astute.

Even if we do succeed in placing firm boundaries around all this exploding tech, who will make the decisions about where to draw the line? Will they be moral, ethical, medical, political or even theological? Or, as McKibben fears, will it all come down to the bottom line? "Biotech has become one of the strongest magnets for venture capital in recent years, and any biologist worth his centrifuge is awash with stock options."

At its best, Enough is a philosophical treatise on meaning in human life, and how that meaning may be under serious threat from the powerful genie of technology. "Our gut revulsion at the coming 'enhanced' world is consciousness trying to save itself," McKibben claims. If we do not listen to these gut feelings, the worst could happen: "Human consciousness will have committed suicide."

"Even as the genetic engineers work busily to upgrade us, adding IQ and memory, the robotics engineers are hard at work making sure we'll be surpassed, and the nanotechnologists to make sure all our wants will be satisfied by pushing buttons. What, in other words, are we being enhanced for?" It is a question humanity ignores at its peril, leaving us wide open to the specter of a bloodless, mindless, "posthuman" future. | April 2003

 

Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.