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.)
Again, McKibben doesn’t go all the way down, into the dark realms of envy, cheating, payoffs, and megalomaniac revenge. What’s to prevent your enemy from bribing your gene doctor so that your baby turns out like Hannibal the Cannibal?
But what about heritable diseases? you may reasonably ask. Why should any child get stuck with cerebral palsy, or autism, or schizophrenia, or Huntington’s chorea, or the many other maladies that genes are heir to? They shouldn’t if there’s a remedy, and there is. McKibben points out that these conditions can be eliminated without taking the final step. (After Enough was published and before this review was written, a Canadian team cracked the gene for autism. Help is on the way.) Once their genome has been analyzed, parents at risk could be notified of any defects, and could go the in vitro route, with fertilized eggs lacking in the culpable gene chosen for implanting. This “somatic gene therapy” would not involve the addition of anyone else’s genes. Plastic surgery, hormones, vitamin pills, and somatic gene therapy are enough, says McKibben; gene splicing is too much.
Next, McKibben delves into nanotechnology, which is also well on the way. Just the other week, news dribbled out of a new technology that can assemble water from the oxygen and the hydrogen in the air, so useful in deserts. The applicable folktale for nanotechnology is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”—what if you get the process started, but the self-replicating nanobot escapes, and you can’t turn the darn thing off? In the case of the water gizmo the result would be that we’d choke to death, since all the available oxygen would be assembled into water. We might create an assembler that makes food—dirt in one end, potatoes out the other—or something that destroys bioforms hostile to us. But what if such a nanobot goes on the rampage and attacks all bioforms? This is where Prince Charles’s apprehension about “gray goo” comes in. It’s a real fear, and one discussed by McKibben.
Cybernetics and artificial intelligence also get a look-in, as man-and-machine combinations are occupying some of our better-paid minds. Visions of microchips implanted in your brain dance in their heads—well, we already have pacemakers, so what’s the difference? Why shouldn’t we baptize artificial intelligence doodads, because they can be made to resemble us so much that maybe they have whatever we think merits baptism? Call it a soul, why not? Maybe we can get enhanced smellability, X-ray vision, Spidey Sense, the works. Artificial orgasms, better than the real thing. Everything will be better than the real thing! Why shouldn’t we have eyes in the backs of our heads? Why do we only have one mouth that has to perform several functions—talking, eating, whistling? If we had several buccal orifices we’d be able to do all these things at once! (Sign here. You owe it to yourself. Because you deserve it.)
There’s been quite a lot of chat about the shortcomings we’ve had to put up with thanks to Mother Nature, the dirty treacherous cow, and this is the not-so-cleverly-hidden subtext of a lot of brave-new-world thinking. These folks hate Nature, and they hate themselves as part of it, or her. McKibben cites an amazing speech given by Max More (last name chosen by himself) to the Extropian Convention (“extropy,” coined as the opposite to “entropy”). This speech took the form of a dissing of Mother Nature, and said, essentially, thanks for nothing and goodbye. Nature has made so many mistakes, the chief one being death. Why do we have to get old and die? Why is man the one creature that foresees its own death?
As in many religions—and the energy propelling the wilder fringes of this “more” enterprise is religious in essence—there has to be a second birth, one that gets around the indignity of having come out of a body—a female body—and, come to think of it, of having a body yourself. All that guck and blood and cells and death. Why do we have to eat? And, by implication, defecate. So messy. Maybe we can fix our digestive tracts so we just slip out a little pellet, say once a month. Maybe we can be born again, this time out of an artificial head instead of a natural body, and download the contents of our brains into machines, and linger around in cyberspace, as in William Gibson’s novels. Though if you’ve read William Gibson, you’ll know the place is a queasy nightmare.
All the enhancements McKibben discusses are converging on the biggie, which is none other than the final nose-thumb at Nature—immortality. Immortality doesn’t fare so well in myth and story. Either you get it but forget to request eternal youth too, and become a crumbling horror (Tithonus, the Sibyl of Cumae, Swift’s Struldbrugs), or you seize the immortality and the vitality, but lose your soul and must live by feeding on the blood of the innocent (Melmoth the Wanderer, vampires, and so forth). The stories are clear: gods are immortal, men die. Try to change it and you’ll end up worse off.
That doesn’t stop us from hankering. McKibben recognizes the impulse: “Objecting even slightly to immortality,” he rightly says, “is a little like arguing against ice cream—eternal life has only been humanity’s great dream since the moment we became conscious.” But unlike all previous generations, ours might be able to achieve it. This would alter us beyond recognition. We’d become a different species—one living in eternal bliss, in the eyes of its proponents; sort of like—well, angels, or superhuman beings anyway. It would certainly mean an end to narrative. If life is endless, why tell stories? No more beginnings and middles, because there will be no more endings. No Shakespeare for us, or Dante, or, well, any art, really. It’s all infested with mortality, and reeks of earthiness. Our new angel-selves will no longer need or understand our art. They might have other art, though it would be pretty bloodless.
But once we’re well and truly immortal, what would we do all day? Wouldn’t we get tired of the endlessness, the monotony, the lack of meaningful event? Wouldn’t we get bored? Nope. We’d sit around and contemplate problems, such as: “Where did the universe come from?” “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “What is the meaning of conscious existence?” Is that to be the result of all this admittedly fascinating science—a tedious first-year philosophy seminar? “Not to be impolite,” says McKibben, “but for this we trade our humanity?”
That’s the good version of the immortal mind. I encountered the bad version in a paperback I received through a high school book-a-month club. Donovan’s Brain was its title, and the brain in question was being kept alive in a large fish tank and fed on brain food. The hope of the scientists doing this was that the brain would grow in power and strength, and solve problems such as “Why is there something rather than nothing,” and benefit mankind. But Donovan when he had a body was a stock manipulator or the equivalent, and he bent his new-found mind powers in the direction of world domination, zapping people who got in his way. A big brain does not mean a nice brain. This was made clear to me at the age of twelve, and it’s made even clearer in Enough. There are some very clever people at work on the parts that will go into making up our immortality, and what they’re doing is on some levels fascinating—like playing with the biggest toy box you’ve ever seen—but they are not the people who should be deciding our future. Asking these kinds of scientists what improved human nature should be like is like asking ants what you should have in your back yard. Of course they would say “more ants.”
And while we’re on the subject, who exactly is “we?” The “we,” that is, who are promised all these goodies. “We” will be the “GenRich,” the rich in genes. “We” are certainly not the six billion people already on the planet, nor the ten billion projected for the year 2050—those will be the “GenPoor.” “We,” when we appear, will be a select few, and since our enhanced genes and our immortality are going to be so expensive, and will not survive—for instance—being squashed flat by tanks, we will have to take steps to protect ourselves. Doubtless “we” will devise almost-impenetrable walls, as in the Zamyatin novel of the same name; or “we” will live in a castle, with “them”—the serfs and peasants, the dimwits, the mortals—roiling around outside. We will talk like James Dewey Watson; we’ll say things like “It’s not much fun being around dumb people.” In fact, we’ll behave a lot like the aristocrats of old, convinced of our own divine right. The serfs and peasants will hate us. Not to throw cold water on it, but if the serfs and peasants are true to form, sooner or later they’ll get hold of some pitchforks and torches and storm the barricades. So to avoid the peasants, we’ll have to go into outer space. Having fun yet?
The agenda of those who visualize themselves as the GenRich—like Past Lifers, Future Lifers never see themselves playing the role of ditchdigger—is being pushed in the name of that magic duo, progress and inevitability, the twins that always make an appearance when quite a few potential shareholders smell megabucks in the air. (Along with them come the usual my-dick-is-bigger adjectives, as McKibben points out—guts and risk-taking and so forth—so if you don’t rush out and get your genes spliced and your head frozen, you’re some sort of a wuss.) “Progress” has deluded many, but surely its pretensions as a rallying slogan have been exploded by now: progress is not the same as change. As for “inevitability,” it’s the rapist’s argument: the thing is going to happen anyway, so why not just lie back and enjoy it? Resistance is futile. (That was the old advice: now you’re told to scream and vomit, thus influencing the outcome. Times change.)
McKibben takes on both of the magic twins, and is particularly moving on “inevitability.” We still have choice, he says. Just because a thing has been invented doesn’t mean you have to use it. He offers as exempla the atomic bomb, the Japanese samurais’ rejection of guns, the Chinese abandonment of advanced sea power, and the Amish, who examine each new technology and accept or reject it according to social and spiritual criteria. We too, he says, can accept or reject according to social and spiritual criteria. We can, and we should. We must decide as ourselves—as who we already are as human beings. We must decide from the fullness of our present humanity, flawed though it may be. As I’ve said, McKibben is an optimist. I agree with him about what we should do, but I’m not too sure we’ll do it.
The fact is—and this is not a line of thought McKibben pursues—that the argument for the perfectability of mankind rests on a logical fallacy. Thus: Man is by definition imperfect, say those who would perfect him. But those who would perfect him are themselves, by their own definition, imperfect. And imperfect beings cannot make perfect decisions. The decision about what constitutes human perfection would have to be a perfect decision; otherwise the result would be not perfection, but imperfection. As witness the desire for several different mouths.
Perhaps our striving for perfection should take a different, more Blakean form. Perhaps Infinity can be seen in a grain of sand, and Eternity in an hour. Perhaps happiness is not a goal but a road. Perhaps the pursuit of happiness is that happiness. Perhaps we should take a cue from Tennyson, and separate wisdom and knowledge, and admit that wisdom cannot be cloned or manufactured. Perhaps that admission is wisdom. Perhaps enough should be enough for us. Perhaps we should leave well enough alone.
June 12, 2003