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book is about the challenges, indeed threats, posed by advances in medical
engineering, especially genetic or "germline" engineering. This is
topical and important. One challenge of engineering is that its exploitation
by commerce and medicine will erode our conceptions of human beings, humanity
and the human condition without strengthening or replacing what remains.
Calamities of various kinds are the predicted consequences--perhaps likely ones--of
an eroded understanding of ourselves and the lives we share. Books with
arguments and ideas regarding this challenge are needed. Unfortunately, Enough
is not a very satisfying attempt to meet the need. While well-motivated, there
is not enough content or argument to significantly inform or motivate the
research is largely secondary: newspaper articles, conference reports, and a
few books, often cultural criticism or popular science. There is a lot of it
and McKibben provides an engaging dialog tying together stories and quotations
to present a picture of the front lines of genetic engineering. One might have
hoped for an introduction to the actual science behind it: what is currently routine,
what is cutting edge, and what is around the corner. There is no systematic
discussion of this. Indeed, it is very difficult to keep clear what is
possible now, what is possible soon, and what is in the aspirational hopes of
researchers. The many stories and quotations create a composite genetic
engineer who aspires to offer parents the option of genetically designing their
children, to offer us biological upgrades to our inherited capacities and, at
the limit, to cheat death as we know it. McKibben's vignettes clearly
illustrate the mind-set in which these offers are presented as obviously
So many of McKibben's
sources are newspaper articles that it is easy for a reader skeptical of
journalists' motivations or competence to wonder whether the composite genetic
engineer described is a fringe bogey-man or the mainstream. The appeal to
respond to the challenge will not be compelling if one is not convinced of the
immediate threat. The question would not be acute if McKibben had made clear
how a mainstream public mindset would inevitably find the temptations of the
fringe irresistible, thereby predicting a natural tendency fringe-ward.
However, it seemed as if McKibben could not make up his mind. On the one
(pessimistic) hand, he describes how appealing the promises of unchecked
genetic engineering are. On the other, his argument proceeds from the
optimistic view that any one of us is capable of saying, "Enough,"
and setting a limit for genetic engineering. These sit unhappily in his
treatment, in part because his approach is more individualistic than social.
The heart of McKibben's
argument, by his own admission, is that "we stand on the edge of
disappearing even as individuals" (p. 46). Without limits of the kind
that genetic engineering seeks to undo, we risk losing what makes our
individual lives meaningful. Achievement by enhancement rather than effort is
one facet of what is lost. One's decisions in life regarding profession, love,
and much else lose their consequence when made without limits. If one's life
is indefinite, why treat its opportunities as precious? McKibben argues that
recognizing what each of has to lose should be sufficient to elicit our
imperative, "Enough!" The strongest part of McKibben's work is the
middle sections when he argues that the juggernauts of science and commerce are
not insuperable. 'Enough!' is possible. His arguments to that end are varied
dialectical climax is McKibben's appeal to meaning. Meaning is threatened in
lives whose limits are removed by the advances promised by the genetic
engineers. He makes his stand against science here, appealing to traditions
that pre-date science to make his argument. "In this long tradition,
meaning counts, more than ability or achievement or accumulation. Indeed,
meaning counts more than life" (p. 209). It is not a scientific argument,
but it is familiar--springing from the same source as Socrates' sentiment that
it is better to suffer evil than to do it. McKibben holds up the pitiful end
of Shakespeare's Macbeth as archetypical of the consequences for one who "rejects
the natural order" (p. 212).
is that McKibben proffers his argument as an appeal to each of us as
individuals, not as part of an order. Individual meaning in individual lives
is the fulcrum on which his argument and his idea of the modern human condition
turns. But this will not do. First, meaning depends on the social enterprise
in which it arises. Second, the imperative "Enough!" must be
collective for his argument depends on collective limits on genetic
engineering. "Staying human" is not appealing if a few bypass limits
to become "post-human" or super-human. The motives for joining a
superior breed apart are those that have ever haunted mankind: sadism, tribalism,
narcissism, etc. More is needed than an appeal to an individual's practical
What makes McKibben's
work ultimately unsatisfying is that with sound motivations he senses the sort
of argument required. He quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks approvingly: "It is
the space we make for otherness that makes love something other than narcissisim"
(p. 60). Yet, he never takes up the thread implicit in this remark: that our
humanity and our understanding of the human condition is inter-dependent with
our understanding of our relation to others. This is a more fundamental
condition on the possibility of meaning in individual lives. The deficit in
this inter-personal aspect of McKibben's argument--and in characterizing the
challenge from genetic engineering in these terms--compromises his book to the
point of dissatisfaction. In short, his sense of the social implications of
genetic engineering is limited to the sense of 'social' used in anodyne phrases
like "social policy." It is not enough.
is a book of ideas and someone wholly unfamiliar with the issues arising from
developments in genetic science and commerce may find it a good and engaging
entry point. It is not however a popular science book about genetic
engineering. It's arguments, while interesting, do not rise above the level of
those attributed to the genetic engineers. Therefore, anyone seeking details
regarding the science or philosophical depth in the over-arching argument is
likely to be disappointed.
2003 David Levy
David Levy is
finishing doctoral studies at King's College, London where his research
concerns moral philosophy, epistemology and moral psychology.
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