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Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age
By Bill McKibben
Times Books
HC, 279 pgs. US$25/C$36.95
ISBN: 0-8050-7096-6

Preserving a human future

By Steven Martinovich
web posted April 28, 2003

Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered AgeWe stand quite literally at the edge of a new era in human ability. As the pace of scientific progress continues to accelerate, we will soon have the power to shape our species' future in ways that would have been unimaginable at any point in our past. New technologies, some only a few years off, promise to change the world radically. These technologies -- genetic engineering, nanotechnology, robotics and advanced computers -- will serve as a launching pad to recreate the human being in preparation for the next stage in our evolution.

It's heady, not to mention scary, stuff. The possibilities that any one of these technologies gives humanity can barely be conceived. They have the potential to change what it means to be a human being. For many that's a promise they can hardly wait to explore. For others, like Bill McKibben, it means a future where the very notion of humanness has disappeared -- replaced instead by genetically enhanced automatons that could be supplanted by the machines they build. It is a future where the soul of humanity has become a wasteland.

In his reflective essay Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, McKibben argues that while these technologies have advanced, the ethical debate over them has yet to begin in earnest. The world's modern high priests, scientists, have been given a free hand to change our collective future without so much as asking us what we want our future to be. Unlike other technologies, he argues, these could destroy what it means to be a human being.

Technology is a double-edged sword, he argues. The car gave us the freedom of mobility but it also destroyed the small and intimate worlds we inhabited. Take germline genetic engineering, the technology that promises to give parents the ability to choose what physical and mental traits their children will possess. While could potentially give us the ability to create gifted and attractive children free of disease, it also damns those children to the future that their parents paid to have inserted into their genes. A parent who pays to have an affinity for music plugged into their child's genes blesses, and curses, that child and all their progeny for a taste for music. Their potential could never be explored because they are driven to succeed in music to the exclusion of other possibilities.

There are even more immediate ethical problems that surface with genetic engineering. It, like all sciences, will continue to move forward. A family that has enhanced children may discover that earlier children will be the equivalent of Windows 95 compared to their more enhanced siblings. The science will only progress because of experimentation on human beings, leaving the potential for disastrous consequences -- now and in the future as those genes travel down family trees -- to be very real. Will an enhanced race look kindly at its inferior predecessor or will it extinguish us? Will you even be human when your genes carry a mix of human and animal DNA?

Those happen to be the easy questions. Harder to resolve will be concerns over genetic engineering trials involving human beings and the near inevitable problems that will crop up -- the first cloned sheep, Dolly, initially looked healthy but later suffered from rapid aging -- or the long-term effects of altering our genes with unintended consequences that won't be seen for several generations. Genetic engineering isn't so much as playing with fire as it is playing with nuclear bombs. We may become so entranced with the explosion that we miss the long-term damage the fallout brings.

McKibben is less successful when he decries nanotechnology and robotics. While those technologies promise nothing short of magic, he believes it's just as likely that we'll either be wiped out by technology run amok or that human beings will become a real world version of Star Trek's fearsome Borg. They are technologies that he admits could one day eliminate want and augment our abilities in ways we can scarcely dream of but, he writes, their potential for danger is simply too high. Given that they are still far off in our future, fears over nanotech and robotics simply don't resonate as deeply as germline genetic engineering which could be occurring as you read this.

All of these technologies and their possible effects on us has McKibben uttering a one-word mantra in response: Enough.

"We need to decide that we live, most of us in the West, long enough. We need to declare, that, in the West, where few of us work ourselves to the bone, we have ease enough. In societies where most of us need storage lockers more than we need nanotech miracle boxes, we need to declare that we have enough stuff. Enough intelligence. Enough capability. Enough."

Whether you think McKibben's fears are justified, he does raise a sensible point. The future of humanity is too important simply to be left to scientists. Detailed knowledge about genetic engineering merely allows you to conduct research and that doesn't necessarily mean that you are equipped to deal with the ethical issues that research raises. A greater pool of people must begin discussing these issues -- experts and laypeople alike -- to determine if we as a species have reached McKibben's enough point.

The future isn't some far off point, it's as close as tomorrow. Even if we determine that some technologies are simply too dangerous to pursue doesn't necessarily mean that they won't be pursued by someone with a shaky moral compass or misguided enthusiasm. That doesn't mean the debate shouldn't take place because the march of progress is unstoppable. McKibben may be needlessly concerned about our future but he should be congratulated for prodding us to at least spare a couple of thoughts for the world we are creating.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Brave New World V2.0 by Steven Martinovich (April 22, 2002)
    Francis Fukuyama argues in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the biotechnology revolution that biotechnology presents more pitfalls than promise for humanity

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