My Son, the Robot

Will technology end human life as we know it? Yes, says Bill McKibben.

In 1989, Bill McKibben published a book with the attention-grabbing title, The End of Nature. Nature was no longer sublime, McKibben argued, because it was now tainted through and through by man’s activity, especially the production of greenhouse gasses. His prescription: Drive Less. Buy Less. Do Less. In a review at the time, Martin Amis wrote that The End of Nature was “honest, decent, salutary; also largely unresonant. Also callow, and painfully stretched.”

The same adjectives apply to McKibben’s latest book, Enough. Here the author is worried about genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology—three new technologies that, he thinks, threaten to rob us of our humanity. Enough is decent and salutary, but it has three flaws that make it unresonant. And there is a deeper fallacy evident in McKibben’s reasoning—oddly, one that he shares with the techno-zealots he opposes.

First, the flaws, in order of ascending importance.

McKibben’s prose is full of sophomoric notes. A few specimens:

Is the fifth beer the one that’s going to make you feel really good, or the one that’s going to make you puke?

People are okay. I’m okay, you’re okay, the lady who stands there forever talking with the cashier at Shop’n Save is nonetheless, deep down, okay.

The lion will lie down with the clam [sic], and they’ll do some hits of ecstasy.

He presents no original arguments. The case McKibben makes in Enough is pretty much the same one that Francis Fukuyama made last year in Our Posthuman Future.

Take McKibben’s chief bogy, genetic engineering—specifically, germline engineering, in which an embryo’s DNA would be manipulated in the hopes of producing a “designer baby” with, say, a higher IQ, a knack for music, and no predisposition to obesity. The best reason to ban it (as the European Community has already done) is the physical risk it poses to individuals—namely, to the children whose genes are altered, with unforeseen and possibly horrendous consequences. The next best reason is the risk it poses to society—exacerbating inequality by creating a “GenRich” class of individuals who are smarter, healthier, and handsomer than the underclass of “Naturals.” McKibben cites these reasons, as did Fukuyama (and many others) before him. However, what really animates both authors is a more philosophical point: that genetic engineering would alter “human nature” (Fukuyama) or take away the “meaning” of life (McKibben). As far as I can tell, the argument from human nature and the argument from meaning are mere terminological variants of each other. And both are woolly, especially when contrasted with the libertarian argument that people should be free to do what they wish as long as other parties aren’t harmed.

Finally, McKibben’s reasoning fitfully betrays a vulgar variety of genetic determinism. He approvingly quotes phrases like “genetically engineered thoughts.” Altering an embryo’s DNA to make your child, say, less prone to violence would turn him into an “automaton.” Giving him “genes expressing proteins to boost his memory, to shape his stature” would leave him with “no more choice about how to live his life than a Hindu born untouchable.” Why isn’t the same true with the randomly assigned genes we now have?

Now to the deeper fallacy. McKibben takes it for granted that we are at an inflection point of history, suspended between the prehistoric and the Promethean. He writes, “we just happen to be alive at the brief and interesting moment when [technological] growth starts to really matter—when it spikes.” Everything is about to change.

The extropian visionaries arrayed against him—people like Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky, and Lee Silver—agree. In fact, they think we are on the verge of conquering death (which McKibben thinks would be a terrible thing). And they mean RIGHT NOW. When you die, you should have your brain frozen; then, in a couple of decades, it will get thawed out and nanobots will repair the damage; then you can start augmenting it with silicon chips; finally, your entire mental software, and your consciousness along with it (you hope), will get uploaded into a computer; and—with multiple copies as insurance—you will live forever, or at least until the universe falls apart.

The problem with this sort of thinking is that it violates the Copernican Principle, which says, in essence, “You’re not special.” (It’s named after Copernicus because he realized that we are not at the center of the solar system, let alone the universe.) More precisely, the principle says that, as a matter of statistical necessity, most observers must be “typical.” So, if a given set of observers believe in a scenario that makes them highly atypical, they are almost certainly mistaken.

The techno-visionaries fall afoul of the Copernican Principle by being too optimistic. If our robotic “mind children” (Moravec’s expression) go on to colonize the universe and flourish in epochs billions of years into the future, then that makes us—sitting here on the home planet at the very beginning of the process, thinking these thoughts with brains of meat—highly atypical, rather like Adam and Eve. And almost every observer who believes himself to be in the position of Adam and Eve is mistaken; the odds against being in such an atypical situation are a billion to one.

McKibben, by contrast, is too pessimistic. He thinks that if technologies like genetic engineering are not stopped, H. sapiens will soon be superseded by what is in effect a new species. Now, biologically modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years. As a simple matter of logic, there is a 95 percent chance that our species is neither at the very beginning of its career (the first 2.5 percent) nor at the very end (the last 2.5 percent)—just as most people do not find themselves at the very beginning or the very end of the phone book. Accordingly, the Princeton physicist J. Richard Gott III has calculated that we can be 95 percent confident that the human species in its present form will be around for at least another 5,100 years but not more than 7.8 million years. (This, by the way, would give us a total longevity very similar to other mammal species, which on average go extinct 2 million years after they appear.)

McKibben offends against the Copernican Principle not once, but twice. For he also believes that we now happen to be at the point on the technology curve where human happiness is at a maximum. It is a sort of Goldilocks moment: not too hot, not too cold, just right. “While the jump to microscale technology may have made life easier, the further jump to nanoscale engineering will eventually drown us in a gushing cornucopia,” he writes. “While the jump to modern medicine may have freed us from many ills, the next leap to human genetic manipulation will imprison us in a house of distorting mirrors.”

Now, happiness is a subjective thing, and I, for one, may agree with McKibben’s assessment. But the most bracing bits of Enough tend to be the supposedly scary quotations from techno-zealots like Marvin Minsky. “Myself, I don’t much like how people are now,” Minsky says. “We’re too shallow, slow, and ignorant. … We have learned a lot in two thousand years, yet much ancient wisdom still seems sound, which makes me suspect that we haven’t been making much progress.” Compared to that, McKibben’s cautiousness is salutary and decent, but dull.