April 30, 2003
Two cheers for Virginia Postrel and Glenn Reynolds for chiding reviewers of Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben for calling the author "brave." We've seen enough bravery in the past months and we should be able to spot the real thing by now. I would have given a third cheer if they had taken McKibben himself to task.
Consider this passage from "Enough":
In fact, though, whatever you think of the last five hundred years, this [genetic engineering] is one liberation too many. We are snipping the very last weight holding us to the ground, and when it's gone we will float silently away into the vacuum of meaninglessness.
So McKibben is "bravely" making the determination that we've had "enough" improvements in health, longevity, and quality of life. In McKibben's "brave" new world, the government prevents us from pursuing these goals past a certain designated boundary. A brave new world indeed.
Why is this? McKibben explains:
If you genetically alter your child and the programming works, then you will have turned your child into an automaton to one degree or another; and if it only sort of works, you will have seeded the ground for a harvest of neurosis and self-doubt we can barely begin to imagine. If "Who am I?" is the quintessential modern question you will have guaranteed that your children will never be able to fashion a workable answer.
So McKibben has (apparently, if you give him this much credit) weight the pros and cons for all of us and determined (for all of us) that the pros of health, longevity, and quality of life are outweighed by the cons of "neurosis and self-doubt." Thanks for the advice Bill, but I'd prefer to make my own choices, thank you.
McKibben is of the school that holds that "THE WORLD IS CLEARLY not in need of dramatic further improvements," and so we should just stop innovating--we've done enough and should just try to spread around the advances we already have. Personally I think the world could use some improvements. I'd like to see what dramatic advancements in energy, communications, medicine might do to aleviate the pain and suffering around the world. Risk does come with innovation, but the FACTS are that virtually all the indicators of human welfare have improved as science has progressed. Are we at an inflection point where this trend, millennia old, will suddenly reverse itself? Possibly, but it takes great hubris to suggest so. Reminds me of Marx who was convinced that the major turning point in political history just happened to be in the very age in which he lived! Perhaps it's "brave" to advocate halting human progress for the avoidance of "self-doubt," but I think it's pernicious.