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EnoughReview - Enough
Staying Human in an Engineered Age
by Bill McKibben
Times Books, 2003
Review by David Levy
Dec 1st 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 49)

Bill McKibben's 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 reader.

McKibben's 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 desirable "no-brainers."

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 and creative.

The book's 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).

The difficulty 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 calculus.

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.

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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