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.

McKibben is obviously right when he declares, "genes do matter" (emphasis his). But they don't matter as much as McKibben thinks they do. Take the case of monozygotic twins who share exactly the same genes and were formed in the same womb at the same time. They are certainly not identical people. In fact, traits such as intelligence, personality, and even weight correlate only 60 percent to 70 percent between identical twins. That's much closer than with nonidentical siblings, but the variance is still quite a lot. Biology increasingly reveals that human individuality doesn't depend just on having different genes; it is the result of the interplay between genes and environment.

Genes order the production of different proteins in response to environmental influences such as schooling, physical training, infections, and nutrition. Human genes are the necessary recipes for making human brains and bodies, but brains and bodies are manifestly shaped by their experiences. It might be possible someday, using genetic engineering, to give a child a brain smart enough to understand why Heidegger is wrong, but there is no getting around the fact that he will have to undergo the experience of learning about Heidegger first. There are no genes for Heidegger debunking.

McKibben worries that gene-enhanced people will not be challenged. This is nonsense. Genetic engineering may ease some of life's burdens, much as electricity and indoor plumbing have, but it will by no means remove the bulk of the individual and social challenges humanity faces.

McKibben fears that our gene-enhanced progeny will know too much about themselves to stretch themselves to their limits and experience what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called "flow." "Just refer to your design specs," he quips. Flow is that peak experience in which people lose themselves as they practice their hard-won skills in challenging activities such as chess, bond trading, or rock climbing.

Take the example of rock climbing. Would McKibben require that people free-climb Half Dome in Yosemite? Is their experience diminished because they are encumbered with technologies such as ropes, pitons, and freeze-dried foods? Similarly, a gene-enhanced climber would still find challenges that test her boosted physical capacities to their limits. Flow arises from internal challenges, being the best that you can be. This experience, along with the experiences of joy, hope, and love, will not cease because a person is genetically enhanced. However enhanced our descendants may become, there will remain no end of physical and mental challenges in the world against which they can test and measure themselves.

Human freedom cannot and does not rely on ignorance and randomness. Human freedom—the capacity to make choices based on reason—expands with knowledge. If you don't believe it, think about how humanity's greater knowledge of such things as the germ theory of disease and the atomic theory of matter have radically increased humankind's choices and freedom during the last two centuries. Most of us would agree that there has certainly been an improvement over our ancestors' world. That was a world filled with friendly and hostile animistic spirits, and one in which half of all children died before their first birthdays.

Similarly, knowledge about how our genes affect our behavior and how our brains are wired increases rather than limits our freedom. Prozac, for example, does not limit our choices; it gives depressed people the freedom to adjust their emotional state. Ignorance is not freedom. Knowledge is freedom; ignorance is slavery.

The alleged loss of meaning and the robotization of humanity are not McKibben's only concerns. He fears that genetic engineering will exacerbate inequality, even as he worries about homogenization.

In his first scenario, the rich will get access to safe genetic enhancements first, dramatically widening the gap between the rich and the poor. "The political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence can't withstand the destruction of the idea that humans are in fact equal," writes McKibben.

But hold on. Are people "in fact equal"? There is nothing at all self-evident about physical human equality or equality of status. Some people are short, some tall; some fat, others thin; some strong, others weak; some poor, others rich; some brilliant, others dim. In other words, what we see is not self-evident equality, but human particularity and human individuality.

In what relevant respect are people equal? The modern ideals of democracy and political equality are sustained chiefly by the insight, developed by Enlightenment thinkers, that people are responsible moral agents who can distinguish right from wrong and therefore deserve equal consideration before the law and a respected place in our political community. The broad ability to distinguish right from wrong does not depend on the genetics of IQ, skin color, or gender. With respect to political equality, genetic differences are already differences that make no difference. Having some citizens who take advantage of genetic technologies and others who do not will not alter that principle.

When he's not propounding dystopian visions of genetically enhanced Übermenschen lording over poor naturals, McKibben is worried that genetic technologies will be adopted rapidly because they will become cheap and widely available. Given the rapid pace of technological change, the latter is more probable. Therefore, safe genetic engineering is much more likely to reduce inequality than exacerbate it. Parents will have the option of giving their children the same genes for good health and smarter brains that some children get randomly now. Is this homogenization? Perhaps in some sense it is, but a world in which more people are smarter and healthier could hardly be an ethical or social disaster.

But something worse than mere genetic engineering fills McKibben "with blackest foreboding": the prospect of physical immortality. "It would represent, finally, the ultimate and irrevocable divorce between ourselves and everything else," he asserts. "The divorce, first of all, between us and the rest of creation."

McKibben would do better to ask why we would want to stay married to Nature anyway. She has certainly been an inconstant wife, liberally afflicting us with nasty surprises such as birth defects, diseases, earthquakes, hurricanes, and famines. An amicable separation might be good for both Nature and humanity. The less we depend on Nature for our sustenance, the less harm we do her.

Setting that aside, why does McKibben believe that death is good for us? "Without mortality, no time," writes McKibben. "All moments would be equal; the deep, sad, human wisdom of Ecclesiastes would vanish. If for everything there is an endless season, then there is also no right season. The future stretches before you endlessly flat."

If the endless future turns out to be as horrible as McKibben imagines it to be, then people will undoubtedly choose to give up their empty, meaningless lives. On the other hand, if people opt to live yet longer, wouldn't that mean they had found sufficient pleasure, joy, love, and even meaning to keep them going? McKibben's right: We don't know what immortality would be like. But should that happy choice become available, we can still decide whether or not we want to enjoy it. Even if the ultimate goal of this technological quest is immortality, what will be immediately available is only longevity. The experience of longer lives will give humanity an opportunity to see how it works out. If immortality is a problem, it is a self-correcting problem. Death always remains an option.

Given all his worries, what does McKibben want us to do? He wants us to say "enough" along with him and reject the Promethean prospects before us. Humanity should decide collectively to limit its technological questing once and for all. This is not an impossible dream, he thinks, because some societies have, at times, chosen to relinquish some technologies. The examples he wants us to follow, however, involve a pair of backward autocracies—15th-century Ming China and 17th-century Tokugawa Japan—and the contemporary Amish, an example that actually undermines his argument.

Here's McKibben's case for China. Between 1405 and 1430, the Chinese admiral Zheng He made at least seven major voyages with the largest fleet the world had ever seen. These "treasure fleets" consisted of 300 huge ships holding a troop of nearly 30,000 people. Zheng He's fleets visited Java, Sumatra, Vietnam, Siam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Ceylon, Bangladesh, India, Yemen, Arabia, and Somalia. McKibben praises the Chinese emperors who chose to burn the great treasure fleet and destroy all records of the voyages. To prevent further adventuring, these emperors made it a capital offense to build a boat with more than two masts. Thus, declares an approving McKibben, "a great people turned its back on a promising technology." He adds, "The Chinese chose their definition of meaning—progress within tradition—over the pell-mell dynamism of the West."

But did a "great people" really choose to forego the blessings of technology and trade? Isn't a far more reasonable interpretation that the rulers of China, who wanted nothing to disrupt their iron hold over the lives of their subjects, made that decision, not Chinese "society"?

Next, McKibben describes Tokugawa Japan as "a highly advanced feudal society." He praises it for outlawing firearms for two centuries. Why? Because "the samurai simply felt that guns were crude, that any peasant could use one," explains McKibben. Which is precisely the point—naturally the beneficiaries of a warrior feudal society would want to make sure that the "peasants" didn't get hold of such equalizers. The peasants didn't relinquish firearms; their masters did it for them. But who cares about the meanings of the lives of Japanese peasants who were so downtrodden that they were forbidden the dignity of legal family names until after 1867? McKibben thus approves of two societies in which technological progress was stifled for the benefit of their absolute rulers.

The third case cited by McKibben, the Amish, is different and proves the opposite of what he thinks it does. The Amish live in an open society—ours—and can opt out of our society or theirs whenever they want. They have a system for voluntarily deciding among themselves what new technologies they will embrace. But the fact that they live as they wish and select only the technologies they want dramatically undercuts McKibben's point. The Amish case shows that technological choices don't have to involve everyone in a given society.

Like the Amish, technophobes such as McKibben are free to say no to whatever technologies concern them. They do not have to genetically engineer their children or choose to live longer lives. McKibben should be content to allow the rest of us to use those technologies we believe will enhance and improve our lives and the lives of our children. McKibben's mantra is always, "More is not better." That's true, and it's completely beside the point: Better is better. And better, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

McKibben eschews "hyperindividualism" in favor of one of the most destructive and oppressive political metaphors ever propounded. He wants us to think of "the human species as one large individual organism." The individual meanings of our lives are to be subsumed into the larger meaning of the whole species. Never mind that in the last century ideologies founded on this organic principle of subordinating individual meaning to the good of the whole ended up killing tens of millions of people. It's no wonder that he shows affection for despotic regimes like Ming China and Tokugawa Japan.

Of course, McKibben says he's for democracy as a way of choosing which limits to put on technological progress. "Happily for us, we have a system for dealing with competing ideas," he says. "It's called politics. We will have to choose." But we don't have to choose; each one of us must be allowed to choose for himself.

No matter how advanced, technologies—including genetic enhancement—are not ends; they are means for individuals to build the best lives they can for themselves and their families.

Technological preferences, especially those that touch on the big issues of birth, disease, life, and death, are not democratic questions. They are personal questions. These private arenas should not be open to public decision making. For a man who says he favors human freedom and choice, McKibben is awfully eager to limit both.