Review

Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human

by Joel Garreau



Joel Garreau's provocative new book, RADICAL EVOLUTION, begins with
a thought experiment. Sometime in the future, your young daughter
returns from her first year at law school. She comes home talking
not about torts or civil procedure or the Rule in Shelley's Case,
but about her classmates. And these classmates, as it turns out,
are a bit different. Many of them have been, in some way or
another, "enhanced." She ticks off the various ways that the
enhancement takes effect --- internal wireless modems that download
any piece of information needed directly into the brain, something
akin to telepathy, self-healing, and (at least in theory)
immortality in its own self.

Garreau uses this thought experiment to ask the serious questions
about the coming revolutions in genetics and technology that are
radically changing human evolution --- and whether such radical
changes are beneficial or possibly ultimately harmful to the very
idea of humanity itself. My question is more basic: why are all
these smart, talented, "enhanced" people choosing to go to law
school?

Garreau doesn't answer that one (as well he might not). Instead, he
makes the point that if anyone in the real world really had these
sort of powers, we would actually have a referent for it in the
pages of Marvel Comics, in the person of Captain America. Garreau
visits the super-secret defense laboratories of the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where they're working on
super-suits that could do for the soldiers of the future what
Captain America got with an exposure to "vita-rays." And since the
most well-known product from DARPA research is this Internet on
which you are reading this very book review at this very moment,
it's a good bet that at least some of the gee-whiz technologies
they're working on will pay off, and pay off big.

The best and most intriguing parts of RADICAL EVOLUTION are the
parts about laboratories and the people who work in them, and the
different applications that the new genetic and nanotechnology
scientists are coming up with. The research --- which is either
promising or horrifying, depending on your point of view of any
given issue --- is compelling and important, and could change our
world forever. There's no one better than Joel Garreau to explain
this.

Garreau is an underappreciated national treasure. His first two
books were landmarks in their fields. THE NINE NATIONS OF NORTH
AMERICA is more timely now than it was when it was published in the
early 1980s; it does more to explain the so-called "red state/blue
state" divide than pretty much all the political commentary written
since the 2000 election. And EDGE CITY described the ongoing
revolution in city and suburban planning. RADICAL EVOLUTION
purports to do the same for the technologies that promise to change
our bodies, our genomes, and possibly even our nature as human
beings.

That RADICAL EVOLUTION doesn't quite meet the gold standard of
Garreau's earlier works may have more to do with the unsettled
nature of the technology than anything else. Both NINE NATIONS and
EDGE CITY had to do, largely, with maps, with tracking the course
of the shifting borders between East and West, North and South,
downtown and suburbia. There aren't any maps to speak of with the
emerging technologies --- or if they are, they're of the
fragmented, medieval variety. Here there be monsters.

Garreau's work is divided into different scenarios. One that he
calls "Heaven" is largely the vision of Ray Kurzweil, one of the
founders of modern assistive technology. (About half of the
technologies discussed in RADICAL EVOLUTION are designed to be
assistive technologies to help make people with disabilities more
independent.) Kurzweil imagines a future where the positive aspects
of the new technology are available freely to everyone, allowing
each of us to customize our own selves to the point where
immortality --- or complete spiritual freedom from the body, if
that's what you want --- is more than a promise or a legend or a
fable. Countering Kurzweil's vision are the prophets of doom, led
by Silicon Valley pioneer Bill Joy, who worry that unrestricted
experimentation with self-replicating nanobots could result in the
entire planet --- you, me, and everything around us, right down to
the core --- turned into food for invisible, ravenous robots. This
"grey goo" nightmare is cataloged by Garreau in his "Hell"
scenario, along with other dystopias of the "Brave New World"
variety.

C.S. Lewis wrote that the greatest evil "is conceived and ordered
(moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed,
well-lit offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut
fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their
voices." This is almost entirely the environment in which RADICAL
EVOLUTION takes place, in the laboratories, in the offices, in the
academies. We do not, as of yet, know the nature of these
technologies or what they will do for us --- or to us. The promise
is that they will help us, cure us, or possibly even assist us in
transforming into something beautiful and splendid. The danger is
that they will destroy us totally or take away some of that which
makes us human.

Garreau brings up two other scenarios --- "Prevail" and
"Transcend," which posit that there will be a struggle in dealing
with the new technologies, but that the worst of the "Hell"
scenarios can be avoided. But there is no way, now, to know which
of these scenarios will win out. Perhaps the most frightening thing
about the impact of these new technologies is that they leave
Garreau --- one of the brightest, most perceptive people out there
--- not knowing what will happen next. RADICAL EVOLUTION, if it
does nothing else, helps us realize that there's a lot left to
understand, and an uncertain future ahead.

Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human
by Joel Garreau

  • Publication Date: May 17, 2005
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Science
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385509650
  • ISBN-13: 9780385509657