Page 30


BOOK REVIEW The End of Genetic Innocence BY JAMES MCWILLIAMS Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age By Bill McKibben Times Books 288 pages, $25. 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 matterwhen 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 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 deja vu all over again. His End of Nature 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 Statesthe world’s most voracious consumer of resourcesmust 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 letwhat 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: ConseMcKibben 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 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/1/03