Great books for the biological century
In the November 1995 issue of REASON ("Biology 2001"), Gregory Benford declared the end of the era of physics and the coming of the biological century–not only in science but in the way we think. "Beyond 2000," he wrote, "the principal social, moral, and economic issues will probably spring from biology's metaphors and approach, and from its cornucopia of technology. Bio-thinking will inform our world and shape our vision of ourselves."
Four years later, bio-thinking is everywhere: on the health-and-genetics-obsessed covers of news magazines, in the metaphors informing debates over Internet governance, in the worried murmurs of Washington intellectuals. Daytime talk shows debate the merits of multiple births caused by fertility drugs. Conflicts over gay rights revolve around nature/nurture arguments. A trade war between the United States and Europe threatens to break out over the issue of genetically modified food.
In a 10th-anniversary review of his famous "End of History" article, Francis Fukuyama declares its thesis flawed only because genetic engineering threatens to end fixed human nature. "At that point," he concludes, "we will have definitely finished human History because we will have abolished human beings as such. And then, a new, posthuman history will begin." (Meanwhile, prominent reviewers of Fukuyama's latest, far less radical, book, The Great Disruption, find its biological interests beyond the pale.)
The line between "natural" and "artificial" has become a matter of urgent political concern. Issues of genetic determinism, evolutionary psychology, and brain physiology have spilled into moral philosophy. Questions of social and political order have become fraught with biological meaning-and vice versa.
At the dawn of the biological century, we've asked contributors to our annual book symposium to suggest works of fiction or nonfiction that provide insight into the meaning, promise, threats, challenges, or opportunities of such a world–and to explain why these books are important.
In 1780 Benjamin Franklin wrote to Joseph Priestley, the chemist, biologist, and minister: "I always rejoice to hear of your being still employed in experimental researches into nature and of the success you meet with. The rapid progress true science now makes, occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born too soon. It is impossible to imagine the height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the power of man over matter. We may, perhaps, deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity, for the sake of easy transport. Agriculture may diminish its labor and double its produce: all diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, (not excepting even that of old age,) and our lives lengthened at pleasure, even beyond the antediluvian standard. Oh that moral science were in as fair a way of improvement, that men would cease to be wolves to one another, and that human beings would at length learn what they now improperly call humanity."
Biology is making amazing progress with help from the genomics/DNA-chip and computer/Internet revolutions. Those of us in the thick of this progress believe that it will have an enormous impact on health and agriculture. Will the powerful methodology of biology illuminate moral science? This question, which would have interested both Priestley and Franklin, has been tackled in Edward O. Wilson's beautifully written book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Random House, 1999).
I am attracted to some of Wilson's evolutionary ideas about the unity of knowledge and the biological roots of moral behavior and religion, but I think he gets environmentalism and economics somewhat wrong. As one of the leading biologists of our day, he is justifiably concerned that the burgeoning human population will eliminate many of the world's species. He has too rosy a view of environmentalist panaceas, however, and fails to appreciate the insights of economists concerning the ability of free markets to deal with this problem.
Such issues are addressed more cogently by Peter Huber in his eloquent and thoughtful new book, Hard Green: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists (Basic Books, 2000). Huber's manifesto skewers most of the current environmentalist proposals as counterproductive and makes the case for markets and wealth, rather than bureaucracy and poverty, as the correct path to preserving species, the environment, and human life. My own work on cancer prevention (see socrates.berkeley.edu/mutagen) has convinced me that the environmentalist campaign to eliminate all traces of synthetic industrial chemicals and pesticides is misguided. This crusade and the new one against genetically engineered food are distractions from the real causes of cancer and other diseases, such as unbalanced diets and smoking. These distractions hurt poor people and the environment.
As Thomas Jefferson, another polymath and a friend of both Priestley and Franklin, said in 1789: "[Science] is the work to which the young men should lay their hands. We have spent the prime of our lives in procuring them the precious blessing of liberty. Let them spend theirs in showing that it is the great parent of science and of virtue; and that a nation will be great in both always in proportion as it is free."
Bruce Ames (email@example.com) is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Center at the University of California, Berkeley. He won the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1998.
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press, 1975), by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, will be considered one of the more prescient and seminal texts pointing to the 21st-century revolution in genetics and neurobiology. In Sociobiology, Wilson drew together a vast amount of research to prove that behavior, like the physical bodies of animals, is determined by genes. In fact, distinct behaviors can be considered in some sense to be external "organs" that help an animal survive and adapt to its environment. The behaviors influenced by genes include mating habits, warning calls, territorial defense, and foraging techniques.
Wilson's presentation of the research on animals was magisterial in scope, covering everything from social insects to gorillas. But his book met with fierce resistance from intellectuals because he dared to include a chapter that extended his genetic approach to the behavior of human beings. The notion that some human behavior might be strongly influenced by genes was anathema to the prevailing social science conceit of the time that the human psyche was culturally determined and thus infinitely malleable.
Ultimately, Wilson's intellectual sin was to claim that there is a core "human nature" that arises from our genes. If there is a human nature, then certain utopian social schemes, usually promoted by the left, would be impossible to implement. For example, Wilson pointed out that genetics strongly undermined the notion that altruism could be inculcated throughout a society, if only the proper social institutions were adopted. His work also suggested that "biology is destiny" with regard to some of the persistent psychological differences between men and women. And although he did not himself follow his findings to their logical conclusion, Wilson's work hinted at how a genetically based territoriality could evolve into the institution of private property.
Sociobiology has weathered firestorms of criticism, and 25 years later many of its insights have been backed up by further research into human genetics. Although human minds and cultures are extremely flexible, biology is increasingly finding that there is indeed a human nature that has a genetic basis. Researchers are discovering more and more genes that predispose their bearers to a variety of behaviors and characteristics, including risk taking, homosexual activity, and high intelligence. This list is growing and will certainly expand dramatically as geneticists begin to explore the new terrain that the Human Genome Project will shortly open.
Of course, no one gets the future exactly right. Wilson thought that it would be 100 years before scientists obtained a detailed understanding of the genetic basis of human psychology. At the current pace of research, it will probably take a lot less time than that. Also, Wilson, ever the Harvard academic, thought that uncovering the principles of sociobiology would lead inevitably to the "planned society." Yet understanding the genetic underpinnings of the human mind could instead lead to an unprecedented expansion of human autonomy. To the extent that we don't like the behaviors toward which our genes predispose us, we will be able to change them at the most basic biochemical level. In a sense, human nature can become what you want it to be.
"We are compelled to drive toward total knowledge, right down to the levels of the neuron and the gene," Wilson wrote. "When we have progressed enough to explain ourselves in these mechanistic terms, and the social sciences come to full flower, the result might be hard to accept." Wilson was bleakly assuming that biology would only show us the behavioral cage in which we are confined by our genes. But such knowledge may also give us the key that opens the genetic cage to a new, and unsettling, world of freedom.
Ronald Bailey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is REASON's science correspondent.
When confronting immense issues stretched over long times–and a century is now as much a cultural chasm as a millennium was in the ancient world–I believe in going back to the classics. There is no better guide to worried regard of the future than Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel Brave New World. With its social control induced by the drug Soma and its endless diversion of the consuming masses with the hypnotically entertaining "feelies," this vision foretold a pharmaceutical dystopia we will quite probably find within our grasp within a few decades. Its roots lie all about us, from the entertainment culture to the social engineers who want to medicate away our modern anxieties.
The novel uses a template plot: the Savage who represents Natural Man, the aborted revolutionary urges, the overweening learned classes. It is instructive to see how such problems looked to a generation far removed from ours and to realize that an equally distant generation will confront the issues growing from laboratory work beginning now. We take that long to get our bearings, and by then the landscape has changed. Huxley's anxieties resemble ours, as those of a generation hence will echo but not replicate ours. They could well be worse, particularly in the area of personal freedom.
As a counterpoint, read Gina Kolata's 1998 Clone (Penguin), a close-up look at the furor arising from Dolly the sheep, an exact genetic copy of her mother. The media hysteria that has been aroused by cloning since a phony announcement of human cloning back in 1978 is a warning to us all. As an identical twin, I have always taken it somewhat personally that people believe cloning is unnatural, especially since it is older than sex.
Kolata shows how Chicken Little journalism routinely turns biological news into shock-horror features without regard for facts. When Dolly splashed across the headlines, journalists did not bother to consider the thoughtful anticipations of this development, as in Pamela Sargent's 1976 collection Biofutures (Vintage). Still less did they care to explain to the public the severe limitations of cloning, preferring to show pictures of multiple Hitlers marching off to future wars.
These two books remind us that we will have to defend the fundamental liberty to control our own bodies–and not just the reproductive parts–against alarmists who will demand state control to enforce their own preferred norms. The hue and cry will begin with parents wanting to edit out traits in their children, including heritable diseases and physical defects. The big crunch will come when parents want to edit in desirable traits such as height, reflexes, and beauty. And why should they not?
This argument, which lies beneath the surface of Huxley's novel, will resound through the next century. In the end, it will be about freedom. The press will help little. We will have to do the job ourselves.
Contributing Editor Gregory Benford (email@example.com) is a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine. His latest nonfiction book is Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across the Millennia (Morrow).
Nature will be different in the next, biological century. In part this is because nature always changes. In part it is because we are greatly altering the landscape and the environment. In part it is because our perception of nature is undergoing a radical transition, so it will seem different no matter what its actual condition. New technologies and scientific discoveries will greatly alter this perception. What will it mean to conservation of endangered species when we can clone animals and plants? What will it mean to "restore" or "preserve" a wilderness or famous endangered habitat if nature is always changing?
One important recent book about the implications of such ideas is The New Ecological Order, by the Sorbonne philosopher Luc Ferry (University of Chicago Press, 1995). Ferry discusses the implications of "deep ecology," a late-20th-century environmental movement. He says the ideas of this movement represent the first major counter to the Cartesian, democratic, individualistic, human-oriented civilization that has been characteristic of the West for the past three centuries.
Deep ecology draws on the findings of the modern science of ecology, specifically the observation that life appears to be a planetary phenomenon and that therefore the persistence of life depends on the whole-earth life support system, the biosphere. Taking this as a premise, deep ecology proposes that the prime moral imperative is to preserve the biosphere. Completely inverting the usual moral hierarchy, it places nonsentient creatures lower, but next in moral value to the biosphere, because they are part of nature's machinery and cannot think about it and screw it up. Human beings, with our consciousness, reason, and innovation, can mess up the biosphere and therefore rank at the bottom of the moral order.
Ferry argues that this movement challenges the very assumptions that have led to scientific and technological progress, which our society tends to believe will continue indefinitely. Deep ecology calls for a reduction in the number of people, possibly as an intentional action. For those who believe that the free enterprise system is bound to continue and that Western civilization is not fragile, Ferry's book is must reading.
Mindful of George Santayana's warning that those who forget history are bound to repeat it, I recommend Traces on the Rhodian Shore by the great 20th-century geographer Clarence Glacken (University of California Press, 1967). This long and scholarly book traces the history of the idea of nature from the Greeks to the 18th century. Those who do not want to read the whole tome can skim it for insights into specific centuries and for general ideas. It is a landmark work that would be of great influence if it were better known. Written about 30 years ago, it remains in print in paperback.
Daniel B. Botkin is a research professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press), and two books about nature and the Lewis and Clark expedition, including Passage of Discovery: The America Rivers Guide to the Missouri River of Lewis and Clark (Perigee).
"Nature vs. nurture," like many ideas by the time they get into the newspapers, has a musty smell. In 1910 it was hot intellectual news: J.B. Watson's behaviorism (1913) vs. Franz Boas' cultural relativism (1911). In those days it was "the race is the mother of us all" vs. "the child is the father of the man." Karl Pearson and other Darwin-tinged eugenicists were ranged against Sigmund Freud and other Rousseau-tinged psychologists. Choose up sides. Are you a social Darwinist or a social engineer? Conservative or liberal? Getting mustier and mustier by the decade, the dispute has dominated the century of fascism.
The ideas mattered. Notions of natural intelligence (one number, please) got us laws to sterilize the feeble-minded, not to mention the Holocaust. Notions of psychological determinism, from the other, nurturing side, got us the all-purpose ethical cop-out of our age. A New Yorker cartoon shows a woman on the witness stand: "True, my husband beat me because of his childhood; but I murdered him because of mine."
The way out of the dichotomy has been a revival of an even mustier word, character. The Greek is ethos, as in our word ethics, and one version of the revival has been the "ethics of the virtues." It is the only field of professional philosophy in which women's voices are dominant: Elizabeth Anscombe, Susan Wolf, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Annette Baier, Carol Rose, Martha Nussbaum, Nel Noddings, Joan Tronto. Read 'em, and get a new–or very, very old–conviction that we make our own characters as much as genes and upbringing make us.
Another version of character, in the sense Ben Franklin or Jane Austen understood it, can be seen in the proliferation of women's autobiographies. Male critics are embarrassed by them, even when they are beautifully written, but the books sell (to women). It's the Age of the Candid Memoir, such as May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude (Norton, 1973), Annie Dillard's The Writing Life (HarperCollins, 1989), Jill Ker Conway's True North (Vintage, 1995), Kathleen Norris' Amazing Grace (Riverhead, 1998), Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation (Penguin, 1989), and Nancy Mairs' Voice Lessons (Beacon, 1994).
I've just written Crossing: A Memoir (University of Chicago Press), about my transition from man to woman, and I'm now writing a book called Bourgeois Virtue on how the middle class makes its character. Nature or nurture? I've learned, of course, that it's both–and this third thing, character.
I was born with XY genes and raised a boy in the 1940s and '50s. But in the 1990s I allowed another, feminine character to grow. The experience is like that of a snail, who makes her shell and is then constrained by it. If she were human we would call her shell her free will–against the dual determinisms of nature and nurture. The next, biological century will be the century of such freedom. For which God be praised.
Contributing Editor Deirdre N. McCloskey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a visiting professor of humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago, teaches economics and history at the University of Iowa, and is Tinbergen Distinguished Professor at Erasmus University of Rotterdam. Her most recent books are Crossing: A Memoir (University of Chicago Press) and The Vices of Economists, The Virtues of the Bourgeoisie (University of Michigan Press).
Lorenzo W. Milam
DNA technology is going to affect our food production, our medical practices, and, if speculative writers like Francis Fukuyama are right, the very nature of humanity. This is therefore a subject about which it might be important to learn a little.
A good place to start is the Web site of the International Forum on Genetic Engineering: www.anth.org/ifgene/index.htm. It contains book lists, articles, and links to many other relevant Web sites. These include an invaluable archive of resources at www.anth.org/ifgene/sources.htm.
A critical discussion in print can be found in The Future of DNA (Kluwer Academic, 1997), the proceedings of a symposium of mainly European scientists, philosophers, and other scholars held in Switzerland. It ranges from technical to medical to educational to ethical issues and presents a variety of viewpoints, some very skeptical, about the brave new genetically re-engineered world to come.
This subject cries out for an imaginative as opposed to academic treatment. But so far, contemporary science fiction has produced only shlock in this area. The great imaginative classic of the genre remains The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, written almost 50 years ago and currently out of print. Although it contains nothing about DNA technology, it ingeniously projected the biotechnology of its time into the future.
For example, Pohl and Kornbluth imagined a future in which food for the greatly increased human population would be produced by mass cultivation of photosynthetic algae in the tropics and large-scale tissue culture of mammalian cells. These forecasts were part of a coherent picture of a world in which resource substitution had met the challenges of resource depletion. In line with this picture, the world of The Space Merchants is one in which the rationality of the market finally pervades all of human life. It reads like a primer for our times. An equally trenchant work of imagination that includes the impact of DNA technology remains to be written.
Lorenzo W. Milam (email@example.com) is chief correspondent for Ralph: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities (www.ralphmag.org). He is the author of 12 books, including The Lourdes of Arizona, a study of contemporary psychology; A Cricket in the Telephone (At Sunset), a collection of poetry; and CripZen: A Manual for Survival, a guide for the disabled. All are available from Mho & Mho Works in San Diego.
Of the extensive utopian and dystopian literature that I both teach and study, two works of fiction from the early 20th century seem to me of increasing relevance at this turn of the millennium. The first is E.M. Forster's short story "The Machine Stops," originally published in 1909. The second, published a generation later, is Aldous Huxley's famous anti-utopian novel Brave New World (1932).
I never fully appreciated Forster's story until I began to use e-mail and experienced for myself the lure of sitting alone and having the world brought to my screen. Forster's story depicts precisely such a future, in which people everywhere live in individual, identical underground cells, entirely cut off from the world above, their needs and desires satisfied by the Machine, which provides not only food but health care, entertainment, communication with others, and so on. Most fascinating about Forster's vision are two aspects. One is a kind of horror of the body and of the physical presence of others that this entirely mechanized, uniform, and mediated way of life induces. The other is the impulse to worship the Machine as a god. The story's chilling conclusion–depicting the slow breakdown of the Machine and the fate of its dependent population–should give us pause.
By contrast, Brave New World is feverishly astir with sexual promiscuity and diversion through avid consumption of consumer goods and mood-altering drugs. People think in clichés and piously recite slogans on every occasion. Drawing on J.B.S. Haldane's 1923 essay "Daedalus: or, Science and the Future," Huxley deplores what Haldane celebrates: the scientist as the ultimate social planner. In Huxley's vision the intrusion of biotechnology occurs most forcefully at the early stages of life, through genetic engineering (including cloning), physical and behavioral conditioning of the ensuing test tube fetuses and babies, and endless propagandizing–techniques that produce a rigidly stable society of self-satisfied castes. "That is the secret of happiness and virtue," writes Huxley: "liking what you've got to do."
Mother and father are considered smutty words, evoking embarrassed giggles. Intense feelings are released through "surrogate" experiences. Physical decline is unknown, and death is as carefully orchestrated as birth. As Huxley says in the novel, "There isn't any need for a civilized man to bear anything that's seriously unpleasant."
Today we are well aware of the world-altering possibilities of reproductive technologies and genetic engineering, but we have not yet begun to think through the implications in terms of work roles and social structures. Huxley presents a coherent vision of one path biotechnology may invite us to take.
Though in some ways at opposite poles, both Forster and Huxley deal with issues that were future possibilities in their time but have become the everyday reality of ours. Both warn of the dangers of a way of life in which human hubris, knowing no bounds, increasingly cuts us off from nature and the rest of the animal world. Both express acute skepticism about our wisdom in dealing with our own inventiveness. Both raise profound questions about what it means to be human in a technologically sophisticated age.
Daphne Patai (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches utopian literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is the author, most recently, of Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism (Rowman & Littlefield).
Thomas Petzinger Jr.
It's becoming fashionable to say that business is like biology. As William C. Frederick shows in Values, Nature, and Culture in the American Corporation (Oxford University Press, 1995), this is an understatement: Business is biology, a fact we're wise to consider on the threshold of neo-biological civilization. Frederick is not your typical former business school dean. For one thing, he is trained in anthropology as well as economics. For another, he's widely regarded as the father of the business ethics field of study, a platform from which he hails the power of business and technology to create a better world.
This book shows how business is rooted in, and fully arises from, natural origins. Frederick shows that business is a construct of nature, a product of the dynamics of biology itself. For instance, the core action of all life includes economizing–doing more with less. From this trait, which is genetically encoded in humans, spring all tools and all institutions designed to satisfy material needs. "Among all of the wondrous complexities of life on earth," Frederick writes, the greatest include the values that generate technology, enabling "human life, in all of its variety, to exist and persist in the face of entropic forces."
In a similar vein, Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building (Oxford University Press, 1979) argues that architecture, too, is biological. Correction: Good architecture is biological, because it emerges from the natural conditions in which it exists, including the people who use it. This book was written before terms like co-evolution, self-organization, and fractal attained wide currency, but the concepts are all here. Writing of windows and gates, town squares and nation-states, Alexander says the most useful and beautiful things are made by people repeatedly applying a few simple rules to constantly varying surroundings-much as nature iterates its world. "Just like the genetic process which creates the flower," he writes, "this process must allow each person to shape his corner of the world, so that each building, each room, each doorstep, is unique according to its place in the whole–but with the built-in guarantee that the town which emerges from these independent acts will also be alive and whole."
Alexander doesn't use the living world as just some hippie-dippie metaphor for timeless beauty in the built world. "The connection between the two-between this quality in our own lives, and the same quality in our surroundings-is not just analogy, or similarity," he says. "The fact is that each one creates the other."
Thomas Petzinger Jr. (email@example.com) is the author, most recently, of The New Pioneers: The Men and Women Who Are Transforming the Workplace and Marketplace (Simon & Schuster).
Ever since the opening line of the original preface to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818), science fiction has helped us explore "event[s]…not of impossible occurrence." There were two main Prometheus legends: Prometheus porphyros, the fire bringer, archetype for all those who use technology to put the power of the gods in the hands of men, and Prometheus plasticator, the life giver, shaper of humanity. Emotionally arrested Victor Frankenstein played with biology–reanimating dead flesh, creating a descendent without the messy help of a woman–and so offered one classic challenge: How can society accommodate a single individual empowered to reshape, even resurrect, our very bodies? At the verge of the third Christian millennium, such a development is far from an impossible occurrence.
But we have learned that only rarely can an individual wield such power: The road to technomancy is long and crowded. If one arrives alone, one is merely moments ahead of the crowd. How will the crowd deal with reshaping? Two provocative books treat this question: Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (Bantam Books, 1995) and Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (Random House, 1952).
The Diamond Age, an enormously popular book, bursts with nanotechnology. Shrinking computers and transmitters to corpuscle size or smaller makes them injectable. They can commingle with existing brain cells, giving us the ability to think high-speed calculations, communicate telepathically, and receive prefabricated dreams. Self-replicating nanomachines repair limbs, pass like viruses during sex, and create new, tailored lineages. If the mitochondria in human cells were once free-living organisms but are now part of our "biology," will the technology that grows within us be any less biological? When we can program biology, will we still be human?
While Stephenson offers a sweeping adventure focused on a few characters in culturally distinct future "phyles," Wolfe understands that the existence of biotech is not the same as universal access to biotech. In the world of Limbo, a too-little-read, stunning satire of middle America, advanced prosthetics include atomic-powered minimotors in artificial joints, so that the amputee Olympics overshadows traditional competition. Soon amputation becomes voluntary…for those who can afford it. Are you a quad? Top of the heap. But whose heap? What does it mean to be a human whose very flesh is foreign to oneself and, in a sense, to everyone else?
The new biology will give us choice, and therein always is glory and danger.
Eric Rabkin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of English at the University of Michigan.
At the end of the century it's hard to know whether we'll die from out-of-control viruses or from sheer embarrassment. Books, movies, and other media promise both a coming viral holocaust of AIDS, Ebola hemorrhagic fever, and miscellaneous other "emerging diseases," and an even more horrifying epidemic of cloned Elvises, Madonnas, and Liberaces, in consequence of which the human future looks glum indeed. Two books published within the last five years present a slightly different perspective: Both are no-nonsense works firmly grounded in scientific fact, and both exude optimism steeped in the idea of progress through high technology and applied science.
Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead (William Morrow & Co., 1998), by Gina Kolata, a New York Times science reporter, tells the story of the world's first cloned mammal, a plump little lamb named Dolly. Kolata presents an impressive overview of the practical benefits of cloning as well as a down-to-earth account of What It All Means, arguing that cloning is not the moral abomination it is often cracked up to be. But for me the real appeal of the story is the simple tale of how two lone researchers working in an out-of-the-way lab in rural Scotland accomplished a feat that two developmental biologists writing in the pages of Science as recently as 1984 had declared was "biologically impossible." It wasn't.
At War Within: The Double-Edged Sword of Immunity (Oxford University Press, 1995), by William R. Clark, a UCLA immunologist, presents an upbeat view of a decidedly unglamorous subject, the human immune system. The immune system constitutes an inner world of amazing complexity, one whose natural mechanisms can identify and neutralize most invading microorganisms, and which can be primed by vaccines to detect and destroy others. Clark argues that the system can be further improved by everything from diet, exercise, and a better mental attitude to high-tech means such as designer drugs and gene therapy–making us not the supermen of science fiction, just a lot healthier than ever before. Advances in immunology may even wipe out that omnipresent menace, AIDS. "Tomorrow, or next week, or next year, humans may produce a vaccine or a drug or a gene-therapy strategy that absolutely stops HIV dead in its tracks," Clark says. "There is precious little a virus–even one as deadly as HIV–can do about that."
Ed Regis (email@example.com) is the author of Virus Ground Zero (Pocket Books) and The Biology of Doom: America's Secret Germ Warfare Project, just published by Henry Holt & Co.
Two books stand out from many. The first is nonfiction, was published 25 years ago, and is just now being rereleased: Edward O. Wilson's magisterial Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press, 1975). It is huge (more than 600 pages); it is comprehensive, surveying what we know of animal social behavior, from the jellyfish up to humans, from an evolutionary perspective; it is beautifully produced, with wonderful drawings, fluent prose, and clear diagrams; it is highly informative (Wilson did much of the work, especially on biogeography and animal chemical communication, himself); and it is highly controversial (Wilson argues that we humans are as much part of the animal evolutionary world as the most lowly ant or beetle).
When Sociobiology first appeared, it caused consternation in the ranks of social scientists, feminists, Marxists, liberals, and many others. A work that offended so many had to be saying something right. And a quarter century later we know that it was saying much that was right. Woolly-minded attempts to engineer the practices of humans beings in the name of the latest ideology are bound to fail. Little boys and little girls are not the same, and neither are big ones. There is a reason–a good biological reason–why boys are eager to slip their hands under the shirt or the pants, and there is a reason–a good biological reason–why girls are a lot less eager to let the boys have their unfettered way. Put simply, it is girls who are left carrying the baby. Wilson pointed out all of this, and much more, and did the whiners of the left ever resent it.
My second choice is fiction, and it follows on the first. Unending Love (Jonathan Cape, 1997), by the British Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan, is a brilliant attempt to interpret human nature in the light of the principles that Wilson expounds. McEwan tells of the pathological attraction of a disturbed young man for a successful science writer–an attraction that ends by disrupting everything, including the writer's hitherto happy common-law marriage. But McEwan is interested in much more than a story of misguided emotion, suggesting–and here he draws cleverly on the findings of sociobiology–that all of our emotions, even the most rational (as we would judge), are as illusory as those of the disturbed lover, and that in the end the whole of life is a sham, put in place by our biology to further our evolutionary ends. How he draws this conclusion and then suggests that there is more–more that biology allows–is the crux of the tale, and a very good tale it is too.
Michael Ruse (firstname.lastname@example.org), a professor of philosophy and zoology at the University of Guelph in Canada, is the author of Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction? (Harvard University Press).
Though not nearly as well-known or widely read as The Selfish Gene (1976) or Climbing Mt. Improbable (1998), Richard Dawkins' The Extended Phenotype (Oxford University Press, 1981) crackles with insights that makes you reperceive what you think you know about evolution. To dramatically oversimplify, birds aren't the products of "natural selection"; birds and their nests are. You can't divorce the evolution of birds from the evolution of nests. Nests, Dawkins asserts, are the "extended phenotypes" of the bird.
Are these extended phenotypes influenced by memes as well as genes? By culture as well as biology? Are human beings evolving? Or are humans and their technologies co-evolving? Dawkins does a fine job of bringing such questions to the forefront of evolutionary (re)thinking.
This kind of collision between biology's end and culture's beginning–and vice versa–can also be found in Donald Dewsbury's Studying Animal Behavior (University of Chicago Press, 1985), a collection of reminiscences by many of the world's leading ethologists. Most of the memoirs are as instructive as they are entertaining. Ethology is going to be an ever richer resource for gaining insight into how and why humans behave, and misbehave, as we do. Ethology and its ongoing intellectual merger with evolutionary psychology strike me as very exciting.
On a completely different level, the mathematization of biology, particularly in the realms of population, genomics, and molecular biology, will prove as important as the mathematization of classical and quantum physics. Eric Lander and Michael Waterman's Calculating the Secrets of Life (National Academy of Sciences Press, 1996) is a very difficult, but helpful, introduction to this vital area.
Michael Schrage (email@example.com), a research associate with MIT's Media Lab, is the author of Serious Play, just published by Harvard Business School Press.
Lee M. Silver
The two classic works of fiction that I have chosen provide no special insight into the future of biotechnology, and the moral lesson advanced by each is flawed in its own way. Yet both are must-reads for those who wish to understand the political forces opposed to the implementation of new genetic technologies in the 21st century.
No longer just titles of books, Frankenstein and Brave New World have morphed into anti-biotech slogans that are universally recognized by literate people. Both terms are used frequently to evoke images of horrors that will befall humanity if scientists try to improve upon nature.
The notion of forbidden knowledge is as old as religion–which is to say, older even than human civilization. But Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, written at the dawn of medicine as a scientific endeavor, was the first to deal explicitly with what we now recognize to be biotechnology.
Within Frankenstein, we see the emergence of the mythical "law" of unintended consequences, which even captures the minds of those trained to know better, like University of California at San Diego biology professor Christopher Wills. In his 1998 book The Children of Prometheus, he writes, "The law of unintended consequences will ensure that most of our attempts to modify our bodies and our genes in the future will not work out in the way that we expect."
Really? "Most" of our attempts? How can anyone who has lived through the life-extending medical miracles of the 20th century still believe such nonsense? And yet, this is the party line of those on both the left and right who, as a matter of principle, attack biotechnology. Such attacks should be unveiled for what they actually are: religion in disguise, whether New Age or old.
While Shelley's Frankenstein evokes images of technology gone awry, Huxley's Brave New World (1932) embodies people's fears that genetic technology will be used by governments to erase individuality and create docile factory workers or perfect warriors. Once again, a quick glance around the world at the end of the 20th century shows how empty these fears are. Biotechnology serves individuals, not their leaders. "Perfect warriors" and "docile factory workers" are constructed already as cruise missiles and electronic machinery with brains of silicon, not organic matter. And human nature, molded by our genes, will drive us to preserve, not destroy, the individuality of our children, and their children as well.
Lee M. Silver is a professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family (Avon Books).
Millennia from now, when future humans–whoever and whatever they may be–look back upon this era, they will see it as a challenging, turbulent moment that laid the foundation of their lives. A cornerstone of this future will be genetic engineering, the unraveling of our biological blueprint and the initiation of conscious human design. This unprecedented development, the capture of our own evolutionary fate, is bound to redefine and reshape us.
Such a legion of books examines the dilemmas of unlocking the human genome that the genre has grown a little tired. Especially since so much of what is written agonizes over a multitude of modest potential dangers, ranging from unanswerable questions about whether cloned children would feel a loss of personal identity to the unfocused angst of bio-luddites like Jeremy Rifkin.
Only a few authors have even begun to probe the larger dimensions of the human biological transformation now under way. Lee Silver, a molecular biologist from Princeton, is among them. In Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family (Avon Books), he provides a remarkably accessible look at the impending explosion of reproductive options. Surrogate mothers and egg donation are mere foreplay. Silver lays out the kind of weirdness that will make even Virginia Postrel's dynamists squirm: the disassociation and re-association of early embryos to give a child genes from both partners of a same-sex couple, for instance, or the transformation of genetic test results on early embryos into computer projections of "virtual children" to help parents decide which fertilized embryo to implant.
The outcry over the birth of Dolly the sheep stemmed less from realistic concerns about human cloning than from the sudden realization that we are the objects as well as the architects of the profound changes ahead. The birth of a delayed identical twin is strange but hardly brings the essence of human nature into question as genetic design will. Just as we have used our technology to reshape the world around us, we will use it to reshape ourselves.
That said, Gregory Pence's succinct little paperback, Who's Afraid of Human Cloning? (Rowan & Littlefield, 1998), is a must for anyone following this debate. Pence deftly refutes the arguments for prohibiting human cloning and builds a compelling case for parental choice. Given the past hand wringing about the evils of cloning from people who should know better, his book is a breath of fresh air. And the cloning controversy is important, for it is a prelude to far harsher battles to come.
Gregory Stock (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at UCLA's School of Medicine. His most recent book, Human Germline Engineering: The Ethics And Science of Altering the Genes We Pass to Our Children, will be published by Oxford University Press in December.
One peril of biological thinking is the temptation to reduce all human behavior to genes and neurochemistry. Findings about the influence of genes on personality and lifestyle are intriguing, but we still are talking about predisposition rather than predetermination. We continue to judge people by what they do with the hands they are dealt, and rightly so. Similarly, every mental state presumably corresponds to a particular pattern of brain activity that might be influenced by the introduction of certain chemicals. But that does not mean that every mental state we do not like is a disease to be treated with psychotropic drugs.
Thomas Szasz's 1961 book The Myth of Mental Illness (1984 edition available from HarperCollins) is a seminal work about the dangers of getting carried away with biological metaphors. People who encounter Szasz in college may have the impression that his critique of psychiatry has been superseded by research during the last few decades. But his central insights do not depend on whether there is a biological basis for some of the "disorders" that psychiatrists treat. Szasz has always conceded that physical conditions can have mental manifestations; syphilitic insanity is a classic example. He insists, however, that a disease cannot be diagnosed based merely on a person's behavior–the strange things he says or does, for example. Nor is the behavior itself, no matter how annoying or antisocial, properly considered a disease. Szasz eloquently warns that the psychiatric tendency to catalog every unsanctioned thought and action as a disorder that can be diagnosed and treated (sometimes coercively) undermines freedom, responsibility, and human dignity.
A healthy skepticism of the disease model can also be seen in the work of the psychologist Stanton Peele, a leading authority on addiction. Unlike critics of psychiatry who automatically deride the addiction du jour, whether it be to sex, shopping, or Web surfing, Peele accepts the idea that people can be addicted to things other than drugs. (As Szasz points out in his 1974 book Ceremonial Chemistry, this is hardly a newfangled concept: The original meaning of addiction, before the term was hijacked and ultimately abandoned by psychiatrists, was simply "a strong inclination toward certain kinds of conduct, with little or no pejorative meaning attached to it.") What Peele rejects is the idea that stubborn habits should be understood as medical conditions. In Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of Control (Lexington Books, 1989), he offers a nuanced, humanistic view of addiction that places it on a spectrum of behavior, influenced by choices and circumstances as well as biology. On the drug issue, Peele is a refreshing contrast not only to prohibitionists but to reformers who favor "medicalization"–a term that should send a chill down the spine of anyone who has read Szasz.
Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (email@example.com) is a syndicated columnist and the author of For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health (The Free Press).
What makes us behave decently toward one another? The answer in Matt Ridley's 1997 book, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (Viking), will disappoint a lot of bureaucrats as well as moralists on both the left and the right. It turns out that we're capable of being good even without their supervision.
Ridley, whose credentials include a doctorate in zoology and a stint as American editor of The Economist, provides a brilliant synthesis of anthropology, biology, evolutionary psychology, game theory, and Adam Smith's writings to explain humans' singular capacity for altruism. Other animals cooperate with relatives and make individual sacrifices, but generally only when it helps an immediate relative. Humans are just about the only animals who cooperate altruistically with nonrelatives. We are descended from hunter-gatherers who increased their chances of survival by banding together, protecting one another, and exchanging food, tools, and knowledge. Peaceful cooperation made possible the division of labor, the great source of technology, wealth, and culture.
Our ancestors had their selfish tendencies, too, but they evolved with defenses against jerks, the chief one being a large brain. It enabled them to store memories of others' past behavior and to trade information to discover others' reputations. Hunter-gatherers negotiated systems of property rights with their neighbors, and they established trading networks in much the same way that medieval merchants did in 11th-century Europe, when there was no central authority or system of law. The traders in the Pleistocene and medieval Europe developed their own codes of ethics and observed them voluntarily because they knew that a violator would be ostracized. The surest promoter of virtue has always been information, not regulation, which is why the Internet has the potential to bring out our better qualities.
Ridley is a wonderful alternative to the many intellectuals who have failed to appreciate humans' intrinsic virtue. "For St. Augustine the source of social order lay in the teachings of Christ," he writes. "For Hobbes it lay in the sovereign. For Rousseau it lay in solitude. For Lenin it lay in the party. They were all wrong. The roots of social order are in our heads, where we possess the instinctive capacities for creating not a perfectly harmonious and virtuous society, but a better one than we have at present." This better society would be based primarily on exchange between equals, not coercion from above. Big government creates resentfulness in the citizens forced to pay taxes, and it fosters selfishness in the bureaucrats and other favored groups seeking private benefits from public money. "We are not so nasty that we need to be tamed by intrusive government," Ridley concludes, "or so nice that too much government does not bring out the worst in us."
John Tierney (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a columnist for The New York Times.
Readers of REASON might well wonder what hidden source keeps renewing the faith of those who continue to believe in the dominant role of the state in education and public morals. Part of the answer is that there is still a consensus among many academics and intellectuals, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, that nurture, social environment, and cultural modes of communication determine what an individual can know and what his or her values will be. If human beings are born as blank slates, to be inscribed with their society's arbitrary notions of truth and goodness, then it is obviously of the profoundest importance that those notions be put under the charge of the wisest experts a democratic government can recruit, and that the citizens be conditioned by the schools and the press to the requirements of democratic society.
Several recent books recount the research and reasoning that is now beginning to eat away at the foundations of such beliefs. Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct (Penguin, 1995) refutes the widespread notion that language is created by society and culture, that human beings cannot think or know outside that language, and that therefore our whole world picture is conditioned by the "regime of power and knowledge" (Michel Foucault's term) into which we are born. Instead, Pinker shows that language is an innate competence, that anything can be said in any language, and that we as individuals therefore have access to truths not mediated or determined by our culture and its rulers. The implications for education are revolutionary: We should seek out the universally human and traditional genres by which this evolved hunter-gatherer learns; we should replace relativist with realist worldviews; and we should recognize the long-term futility of government indoctrination, however benign.
Perhaps even more revolutionary are a pair of quiet little books, Brian Skyrms' Evolution of the Social Contract (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson's Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Harvard University Press, 1998). It used to be thought that Darwinian evolution could work only through the survival of traits that promoted the fitness of biological individuals (though purists like Richard Dawkins maintained that even individuals did not count: It was only genes that survived). What this meant was that altruism, cooperation, and moral behavior, since they tended to penalize the individual for the benefit of the group, could not evolve by biological selection, and thus that all moral feeling must have been invented by society and culture, to be imposed upon a recalcitrant individual. Again, the upshot of this view is that we need government, as Hobbes insisted, to keep us good. These two books show conclusively that group selection can be a perfectly normal form of Darwinian evolution, violating no principles of genetics. Thus morality can evolve and survive, and thus our morality, like our language, is basically instinctive. We may be "bad" by nature, because of the pull of individual selfish desires, but we also have innately "good" tendencies toward self-sacrifice, sympathy, and justice.
What will future societies look like when we no longer believe that it is government's job, or even society's job, to invent for us the true and the good?
Contributing Editor Frederick Turner (email@example.com) is Founders Professor of the Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. His collection of poetry, Hadean Eclogues (Consortium), and his book, Shakespeare's Twenty-First-Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money (Oxford University Press), both appeared this year.