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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #144                                                  April 29, 2003
                     A Publication of The Nature Institute
               Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
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    Me and My Double Helixes (Stephen L. Talbott)
       The trouble with Bill McKibben's new book
    Announcements and Resources
       A New Booklet Derived from NetFuture: "Extraordinary Lives"
    About this newsletter
                             ME AND MY DOUBLE HELIXES
                                Stephen L. Talbott
       Notes concerning Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, by
       Bill McKibben (New York: Henry Holt, 2003).  Hardcover, 275 pages, $25.
    "What will you have done to your newborn", Bill McKibben asks, "when you
    have installed into the nucleus of every one of her billions of cells a
    purchased code that will pump out proteins designed to change her?"  His
    answer is stark -- and, I believe, misdirected:
       You will have robbed her of the last possible chance of understanding
       her life.  Say she finds herself, at the age of sixteen, unaccountably
       happy.  Is it her being happy -- finding, perhaps, the boy she will
       first love -- or is it the corporate product inserted within her when
       she was a small nest of cells, an artificial chromosome now causing her
       body to produce more serotonin?  Don't think she won't wonder:  at
       sixteen a sensitive soul questions everything.  But perhaps you've
       "increased her intelligence" -- and perhaps that's why she is
       questioning so hard.  She won't even be sure whether the questions are
       hers.  (p. 47)
    McKibben repeatedly comes back to this point.  A lover of running, he says
    that "if my parents had somehow altered my body so that I could run more
    quickly, that fact would have robbed running of precisely the meaning I
    draw from it" -- the meaning that comes from exertions and achievements he
    could call his own (p. 48).  "If you've been designed and programmed to
    run, what meaning can running hold?" (p. 55)
    Likewise, noting that scientists "have pinpointed the regions of the
    parietal lobe that quiet down when Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks pray",
    he surmises that genetic engineers will before long be able to amplify the
       As a result, the minister's son may be even more pious than he is, but
       if he has any brain left to himself he will question that piety at the
       deepest level, wonder constantly whether it means anything or if it's
       so much brainwashing.  And if he doesn't question it, if the gene
       transplant takes so deeply that he turns into an anchorite monk living
       deep in the desert, then his faith is utterly meaningless, far more
       meaningless than the one his medieval ancestors inherited by
       birthright.  It would be a faith literally beyond questioning and hence
       no faith at all.  He would be, for all intents and purposes, a robot.
       (p. 48)
    And so, too, there's the pianistically inclined mother who wants her child
    to be an even better pianist than she.  But the point of piano playing
    lies in the meaning that is created through inclination and effort.  "If
    the mother injects all that into her daughter's cells, she robs her
    daughter forever of the chance to make music her own authentic context --
    or to choose something else".  The daughter would be a player piano as
    much as a human, "ever uncertain whether it is her skill and devotion or
    her catalogue proteins that move her fingers so nimbly" (p. 48).
    Too Much Liberation?
    As happy as one might expect to be when a writer of Bill McKibben's
    stature draws attention to the troubling potentials of DNA manipulation, I
    fear that in this book he has unwittingly sided with the manipulators.
    But this will take a little explaining.
    McKibben usefully sketches our progressive loss of human context, which is
    also a loss of meaning.  The automobile wrenched us loose from local
    community; television isolated us from our immediate neighbors; divorce as
    a mass phenomenon cast a shadow of uncertainty over every family; and the
    natural world itself has been arbitrarily re-shaped according to our
    habits and appetites, so that it no longer offers us "a doorway into a
    deeper world".
    But don't waste time asking whether these changes are good or bad, he
    advises us.  They "came upon us like the weather", before we could do
    anything about them.
    What, then, are we left with as a resource against meaninglessness?  Only
    our individual selves.  And that important truth brings McKibben to his
    punch line, which is that now, thanks to the genetic engineers, "we stand
    on the edge of disappearing even as individuals".  Of course, the
    engineers put it in slightly different terms.  They "promise to complete
    the process of liberation, to free us or, rather, our offspring from the
    limitations of our DNA, just as their predecessors freed us from the
    confines of the medieval worldview, or the local village, or the family".
    But this, McKibben opines, "is one liberation too many":
       We are snipping the very last weight holding us to the ground, and when
       it's gone we will float silently away into the vacuum of
       meaninglessness.  (p. 47)
    Yet, unlike with those earlier challenges (although he does not explain
    why now and not then), we still have a choice when it comes to germline
    engineering.  "What makes us unique is that we can restrain ourselves.  We
    can decide not to do something that we are able to do.  We can set limits
    on our desires.  We can say, 'Enough'" (p. 205).
    We Are Not Our DNA
    The problem is that McKibben's entire line of argument is self-defeating.
    "If you genetically alter your child and the programming works", he tells
    us, "then you will have turned your child into an automaton to one degree
    or another".  As we heard above, the monk with genetically reinforced
    piety "would be, for all intents and purposes, a robot".
    But if this is true -- if we are, in this mechanistic sense, creatures of
    our DNA -- then we are robots in any case.  An entity that can be
    programmed is already an automaton.  That's what it means to be an
    automaton.  What difference does it make whether "chance events"
    programmed us, or someone in a lab coat?  If, as McKibben insistently
    repeats, a twiddled bit of DNA substitutes for my meaningful self, then
    so, too, does an untwiddled bit of DNA.
    McKibben is very good at showing how the engineers would treat our
    children as product lines, and would view the results of unsuccessful
    experiments as defective products.  But he never offers a clear
    alternative to this product-view of ourselves.  The parents who succumb to
    the lure of germline engineering would, he suggests, "be inserting genes
    that produced proteins that would make their child behave in certain ways
    throughout his life.  You cannot rebel against the production of that
    protein" (p. 58).  Well, no more and no less can you rebel against the
    protein that would have been there without the engineering.  Why, on his
    argument, are you not the product and slave of that protein?
    McKibben reasonably asks us to exercise our freedom by saying "Enough!" to
    the engineers.  But there is startling dissonance in hearing someone argue
    for the urgency of free choice by asserting that our proteins determine
    our choices.  By appearing to validate the scientist's (and the public's)
    conviction that we are our protein-producing DNA, McKibben is assisting
    the engineers' program.  For while his commendable aim is to convince us
    to pull back from the eugenic brink, the fact is that those who think they
    are their DNA are exactly the ones who will clamor for a new and improved
    self, or at least for new and improved children.
    Will the genetic engineers make our lives meaningless?  This is ever so
    close to the truth, yet light years away from it.  No one can, in absolute
    terms, rob someone else of meaning.  What makes life meaningless is our
    rejection of meaning -- a rejection we have already given expression to
    when we conceive ourselves as the product of DNA "mechanisms".  The
    engineers are not making our lives meaningless; they are acting out the
    implications of their own flight from meaning by grasping whatever straws
    of pseudo-meaning they can find in their high-tech toys.
    McKibben should have said, not that we are at risk of designing the
    individual self out of existence, but rather that we are directing
    unprecedented violence against it.  We would make our offspring, in C. S.
    Lewis' phrase, the patients of our power, which is not at all the same as
    destroying their selfhood.  Historically, the human individual has shown
    itself capable of surviving every imaginable insult, including those
    originating in the Gulag and Holocaust of the past century.  It will also
    survive chemical assaults from the environment and chemical assaults from
    within its own body.
    The real question today -- a question McKibben's book only makes more
    poignant -- is whether the individual can survive disbelief in its own
    A Concept on the Verge of Collapse
    That the worshippers of machinery, efficiency, and power are engaged today
    in a fateful assault upon the human being is beyond all doubt.  McKibben
    performs a valuable service by documenting this assault for a large
    audience from the mouths of the commandos carrying it out.  There is no
    shortage of testimony.  To take just two brief examples:  Robert Haynes,
    president of the Sixteenth International Congress of Genetics, understands
    our ability to manipulate genes as indicating "the very deep extent to
    which we are biological machines".  Likewise, Rodney Brooks of the MIT AI
    Laboratory declares that interacting molecules are "all there is".  They
    have produced the human body -- "a machine that acts according to a set of
    specifiable rules .... We are machines, as are our spouses, our children,
    and our dogs".  As for the contraptions that will surpass us, we should be
    under no illusions:  "Resistance is futile" (p. 204).
    McKibben makes as if to tackle this sort of gibberish.  But in his
    eagerness to raise the alarm as shrilly as possible, he ends up granting
    far too much plausibility to the engineers.  It is, after all, just
    laughable to claim that a particular gene, or any identifiable suite of
    genes, can account, in a coherent and manageable way, for intelligence or
    running ability or pianistic skill or piety.  Certainly, as McKibben
    notes, there are people like the double-helix celebrity, James Watson, who
    speak glibly of "going for perfection", as if this goal laid out an
    obvious course that could be traversed with reliable means.  But Watson is
    a childish, petulant anti-intellectual who can't have devoted sixty
    seconds of his life to contemplating what it might mean for a human being
    to be perfect, or how we might get there.
    The fact is that nearly all genetic engineers today have been forced to
    acknowledge the silliness of the "gene-for-this" idea.  The idea has
    proven problematic enough when it comes to the most narrowly defined human
    diseases.  Transpose it to deep character traits and skill sets and it is
    off the mark by what one can only call an astronomical order of magnitude.
    Evelyn Fox Keller in The Century of the Gene (Harvard University,
    2000) provides an excellent review of the state of genetic research.  Her
    long summary of the complications besetting the easy, simplistic notion of
    the gene culminates in this ironic observation:
       At the very moment in which gene-talk has come to so powerfully
       dominate our biological discourse, the prowess of new analytical
       techniques in molecular biology and the sheer weight of the findings
       they have enabled have brought the concept of the gene to the verge of
    So it is that "the prospect of significant medical benefits -- benefits
    that only a decade ago were expected to follow rapidly upon the heels of
    the new diagnostic techniques -- recedes ever further into the future".
    The Unity of the Organism
    McKibben briefly alludes to these problems.  It is, he grants, "unlikely
    that genes work quite as simply as the standard models insisted" (p. 13).
    This may sound comforting, he allows; "maybe there's not much to worry
    about; maybe it's a problem for the grandkids".  But he quickly moves on:
       In fact, however, all these qualifications mask the larger truth:
       genes do matter.  A lot.  That fact may not fit every ideology,
       but it does fit the data.  Endless studies of twins raised separately
       make very clear that virtually any trait you can think of is, to some
       degree, linked to our genes.  Intelligence?  The most recent estimates
       show that half or more of the variability in human intelligence comes
       from heredity. (p. 14)
    Of course genes matter.  All aspects of the human organism matter, and
    they are all related to what we call "heredity" just as they are all
    related to our cell membranes or to our hearts and would likely be
    affected, in some cases drastically, by an operation to modify the heart's
    functioning.  Heredity affects everything, but then, too, the stuff and
    the interactions we (rather arbitrarily) group under the label of
    "heredity" are affected by all the rest of the organism.  There is no way
    to slice up the organic unity that we are and say, without qualification,
    "This part determines that".  This sort of causality simply doesn't exist
    in the organism.
    McKibben's argument for the effectiveness of genetic engineering has two
    steps.  First, he cites evidence for the partial genetic determination of
    traits ranging from muscle mass to intelligence to homosexuality.  Then,
    noting a history of accelerating technical success, he suggests that it's
    just a matter of time before we can reliably engineer these traits into
    our offspring.
    This is a subtle mixture of truth and nonsense that desperately needs
    sorting out.  Yes, we can be sure that more and more genetic "causes" for
    this and that will be found, much as we have been finding one substance
    after another that "causes" cancer.  In fact, one can say with a great
    deal of confidence that nearly everything, in some amount and via some
    possible pathway, can meaningfully be linked to cancer or its avoidance.
    That's just the way organisms work; everything is related to everything
    When we begin discovering that "everything" is causally related to a
    particular condition, we also begin realizing that we haven't learned much
    about the condition at all -- not, at least, so long as we remain stuck in
    this mechanistic, cause-and-effect mindset, disregarding the governing
    unity and expressive tendencies of the organism as a whole.  And, indeed,
    while specific bits of knowledge about this or that particular "mechanism"
    of cancer have multiplied almost beyond all comprehension, it remains a
    live question whether we understand, any more than our grandparents did,
    why one individual develops cancer and another (who may have been subject
    to the same risk factors) does not.  Genetic scientists are now well along
    the path toward a similar lesson.
    The stunning technical progress McKibben traces has little bearing on
    this lesson.  There is no doubt at all that our technical
    capabilities will continue to develop at an ever-accelerating pace.  We
    will learn to stick this set of genes in that location with greater and
    greater precision.  We will continue to overcome previously
    "unsurpassable" technical barriers.  And we will declare our efforts
    successful or unsuccessful in willful ignorance of all the ways the
    organism has shifted its entire structure and way of being in response to
    the unasked-for invasion.  It will be enough, for the priest-scientist,
    that some desired effect was noted.  And, yes, McKibben is right:  some of
    these effects will be commercially valuable.  We can expect to see much of
    the technological sickness he describes.
    But none of this represents success at the kind of global re-engineering
    of the organism and the individual that McKibben envisions.  Certainly we
    can pursue such engineering in a negative sense, perhaps all the way to
    making the physical body humanly uninhabitable.  We can throw up decisive
    genetic obstacles to the individual's self-expression through his own body
    -- we could, to be trivial, intentionally or unintentionally disable
    critical parts of the nervous system.
    We will doubtless also be able to make some collection of changes known to
    have a bearing on, say, intelligence.  But this is very different from a
    knowledgeable, systematic, or coherent redesign of the organism, which
    would require a different kind of science from what we now have.  And it
    doesn't address the question of the individual self at all.  If we pursue
    this path, we may arbitrarily interfere in the destinies of our fellows in
    countless novel ways, and we may count many isolated alterations as
    "improvements", but we will not be engineering superior human beings.
    Intertwined Lives
    McKibben is emphatically right in his central contention:  the gene
    manipulators are promising us nothing less than disaster.  But I think our
    only hope for avoiding the disaster lies in an ability to move beyond the
    current terms of the debate.
    McKibben, as we saw, believes that if his parents had altered his body to
    make him a faster runner, it would have robbed his running of its meaning.
    But -- as he notes without adequately exploring the fact -- all parents do
    have the power to alter their children's bodies, and they always exercise
    that power.  When we leave aside the fact that, by pairing off as they
    did, they determined a great deal about their offspring's genetic
    heritage, there remain all the effects of upbringing.
    The quality of a child's diet, for example, can make the difference
    between a superb runner and an obese non-runner.  The kind of activity --
    or inactivity -- the parents encourage while young bones, muscles, and
    nerves are developing sets bounds to what the adult may eventually
    achieve.  And parental carelessness -- or, worse, downright abuse -- may
    result in an injury radically limiting the child's potentials as a runner.
    The young child can hardly be expected to override or control all such
    parental influences.  Moreover, these influences extend beyond the body,
    into the innermost regions of the psyche.  Whether a child is brimming
    with confidence, ready to take on every new challenge as a runner, or
    instead shies away from such challenges, may depend in part upon the
    parents' love and supportiveness.
    The moral is simple:  we are caught up in each other's destinies.  There
    is no escaping the fact.  This, however, is not to dismiss the importance
    of our interactions with each other as "merely routine".  Quite the
    opposite.  One way to put it is to say that McKibben's concern for the
    grave implications of genetic engineering should be extended to all those
    other ways in which we "engineer" one another's destiny.  We may have
    taken these far too lightly.  None of us becomes what he is alone.
    But nothing in this line of thought justifies our arguing that, because
    DNA manipulation recklessly affects someone's destiny, this manipulation
    therefore reconstitutes the self or robs it of meaning.  So far as I can
    tell, McKibben does not offer a single sentence in justification of this
    primary contention.  A mere assumption -- and a pernicious one at that -- is
    the ruling center of his argument.  Furthermore, the clear, if unspoken,
    implication of his argument is that, if your physical body and its
    chemistry have been dramatically and irreversibly shaped by an abusive
    parent or anyone else, then your life, too, must be to that extent
    "Germline engineering destroys the meaningful existence of the
    individual."  I realize how hard it is to give up such a clear-cut
    line of defense when one feels under the shadow of an extreme danger.
    But surely our long-term hope hinges on truly outlining the danger rather
    than misrepresenting it.
    Self and World
    Any such assessment, it seems to me, must begin with this truth:  the skin
    of our bodies does not constitute the boundary between self and world.
    Our physical bodies belong to the outer world, even though we obviously
    have a special relationship with this particular part of the world.  And
    just as a "blow of destiny" from the world -- say, a freak, disabling
    injury to my body -- does not subvert that core place within me where I
    experience myself as a free and spiritual being -- neither do the assaults
    of the engineers upon my bodily DNA destroy this inner reality.
    As Craig Holdrege makes clear in Genetics and the Manipulation of Life,
    the organism treats a bit of injected DNA much as it treats alien
    elements introduced into its external environment:  it adapts in its
    own distinctive manner, an adaptation expressing its inner way of being
    (which is exactly what makes the organism-wide results of genetic
    engineering so unpredictable by an engineering mentality).  Injuries,
    whether inflicted accidentally or by engineers, may severely limit
    our possibilities of expression in the world -- and may do so in morally
    reprehensible ways -- but this is not the same as destroying the self that
    responds freely and in its own way to these limitations.
    McKibben describes the death of his childhood friend, Kathy, from cystic
    fibrosis.  Pondering whether he would opt for germline engineering to
    overcome such a disease, he worries about the slippery slope this would
    put us on.  The problem, he says, is that there is no clear line between
    repair of obvious disorders and the sort of enhancement that redefines the
       Soon you're headed toward the world where Kathy's lungs work fine, but
       where her goodness, her kindness, don't mean what they did.  Where
       someone's souping up her brains or regulating her temper, not just
       clearing up her mucus.
    There is a slippery slope, and we should avoid it.  But we can't choose
    to do so by losing sight of the individual who must do the choosing -- the
    individual who, for McKibben, seems always about to vanish into a set of
    controlling mechanisms.
    Kathy's kindness could never mean in one situation what it meant in
    another.  But this does not suggest the absence of her self in either
    case.  We all know that it's much easier to be kind in social contexts
    where this is encouraged and supported from all sides.  It's much harder
    in an every-man-for-himself environment.  Kindness while under the
    influence of Prozac, and kindness while undergoing chemotherapy, may
    express quite different potentials of one's personality.  But either
    there's a self capable of manifesting itself through all the differing
    physical and social conditions of the individual's life, or there isn't.
    And the conviction that there is -- a conviction that must underlie any
    solution to our current quandary -- is one that McKibben seems unable to
    muster with sufficient force to overcome the mindset of the engineer.
    The self-doubt that McKibben ascribes to the patients of the engineer's
    power ("Is this really my character?") is self-doubt we ought to
    feel in any case, since we are always tempted to abdicate the self's true
    achievement by yielding to mechanism.  Do my responses at this moment
    genuinely reflect the freedom of my self, or are they rather indicative of
    the good meal I just enjoyed -- or of the powerful hunger now voicing
    itself in my blood chemistry?
    Or, if I am born with a temperament inclining me toward equanimity, I
    might well ask:  how much of my deepest potential have I yet brought to
    birth through this physically mediated temperament?  What new aspects of
    myself would I discover if I ventured into extreme circumstances forcing
    me out of the comfortable, rather too easy pattern of my life?  Do I avoid
    new challenges precisely in order to preserve my highly valued equanimity?
    Such questions about the conditioning factors of one's life do not testify
    to the loss of self; they are a deep expression of the self.  They
    exemplify its power to transcend all material conditions.  To question
    something is already to have separated one's essential identity from the
    thing.  McKibben has it backward when he equates the physical body (DNA)
    with the self and deprecates the self's questioning of itself as lostness.
    His stance serves the purpose of the engineers perfectly.  Discount the
    self that can question and rise above the material conditions of life, and
    all you have left is a mechanism fit for tinkering.
    Freedom and Limitation
    If it's true, as I have suggested, that we unavoidably affect each other's
    destinies -- for ill, but also for good -- then everything hinges upon our
    understanding of this mutuality.  And the first thing to grasp is that
    healthy human exchange is, and is essentially, a matter of mutuality.  We
    are called to engage each other in a mutually respectful dance or
    conversation, which is very different from unilateral manipulation.
    Conversation or manipulation:  this is the decisive distinction.
    Two people in conversation meet and accommodate to each other.  Each gives
    and each receives -- the giving is prerequisite for the receiving and the
    receiving for the giving.  The exchange is irreducibly moral, as is every
    meeting between self and other.  I cannot talk about the good-for-me
    except in relation to the good-for-others.  No human being grows and
    develops in the sense that counts most deeply except by helping others to
    grow and develop.
    Such mutuality extends even to the relation between parent and tiniest
    child.  Martha Beck's story in Expecting Adam (NF #102) reminds us
    in a startling way that a child, even a yet-unborn child, can speak
    powerfully in its own behalf, summoning from its environment the crucial
    elements of its destiny.
    But we don't need such an extraordinary story in order to see the truth.
    Every attentive mother and father knows that their child, though lacking
    powers of intellectual articulation, has yet many voices for expressing
    its distinctive character and needs.  Conscientious parents do not find
    themselves unilaterally determining the shape of their child's life; they
    are forever responding to what comes to meet them, which as often as not
    is unexpected.  They struggle to make room for the unforeseen potentials
    the child is ceaselessly declaring.
    This kind of mutuality characterizes all worthwhile human interaction.
    One result of this is that the Other, whose needs I must bear even as he
    bears mine, becomes not only essential to the realization of my destiny --
    a gift to me -- but also a kind of burden, limiting my freedom.  But the
    gift and the limitation are thoroughly intertwined, so that one turns out
    to be the face of the other.
    In general, limitation and suffering, which we so often inflict upon each
    other, are inseparable from the highest gifts we receive.  We must always
    work to overcome limitation and reduce suffering in the world, but if in
    this work we remain blind to their necessary and positive role, our work
    will be destructive.
    Freedom is empty without the necessities that bind us.  If we were able to
    act with complete, arbitrary abandon to achieve anything we wanted without
    restriction, it would mean we were able to do nothing significant.  It
    would mean there was no constraining lawfulness, no order and regularity
    in the world, in which case our activity could have no coherent or
    meaningful effects.  Without limitation and necessity (and the suffering
    they bring with them), there is no freedom.
    Acting in Ignorance
    Every philosopher who has ever looked at the problem of freedom and
    necessity has recognized this interweaving of the two.  But if one or two
    of the vocal, best-selling advocates of eugenic engineering have ever
    attempted some such reflection, I haven't seen evidence of it.  Those who
    speak of removing human limitation and going for perfection don't seem to
    have the slightest clue about the inseparability of meaningful achievement
    and limitation.  And they appear perfectly content to talk about altering
    the physical "machinery" of the individual without any consideration of
    the mutuality essential to non-totalitarian human exchange.
    What makes this infinitely worse is that, when they enter the laboratory,
    they don't know what they're doing -- a point McKibben unfortunately
    obscures with his unrealistic depiction of the state of the art.  The
    genomic engineer is carrying out his manipulations in utter ignorance of
    their broad, ramifying effects, and is either unaware of his ignorance or,
    much more likely, frighteningly casual about it.
    The bedrock principle of the organism, as I remarked above, is that
    everything is connected to everything else -- and in ways we have scarcely
    begun to understand.  To alter the human genome today through the
    engineer's techniques is the moral equivalent of my flipping a coin to
    determine whether my child will be educated in a public school, on the
    streets, in my home, or in a prison for hardened felons.  The difference,
    of course, is that I at least have a fair idea of the alternatives when I
    flip the coin; the genetic engineer who plays the DNA roulette wheel
    cannot begin to conceive the range of unknown but possible effects of this
    action -- effects that may continue on down the germ line through
    countless generations.
    Perhaps you will ask, "How can an element of mutuality enter into
    the engineer's dealings with the yet-unborn -- or with the yet-
    unconceived?"  If this seems to you an obvious impossibility, then that
    itself places a sobering question mark over these dealings.  But if you
    are among those who see the citadel of materialism and mechanism being
    weakened and undermined from all sides, you may suspect that a mutual
    exchange between a parent and an incarnating child is not altogether
    unthinkable.  In this case you cannot rule out, in absolute terms, all
    future application of genetic engineering techniques to the unborn --
    assuming, of course, that we eventually get the kind of qualitative
    science that would make such techniques meaningful and reliable in their
    implications for the entire organism.
    A Bifurcation of Humanity
    A final note regarding the Lee Silvers, Hans Moravecs, and Ray Kurzweils
    (all leading characters in McKibben's book) and their tales of the
    twilight of the human race as we have known it.  These would-be prophets
    of a post-human future have found a rewarding niche for themselves
    proclaiming in the most outrageously satisfied manner they can contrive,
    "The end is near!"  We can learn a great deal from them about certain
    tendencies of the technological mindset, but not much at all about human
    freedom, the self, or truth, beauty, and goodness.  To allow their
    rhetoric to determine the form of the discussion when you're concerned
    with responsible assessment of human nature and the shape of the future is
    to give up all clarity of thought at the very outset.
    I will say for the "prophets", however, that they are justified in feeling
    a certain revulsion when they hear of absolute limits to human
    development, of challenges refused, of human achievement that has come far
    enough.  They are correct: we will never have come far enough.  Our dual
    responsibility is to accept our limits and to work against (or rise
    above) them in the knowledge that no limits are absolute just as no
    freedom is absolute.  Our life is our growth and development -- growth and
    development within a context that forever limits, disciplines, and shapes
    us even as we forever re-shape and transcend it.
    What the prognosticators miss is the crucial truth:  in the end, all
    enduring achievements -- the only ones we can ever be satisfied with --
    are inner ones.  They are achievements of the spirit.  The effort to
    conceive what we want in terms of outward mechanisms (which include the
    body's "mechanisms") is not a stretching toward new horizons, but a
    darkening of those horizons.  The only truth in all the frenzy of post-
    human prediction is that we can, through inner abdication, bring
    about a twilight of the race.  We are being urged toward this goal from
    all sides.
    But perhaps "regression" is more accurate than "twilight".  You can't read
    the futuristic scenarios and personal hopes of the re-engineers of
    humanity without being struck by the utter childishness of it all.
    Genetic modifications that will save us from the necessity of bodily
    excretion; nano-contrived plants that look exactly like orchids but can
    grow in frigid climes; robots that wait on us like slaves; a cyber-nano-
    genetically engineered "elite race of people who are smart, agile, and
    disease-resistant"; nanobot swarms able to wander the human bloodstream
    and keep us eternally healthy; technological horns of plenty that will
    convert every "desolate" village into "a Garden of Eden, with widescreen
    TVs and cappuccino machines for all"....and so on ad infinitum.
    And many of these visions come from the same people who delight in
    ridiculing the "childish hopes" of the traditionally religious!
    I offer a confession.  I, too, think we may be headed toward the kind of
    two-class society many of the engineers envision.  And I fear that the
    lower, "unenhanced" class will be left pitifully behind.  But this
    underclass will consist of the infantilized portion of the race -- a group
    of people so mesmerized by what they see as the promise of technology that
    they will give up their own development.  In their arrested, technology-
    fixated state, with their lightspeed tools of calculation and well-honed
    manipulative skills (wonderful pacifiers of the human spirit) they may,
    for who knows how long, wield the external power in society.  But it will
    be the power of the child-tyrant.  Meanwhile, a wiser humanity will
    continue maturing those inner powers of imaginative insight and moral
    resolve that just may, in the end, enable them to save the tyrants from
    I wish I could say that Bill McKibben's opus is likely to encourage this
    wiser movement toward an ever-deepening human future.  But a book that
    sows self-doubt in the face of the technological assault does not promise
    much encouragement.
    Related articles:
    ** "Sowing Technology" in NF #123.  About biotechnology, with an emphasis
       on the agricultural aspects -- but also with discussion of the limits
       of genetic technologies.
    ** "Ecological Conversation" in NF #127.  What it means to be in a
       respectful dialogue with nature rather than in technological control of
    ** "Who Is on the Receiving End of the Genetic Engineer's Power?" in NF
       #100.  On making our children the patients of our power.
    ** All of NF #102, which includes a review of Martha Beck's Expecting
       Adam, along with a commentary on the wild claims and aims of the
       eugenic engineers.
    ** For many other articles dealing with genetics, see the "Genetic
       engineering" heading in the NetFuture topical index:
    ** Also see the booklet announcement below.
    Goto table of contents
                           ANNOUNCEMENTS AND RESOURCES
    A New Booklet Derived from NetFuture: "Extraordinary Lives"
    Three of the most widely read essays in NetFuture have been gathered
    together, along with a new introduction, in a booklet entitled,
    "Extraordinary Lives: Disability and Destiny in a Technological Age".  The
    booklet is the first in a series of "Nature Institute Perspectives"
    published by The Nature Institute in Ghent, New York.  Here are the book's
    four chapters:
    ** "Introduction: When Technology Can Alter Destinies".  Why we need to
       realize that there are disabling technologies as well as enabling ones,
       and that they are often the same technologies.  A device that
       opens up new possibilities almost certainly closes off others.
    ** "Can Technology Make the Handicapped Whole?" from NF #92.  This is a
       commentary upon the story of Jacques Lusseyran, who was blinded at a
       young age and became a leader of the French Resistance during World War
    ** "The Many Voices of Destiny" from NF #102 (including the associated
       articles, "Tinkering with Ourselves" and "On the New Eugenics").  Does
       a Down syndrome boy have an important place in our world?
    ** "On Forgetting to Wear Boots" from NF #117.  Reflections resulting from
       experiences at a Camphill Village, where the "mentally handicapped" do
       indeed find an essential place.
    The attractively produced, 62-page booklet is available for $10, including
    shipping and handling.  Bulk discounts are available.  Please send
    payment, along with your address, to The Nature Institute, 101 Route 21C,
    Ghent NY 12075.  Or go to PayPal at:
    Be sure to supply your mailing address when you fill out the information
    at PayPal.
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                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2003 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
    newsletter for noncommercial purposes.  You may also redistribute
    individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this
    paragraph are attached.
    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not
    survive without them.  For details and special offers, see
    http://netfuture.org/support.html .
    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:
    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:
    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #144 :: April 29, 2003
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