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Arguing Against Ice Cream


Enough, by Bill McKibben, is a passionate, succinct, chilling, closely argued, sometimes hilarious, touchingly well-intentioned, and essential summary of the future proposed by “science” for the human race. This is the same Bill McKibben who wrote The End of Nature, about how Homo sapiens has been rearranging the biosphere with the aid of genetically modified plants to suit what it believes is its own interests, and Long Distance, about running marathons, as well as essays for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New York Review, The Atlantic, and others.

Bill McKibben appears to be a smart and thoughtful person, but also kindly and optimistic, as far as can be told from his prose. He likes going for walks in the woods, and he seems very fit, and his jacket photo looks like someone you wouldn’t want playing against you at bridge because he’d already know what you had in your hand. In other words, he could qualify for membership in a muscular branch of upper-level-IQ geekhood, and cannot be simply dismissed as a dull-normal Luddite too dumb to understand the nifty customized body-and-brain parts soon to be on offer to you and yours.

On offer for a price, of course. Ah yes, the price. The traditional fee for this kind of thing was your soul, but who pays any attention to that tattered theological rag anymore, since it can’t be located with a brain probe? And hey, the Special Deal is a super package! How could you refuse? It contains so much that human dreams are made of.

Faust wanted the same sort of stuff. Many have wanted it: eternal youth, godlike beauty, hyperintelligence, Charles Atlas strength. Those of us brought up on the back pages of comic books know the appeal. They’ll never laugh again when you sit down at the piano because now you’ll have X-Men fingers and Mozart’s genius; they won’t dare to kick sand in your face at the beach because you’ll be built like Hercules; you’ll never again be refused a date because of your ugly blackheads, which will have been banished, along with many another feature you could do without. Turning to more adult concerns such as death, you won’t have to invest in a cement coffin container, because not only will your loved one be safe tonight, he or she will still be alive, and forever! And so will you.

The line forms to the right, and it’ll be a long one. (Enough mentions a couple of California artists who set up a piece of conceptual art in the form of a boutique called Gene Genies Worldwide, with printed brochures illustrating what you could buy, and were deluged with serious inquiries.) Anyone who thinks there won’t be a demand for what’s putatively on sale is hallucinating. But along comes Bill McKibben with his sidewalk-preacher’s sandwich board, denouncing the whole enterprise and prophesying doom. There will be catcalls of killjoy and spoilsport, not to mention troglodyte, naysayer, and hand-wringer. Like Prince Charles, who’s just come out against nanotechnology on the ground that it could reduce the world to gray goo, McKibben will be told to keep his nose out of it because it’s none of his business.

Mankind was my business,” laments Marley’s ghost when it’s too late for him. And so says Bill McKibben. Mankind is his business. He addresses the greedy little Scrooge in all of us, and points out to that greedy little Scrooge why he should not want more and more, and more, and, just to top it off, more.

More of what? To that in a minute, but first, a digression on the word “more.” Two emblematic uses of “more” spring to mind. The first is of course the echoing “more” pronounced by Oliver Twist when he is being starved in a foundlings’ home by venal officials. That “more” is the legitimate response to “not enough.” It’s the “more” of real need, and only the hardhearted and wickedly self-righteous Mr. Bumbles of this world can be outraged by it. The second “more” is in the film Key Largo, in the remarkable exchange between the Humphrey Bogart hero character and the Edward G. Robinson evil crook. The crook is asked what he wants, and he doesn’t know. Humphrey knows, however. “He wants more,” he says. And this is what the crook does want: more, and more than he can possibly use; or rather, more than he can appreciate, dedicated as he is to mere accumulation and mere power. For the alternative to “more,” in McKibben’s book, is not “less,” but “enough.” Its epigraph might well be that old folk saying, “Enough is as good as a feast.”

The “enough” of the title, seen rightly—McKibben implies—is already a feast. It’s us, as we are, with maybe a few allowable improvements. More than that is too much. These tempting “mores”—for there are many of them—grow on the more and more Trees of Knowledge that crowd the modern scientific landscape so thickly you can’t see the forest for them. McKibben takes axe in hand and sets out to clear a path. Which apples should be plucked, which left alone? How hard should we think before taking the fateful bite? And why shouldn’t we pig out, and what’s our motivation if we do? Is it the same old story—we want to be as the gods? If it’s that story, we’ve read it, in its many versions. It’s never had a happy ending. Not so far.

The items on the smorgasbord of human alteration divide roughly into three. First, genetic alteration, or gene splicing, whereby parents who are five feet tall and bald can give birth to a six-footer with long blond hair who looks like the next-door neighbor. Well, it’ll provide some new excuses. (“Honey, we chose that! Remember?”) Second, nanotechnology, or the development of single-atom-layer gizmos that can replicate themselves and assemble and disassemble matter. Some of these might be sent into our bodies to repair them, like the miniaturized submarine containing the memorable Raquel Welch in the film Fantastic Voyage. Third, cybernetics, or the melding of man with machine, like the bionic man. At least we’ll all be able to get the lids off jars.

There’s a fourth idea that’s glanced at—cryogenics, or getting yourself or your budget-version head flash-frozen until such time as the yellow-brick road to immortality has been built; whereupon you’ll be unfrozen and restored to youth and health, and, if the head-only option has been chosen, a new body can be grown for you from a few scrapings of your—or somebody else’s—DNA. Investing even a small amount of belief in this scheme puts you in the same league as those who happily buy the Brooklyn Bridge from shifty-looking men in overcoats, for the company—yes, it would be a company—in charge of your frozen head would need to be not only perennially solvent—bankruptcy would equal meltdown—but impeccably honest.

Every field of human endeavor attracts its quota of con men and scam artists, but this one would seem to be a natural. What’s to stop the operators from banking your money, subjecting you to the initial gelatification, and then, pleading electrical failure, dumping your unpleasantly melting self into the trash, or better—waste not, want not, and the shareholders expect a solid bottom line—recycling you for cat food? The pyramids of the mummified Egyptian kings, thoroughly pillaged once the relatives’ backs were turned, stand as a gloss on this kind of thinking, as does London’s Highgate Cemetery, a Garden of Eternity parceled out in pricey lots that became an overgrown thicket once the money stream petered out.

But McKibben’s fervent arguments are of a more clean-cut kind: he is not a novelist or a poet, and thus does not descend all the way into the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart. He assumes a certain amount of sincerity and probity in the less-wacky advocates of these developments, and his appeals are directed to our rational and ethical faculties. We should act, he believes, out of respect for human history and the human race.

He first tackles genetic engineering, already present in soybeans and not so far off for Homo sapiens now that we have the luminous green rabbit and the goat/spider. Gene splicing is the modern answer to the eternal urge to make a more perfect model of ourselves. The novel of record is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: we just can’t stop tinkering, partly because it’s so interesting, and partly because we have a high opinion of our own abilities; but we risk creating monsters.

Gene splicing depends on cloning—McKibben explains how—but is not the same. It involves inserting selected genes—of those other than the parents—into an egg, which is then implanted in the usual way (or will be until the bottled babies of Brave New World make their appearance, and we can do away with the womb altogether). If we become genetically enhanced in this way—enhanced by our parents before we’re born—the joy and mystery will go out of life, says McKibben, because we won’t have to strive for mastery. Our achievements won’t be “ours” but will have been programmed into us; we’ll never know whether we are really feeling “our” emotions, or whether they—like the false memories embedded in the replicants in the film Blade Runner—are off the shelf. We won’t be our unique selves, we’ll just be the sum totals of market whims. We truly will be the “meat machines” that some scientists already term us. Right now about all our parents can pick for us are our names, but what if they could pick everything about us? (And you thought your mother had bad taste in sofas!)

Worse, we’ll be caught in a keep-up-with-the-Joneses competition whereby each new generation of babies will have to have all the latest enhancements—will have to be more intelligent, more beautiful, more disease-free, longer-lived, than the generation before. (Babies of the rich, it goes without saying, because there’s gold in them thar frills.) Thus each new generation will be sui generis—isolated, disconsolate, as out of date as last year’s car model before they’re even twenty-one, each of them stuck on a lily pad of enhancement a few hops behind the one that follows them. In addition to that, they’ll be cut off from history—from their own family tree—because who knows what family trees they’ll really be perpetuating? They’ll bear little relation to their so-called ancestors. The loneliness and the sense of disconnection could be extreme.

McKibben does not go on to explore the ultimate hell this situation could produce. Imagine the adolescent whining and sulking that will be visited upon the parents that have chosen their children’s features out of a catalog, and—inevitably—will have chosen wrong. “I didn’t ask to be born” will be replaced by resentments such as “I didn’t ask to have blue eyes,” or “I didn’t ask to be a math whiz.” Burn that gene brochure! If your kid whines about not being enhanced enough, you can just say you couldn’t afford it. (The advocates of gene enhancement might respond that since you’ll be able to choose your child’s temperament as well, naturally you’ll pick a type that will never do any adolescent whining or sulking. Pay no attention: these people will not be talking about flesh-and-blood children, but about Stepford Kids.)

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