Bill McKibben has devoted himself to extensive research on the subjects of this book; the quotations that he liberally uses threaten to overwhelm his prose in many paragraphs. This is not a book merely cobbled together from the words and ideas of others, however. The author has taken the time to think through questions of technology and about the meaning of human lives. In doing so, he has created a moving book that sets out to examine, in detailed and straightforward prose, what the convergence of certain technologies could mean for the future. By this, he means the future of every man, woman, and child on Earth—and beyond, should people ever travel into space.
As in his previous books, McKibben begins with a personal experience—that of running a marathon for which he has trained. This particular marathon is important only in that finishing it will grant him access to the prestigious Boston Marathon. At age forty-one, he feels keenly the demands he is placing on his body and realizes that he finishes the race as much from force of will as from training and stamina. This insight provides McKibben the opportunity to introduce the concept of physical enhancement.
Following a discussion of drug use among athletes, he examines the possibility of manipulating embryos (germ-line engineering) so that they would be born superior athletes. Here there is a catch: If one were engineered to be a great athlete, one’s achievements would have no meaning. An athlete cannot test his or her limits when it cannot be determined where engineering leaves off and where the individual begins. Moreover, next year’s model will be faster and more agile still, making even one’s engineered triumphs obsolete.
However, the siren song still lures. What parents with the means would pass up the opportunity to give their child a better start in life? The competition among parents to get their child in the “right” preschool is fierce; what if they could give their child extra IQ points and enhanced abilities in math and languages? McKibben takes this question further still. What if one wanted the child to be a great physicist or musician? If germ-line engineering could produce a child with those particular abilities, then it would be possible to control an individual in a way that has not been available to previous generations. One would also be removing freedom of choice, the ability to experience deep joy in achievement, and meaning from the child’s life. However, one could tinker with the child’s temperament so that he or she would never even think about what had been lost.
Speaking of choice, McKibben points out that although the decision to use enhancements to performance is argued to be a choice, it would be a choice only for the first people to try it. Just as athletes wishing to compete without using drugs have found themselves hopelessly behind, so would parents opposed to genetic enhancement find themselves in a difficult position. Eventually, one would have to enhance one’s child, unless one wanted him or her to have no chance to compete. Failure to enhance might even be viewed as child abuse. If one failed to engineer the tendency toward obesity from a child, perhaps medical insurance companies would refuse coverage.
One of the more troubling aspects McKibben identifies in this genetic improvement is the widening gap between the rich, who will be able to afford to pay for this tinkering, and the poor, who will be left even further behind. Geneticist Lee Silver, a proponent of germ-line engineering who is quoted here, imagines a “GenRich” and “Natural” class division arising in the future, which would eventually become an “entirely separate species, with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee.” This book constantly surprises with these glances into the future by proponents who do not seem bothered by these prospects.
The cautionary tales of...
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