Commentary Magazine


Enough by Bill McKibben

Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age
by Bill McKibben
Times Book. 288 pp. $25.00

In the emerging debate over whether to restrict technologies like cloning and genetic engineering, at least one thing is clear: nobody wants to be called a Luddite. The original Luddites were 19th-century followers of the possibly mythical Ned Ludd, who is said to have smashed two large weaving frames as a sign of resistance to the mechanization of the English textile industry. Nowadays the sobriquet is mostly derogatory, suggesting someone who opposes the development of new technology out of ignorance, religious zeal, or irrational suspicion of change.

Bill McKibben wants to stop the nascent biotechnology revolution in its tracks. But he is not, he insists in Enough, a Luddite. McKibben is, in fact, an archetype of what David Brooks has called the bourgeois bohemian. A leftish writer who moved to rural New York State in search of a simpler life, he worries about the environment and the loss of “traditional” values, and admits to feeling guilty about his consumerist impulses. In his previous books, he has bemoaned the supposed despoilment of our natural heritage (The End of Nature, 1989); warned about the cultural dangers of television (The Age of Missing Information, 1993); and called for a voluntary one-child policy to combat overpopulation (Maybe One, 1998).

But these familiar bogeymen pale in comparison with the menacing troika of technologies that, as McKibben now sees things, stand to redefine what it means to be human—and not for the better. The first of these is “germline” genetic engineering: the ability to make permanent, heritable changes in the genetic makeup of our children. When we can do this, McKibben argues, our children will cease to be human beings. They will become mere products, robbed of any opportunity for self-understanding. Thus, an athletically-enhanced boy who grows up to win a marathon will not know what to make of his achievement. As McKibben puts it,

these new technologies show us that human meaning dangles by a far thinner thread than we had thought. What if the ending to our story has already been written, our compass already set? What if we have been programmed, or at least must suspect each time we choose a path that we have been nudged in that direction by our engineered cells? Who then are we?

The second if somewhat more distant threat to our identity is nanotechnology. Nanoengineered devices, built on the atomic scale, may someday be able to manipulate the very structure of molecules. Such devices would be the minuscule equivalent of the philosopher’s stone, transforming lead into gold—or dirt into potatoes—and giving us near-immortality by repairing damage to our bodily tissues. But McKibben doubts that these alchemical nanobots will increase our happiness. What pleasure is there in eating a potato made from dirt rather than grown by a farmer? More to the point, is a person still a person if his brain cells and blood vessels are teeming with tiny robots? Forget designer children. Nanotechnology, according to McKibben, will render children obsolete.

Indeed, the last of the three technologies described in Enough may render us all obsolete. This is robotics, or more precisely, robotics enhanced by artificial intelligence. If we can build robots equal to us in intelligence (and McKibben considers this a certainty, given the rate at which computing power is increasing), they will be able to do anything we can do, only better. Here, too, joy and meaning will be drained from pursuits that challenge us today, like chess and science. Nor will this be lost on the robots, who might eventually decide that humans are superfluous.

Some futurists hail such possibilities as the next step in our cultural evolution. Not McKibben. In the face of those who suggest that a “posthuman” future is all but inevitable, he points to examples of successful resistance to new technologies, like today’s Amish, who eschew modern devices that would undermine their close-knit communities. We can, he insists, simply say “no, thanks” to the next scientific revolution.

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Bill McKibben may not want to be called a Luddite, but he certainly sounds like one. Nor is this necessarily an insult. The Luddites were anything but mindless thugs. Most were skilled workers who feared (rightly, as it turned out) that the increased use of machinery in weaving shops would result in a flood of cheap textiles, abolishing the traditional role of handcrafts-men. The Luddites opposed not machines as such but the consequences of their growing power.

For his part, McKibben recognizes the potential benefits of technologies like germline genetic engineering, which could be used to eradicate Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and other terrible maladies. But he frets that if the technology to cure genetic diseases is developed and commercialized, it will inevitably set off a biological arms race, with parents scrambling to outfit their unborn children with the latest package of genetic enhancements. If nanobots were to become widely available, they might indeed “transform the most desolate village into a Garden of Eden,” but at the cost of destroying traditional ways of life that McKibben prizes.

All of this assumes, of course, that we are close to developing such technologies, but that is far from clear. In the 1950′s, futurists asserted that flying cars and computers capable of conversation were just around the corner, but even now neither of these marvels seems to be in the offing. When McKibben serves up potatoes nanoengineered from dirt, genetic enhancements that somehow “program” us to do certain things, and other fantasies of today’s techno-boosters, we are well advised to add a generous dash of salt.

Still, most of the scenarios McKibben describes are at least possible, and we ought not face them unprepared. But he does little to prepare us. Aside from referring readers to works like Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future (2002) and the essays of Bill Joy and Leon Kass—writings that delve into the serious social, political, and moral issues raised by emerging technologies:—McKibben provides no guiding principles. Instead, he offers us chapter upon chapter of existential hand-wringing, all of it revolving around technology’s power to erode the “meaning” inherent in human existence.

What McKibben means by “meaning” is hard to say. He studiously avoids any discussion of human nature, with its taboo implications of biological determinism. “Figuring out who we are,” as he puts its, seems to require contenting ourselves with the comforts we already enjoy and resisting the siren song of science. But why, exactly, would it be terrible if new clothes were made fresh every day by nanobots? Since he does not spell out answers to such questions, one can only conclude that his objections are for the most part aesthetic rather than rational. Why should anyone care, however, whether Bill McKibben takes satisfaction in doing his own laundry?

True, some of the scenarios envisioned in Enough are genuinely frightening, and it is tempting to argue that, no matter how far-fetched they may seem, we should squelch even the possibility of, for example, a genetic caste system or (a la The Matrix Reloaded) the subjugation of humanity to artificial overlords. McKibben himself sees technology as a Pandora’s box; once we open it, we will not be able to stop what comes Out. But why not? For all of his exhortations about the imperative to “choose life as we’ve always known it,” McKibben seems to have little faith in our collective ability to recognize the moral red lines we will surely encounter.

The growth of technology need not radically change who we are or how we see ourselves. Some people will eschew the fruits of science, just as some people today shun cars, television, and genetically modified foods. Most people will assimilate those novelties that they find useful, pleasant, and safe. As a society, nothing but inertia prevents us from developing laws and regulatory mechanisms that will make it possible for Bill McKibben to continue pursuing his tastes while the rest of us, within the bounds of a democratic consensus, pursue ours.

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About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.




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