Summer 2005 - Volume 8 Number 3
Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodiesand What It Means to Be Human
New York: Doubleday, 2004
Back about 1955, I purchased a copy of a magazinepossibly Popular Mechanics or Popular Science. On the cover were images of what life would be like in the year 2000. The two that stand out in my memory were helicopters in every suburban garage and personal nuclear power plants in every basement. How rush hour would be conducted with personalized gyroscopes whizzing about in all directions was not a problem that interested the people who would soon be called "futurists". What environmental dangers would derive from spent fuel rods in the weekly trash were also among the concerns that were not addressed.
In the half-century that has passed, similarly ill-considered predictions of technological mastery have been exceeded only by equally daffy forecasts of social, political and economic advance.
From Daniel Bell's chatter about "the end of ideology" through Alvin Toffler's talk about "future shock" to Francis Fukuyama's easy claims for the "end of history" and Peter Drucker's endless paeans to corporate supremacy, the foretelling of almost constant improvements in prosperity, justice and equity filled books about "megatrends." Walt Disney anticipated a world without material limit, spurred on by technology and providing ample benefits to all. Of course, some of the champions of change occasionally expressed ambiguity about the emerging technological society. A few admitted that there were "challenges" ahead, but the most popular of the breed held out a plausible hope for an unremittingly enjoyable future.
The breathless optimism of the majority was, of course, partly balanced by the jeremiads of a minority who saw expanding gaps between rich and poorboth domestically and internationally. Environmentalists brooded darkly about the decline of biodiversity and eventually about global warming. Some even had the audacity to complain about the world's rapid consumption of finite resources such as petroleum and proclaim a limit to growth.
Generally, however, "nattering nabobs of negativism" were dismissed by the authorities, and their dire prophecies added up only to opportunities for creative engineers and earnest entrepreneurs eager to demonstrate that no serious problem was beyond a technological quick-fix. William Jefferson Clinton was eager to scamper across the bridge to the 21st century!
In each succeeding decade, the battle between the optimists and the pessimists has been replayed and there is no immediate end in sight. The first few years of the new millennium have brought little to cheer. Natural disasters have provided a reminder that technology does not always trump tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes. The virulence of communicable diseases makes pandemics appear inevitable. Terrorism and counter-terrorism have made the prospect of progress in human relations into a cruel joke. Poverty and oppression are embedded in the global political economy and confidence in the future has been at least temporarily shaken.
Today, in a mood what will soon predictably be called "hyper-futurism," attention focuses on the threats, rather than the promises, of technology. We worry (with cause) about purposeless and unworkable multi-billion dollar missile defense shields sponsored by a superpower that can't afford a few million to construct serviceable levees around its preposterously constructed Mississippi River port. We fret about a revivified eugenics program given technological credibility by the results of the Human Genome Project. We grow paranoid (or merely observant) in the face of cradle-to-grave surveillance by public space video cameras watching our every move and pause, and we grow increasingly aware of infinitely expansive data storage mechanisms keeping tabs on our credit records, school transcripts, library borrowings, spending habits, medical treatments, criminal offences and parking tickets. Still, we are assured that the sense of gloom will fade and that we will all bounce back bigger and better than before. Oprah thinks so. Maybe we will.
About thirty-five years ago, I listened to James Dator deliver testimony on the future to a committee of the Hawaii State Legislature. Some of the elected officials were fascinated by his catalogue of possible disasters from "weapons of mass destruction," ecological degradation, disease and poverty. They heard him speak ominously about the coming age of cyborgs and the impending taxonomic ambiguities concerning such fundamental distinctions between living and non-living things. They were circumstantially impotent to respond to his warnings with any kind of practical action and, of course, they were outnumbered by colleagues whose intellectual horizon went no further than the date of the re-count following the next election.
Now, however, there is a small chance that public awareness has caught up to the point where we can see a little of what Dator was getting at.
For this reason, it is fortunate that we can explore some of the issues that will set the real political agenda for the future.
Joel Garreau's description of human prospects is not a technically sophisticated volume. The author is a journalist with the Washington Post. His task is to inform and educate, not to advance the domain of knowledge but to bring some of its core elements to public attention. Accordingly, while he has some interesting things to say about what sorts of inventions are transforming the material base of our culture, and while he does his best to explain the importance of diverse phenomena such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and the omnipresent obsession of our ageinformation technologyhe does so with an awareness that the arcane jargon and complex technicalities can impede understanding, even among the intelligent laity.
The result is a simply constructed but engaging template for the assessment of the current state of affairs. Garreau sets out an even-handed, if somewhat overstated, account of the "Heaven" scenario (household cleaning robots that work, the end of disease as we know it, meaningful employmentor, better, creative Aristotelian leisure for all) and the "Hell" scenario (a Ted Kaczynski nightmare of a proportion that would make Orwell's 1984 seem like anarchy). Garreau is less precise about the Hellish version of the future. He spends too much time talking about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity to give a proper account of the dangers that are immanent or are present and merely unseen or denied today. Mr. Garreau wants to be an optimist and, as a consequence, whistles past various cemeteries. Once done with his considerations of technologically induced apocalypses, he presses on to a characteristically pragmatic "third way" which he calls the "Prevail" scenario in which "common sense" is dexterously employed to ward off the evil effects of toxic innovations yet to take full advantage of tonic possibilities. For Garreau, relying primarily on the musings of Jaron Lanier (Lanier, 2000), Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Humphrey Bogart's Rick in "Casablanca" are archetypal Prevail heroes. Ordinary men and boys (and, we may hope, women and girls as well) can, he intimates, be counted upon to display what he describes as an essential human "cussedness" in the face not only of adversity but of ineluctable, technocratic determinism. In a comforting pause, he affirms that "Prevail's trick is that it embraces uncertainty. Even in the face of unprecedented threats," he reassures us, "it displays a faith that the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity will wend its way to glory." Or, if not salvation, at least survival. It is the art and science of "muddling through" writ large.
Garreau ends (almost) with a discussion of the "Transcend" scenario. After all, the implications of technological change for the mastery of nature and of human nature seem powerful enough that a leisurely appeal to simple practicality may not be enough, or in time. More robust is the appeal to grappling with the pertinent effects of change by gaining control of its causes. Here, Garreau calls upon the wisdom of German philosopher Karl Jaspers and his notion of an "Axial Agea period of unique and fundamental focus on transcendence that is the beginning of humanity as we now know it" and that we may be meeting again as humanity is being transformed by the science and technology we have creating and that is re-creating us in turn.
Jaspers identified the period between 800 and 200 BC as the first Axial Age in which humanity grappled with extraordinary natural, social and cosmological issues. Extraordinary events precipitated extraordinary thought in Europe, India and China. In this age, "all philosophical trends, including skepticism and materialism, sophistry and nihilism, were developed. It was the time of Confucius and Lao-Tse, of the Upanishads and Buddha, of Elijah and Jeremiah, of Homer, Plato and Aristotle. It was the time of the inception of what we now call civilization. Garreau asks if we are now "due for" a second Axial Age.
If we are, such a prospect would certainly seem daunting to poor Huck Finn, no matter how vast his supplies of resilience, flexibility, resourcefulness and cussedness. To be frank, confronting an Axial Age in the presence of a political culture dominated by President Bush, Osama bin Laden, or a popular culture fixated on Paris Hilton and Don Cherry would probably encourage me to "light out for the territories" as wellif, that is, there were any sufficiently remote territories to be found. The prospect of having a modern-day Socrates or Aristophanes interviewed on CNN or Entertainment Tonight is numbing ... totally.
Still, although this is not a book to be taken overly seriously; it is not to be dismissed lightly either. In that uncertain phrase that students often use to assess a teacher or a text, this book can "make you think."
As an introduction to serious ruminations upon the dilemmas and conundrums faced by our species, college studentsespecially those not previously familiar with intellectual issues more exotic than what is apt to be on the final examcould do worse than to read it. It raises ultimate questions of extinction or survival, but it does so neither with such clarity as to make them terrifying nor with such depth as to make them obscure. As an "accessible" primer on the future, it has the capacity to make students think.Work Cited Lanier, J. (2000, September). One half of a manifesto. Edge. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier/lanier_index.html
Howard A. Doughty teaches philosophy and evolutionary biology at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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