Book Review

The End of Genetic Innocence

If there’s one thing that annoys the hell out of stodgy historians it’s when journalists write sentences like this one, written by Bill McKibben in his eighth book, Enough: “The punch line of this story is that we just happen to be alive at the brief and interesting moment when this growth [of technological change] starts to really matter–when it spikes.”

“[S]tarts to really matter…” Such seeming hyperbole grates against our instincts because we know full well that everyone has always thought that way. Every generation has always thought that it was living at a special moment in time, usually experiencing its precious blip of existence as an apocalyptic, doomed, ravaged, war torn, rotten, altogether unique era. Most of these collective Cassandras, however, proceeded to defy their own panicky predictions and, at the least, survive. Recall Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation,” a group that might well be said to have prospered. I suspect there was something uniquely invidious about the obstacles that the Brokaw generation “whipped,” as the late Stephen Ambrose put it. But, come on, haven’t you heard of the plague? Nobody ever thinks they live in a golden age. We only use that concept to hark back to a supposedly better time, thereby insuring that ours pales in comparison.

Nevertheless, when McKibben insists that we’ve recently pioneered technologies that “put us all in clear danger of extinction,” he’s hardly crying wolf. Neither, as conservatives will predictably counter, is he a charlatan barking bromides from a Luddite-pulpit. When he says Enough, he does so with intelligence, moral grounding, common sense, and the guts to claim that he’s better qualified to make decisions about the uses of technology than the world’s leading scientists. McKibben’s vigilance, moreover, seems especially apt given the not unusual flippancy of a scientist like James Watson, the brilliant zoologist awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the DNA’s double helix (along with Francis Crick). Asked to reflect on the potential relationship between genetic engineering and eugenics, Watson was blunt, “It’s not much fun being around dumb people.”

Anyone familiar with McKibben might be sensing dejà vu all over again. His End of Nature (1989) argued that humanity was on the verge of destroying the world with global warming. We’d better shape up, he said, or else we’ll kill nature and ruin our lives. In his 1999 book, Maybe One: The Case for Smaller Families, he warns that the United States–the world’s most voracious consumer of resources–must reduce its birthrate or else, you got it, we’ll kill nature and ruin our lives.

And indeed, the modus operandi is still at work in Enough as McKibben takes modern technology to the mat and says that unless we pin it down we’ll, yep, kill nature and ruin our lives. McKibben showcased a few of Enough’s ideas in the April 2003 Harper’s. A letter to the editor (June 2003) targeted what I think is McKibben’s most conspicuously vulnerable spot. The reader chided McKibben for his “gloomy take on the dehumanizing effects of genetic engineering,” claiming that “notwithstanding the hype spouted by some researchers,” science is light years away from the technological capabilities McKibben imputes to it. And not only that, those technological capabilities “may never be possible.” Like Francis Fukuyama, who predicted the “end of history” with the fall of the Soviet Union (and, not incidentally, recently wrote Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution), McKibben could be said to indulge in dramatic, trumped-up overstatement.

Why, then, do we continue to pay attention? Why has Enough, published in April, already garnered space in dozens of national magazines, including Margaret Atwood’s positive review in The New York Review of Books and Natalie Angier’s lukewarm overview in The New York Times Book Review? A couple of reasons jump to mind. One, not only is McKibben a superb writer, but he’s the guy out there just enough to consider the implications of a word like “may” in “may never be possible” and question whether or not “hype spouted” is in fact that. Naturally, in arguing the extremes, he opens himself to the obvious criticism that, as Angier put it, “I am deeply skeptical that we are anywhere near being able to produce so-called designer babies… .” Her skepticism, it’s worth noting, didn’t keep the Times from giving the book 1,200 words of attention. So, again, if McKibben is nothing more than a wooly humanist who gets off on doom, why give him the time of day? The second reason that we cannot dismiss McKibben is because in fact he is a wooly humanist who gets off on doom. He’s a writer more influenced by Wendell Berry and John McPhee than Fukuyama and E.O. Wilson. In contrast to the genetic technologies he explores in Enough, McKibben writes not only with a deep fear of human technology, but a correspondingly deep respect for the simplicity of life. We’ve seen this sentiment developed in his books on cross-country skiing and cycling in the Adirondacks. Ultimately, it’s what justifies his worst-case scenario, analytical approach and, in the long run, ironically enhances his authority on matters upon which he is no expert. The chances of his predictions coming to fruition might be slim, but it’s nothing less than basic human happiness that’s at stake.

The central question Enough asks is whether or not we’re dumb enough to engineer ourselves into oblivion. Immersed and well-versed in everything from arcane medical literature to the minutiae of the robotics movement, McKibben hammers away at the imminent applications of genetic technology. He does so incessantly enough to persuade us that there is in fact something dreadfully unique about the technologies that incurably nerdy scientists have concocted in the name of “progress” (not to mention corporate sponsorship). He relies heavily on a concept called “the knee of the curve.” The knee of the curve is that sudden bend in the otherwise gentle arc of change, “where things happen joltingly fast.” We know we’ve run into it when “growth starts to go faster than human beings alone can manage.” Scientists don’t care too much about the knee of the curve or, if they do, they relish its ability to collapse “progress” into an exponential time warp. The knee of the curve is where humanity might snuff itself out. It’s the juncture at which McKibben currently stands, and wrings his hands.

Come on, though. Knee of the curve or not, will we actually expire at the grasping hands of our own version of Frankenstein’s monster? Well, that’s an even bigger question, and one upon which McKibben thinks–philosophizes, really–deeply and elegantly. The answer, I insist–I beg–is no. But then again, I could be in denial. After all, I genuinely like striving and writing and reading and being a father and an occasional smart-ass and sitting in my worn leather chair on weekend mornings listening to Mose Allison records. These things are my life because I have chosen them to be my life. They are how I have decided to will myself into existence. And these things matter because McKibben isn’t talking about the literal end of life here, but something far more sinister: the end of choice. What he’s warning us against is the impending elimination of the genetic roulette that helped determine our most basic human predilections. He laments the possible end of humanity’s ongoing bout with fate. What’s ultimately at stake in McKibben’s world–a world in which he engages as a writer, father, marathoner, and teacher–is nothing less than the end of struggle, suffering, joy, possibility, disappointment, desire, and passion. It’s the end of a world where Hamlet’s flaws resonate because they capture the delicacy of the human condition and the notion of Homeric revenge still grips us and makes us feel acutely alive.

And it all comes down to DNA. With the 30,000 genes in the human genome now decoded, what we know could completely obviate the emotional tenor of life. If scientists push the boundaries just a tad further, yearning for anything would be useless and redundant because a genetically constructed person’s “genes would be pushing out proteins to meet the particular choices made by his parents.” Germline engineering, as it’s called, would reduce humanity to a dry catalogue of preordained characteristics completely removed from an individual’s genetic heritage. “Instead of coming solely from the combination of his parents,” McKibben writes of the future germlined kid, “those genes could come from any other person, or any other plant or animal, or out of the thin blue sky.” Want a blond, blue-eyed painter who dabbles in film? You got it. A six-foot-three chemist with curly black hair and a taste for fine wine? No problem. Once scientists work out a few kinks (most notably with respect to cloning), we’ll be able to, in the words of the CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, “edit [the sequence of DNA] the way you can a document on a word processor.” Sound ludicrous? “[T]he only thing holding us back,” McKibben writes (in contrast to Angier’s criticism), “is a thin tissue of ethical guidelines, which some scientists and politicians are working hard to overturn.”

It gets worse. McKibben introduces and briefly explores the implications of a related budding technology equally capable of sapping the juice out of life. Avid readers of Wired will know all about it, as will a few scientists at Columbia University, but nanotechnology otherwise lurks pretty far off the public’s radar screen. It shouldn’t. Recall that every object in front of you is made of atoms. Understand that it’s the specific combination of atoms that make objects different from each other, not something inherent in the objects themselves. Understand that stuff can be broken down into constituent atomic parts and recombined into other stuff. If you get all that, and then get a little devilish with your imagination, perhaps you can envision a device called the “assembler.” You wouldn’t be alone. The “holy grail of the nanotechnologists,” the assembler is “the mechanical equivalent of germline engineering.” It would allow us to build anything. Literally. About 300 companies already truck in nano-engineered products like sun lotions and eyeglass lenses. How boring! Why stop there? Need a new liver? Done deal, down the hatch. Want a new skin color? Poof, no more discrimination for you. Dentists are talking about growing new teeth for cavity-plagued patients, freaks (I don’t know how else to put it) are talking about “active food that squirms around as you eat it but becomes inert once swallowed,” designers are talking about “spray on pants,” farmers are NOT talking about nanotechnology, but should probably be planning for retirement.

So you see why it’s called Enough. “All of these technologies,” McKibben writes, “are racing towards some murky convergence.” With genetic germlining and nanotechnology, we are on the cusp of a world where we can live forever, live forever in good health, live forever performing our programmed tasks with near perfection, and, get this, live forever without having to take a shit. Sounds like paradise, right? One of the hidden payoffs in this book is McKibben’s explanation for why such a reality would be completely meaningless.

He opens with an anecdote about how he trained his ass off and ran a marathon fast enough to qualify him for the Boston Marathon. Justifiably, he felt rather swell about himself for having run 26.2 miles in 3:19:46. Then he wondered what that accomplishment would have meant if his parents had genetically engineered him to be a decent long-distance runner. “Say you’ve reached mile 23,” he writes, “and you’re feeling strong. Is it because of your hard training and your character or because the gene pack inside you is pumping out more red blood cells than your body knows what to do with? Will anyone be impressed with your dedication? More to the point, will you be impressed with your dedication? Will you know what part of it is you, and what part is your upgrade?”

The point he’s making might be simple, but it’s also philosophically profound. In not having to wonder about the source of his feat, McKibben is able to say, “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.” So there we have it. Life is beautiful, McKibben claims, because we are flawed, weak, frail, unpredictable, and because the ultimate finish line for each and every one of us isn’t the 26.2 mile marker of a road race. It’s death.

The good news is that, as of today, we’re still scheduled to die. As close as we’ve come to preventing it, we haven’t–to use one of McKibben’s favorite (read: overused) metaphors–”crossed the Rubicon.” The implication is that we have it in us to pull back and be satisfied with our present state of technological existence. Is that a plausible expectation? Technozealots will insist that technology changes with the ineluctable force of inevitability. We’ve already slipped down the slope and there’s nothing to grab onto. McKibben doesn’t buy it, and trots out three precedents to support his strong belief that we can indeed stop ourselves in our tracks. The Amish (don’t roll your eyes) have rejected tractors and home telephones and, by most standards, thrive. Fifteenth-century Confucians willingly dismantled the world’s most impressive navy in order to insulate themselves from the “barbarian” world beyond China. The 17th-century Japanese did away with firearms so as to revere the honor of swordplay. In each case, the pull of three fairly homogeneous cultures trumped a technological fait accompli.

Stretches, all of them, as McKibben is the first to admit. Nevertheless, he’s right on the mark when he writes that “we have advantages over [the Amish, Chinese, and Japanese] when it comes to reining in these new Technologies,” because “the technologies don’t yet exist.” Even so, let’s recognize that the above examples occurred outside of a powerful and determinative framework called capitalism. Whatever your thoughts about it, capitalism is an economic system that cares nothing about a non-capitalistic society’s pace of cultural change. Even here in America it has effectively bulldozed regional distinctions and undermined local control. In failing to confront head on the connection between technological change and the profit motive, McKibben sidesteps a question that probably deserves a book in itself. Will corporate America forego profit to do what’s right?

Stay wired and you’ll soon find out.

Contrary to popular opinion, James McWilliams has never been genetically modified.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST