Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben

[6 May 2003]

By Wesley Burnett

A Road Soon to Be Traveled

Not long ago I had a conversation with one of Africa’s most accomplished scholars. He asserted, “We want your technology, not your culture.” I could only reply, “Sorry, they come as a package deal. You don’t get the one without the other.” Technology may not be the entire story, but to a large extent, our technology is our culture. Change that technology just a little and everything changes. And if you think we’re having a hard time adjusting to simple technologies like agricultural mechanization, you’ve not seen anything yet.

In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the gene, an immense contribution to our understanding of how life works. Of course, we could hardly resist the temptation to tinker and tinker we have. McKibben’s Enough examines the social and ethical implications of this tinkering in the now related fields of genetic engineering, robotics and nanotechnologies. His purpose is to spark public debate before we go further down a road we will surely come to wish we had never traveled.

Genetic engineering falls into two types. One seeks to encourage an individual to produce more of this type of protein or less of that. It resembles other forms of drug therapy, and the alterations aren’t inheritable. Germline engineering, however, seeks to modify the individual before conception, and these changes are inheritable. Germline engineering has the potential to eliminate many horrid genetic diseases but also to modify the individual’s athletic, musical, or intellectual proclivities. Or his proclivity to see in the dark or fly off into the sunset.

Humans have long dreamed of having little slave robots, but so far we’ve not produced anything impressive. Prospects for robots change, however, when they are integrated with computer and nanotechnologies. Nanotechnologies, in case you missed it, are manufacturing processes that involve moving single atoms around in a structure, hence changing common things into precious things. The first precious thing to make is a chemical computer, an assembler, that can duplicate itself and make all the precious things, say pink blobs, we want. Cheap and easy. A problem might arise if the assembler takes a mind to just keep making pink blobs. We’d soon be living on a planet full of pink blobs.

In fact, as the sci-fi literature has demonstrated in detail, a lot could go wrong with any of these technologies. McKibben reviews these potentials for catastrophe, but the catastrophes aren’t what he’s really concerned about. Rather, he asks, what if there are no catastrophes? What if everything goes right?

His answer is that we are tinkering with technologies that will change the very definition of what it is to be human and to do human things. At the simplest level, what meaning will a sport have if the players are genetically engineered to play it? At a more complex level, we are on the edge of creating two classes, those whose parents could afford to engineer them genetically, and the rest of us, the ‘naturals’, who only have what God gave us. Or multiple classes: the ‘naturals’ and those who were engineered to be bright, or artistic, or athletic. Those of us engineered to unfold our wings and fly away will certainly disdain the inferior ‘naturals’. What do we become when our robots render all human labor irrelevant? We go home and do irrelevant creative and artistic things. Like leather work or writing bad poetry. The things, mostly, we can do now and don’t want to.

McKibben is optimistic. He thinks we have the maturity to conduct a public debate and set limits, that we have the will to say, enough is enough. Of course, if he weren’t optimistic, there would be no point in writing this book.

Dream on. I’m unconvinced and I think McKibben is too. The first problem is the speed of these technological developments. The ability to learn the gender of a prenatal baby coupled with abortion has already caused a holocaust among Asia’s baby girls. In this game, girls win about once in every 8,000 plays, and the ability to select gender before conception is just around the corner. Technologies that have been declared possible but a millennium in the future have appeared in the market ten days later.

And that is the second problem, the market. These technologies are largely in the hands of private sector investors, and they’re not an eleemosynary bunch. McKibben quotes widely from them, and what those quotes reveal is a disdain for humans, a flawed and failed experiment, and a demented craving for immediate profits. If the entrepreneur can produce it, it will be sold in the market, the black one if necessary. The entrepreneur, not our elected political representatives, will decide how and when we go down this road.

Last, McKibben’s quotes are largely from American entrepreneurs. ‘We’, seemingly meaning Americans, have important decisions to make. But ‘we’ have no monopoly. The French, Swiss, Japanese and Germans are all at the cutting edge, too, and God knows what the Chinese are capable of. Our graduate schools are awash with students from India and China, Sri Lanka and Turkey, and they’re not studying advanced music appreciation. They are deep into genetics, computers, mathematics and robotics. ‘We’ may make a ‘responsible’ decision while scientists in Calcutta may think very differently. When the Cambodians or the Haitians threaten to breed marines with built-in night vision, the boys in Congress and the White House who so fervently oppose stem-cell research on moral, ethical or religious grounds will start humming a different tune, that’s for sure. This stuff is going to make containing nuclear weapons seem simple.

While I disagree with McKibben’s optimism, he has, nonetheless, produced a disturbingly good read on a disturbing topic. It is well worth the time for anyone with any interest in science, technology and ethics, or anyone interested in what our future holds. It is a road soon to be traveled.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/enough1/