Faster! Stronger! Less human!

In "Enough," Bill McKibben argues that genetic engineering will deprive our children of their freedom to choose who and what they are.

Published April 30, 2003 8:51PM (EDT)

Bill McKibben's "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age" could be called a suicide-prevention manual for the human race.

McKibben counsels that life right now is good enough, while warning that the impending futuristic cure-alls for stupidity, ugliness and madness are really just tasty poisons.

Genetic engineering promises to make future generations healthier, smarter, happier, taller, thinner, better-looking, stronger, saner and just generally better than we are today. Proponents claim it will give us the power to prevent debilitating and fatal diseases and even, in conjunction with other new technologies, potentially conquer death itself.

But these claims haven't been realized yet, which makes reading McKibben's anti-genetic-engineering call to arms oddly like encountering a self-help manual when you're feeling pretty good about things.

A self-appointed crisis counselor on high-stakes issues for the future of the human race, Bill McKibben is known for his eloquent Chicken Littling on environmental ills ranging from global warming in "The End of Nature" to overpopulation in "Maybe One." In "Enough," he argues that "improving" humans through genetic engineering risks turning them into just so many humanoid robots. He charges that in the name of speeding up human evolution, we are robbing our descendants of freedom of choice and may even bring our own species' existence to an end.

Other critics of genetic engineering, such as Lee Silver and Francis "Posthuman Future" Fukuyama, have made the societal arguments against "designer babies" echoed here: Tinkering with genes to create better children will permanently entrench class differences by guaranteeing the spawn of wealthy parents super-high I.Q.'s and great pitching arms before they're even out of the womb. Just try saying "all men are created equal" with a straight face when a permanent underclass of "Naturals" have the misfortune to be born equipped merely with their own ancestors' genes.

But McKibben sees trouble for the so-called GenRich. He predicts that the individuals lucky enough to be enhanced will suffer, too, albeit in more subtle, yet profound, ways. By turning them into something less than human, better-baby-through-gene-splicing techniques will damage the enhanced offspring that affluent parents are trying to engineer, even if they do produce little Chloes and Nathaniels guaranteed to be fit.

If a girl has been design specifically for musical ability, what satisfaction will she take in being accepted to Juilliard for her prowess on the piccolo? Will she feel the achievement is hers? Or will it be her geneticist's? If a man who dedicates his life to helping the poor has been programmed for altruism before birth, what will his humanitarianism actually mean?

In other words, will children whose parents have chosen a "better" life for them in the lab before they were born, really be able to make choices about their own lives, or will they just be executing those choices according to their scripted game plans?

In McKibben's somewhat Type-A worldview, meaning in life is found in the moments when we press and challenge ourselves to go further, try harder and do more, whatever our chosen pursuit. Think of the 23rd mile of a marathon, where you "find out what you're really made of." McKibben foresees no such hard-won pleasures of self-discovery in the lives of the GenRich. And he's idealistic enough to think that lording their achievements over the Naturals won't be consolation enough.

McKibben's argument neatly hijacks the high ground of "freedom of choice" from laissez-faire libertarians and proponents of genetic engineering, such as Gregory Stock, who argue that if these technologies ever become viable, no congressional subcommittee or bioethics panel should have the right to keep them from parents who want to use them to help their unborn children.

But if parents are free to exercise this choice, their children and their descendants will be permanently robbed of their own free will, McKibben believes. "The person left without any choice at all is the one you've engineered," he writes.

This case against enhancing unborn children is easier to accept than McKibben's arguments against using the same "germ-line engineering" technologies to prevent diseases. He maintains that we can't make meaningful distinctions between, say, preventing dwarfism and improving a child who is naturally likely to grow up short. "There's no obvious line between repair and improvement," he writes, while also wondering how we could possibly enforce any such distinctions in thousands of fertility clinics across the land.

Really? Can't society choose to draw whatever line it wants? Similar moral and physical distinctions are already drawn and enforced in, to choose one example, the regulation of the right to an abortion at eight months of pregnancy versus three.

But there's a certain level of abstraction to the whole debate, because McKibben appears less interested in judging the relative likelihood of any specific IQ-adjusting or musical-prodigy-programming technology actually being moved into production use anytime soon, than in convincing us that we should curtail or ban such techniques before they are feasible. This makes it hard to get worked up about some of his alleged threats. Who has time to worry about how we'll fill our carefree days with meaning when as yet invented nanotechnological worker-bees eliminate the countless hours of drudgery in daily life while we're busy being scared by SARS, the threat of global terrorism, or the flaccid economy.

McKibben bases his assumptions on the theory that the pace of change itself has sped up, so that so far unrealized sci-fi-sounding wonders such as nanotechnological medical drones that will repair individual cells inside our bodies will be available at a hospital near you sooner than we think. The human genome was sequenced faster than anyone, including the people working on it, imagined it would be, so surely designer babies will be coming to a neighborhood petri dish before we know what to make of them.

But McKibben's biggest challenge in making his case is that, as he grumbles, warning against the intoxicating visions promised by genetic science, nanotechnology and robotics is like arguing against ice cream. The other side -- the scientists and geneticists, Extropians and techno-libertarians -- have everything from higher-I.Q. kids to the dream of eternal life on their side, while McKibben comes off as an epic-scale fuddy-duddy proselytizing about the Promethean hazards of wanting too much. Hey, Extropians: Death is actually good for you because it gives life meaning and connects you to nature and the rest of human history. And while you're at it, eat your Brussels sprouts.

Intriguingly, it is when he quotes the proponents of these "improved" futures that his crucial position -- that decisions about how these technologies should be used musn't be left to the scientists themselves -- appears strongest.

James Watson, the Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of DNA, asks rhetorically, "Who wants an ugly baby?" And he opines: "It's not much fun being around dumb people" and "When you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them."

Others just don't believe in democracy when it applies to science at all. Marvin Minsky, a leading specialist in artificial intelligence, is quoted saying that democracy "works well for easy problems" but not "when the issues get too complicated for laymen to understand."

You don't have to be GenRich to decide what to think about that.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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