Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Ageby Bill McKibben
In his first book, The End of Nature, Bill McKibben demonstrated that humanity had begun to irrevocably alter and endanger our environment on a global scale. Now he turns his eye to an array of technologies that could change our relationships, not just with the rest of nature but with ourselves. As he explores the frontiers of genetic engineering, robotics, and… See more details below
In his first book, The End of Nature, Bill McKibben demonstrated that humanity had begun to irrevocably alter and endanger our environment on a global scale. Now he turns his eye to an array of technologies that could change our relationships, not just with the rest of nature but with ourselves. As he explores the frontiers of genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology -- all of which we are approaching with astonishing speed -- he shows that each threatens to take us to a point of no return. We now stand, in Michael Pollan's words, "on a moral and existential threshold -- or cliff." McKibben offers a celebration of what it means to be human and a warning that we risk the loss of all meaning if we step across that threshold. Acclaimed for its passion and insight, this wise and eloquent book argues that we cannot grow forever in reach and power -- that we must at last learn how to say, "Enough."
“Bill McKibben has produced a book that is both a sequel and an equal to his brilliant The End of Nature. Enough is an ambitious and important book.” Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Without question, this is one of the most important books of the year. McKibben deserves to be read, to be discussed, to be heard.” San Diego Union-Tribune
“[A] brave and luminous book . . . Bill McKibben understands genetics--but he knows poetry, too.” David Gelernter, Wired
“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.” The Weekly Standard
“Fiercely important . . . the most thought-provoking piece of non-fiction I've read in a long time.” The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“In this wise, well-researched, and important book, Bill McKibben addresses the burning philosophical question of the new century, and the one that counts for the long haul: how to control the technoscientific juggernaut before it dehumanizes our species.” E. O. Wilson, author of The Future of Life
“In Enough, McKibben shines his powerful light on another momentous change that is upon us: the ability to re-engineer ourselves and therefore the very meaning of human identity. If he is right, then humankind stands on a moral and existential threshold--or cliff. We would do well as a society to weigh his bracing argument before taking another step.” Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire
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Read an Excerpt
For the first few miles of the marathon, I was still fresh enough to look around, to pay attention. I remember mostly the muffled thump of several thousand pairs of expensive sneakers padding the Ottawa pavement -- an elemental sound, like surf, or wind. But as the race wore on, the herd stretched into a dozen flocks and then into a long string of solitary runners. Pretty soon each of us was off in a singular race, pitting one body against one will. By the halfway point, when all the adrenaline had worn off, the only sound left was my breath rattling in my chest. I was deep in my own private universe, completely absorbed in my own drama.
Now, this run was entirely inconsequential. For months I'd trained with the arbitrary goal of 3 hours and 20 minutes in my mind. Which is not a fast time; it's an hour and a quarter off the world record. But it would let a forty-one-year-old into the Boston Marathon. And given how fast I'd gone in training, I knew it lay at the outer edge of the possible. So it was a worthwhile target, a number to live with through one early-morning run after another, a number to multiply and divide against the readouts on the treadmill display when downpours kept me in the gym. It's rare enough in my life to have a goal so concrete and unambiguous.
By about, say, mile 23, two things were becoming clear. One, my training had worked: I'd reeled off one 7:30 mile after another. Two, my training wouldn't get me to the finish by itself. My legs were starting to slow and wobble, my knees and calves were hard pressed to lift and push at the same pace as an hour earlier. I could feel my goal slipping away, my pace dropping. With every hundred yards the race became less a physical test and more a mental one, game spirit trying to rally sagging flesh before sagging flesh could sap game spirit and convince it the time had come to walk. Someone stronger passed me, and I slipped onto her heels for a few hundred crucial yards, picking up the pace. The finish line swam into my squinted view, and I stagger-sprinted across. With 14 seconds to spare.
A photographer clicked a picture, as he would of everyone who finished. I was a cipher to him -- a grimacing cipher, the 324th person to cross, an unimportant finisher in an unimportant time in an unimportant race. In the picture you can see the crowd at the finish, holding right past me toward the middle distance, waiting for their mom or dad, son or daughter to move into sight. It mattered not at all what I had done.
But it mattered to me. When it was done, I had a clearer sense of myself, of my power and my frailty. For a period of hours, and especially those last gritty miles, I had been absolutely, utterly present, the moments desperately, magnificently clarified. As meaningless as it was to the world, that's how meaningful it was to me. I met parts of myself I'd never been introduced to before, glimpsed more clearly strengths and flaws I'd half suspected. A marathon peels you down toward your core for a little while, gets past the defenses we erect even against ourselves. That's the high that draws you back for the next race, a centering elation shared by people who finished an hour ahead and two hours behind me. And it must echo in some small way what runners must always have felt -- the Tarahumara Indians on their impossible week-long runs through the canyons of Mexico, the Masai on their game trails. Few things are more basic than running.
And yet it is entirely possible that we will be among the last generations to feel that power and that frailty. Genetic science may soon offer human beings, among many other things, the power to bless their offspring with a vastly improved engine. For instance, scientists may find ways to dramatically increase the amount of oxygen that blood can carry. When that happens, we will, though not quite as Isaiah envisioned, be able to run and not grow weary.
This is one small item on the long list of "improvements" that the proponents of human genetic engineering envision, and one of the least significant corners of human life they propose to alter. But it serves as a decent template for starting to think about all the changes they have in mind, and indeed the changes that may result from a suite of other new engineering marvels like advanced robotics and nanotechnology. We will soon double back and describe the particulars of these technologies. But first consider sports.
Attempts to alter the human body are nothing new in sports, of course. It's been more than a century since Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard, the French physiologist called "the father of steroids," injected himself with an extract derived from the testicles of a guinea pig and a dog. Athletes have been irradiated and surgically implanted with monkey glands; they have weight-trained with special regimens designed to increase mitochondria in muscle cells and have lived in special trailers pressurized to simulate high altitudes. For endurance athletes, the drug of choice has for the last decade been erythropoietin, or EPO, a man-made version of a hormone released by the kidneys that stimulates the production of red blood cells, so that the blood can carry extra oxygen. With EPO, the red blood cells can get so thick that the blood curdles, turns into a syrupy ooze -- in the early days of the drug, elite cyclists started dropping dead across their handlebars, their hearts unable to pump the sludge running through their veins.
In 1995, researchers asked two hundred Olympic hopefuls if they'd take a drug that would guarantee them a five-year winning streak and then kill them. Almost half said yes. The Tour de France has been interrupted by police raids time and again; in 2001, Italian officials found what they described as a "mobile hospital" trailing the Giro d'Italia bike race, well stocked with testosterone, human growth hormone, urofillitophin, salbutamol, and a synthetic blood product called HemAssist. The British sports commentator Simon Eassom said recently that the only people likely to be caught for steroid abuse were from Third World countries: everyone else could afford new-generation drugs that didn't yet show up on tests. Some sports, like power lifting, have had to give in and set up "drug- free" or "natural" divisions.
In other words, you could almost say that it makes no difference whether athletes of the future are genetically engineered -- that the damage is already done with conventional drugs, the line already crossed. You could almost say that, but not quite. Because in fact, in the last couple of years the testing has gotten better. The new World Anti-Doping Agency has caught enough offenders to throw a scare into dirty athletes, and some heart into clean ones. Some distance athletes who had decided to retire because they felt they couldn't compete have gone back into training; a new group of poststeroids shotputters and discus hurlers have proved their point by winning meets with shorter throws than the records of a decade ago. And both athlete and fan remain able to draw the line in their minds: no one thought Ben Johnson's 1988 dash record meant anything once the Olympic lab found steroids in his system. It was erased from the record books, and he was banned from competition. Against the odds, sports just manages to stay "real."
But what if, instead of crudely cheating with hypodermics, we began to literally program children before they were born to become great athletes? "Picture this," writes one British journalist. "It is 2016. A young couple are sitting in a doctor's waiting room. They know that what they are about to do is illegal, but they are determined. They have come to make their child a world-beating athlete," by injecting their embryo with the patented genes of a champion. Muscle size, oxygen uptake, respiration -- much of an athlete's inherent capacity derives from her genes. What she makes of it depends on her heart and mind, of course, as well as on the accidents of where she's born, and what kind of diet she gets, and whether the local rulers believe that girls should be out running. And her genes aren't entirely random: perhaps her parents were attracted to each other in the first place because both were athletes, or because they were not. But all those variables fit within our idea of fate. Flipping through the clinic catalogue for athletic genes does not; it's a door into another world.
If it happens -- and when that girl grows up to compete -- it won't be as if she is "cheating." "What if you're born with something having been done to you?" asks the Olympic dash champion Maurice Greene. "You didn't have anything to do with it."' But if that happens, what will be the point of running? "Just what human excellences are we supposed to be celebrating?" asks the medical ethicist Eric Juengst. "Who's got the better biotech sponsor?"
Copyright 2003 Bill McKibben
Meet the Author
Bill McKibben writes regularly for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Natural History, The New Republic, and many other publications. His first book, The End of Nature, was published in 1989 after being excerpted in The New Yorker and was a national bestseller. His other books include The Age of Missing Information, Maybe One, and Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously. He lives with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, and daughter in Vermont.
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This is one of the most thoughtful, and sobering, books I've ever read. McKibben takes a deep, serious and well-researched look at the implications of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence, and the post-human future he sees is chilling. Whether you are a technophobe or a technophile, this book is a must-read. If McKibben is right, the future will be here sooner than we think. The question is, will humanity as we know it be a part of it? Robert Adler, author of _Medical Firsts: From Hippocrates to the Human Genome_ and _Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation_.
Well, Bill McKibben is probably not going to join the Ayn Rand workgroup. In this little-noticed but important book, McKibben discusses the potential dark side of advanced technologies such as genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology. As opposed to some critics, he concentrates not on the physical danger (e.g. robots becoming smarter than us and taking over), but the threat to our humanness and freedom. For example, in the coming years parents may be able to increase the intelligence of their children through germline enhancements. This choice, McKibben asserts, actually reduces choice because all parents will be forced to make these enhancements or have less intelligent children. This illustrates the faulty logic that permeates his thinking. Parents will make this choice ¿ assuming the germline engineering is safe ¿ because it results in a benefit for their child. Isn¿t that what parents are supposed to do? If McKibben had his way, the government would eliminate this choice. Following his convoluted logic, the elimination of choice actually enhances choice. Although McKibben confuses his passion with logic, he does raise important issues. These technologies have significant risks and benefits; it¿s critical to have a thorough debate now, because they are emerging so rapidly. Properly managed, we can utilize them safely, even if we bumble from time to time. I recommend this book, even if you are on the other side of this issue. McKibben provides a good overview of the technologies and then explains his concerns. You may disagree, but his ideas get the juices going and make you think.