A most remarkable event occurred in the weeks preceding the
June 2000 announcement of the completion of the first draft
of the human genome DNA code: One of the leaders of the genome
project publicly called for strict limits on what the scientific
community should be permitted to do with the human genetic blueprint
now in hand.
At a conference at MIT, Dr. Eric Lander, leader of the team
that decoded the largest portion of the genome, called the conference
to attention with this surprisingly stark suggestion:
Already, there are well-meaning discussions about improving
the human DNA. I find this somewhat hubristic myself. [The human
genome] has been 3.5 billion years in the making. We've been
able to read it for the last, oh, I don't know, year or so.
And we suddenly think we could write the story better? It's
There is the prospect that by changing things we might put
off aging, prevent cancer, improve memory. I find it a very
difficult question. For my own part, I would put an absolute
ban in place on human germline gene therapy. Not because I think
for sure we should never cross that threshold. But because I
think that is such a fateful threshold to cross that I'd like
society to have to rebut that presumption someday, to have to
repeal a ban when it thought it was time to ever try something
The "germline gene therapy" being referred to involves
altering the genes not just of an individual, but a procedure
that embeds the genetic changes in a person's reproductive cells
their sperm or eggs so that the genetic alteration
is heritable by all future generations.
Lander's comments are remarkable on many levels. One is his
frank acknowledgment of the enormity of the consequences of "crossing the germline." Most noteworthy, though,
is his willingness to recommend "an absolute ban"
on a technology with the stipulation that any decision to overturn
this ban be made by society rather than by scientific or policy
experts. In doing so, this widely respected scientist violated
the ruling dogma held by much of the life sciences enterprise:
First, that no strictures, and certainly no statutory ones,
should be placed on the emerging technologies; and second, that
decisions should be left to each individual.
Many scientists agree with Lander's sentiment regarding germline
genetic interventions, but most base their position on the technical
obstacles that prevent implementing it safely in the foreseeable
future, and they would object to a socially determined legal
As his own comments suggest, Lander's appeal did not emerge
from a vacuum. There are geneticists and others who adamantly
advocate genetically re-engineering the human genetic germline
double-helix co-discoverer James Watson most prominent
among them. From his vantage point, anything that could contribute
to human health and betterment should be considered. "If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes,
why shouldn't we do it?" he challenged at a 1998 UCLA conference.
I had the opportunity to check in with Watson at a conference
this February sponsored by Time Magazine, called "The
Future of Life." By "adding genes" was he referring
to genes from other species or novel genes created in the laboratory,
I asked. "Anything!" he said.
Making "Better" Easier
Watson's rhetoric of "making better human beings"
is eerily reminiscent of the twentieth-century American eugenics
movement, which forcibly sterilized more than 60,000 citizens
and helped inspire the Nazi "racial hygiene" laws.
(One of the US eugenicists' key institutions was called the
Human Betterment Foundation.) Nobel laureate Watson does little
to dissolve such comparisons. Shortly after the Time conference,
a British documentary on Watson was aired that had "Honest
Jim" declaring that genetic engineering should be used
to rid the world of "stupid" children stupidity,
in his view, being a condition that affects 10 percent of kids
and "ugly" girls.
While in previous writings Watson has disowned the notion of
creating a superspecies, others are not so restrained. Princeton
biologist Lee Silver has famously written of a genetically enriched
class of beings emerging from this technology. "One way
to identify types of human enhancements that lie in the realm
of possibility no matter how outlandish they may seem
today is through their existence in other living creatures,"
Silver writes. "If something has evolved elsewhere, then
it is possible for us to determine its genetic basis and transfer
it into the human genome."
Whatever technical objections might be raised by Silver's proposal,
he does not lack support in the social sciences. "Instead
of saying, 'gills? wings? I don't think so,' it's much more
interesting to say 'gills? wings? why not?'" Leonard Glantz,
associate professor at the Boston University School of Public
Health, told Technology Review in November 2001:
The dream of all Americans is that the next generation will
be better physically, mentally, economically, and socially.
Certainly germ-line genetic modification is a way to guarantee
that future generations will be better.... I'd have to hear
the arguments against modification and I haven't heard
a good one yet. Humans can fly right now, we just have to pay
for a ticket. We can exist underwater, we just need submarines....
Once someone develops people-can-fly technology, wherever it
is, people will line up for it!
However fantastical Glantz's examples, they serve the purpose
of moving the boundaries of the debate and legitimizing genetically
modified humans. If germline genetic engineering is to be realized,
it will focus on the manipulation of embryos, thereby assuring
that the genetic changes are reflected in every cell of the
newborn, including reproductive cells. One of the most likely
techniques for achieving this is known as gene targeting.
Used widely in model animal organisms, gene targeting permits
precise genetic alterations to be made in an embryo, and therefore
the germline. The power of gene targeting is such that Dr. Francis
Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute,
worries that if technical improvements are achieved that would
permit its use in humans, "there will be some who will
be arguing that it is time for us to take charge of our own
evolution...and see if we can improve ourselves into some higher
Recently, scientists at the University of Wisconsin announced
that they had carried out successful gene targeting with human
embryonic stem cells. As one of the UW scientists put it, this
technique "allows us to manipulate every part of the human
genome that we want."If for no other reason than the remaining
technical obstacles, we are not yet at the fateful Rubicon described
by Lander, Watson, Silver and others. But the riverbanks are
clearly within sight. Bill McKibben's new book, "Enough:
Staying Human in an Engineered Age," takes us on a tour
of what might lie on the other side and urges us to be content
without crossing. In doing so, he confronts the great conundrum
in science and technology: Is it possible, is it permissible,
is it perhaps sometimes necessary, to say "Enough"?
"Too Much" is Simple, "Enough" is Difficult
Readers familiar with McKibben tend to know his book "The End of Nature" and subsequent fine articles laying
out the science of and ecological threats from global warming.
"Enough" is an extension of that earlier work: The
focus now is not the threat to our relationship with nature
but to our own human nature. Germline genetic engineering is
one of the technologies that McKibben views as representing
such a threat, and is the leading thread running through this
personal essay. Robots and nanotechnology are others. Following
to some extent the analysis of Bill Joy, the Sun Microsystems
genius turned prophet of technodoom, McKibben worries about
the human apocalypse that could arise from the merger of all
three technologies opening the door to the posthuman. "Enough"
is a synthetic work, with little in the way of original interviews
or research. McKibben's technique is to pull the key ideas and
arguments from his voluminous readings and artfully weave them
together so that we can gain a vision of the genetic-nanobotic
schemes in the works.
Utilizing the ability to manipulate and order atoms precisely,
the nanotechnologists envision a future in which all our tasks
and desires including eternal health will be carried
out by invisible armies of molecular robots. The future that
germline genetic engineering could enable is one of a ruling
genetic caste and ultimate alienation of ourselves from ourselves.
The threat from nanobotics is not just the emergence of posthumans
but the wholesale replacement of the human, genetically altered
Under the best scenario, the potential benefits of enhanced
health and reduced labor from unrestrained technological advance
will lure us into a "soft dehumanization." Enticed
by technical solutions to poverty, illness and even mortality,
McKibben is concerned about the consequences should these elixirs
turn out not to be illusory lures but actual realities. Since
the meaning of our lives comes from confronting our human limits,
and especially our mortality, in McKibben's view the stakes
are nothing less than the survival of any human meaning whatsoever.
McKibben's methodology in laying out the dangers is to draw
from the research and writing of the scientists and technologists,
and integrate their data, visions and arguments so that the
personal and social results come into view. Layer upon layer
of the science and the techno-utopian project are unrelentingly
piled up. At this stage it may be impossible to know whether
the envisioned genetic and nanobotic futures are cloud-castles
or a genuine New Jerusalem, but McKibben is convincing in relating
the scope of what many of the scientists and technologists,
ensconced in the world's most prestigious universities, laboratories
and think tanks, are actively considering.
The title of the book, "Enough," intentionally provokes
the accusation of "Luddite." McKibben addresses this
directly, and convincingly demonstrates the fatuousness of such
attacks. He would not, for example, withdraw antibiotics or
smash the computers. Instead, like Lander's outlook on germline
therapy, he believes that we have reached a threshold, a turning
point in which the decisions about some of the new technologies
represent a radical break from the human project launched with
the Enlightenment. Germline genetic engineering is not the same
as in vitro fertilization, he argues as one demonstration of
this assertion, since it opens the way for permanently altering
not just the individual but all descendants and, with time,
even perhaps the species.
McKibben's argument is that we must recognize the difference
between the technological choices that confront us now from
all that have come previously, and not fall prey to objections
that we are standing in the way of progress, dooming ourselves
to a new dark age, blocking evolution. He rightfully asserts
that "to cure the ill or feed the hungry ... lie within
our present powers or within the steady, foreseeable, noncontroversial
progress of science and medicine. They don't require a posthuman
Choosing a human future means drawing upon what for McKibben
is the most definitive feature of our species: the ability to
recognize and live within limits, to face and accept our own
finitude. While he admits that this tradition is not most dominant
in our culture, he suggests that it is a powerful one, and cites
John Muir and Martin Luther King Jr. as among its major standard-bearers.
In this way, the argument of "Enough" is simple,
and that is its beauty. McKibben does not take us through hermeneutic
somersaults or demand an analytic purity to justify his position.
Instead, he draws upon lived experience his own and that
of his family and friends. He relies, in other words, on the
social and embodied conditions that we all share. Agree or disagree
with his examples, with this or that particular threat from
the new technosciences, the philosophical and practical problem
remains: When, if ever, can we and should we say, "No more?"
Indeed, what kind of ethics are adequate if drawing a line is
not a reasonable and ethical choice? But, as McKibben amply
demonstrates, and as anyone who has ever interacted with the
scientific community has experienced, the cry for limits is
met with derision or worse by the technoscientists and their
McKibben, unfortunately, gives them ammunition aplenty with
which to launch their attacks. His understanding of genetics
is not strong, and he actually gets it wrong in several phrasings
and examples. There's no such thing as " a single base
pair of genes," nor is it " the different pairings
of DNA that cue the production of different proteins and hence
different people." Nothing will so warm the cockles of
his opponents' hearts than that their rival doesn't have the
science down pat. His examples of nanobotic possibilities are
also fraught with some of the more questionable claims. The
prospects of medical nanobots "cruising our bloodstreams,
attacking pathogens within our bodies and building new cells,
even organs," challenge even Jules Verne. I recently ran
into award-winning science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson
and raised the nanobot issue with him. "I've looked at
some of that stuff," he told me, " and a lot of it's
science fiction. And I know science fiction." In searching
for past or existing examples of the ethic he wishes to promote,
McKibben unfortunately invites further accusations of Luddism.
Fifteenth-century Chinese rejection of large sailing ships,
sixteenth-century Japanese rejection of guns in favor of samurai
swords and the contemporary Amish rejection of phones in their
homes are instances he offers.
Anyone sympathetic to his viewpoint cringes in advance at the
sarcasm with which this will be met. But the missteps do not
undermine McKibben's essential argument, which even evolutionary
biologist E.O. Wilson endorses as "the burning philosophical
question of the new century ... how to control the technoscientific
juggernaut before it dehumanizes our species."
McKibben's protracted essay is aimed at changing our individual
hearts and minds. Yet he does not identify any socioeconomic
structure that bears particular responsibility, that needs to
be addressed and reformed or brought under control. But at least
when it comes to genetics, the corporatization of our research
universities and the patenting of life forms certainly have
eroded much of the ground for public contemplation of the issues
and further impelled the drive toward commercialization. Microsoft
billionaire Paul Allen and Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison
now gather the molecular biologists on their yachts and estates
to plot the conquering of brain development and function. While
the benefits to human well-being are certainly a driving force
in this research, no doubt their ambition includes grasping
the holy grail of the contemporary scientific quest, consciousness
itself. The patent application that would follow this success
would be most interesting.
When, if ever, enough hearts and minds are changed to say "enough,"
real interests and structures of power will have to be confronted.
McKibben is not naοve about such matters but his
approach does not permit addressing them here. (On the personal
level, he's honest enough to admit the enticements of the techno-utopian
future to himself. He only hopes that he would choose against
The ultimate challenge to his argument, though, may not come
from the benefits offered to each of us as individuals but from
attempts to address the suffering of others brought on by the
human dark side whether it's the degradation of our biosphere
or the slaughter of innocent peoples. I attended a McKibben
speech in September, and I asked him whether he ever allowed
himself to consider the possibility of re-engineering the species
to address this part of the equation. "It's entirely possible
to make the case that human beings are a huge problem and that
we'd be better off with something else in their place,"
he told me. "Of course, everyone who's ever dealt seriously
with environmental issues or issues of war and peace, or any
other of the great human failings, can think that. For me, we
remain a sweet, interesting, intriguing species, full of enormous
potential that we have yet to fully realize. I think that we've
got all kinds of room to find out good ways of being human within
our biological limitations."
Whether that sentiment is enough to rally a counterforce to
the threats depicted in "Enough" is open to debate
a debate Bill McKibben urgently invites his readers to
Ralph Brave, a science writer based in Davis, California,
is currently on a fellowship at the Center for Genetics and
Society. He has written on the human genome for the past six
years, including articles in Salon, the Washington Post and
the Baltimore Sun, and is working on a book on the subject.
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