Read an Excerpt
The Future of Human Nature
Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
–Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn
This book can’t begin with the tale of the telekinetic monkey.
That certainly comes as a surprise. After all, how often does someone writing nonﬁction get to lead with a monkey who can move objects with her thoughts?
If you lunge at this opportunity, however, the story comes out all wrong. It sounds like science ﬁction, for one thing, even though the monkey–a cute little critter named Belle–is completely real and scampering at Duke University.
This gulf between what engineers are actually creating today and what ordinary readers might ﬁnd believable is signiﬁcant. It is the ﬁrst challenge to making sense of this world unfolding before us, in which we face the biggest change in tens of thousands of years in what it means to be human.
This book aims at letting a general audience in on the vast changes that right now are reshaping our selves, our children and our relationships. Helping people recognize new patterns in their lives, however, is no small trick, as I’ve discovered over time.
For example, there’s the problem you encounter when asking people what they’d do if offered the chance to live for a very long time–150 years or more. Nine out of 10 boggle at this thought. Many actually recoil. You press on. Engineers are working on ways to allow you to spend all that time with great physical vitality–perhaps even comparable to that of today’s 35-year-olds. How would you react if that opportunity came to market? There’s a question that gets people thinking, but you can tell it is still quite a stretch.
We live in remarkable times. Who could have imagined at the end of the 20th century that a human augmentation substance that does what Viagra does would sponsor the NBC Nightly News?
Discussing this sort of change, however, can be hard. Take the United States Department of Defense program to create the “metabolically dominant soldier.” In one small part of that agenda, researchers hope to allow warriors to run at Olympic sprint speeds for 15 minutes on one breath of air. It might be indisputably true that human bodies process oxygen with great inefﬁciency, and this may be a solvable problem, and your taxpayer dollars unquestionably are being spent trying to remedy this oversight on the part of evolution. Nonetheless, it takes effort to hold some readers with this report. It just sounds too weird.
One ﬁne spring evening, I found myself at a little table outside a San Francisco laundry, pondering how to bridge this divide between the real and the credible. The laundry, called Star Wash, is on a lovely but quite ordinary street. In the window there is an American ﬂag and a sign that tastefully spells out “God Bless America” in red, white and blue lights. It is run by a woman named Olga, from Guatemala City. I was traveling, interviewing the people who are creating the vastly enhanced human abilities that Radical Evolution discusses, and was waiting for my shirts to be ﬁnished.
Most of the prospective readers of this book, it occurred to me, are probably like Olga. They don’t care about gee-whiz technology. Why should they? Neither do I, truth be told.
What they care about is what it means to be human, what it means to have relationships, what it means to live life, to have loves, or to tell lies. If you want to engage such people, you have to tell a story about culture and values–who we are, how we got that way, where we’re headed and what makes us tick. That’s what has always interested me; it’s what my reporting has always been about. The gee-whiz technology is just a window through which to gaze upon human nature.
Four interrelated, intertwining technologies are cranking up to modify human nature. Call them the GRIN technologies–the genetic, robotic, information and nano processes. These four advances are intermingling and feeding on one another, and they are collectively creating a curve of change unlike anything we humans have ever seen.
Already, enhanced people walk among us. You can see it most clearly wherever you ﬁnd the keenest competition. Sport is a good example. “The current doping agony,” says John Hoberman, a University of Texas authority on performance drugs, “is a kind of very confused referendum on the future of human enhancement.” Extreme pharmacological sport did not begin or end with East Germany. Some athletes today look grotesque. Curt Schilling, the All-Star pitcher, in 2002 talked to Sports Illustrated about the major leagues. “Guys out there look like Mr. Potato Head, with a head and arms and six or seven body parts that just don’t look right.” Competitive bodybuilding is already divided into tested shows (i.e., drug free) versus untested shows (anything goes).That’s merely the beginning. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania who created genetically modiﬁed “mighty mice” have been deluged by calls from athletes and coaches who want to try this technology themselves. These mice are shockingly large and muscular. They are built like steers, with massive haunches and necks wider than their heads. Could such gene doping work in humans–assuming it isn’t already? “Oh yeah, it’s easy,” H. Lee Sweeney, chairman of Penn’s Department of Physiology, told The New York Times. “Anyone who can clone a gene and work with cells could do it. It’s not a mystery....You could change the endurance of the muscle or modulate the speed–all the performance characteristics. All the biology is there. If someone said, ‘Here’s $10 million–I want you to do everything you can think of in terms of sports,’ you could get pretty imaginative.”
Then there’s the military. Remember the comic-book superheroes of the 1930s and 1940s, from Superman to Wonder Woman? Most of their superpowers right now either exist or are in engineering. If you can watch a car chase in Afghanistan with a Predator, you’ve effectively got telescopic vision. If you can ﬁgure out what’s inside a cave by peering into the earth with a seismic ground pinger, you’ve got X-ray vision. Want super strength? At the University of California at Berkeley, the U.S. Army has got a functioning prototype exoskeleton suit that allows a soldier to carry 180 pounds as if it were only 4.4 pounds. At Natick Labs in Massachusetts, the U.S. Army imagines that such an exoskeleton suit may ultimately allow soldiers to leap tall buildings with a single bound.
“My thesis is that in just 20 years the boundary between fantasy and reality will be rent asunder,” writes Rodney Brooks, director of the Artiﬁcial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Just ﬁve years from now that boundary will be breached in ways that are as unimaginable to most people today as daily use of the World Wide Web was 10 years ago.”
We are at an inﬂection point in history.
For all previous millennia, our technologies have been aimed outward, to control our environment. Starting with ﬁre and clothes, we looked for ways to ward off the elements. With the development of agriculture we controlled our food supply. In cities we sought safety. Telephones and airplanes collapsed distance. Antibiotics kept death-dealing microbes at bay.
Now, however, we have started a wholesale process of aiming our technologies inward. Now our technologies have started to merge with our minds, our memories, our metabolisms, our personalities, our progeny and perhaps our souls. Serious people have embarked on changing humans so much that they call it a new kind of engineered evolution– one that we direct for ourselves. “The next frontier,” says Gregory Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society at the UCLA School of Medicine, “is our own selves.”
The people you will meet in Radical Evolution are testing these fundamental hypotheses:
• We are riding a curve of exponential change.
• This change is unprecedented in human history.
• It is transforming no less than human nature.
This isn’t ﬁction. You can see the outlines of this reality in the headlines now. You’re going to see a lot more of it in just the next few years– certainly within your prospective lifetime. We have been attempting to transcend the limits of human nature for a very long time. We’ve tried Socratic reasoning and Buddhist enlightenment and Christian sanctiﬁcation and Cartesian logic and the New Soviet Man. Our successes have ranged from mixed to limited, at best. Nonetheless, we are pressing forward, attempting once again to improve not just our world but our very selves. Who knows? Maybe this time we’ll get it right.
In 1913, U.S. government ofﬁcials prosecuted Lee De Forest for telling investors that his company, RCA, would soon be able to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic Ocean. This claim was so preposterous, prosecutors asserted, that he was obviously swindling potential investors. He was ultimately released, but not before being lectured by the judge to stop making any more fraudulent claims.
With this legal reasoning in mind, ﬂash forward a decade and a half from today. Look at the girl who today is your second-grade daughter. Fifteen years from now, she is just home for the holidays. You were so proud of her when she not only put herself through Ohio State but graduated summa cum laude. Now she has taken on her most formidable challenge yet, competing with her generation’s elite in her fancy new law school. Of course you want to hear all about it. It is her ﬁrst time home in months. But the difference between this touching tableau and similar ones in the past is that in this scenario–factually grounded in technologies already in development in the early years of the 21st century– changes in human nature are readily available in the marketplace. She is competing with those with the will and wherewithal to adopt them.
“What are your classmates like, honey?” you ask innocently.
“They’re all really, really smart,” she says. But then she thinks of some of the students in contracts class–the challenging stuff of One L fame. And she stops.
How does she explain what the enhanced kids are like? she wonders. She knows her dear old parents have read in their newsmagazines about some of what’s available. But actually dealing with some of her new classmates is decidedly strange.*
• They have amazing thinking abilities. They’re not only faster and more creative than anybody she’s ever met, but faster and more creative than anybody she’s ever imagined.
• They have photographic memories and total recall. They can devour books in minutes._
• They’re beautiful, physically. Although they don’t put much of a premium on exercise, their bodies are remarkably ripped.
• They talk casually about living a very long time, perhaps being immortal. They’re always discussing their “next lives.” One fellow mentions how, after he makes his pile as a lawyer, he plans to be a glassblower, after which he wants to become a nanosurgeon.
• One of her new friends fell while jogging, opening up a nasty gash on her knee. Your daughter freaked, ready to rush her to the hospital. But her friend just stared at the gaping wound, focusing her mind on it. Within minutes, it simply stopped bleeding.
• This same friend has been vaccinated against pain. She never feels acute pain for long.
• These new friends are always connected to each other, sharing their thoughts no matter how far apart, with no apparent gear. They call it “silent messaging.” It almost seems like telepathy.
• They have this odd habit of cocking their head in a certain way whenever they want to access information they don’t yet have in their own skulls–as if waiting for a delivery to arrive wirelessly. Which it does.
• For a week or more at a time, they don’t sleep. They joke about getting rid of the beds in their cramped dorm rooms, since they use them so rarely.
Her new friends are polite when she can’t keep up with their conversations, as if she were handicapped. They can’t help but condescend to her, however, when she protests that embedded technology is not natural for humans.
That’s what they call her–“Natural.” In fact, that’s what they call all those who could be like them but choose not to, the way vegetarians choose to abstain from meat.
They call themselves “Enhanced.” And those who have neither the education nor the money to even consider keeping up with enhancement technology? These they dismiss as simply “The Rest.” The poor dears– they just keep falling farther and farther behind.
Everyone in your daughter’s law school takes it as a matter of course that the law they are studying is changing to match the new realities. The law will be upgraded, The Enhanced believe, just as they have new physical and mental upgrades installed every time they go home. The technology is moving that fast.
In fact, the paper your daughter is working on over the holidays concerns whether a Natural can really enter into an informed-consent relationship with an Enhanced–even for something like a date. How would a Natural understand what makes an Enhanced tick if she doesn’t understand how he is augmented?
The law is based on the Enlightenment principle that we hold a human nature in common.
Increasingly, the question is whether this still exists.
I call the scenario above “The Law of Unintended Consequences.” It is not a prediction–I have no crystal ball, alas. But this scenario is a faithful rendition of what our world could well be like if some of the engineering currently being funded turns out to work. “Forget ﬁction, read the newspaper,” notes Bill Joy, the former chief scientist at Sun Microsystems. Scenario planning is intended to prod people to think more broadly and view events with a new perspective. How did I arrive at this scenario? Let me give you some background.
In the late 1990s, when this book started, the rules of cause and effect seemed to have become unhinged. The problem was that the world was going through astounding change. First came the Internet, and then the World Wide Web. Cell phones the size of candy bars, palm computers the size of a deck of cards, and music players not much bigger than credit cards proliferated and merged in a primordial evolutionary silicon stew. A walk through a dark house in the middle of the night became an easy navigation. All the tiny lights marked the way in festive red or green, winking and shining from microwaves and clocks and phones and televisions and music players and video players and fax machines and laptops and printers and smoke detectors and docking stations and recharging stations and game players. Each signaled the presence of yet another microprocessor– part of that march in which the average American inexorably is becoming surrounded by more computers than she has lightbulbs, as is already the case in as utilitarian a vehicle as a Honda Accord.
The raging argument back then was whether this Cambrian explosion of intelligence marked the biggest thing since the printing press or the biggest thing since ﬁre. And yet socially, the decade was a snooze. From my perch as an editor and reporter at The Washington Post, it seemed like the headlines, such as they were, involved little except peace, prosperity and Monica.
How could this be? I asked myself. Where is the social impact of all this change? Where is the Reformation? Who are the new Marxists? After all, human organization is always inﬂuenced by the technology of the time. “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” as Churchill put it.
During the Agrarian Age, for example, the family was the fundamental economic and social unit. Commercial enterprises were basically family-run, even the big ones in Renaissance Venice. Governments descended through family in the case of kingdoms. The French army or the Spanish navy was quite literally a band of blood brothers. Nations were deﬁned by people of genetic kinship.
All this changed, however, with the rise of the telegraph and the railroad in the mid-1800s. Suddenly vast swaths of time and distance had to be managed. Entire continents and oceans had to be spanned. To handle the challenge, new kinds of organizations were forced to emerge. The Ford Motor Company, for example, ripped the planet’s very dirt for its iron ore at one end of its operations. At the other end it sold ﬁnished Model T’s. Such a globally complex enterprise was impossible to run as a mere family enterprise. How could you produce enough trusted cousins? Thus the Industrial Revolution created fertile ground for steeply hierarchical corporations to blossom. It changed us. By the 1950s an employee of one of those corporations thought of himself as “The Organization Man” and “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”–cogs in the machine. The Industrial Age’s contradictions also created a reaction to it–Marxism. Indeed, the entire 20th century can be described as an era of ideological, economic and military warfare over how to handle the great social upheavals created by this shift in technology and social affairs.
Ahem. So, okay? This technological change in the nineties is supposed to be the biggest thing since ﬁre, and the best we can do for headlines is a tawdry Oval Ofﬁce sex scandal? You can see the reason for my confusion. Where was this social upheaval that history taught us to expect?
As it happens, this is not the ﬁrst time I’ve found myself covering worlds that do not seem to add up. In fact, I’ve come to welcome such assignments. They allow us to examine what’s going on really. My previous books on what makes our world tick–The Nine Nations of North America and Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, which identiﬁed realities already in play that were not yet obvious to everyone–were similarly preceded by bouts of unsettling perplexity.
This time, two “aha” moments occurred in the course of my reporting. The ﬁrst was the reminder that innovation arrives more rapidly than does change in culture and values. Perhaps, it occurred to me, the nineties were like the ﬁfties. The ﬁfties were a period of great technological upheaval– missiles with nuclear warheads, mass-produced suburban housing, mainframe computers. From television to Sputnik, the list was endless. And yet the ﬁfties were the boring Eisenhower decade. The cultural upheaval of sex, drugs and rock and roll–enabled by The Pill, synthetic psychedelics and the transistor–did not occur until the sixties. You see similar upheaval in the earlier half of the century with the dawning of the age of automobiles, refrigeration, radio and telephones. The twenties, too, were a frivolous decade, promptly followed by the social upheaval of the thirties.
Perhaps that is the way history works. Perhaps because culture and values lag technology, when upheaval occurs, it is often of seismic proportions. If that is so now, then the cultural revolution for which we are due is just beginning to emerge. That’s how tracing the outlines of that transformation became my beat during the early years of the 21st century.
The second “aha” moment was more formidable. I remember it as being like the scene in Jaws where the captain ﬁnally glimpses the shark. He responds, famously: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Such a moment came as I realized that this story was not about computers. This cultural revolution in which we are immersed is no more a tale of bits and bytes than the story of Galileo is about paired lenses. In the Renaissance, the big deal was not telescopes. It was about realizing that the Earth is a minor planet revolving around an unexceptional star in an unfashionable part of the universe. Today, the story is no less attitude-adjusting. It is about the deﬁning cultural, social and political issue of our age. It is about human transformation.
The inﬂection point at which we have arrived is one in which we are increasingly seizing the keys to all creation, as astounding as that might seem. It’s about what parents will do when offered ways to increase their child’s SAT score by 200 points. It’s about what athletes will do when encouraged by big-buck leagues to put together medical pit crews. What fat people will do when offered a gadget that will monitor and alter their metabolisms. What the aging will do when offered memory enhancers. What fading baby boomers will do when it becomes obvious that Viagra and Botox are just the beginning of the sex-appeal industry. Imagine that technology allows us to transcend seemingly impossible physical and mental barriers, not only for ourselves but, exponentially, for our children. What happens as we muck around with the most fundamental aspects of our identity? What if the only thing that is truly inevitable is taxes? This is the transcendence of human nature we’re talking about here. What wisdom does transhuman power demand?
It’s been a long time since the earth has seen more than one kind of human walking around at the same time. About 25,000 years if you believe that Cro-Magnons were critters signiﬁcantly different from “behaviorally modern” Homo sapiens. About 50,000 years if your reading of the fossil evidence suggests you have to go back to the Neanderthals with their beetle brows and big teeth to discover an upright ape really different from us. The challenge of this book is that we may be heading into such a period again, in which we will start seeing creatures walk the Earth who are enhanced beyond recognition as traditional members of our species. We are beginning to see the outlines of such a divergence now. In 2003, President Bush signed a $3.7 billion bill to fund research that could lead to medical robots traveling the human bloodstream to gobble up cancer or fat cells, for those who can afford the procedures. At the University of Pennsylvania, male mouse cells are being transformed into egg cells. If this science works in humans, it opens the way for two gay males to make a baby, each contributing 50 percent of his genetic material–and blurring the standard model of parenthood.
As you get further into these pages, you will meet real people with real names and faces working today toward just such modiﬁcations of what it means to be human. The powerful driver of this roller coaster is the continuing curve of exponential change. Evolution is accelerating so fast, some claim, that the last twenty years are not a guide to the next twenty years, but at best a guide to the next eight. By the same arithmetic, the last ﬁfty years perhaps are not a guide to the next ﬁfty years. They are, some guess, a guide to the next fourteen. As I type this, the evening news is airing yet another report describing some advance as “science ﬁction coming close to reality.” Remember that phrase. You’re going to be hearing it a lot in the coming years. When that occurs, I would like you to remember this book.
At least three alternative futures ﬂow from this accelerated change, according to knowledgeable people who have thought about all this, as you will see in ensuing chapters. The ﬁrst scenario is one in which, in the next two generations, humanity is rapidly replaced by something far more grand than its motley self. Call that The Heaven Scenario. The second is the one in which in the next 25 years or so, humanity meets a catastrophic end. Call it The Hell Scenario. You will ﬁnd chapters on each, because both scenarios are plausible, and either would lead to the end of human history as we know it, and soon. The third scenario is more complex. It is the one we might call The Prevail Scenario. In this scenario, the future is not predetermined. It is full of hiccups and reverses and loops, all of which are the product of human beings coming to grips with their own destinies. In this world, our values can and do shape our future. We do have choices; we are not at the mercy of large forces. We can prevail.
I approach these three scenarios with an open mind, but critically. I try not to advocate any of them–I report them. Nor am I aiming this book at the 90-percent-male alpha-geek population who devours Wired magazine, that talisman of the digitally hip. If they ﬁnd merit in my work, I am honored. But I hope for a broader audience. I try to speak to some very bright people I know–my mother, my daughters–who care far more about humans than they do machines. Me too.
If my interest in that third scenario–Prevail–marks me as an optimist, so be it. Heaven and Hell each might make a good summer blockbuster movie, featuring amazing special effects. But they tend toward the same story line: We are in for revolutionary change; there’s not much we can do about it; hang on tight; the end. The Prevail Scenario, if nothing else, has better literary qualities. It is a story of struggle and action and decision. In that way, it is also more faithful to history, which can be read as a remarkably effective paean to the power of humans to muddle through extraordinary circumstances.
Scenario work shows that the future is usually a combination of all the stories you can construct to anticipate it. So I have done my best to present entertaining but accurate depictions of people who hold wildly different views. These are important thinkers and pioneers who deserve to be taken seriously. Most of them. Some are in there because I just couldn’t resist telling their tales.
I hope this book serves as a road map and a guide to what we’ll all be living through, pointing out signiﬁcant landmarks along the way, as well as the turns and forks we can expect in the road. At the very least, however, I hope Radical Evolution ends up saying something about the present. George Orwell’s most renowned work was entitled 1984 because he was really writing about 1948. Scenarios are always about the present, really. The fact that they exist today teaches us something about who we are, how we got that way, what makes us tick and, most of all, where we’re headed.
There’s one thing that I’ve already learned writing this book.
If you have a choice between starting your story with a telekinetic monkey or an attractive teenager in a wheelchair whose life might be changed by the technology the monkey represents, you have to lead with the bright young woman every time. For that’s what people care about. And that’s why the focus of this book is not on engineering–it is on the future of human nature.