Review of Ramez Naam’s More than Human (Broadway Books,
2005) and Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution (Doubleday,
If we change our biology, do we change our nature?
The increasing sophistication of biomedical technologies make it
nearly inevitable that, very soon, we will be able to make
startlingly profound changes to our bodies and our minds. But
critics of such technological advances claim that such
modifications would lead to a world of genetic "haves" and
"have-nots," of individuals forced to adopt behavioral or
physical changes in order to remain economically competitive,
even of the "enhanced" seeing themselves as above the petty
concerns of the un-modified populace, and either divorcing
themselves from the rest of humanity or seeking political
dominance. Such fears gain currency in part because they have
been embraced by leading conservative political figures like
Francis "End of History" Fukuyama and former head of the
President's Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass.
It's against this backdrop that technology
specialist Ramez Naam and Washington Post staff writer
Joel Garreau explore—in substantively different ways—just what
possibilities await us in a world of technological enhancement
of the human physiology.
Ramez Naam's More Than Human is an
admittedly partisan account of the potential benefits of
biological enhancement. Naam strongly supports the development
of these technologies, arguing that the drive to improve oneself
is very much an expression of human nature.
As a species we've always looked for ways
to be faster, stronger, and smarter and to live longer. Many
past enhancements that we now take for granted—from blood
transfusions to vaccinations to birth control—were called
unnatural or immoral when they were first introduced. Yet over
time we've become accustomed to these new levels of control over
our minds and bodies, and have used them for the betterment of
ourselves, our families and our world.
The enhancements that Naam discusses range
from improving our ability to fight disease all the way to
radical extensions of the human lifespan, with stops along the
way at increased intelligence, altered personalities, and
implanted computers. The material is presented in a
straightforward, well-documented way, but always with an
emphasis on potential benefits. Much of the book covers the
kinds of choices parents of the very near future may have to
make regarding the kinds of children they bring into the world.
Naam makes it clear from the outset that he
sees bio-enhancement as simply an extension of treatments for
healing the sick and injured. This tension between "enhancement"
and "therapy" is a recurring theme in the literature of both the
pro- and anti-modification communities. For critics, the line is
very clear between interventions meant to bring the disabled up
to the norms of physical health and those meant to exceed
natural abilities; for proponents, this line is far fuzzier, as
the range of natural human capability is quite broad, and an
intervention that brings an individual's physical capacities
close to the natural maximum is simply "being all that one can
be." And in More Than Human, "all that one can be" is
pretty amazing: healthier, smarter, longer lived, better
connected, more talented, happier... the child of the mid-21st
century will be everything a parent could hope for, and more.
Naam acknowledges potential risks and gaps in
our knowledge, but by and large sees these as solvable problems.
More Than Human doesn't pretend to be an unbiased look at
the possibility of human enhancement, but a counterpoint to
tracts such as Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future. In that,
it's quite successful—an open-minded reader will find a clear
presentation of the potential benefits arising from human
enhancement technologies, and an exciting glimpse at what the
next few decades might hold.
In contrast, Joel Garreau's Radical
Evolution does try to present both the supporting and
opposing perspectives on these technologies. Garreau, a writer
for the Washington Post (and author of several previous
books on changes to human society, including Edge Cities
and The Nine Nations of North America), focuses less on
the nuts & bolts of enhancement technologies than on the stories
of the people working on or thinking about them. As a result,
Radical Evolution is likely an easier introduction to the
topic for non-technical readers than is More Than Human.
(Disclosure: I've known Joel for about a decade, and he
consulted with me early in the crafting of this book.)
Radical Evolution is split into two
broad sections. The first two chapters tell of the people and
organizations working on the technologies intended to improve
human lives and enhance human capabilities; Garreau refers to
these as the GRIN technologies—Genetic, Robotic, Information and
Nano. The remainder of the book is an attempt to craft three
very different scenarios of where these technologies could lead.
The scenarios ("Heaven," "Hell," and "Prevail") aren't attempts
to predict the future, so much as they are attempts to dramatize
and illustrate the ends of the spectrum of possibility. This, in
turn, is meant to allow readers to decide for themselves which
kind of world is the most appealing—because, as Garreau argues,
the choice will be ours.
The "Heaven" scenario will be easily
recognized by readers familiar with the work of Ray Kurzweil.
It's a world where (as a rule) we make the right choices,
technology works the way we intend, and the life of the enhanced
is so self-evidently better that few choose not to seek out
enhancement. As a side-effect, the environment's cleaner,
there's no hunger or privation, and we all live (essentially)
forever. If that sounds like a caricature, it's not; Kurzweil,
and many of his supporters, have worked out very well-reasoned
arguments as to why such a future isn't just possible, but close
The "Hell" scenario, conversely, is largely an
elaboration of the fears expressed by Bill Joy in recent years.
It's a world in which things go badly, very badly, directly as a
result of the growing capabilities of the GRIN technologies.
Privacy is gone, economies are shattered, the environment is
irrevocably damaged, and terrorists can unleash weapons with
heretofore unimaginable ability to do civilization harm. In
short, it's a technologically-enhanced nightmare. Joy and
fellow-travelers such as Fukuyama believe very strongly that
this outcome is unavoidable if we don't immediately cease
development of these technologies.
Finally, the "Prevail" scenario represents an
attempt to describe a world that is not pre-determined by
our technology choices; instead, we are able to adopt or
relinquish given technologies based on thoughtful determination
of consequences. Such a world emerges in part because
technologies never work quite as well as their proponents hope
and their detractors fear, and in part because humans are simply
much better at taking stock of their situations and avoiding
"inevitable" outcomes than is often thought.
Even if technology is advancing along an
exponential curve, that doesn't mean humans cannot creatively
shape the impact on human nature and society in largely
unpredictable ways. The key measure of Prevail's success is an
increasing intensity of links between humans, not transistors.
If some sort of transcendence is achieved beyond today's
understanding of human nature, it will not be through some
individual becoming a superman. [...] Transcendence is social,
Much of the focus of the Prevail scenario is on
researchers choosing not to pursue certain ends, and society at
large deciding to slow the work on potentially-dangerous
technologies. Garreau acknowledges but gives less emphasis to
the other side of the scenario, that of some technologies being
accelerated out of appreciation of their potential benefits.
Readers of Radical Evolution not already
familiar with the elements of the GRIN technologies will come
away from the book with a better appreciation of their potential
but a still-fuzzy understanding of what they entail. Ideally, a
reader would pause after the first section of Radical
Evolution and seek out works by other authors explaining the
technologies in more detail—Naam's More Than Human would
work quite well in this role, actually—before continuing on to
Readers who have already given a great deal of
thought to the risks, benefits and meaning of human enhancement
technologies will find that both books work better as
jumping-off points for argument than as stand-alone volumes.
Each contains elements that knowledgeable readers will find
debatable, such as Naam's argument that bioengineering to
enhance intelligence or talent differs little from tutoring in
math or music, or Garreau's underplaying of
international competition as a driver for technological
development. In general, More Than Human underestimates
the importance of politics and culture in determining
technological choices, while Radical Evolution places too
much emphasis on the opinions and ideas of older, establishment
thinkers such as Kurzweil and Joy—there's no sense of the
cutting edge, of truly radical approaches to these issues.
What both books accomplish quite well is to
illustrate the complexity that the next few decades will hold.
The choices that will be available in the years ahead—about
children, about one's own health, about what to allow, what to
regulate, and what to ban—will trigger fundamental questions of
what it means to be human. What we must keep in mind is that
being human is more than belonging to the species Homo
sapiens; humankind is a social construct and, at its best,
being human means celebrating a common, shared existence. This
is hard enough to do when we're all of the same species, with
roughly the same capabilities and bodies—imagine how much more
of a challenge it will be as we start to explore all of the
possibilities our technologies have to offer.