Enough Already

A leading environmentalist makes a foolish case against technological innovation.

Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, by Bill McKibben, New York: Times Books, 288 pages, $25

Environmentalist Bill McKibben has had enough, and he thinks you've had enough too. That's why he wants to stop the development of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics in their tracks. McKibben fears that, if unchecked, these technologies will transform human life ruinously. "These are the most anti-choice technologies anyone's ever thought of," he insists (the emphasis is his). "In widespread use, they will first rob parents of their liberty, and then strip freedom from every generation that follows. In the end, they will destroy forever the possibility of meaningful choice."

That claim is not only complete nonsense, it is exactly backward.

According to McKibben, science and technology have long been destroying human meaning. "Meaning has been in decline for a very long time, almost since the start of civilization," he asserts. In his neo-Romantic view, humanity once lived in an enchanted world in which every rock, tree, cloud, or bird was imbued with spirit and intention. Our ancestors' theory of the natural world was that objects and creatures behaved much as they themselves did.

It turns out that such animism is wrong, but that hasn't resulted in a world drained of meaning. It's just that modern humanity has better explanations for why things do what they do. That's not an absence of meaning; it's different, better meanings. But for McKibben, ignorance of the natural world was, in some sense, bliss.

Ignorance also plays a big role in underwriting McKibben's notion of human liberty. McKibben accepts that the fondest dreams of the proponents of human genetic engineering eventually could come to pass. Yes, he admits, advanced biomedical science could someday spare children from congenital diseases, cure cancers, correct disabilities, and lengthen the human life span.

But for McKibben, this is a dismal prospect. He argues that parents who choose to use genetic engineering will end up turning their children into "robots" and "automatons." "Down that path," he declared in a recent debate, "lies the death of what we call human meaning, the idea that people are in some way their own human beings and are not pre-programmed semi-robots."

Liberty apparently lies in our ignorance of our genes. Human freedom, McKibben believes, depends in some profound sense on the random inheritance of the genes that are the recipes for our bodies and brains. As a result of this random genetic inheritance, he suggests, we have greater scope for freedom than if our genes had been chosen for us. It turns out that McKibben is indulging in genetic essentialism, the unwarranted idea that we are just meat puppets dangling from our strands of DNA.

Yet if he really believes that human freedom depends on inheriting a random selection of genes, his cause is already lost. Why? Genetic testing. Even McKibben recognizes that such testing will soon be here. "The biotech pioneer Craig Venter said in 2002 that within five years a personalized printout of an individual's genetic code would be cheap enough for anyone to buy, so you'll probably be able to afford it late next week or so," he writes. Genetic testing will enable every one of us to know precisely our entire complement of randomly acquired genes. The good news is that we will then know our predispositions to various diseases, enabling us to take steps to delay their onset or even prevent them altogether.

McKibben, however, will not be pleased. To him, such knowledge must be a blow to our freedom because we will also know a lot more about how our particular sets of genes influence our temperaments, our intelligence, our abilities to form memories, and our physical capacities. Of course, that knowledge may well expand our freedom and our choices by making it possible for us to intervene by means of pharmaceuticals and optimized training to change our temperaments, improve our memories, or strengthen our bodies.

McKibben's fears that genetic engineering will reduce human freedom are misplaced. To the extent that genes "program" us, we are already "pre-programmed" by our randomly conferred genes; we are just ignorant about which ones are doing what programming. But as even McKibben acknowledges, that won't be the case in the near future. Will advances in genetic science destroy human freedom?

Quite the opposite. Providing children with such enhanced capacities as good health, stronger bodies, and cleverer brains, far from turning them into robots, would give them greater freedom and more choices. And any person would want to have these beneficial traits. Those of us who regard a poor immune system, a weaker body, or an IQ of 80 as privations likely will welcome the opportunity to help our children avoid such conditions, even as we try now to keep our children safe and healthy and to inspire and educate them.

McKibben objects that future gene-enhanced children will not have consented to receiving the genes selected by their parents. "The person left without any choice at all [emphasis his] is the one you've engineered," he asserts. "You've decided, for once and for all, certain things about him: he'll have genes expressing proteins that send extra dopamine to alter his mood; he'll have genes expressing proteins to boost his memory; to shape his stature."

To the extent that this is true at all, it is true for unengineered kids now. It's just that parents don't know which genes they've conferred on their children. Of course, they hope for the best -- that their kids got the genes for good health, strong bodies, and sound brains. But there's always a chance they ended up with Grandma's genes for early heart disease or those that led to Uncle Jim's schizophrenia. Genetic engineering could help parents in the future avoid some of those harmful outcomes.

McKibben is right that a gene-engineered child would have no choice about whether to express the proteins that lead to early onset Alzheimer's disease, but it's a pretty good bet that kids won't regret their parents' decision to eliminate those deleterious genes. Before we accept McKibben's misleading concerns about a child's informed consent, we should keep in mind that not one of us now living was asked our consent to be born, much less to be born with the complement of randomly conferred genes that we carry.

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