BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

What we are becoming ...

I got this book via the “Early Reviewers” program, and like most (if not all) of the books featured there, it was a bit of a “pig in a poke”, as the information one is provided to make one's request decisions is typically a scant few sentences about each featured book. Fortunately, Michael Bess' Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future is pretty good … a bit “more than I really wanted to know” on the topic, but certainly interesting and informative. I have some friends who are very into the thought of “posthuman” existence (especially into living forever), and this book would be ideal for them … for everybody else, well, it might be a bit speculative. However, in this case, the speculation is backed up by a metric s-load of research … the book itself is only 216 pages, which is followed with another 70 (one-third more) pages of bibliography and notes (and in this case you have to follow along in the end notes, as there are frequent major chunks of text back there supporting arguments or adding context for things in main part).

The book is structured in four sections, “Humans Redesigned”, “Justice”, “Identity”, and “Choices”. With four to six chapters each, looking at specific topics. Part of me wants to rattle these off, but there are a LOT of them. One of the admirable elements to the book is how it's integrated with a companion web site. Now, I've had bad luck with companion sites in the past (they have a bad habit of being neglected, if not ending up 404'd), but this one looks like it's a very well designed web site (well, with the glaring exception that the “Dialog Page”, featuring what would no doubt be a fascinating forum for the various topics, is empty, and requiring one to be “logged in” - despite what appears to be the fact that one can neither register to log in, nor log in if one were registered – to start a discussion), which notably features 16 appendices of follow-up information for various parts of the book, plus “update” sections, featuring recent articles in the Science/Technology area (the first section of the book, featuring Artificial Intelligence, Bioelectronics, Genetics, Nanotechnology, Pharmaceuticals, Robotics, and Synthetic Biology) as well as the Social/Cultural arena (the three other sections, Choices, Identity, Justice). This is at the unwieldy, albeit unmistakable

One of the interesting format elements here is that most chapters start with a “brief fictional vignette” which, while (naturally enough) somewhat sci-fi, allow the author to paint a rather vibrant picture of how some of these enhancements/developments might play out. There was one snippet of one of these that I found particularly engaging – part of a story about a sort of rescue shelter for bio-engineered “mistakes”, this being an encounter with a orangutan which had been engineered with “twenty percent human cognition-related genes”:
      She led him towards a side door. “There's one more guy I'd like you to meet before lunch. Over in that small red barn over there. His name's Jeremy.
      He followed her into the barn. Same musky smell, only more pungent. A dappled light coming through the skylight. Steel bars, the whole place a cage. A thatched hut over in the far corner of the cage, woven from sheaves of grass and leaves.
      “Jeremy,” she called out, “You have a visitor.”
      David peered into the darkness, his eyes adjusting. A holo screen on the wall lit up. Letters began appearing, forming words.
      GO WAY.
      David looked at her, but she ignored him.
      “Come on, Jeremy. Just a few minutes so you can meet your new friend David.
      He noticed she was speaking more slowly and clearly than usual.
      Silence. Then letters.
      “No, you're not. You're just being unfriendly.”
      THRO POOP.
      “You better not! If you want dinner today.”
      Rustling, the grass parted, and he came out. An orangutan. About one-and-a-half meters tall, a huge round face, round brown eyes. He stood leaning forward, holding a large wireless keyboard in his left hand.

      “So … why's he here? Why wasn't he considered a success?”
      “Because he's miserable, that's why. He's tried three times to commit suicide.”
I have quite a few little bookmarks though this, flagging things that I felt were particularly notable. There is so much stuff covered in Our Grandchildren Redesigned that I won't try to walk you through it all, but will hopefully be able to give you a sense of what's in here by dropping in on the bits I felt were worth a slip of paper …

In the Envisioning The Future chapter, the author lays down some cognitive grids to consider these developments, a chronological division into Long Structural Processes (50 years or more), Short Structural Processes (20-50 years), and Conjunctural Processes (1-20 years), which get further elaborated with:
But here, another aspect of our three-tiered list comes into play. Novel technologies tend to change more quickly, radically, and unpredictably than human social, economic, and cultural institution. The rise of the Internet, for example, became a major historical phenomenon in less than twenty years, but phenomena like racial prejudice, class conflict, gender bias, and similar social and cultural factors tend to evolve much more slowly. The implication is clear: we are likely to do better at predicting general patterns of the coming century, we should not try to foresee too precisely which technologies will exist in different decades. If we insist on doing so, we are likely to end up pulling a Rutherford.
Of course, one has to love that phrase “pulling a Rutherford”, which refers to the great physicist Lord Ernest Rutherford, known as the “father of nuclear physics”, who came up with the concept of radioactive half-life, among many other discoveries, yet totally dismissed the possibility of harnessing atomic energy just a scant dozen years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were introduced to it.

In the Pharmaceuticals chapter, in a discussion of the development of memory-enhancing drugs (some of which are in clinical trials), Bess notes:
The notion of boosting memory in humans sounds at first like a terrific development. I would be able to learn foreign languages faster, recall more accurately the names of people and places I have known, find my car keys without a lot of cursing and fuss. But what abut forgetting? When we examine the functioning of memory as a practical component in a person's daily life, we find that it is just as important to be able to selectively lose information as to retain it. Without this ability we would rapidly find ourselves drowning in a sea of trivial details, impressions, emotions, and images.
He takes a look at various pills that are currently on the market (interestingly, most of these were not developed to be brain or mood enhancers), and how new sorts of research are able to push the envelope as researchers learn more about the underlying biology/chemistry of consciousness.

One term that I notably had not previously encountered was “epigenetics”, which is dealt with (duh) in the chapter Genetics and Epigenetics. Here is how the author frames this:
The new scientific field that studies these patterns of genetic activation and transcription is known as epigenetics. Though definitions vary, an epigenetic process can best be describe as any molecular mechanism that changes the expression of genetic information without altering the underlying DNA sequence itself. The DNA code stays the same, but certain portions of it are selectively silenced, while others are spurred to action, resulting in dramatically different phenotypic outcomes. … In recent years, scientists have discovered a variety of epigenetic mechanisms that allow the DNA script to be read differently by the body's cells under distinct circumstances; the two most common of these are known as DNA methylation and histone acetylation. These two molecular mechanisms act like volume knobs on particular segments of DNA: one mechanism (methylation) turns down the potency of expression for a given section of code, all the way down to a whisper; the other (acetylation) cranks it up to a shout.
He notes that this approach is likely to allow temporary changes, as it alters how individual genes are expressed, without messing with the underlying code … an important factor if genetic research speeds up, and you don't want to get stuck with “outmoded” enhancements.

Moving out of the tech section and into the “Justice” section, Bess puts forth what he refers to as a “meta-list” of “Ten Key Factors in Human Flourishing” to provide a moral framework for addressing these extremely disruptive trends. These fall under two categories, the Individual Dimension which includes Security, Dignity, Autonomy, Personal Fulfillment, Authenticity, and Pursuit of Practical Wisdom, and the Societal Dimension which includes Fairness, Interpersonal Connection, Civic Engagement, and Transcendence. He adds:
Here, therefore, lies and excellent framework for evaluating enhancement technologies. For each of the enhancements described in this book, we can hold up an ethical yardstick by asking, “Does this device or modification contribute to human flourishing, or does it not?”
In the chapter “A Fragmenting Species?”, he returns to the concept of epigenetics:
As I described earlier, two kinds of human genetic engineering may become available over the coming decades. One form, germline reengineering, would require making changes to the DNA of individuals soon after the moment of conception. The other method, epigenetic modification, would target the molecular mechanisms that regulate DNA expression (while leaving the underlying DNA unchanged). In principle, both methods could generate powerful modifications to the body and mind of the individuals, but the epigenetic pathway would possess two major advantages. Whereas germline engineering would be a one-shot deal, fixed and irreversible, epigenetic modifications would be flexible, reversible, and upgradeable over time. Furthermore, while alterations to the germline would have to be made by parents on behalf of their just-conceived offspring, epigenetic modifications would be available throughout a person's lifetime and will therefore result (in most cases) from choices that individuals will be making for themselves as the years go by.
He goes on to look at some of the ethical issues of the germline modifications, how a child, although “engineered” to be a tennis or cello prodigy might not have the attitude necessary to excel in the path his or her parents chose. This is one of the places that I felt the author could have “enhanced” the telling by including some popular culture reference, in this case The Boys From Brazil, which featured a number of clones of Adolf Hitler, most of which had no interest in anything like world conquest (although there was that one right at the end...). Obviously, this was a minor quibble, but one that came up in my reading when I'd hit passages where I'd be thinking “wow, that's just like X”, and wondering why he'd missed that (he does refer to the Star Wars clone armies at one point, and uses Vonnegut's “ice nine” as an example of unintended results of technological developments).

In the chapter “Why Extreme Modifications Should Be Postponed”, the author sets out “three levels of possible human enhancement” ...
■   Low-level modifications: Capabilities at the high end of today's human range.
■   Mid-level modifications: Capabilities well beyond today's human range, but still recognizably human.
■   High-level modifications: Capabilities utterly beyond human parameters.
He further notes that “This latter form of high-level metamorphosis appears to be what many transhumanists eagerly envision for themselves.”, and later adds:
... the act of undergoing extreme transmogrification inevitably entails serious risks, not just for the person doing it, but for the rest of humankind as well. Such acts of creation would bring into being new kinds of “posthuman” entities that have the potential of being extremely powerful and uncontrollable. We have no way of knowing how they would behave toward the rest of the biosphere – including all other sentient beings on our planet.
This was another place where I felt a pop-culture reference would help frame the concept – in this case bringing up the character of Doctor Manhattan the “posthuman god” of the Watchmen comics (and movie), which is, I believe, exactly the sort of being that Bess is worried about unleashing here.

In the chapter “What You and I Can Do Today” he outlines “five tangible goals people can work for as they mobilize to influence the development of human biotechnologies”:
  1. Mandate basic education in science, technology, and society (STS).

  2. Build “bioethics coalitions” across the left-right divide.

  3. Create a strong governmental agency for technology assessment.

  4. Adopt the precautionary principle in crafting bioenhancement legislation.

  5. Strengthen international cooperation in governing technology.

Obviously, the assumption here is that without a strong, stable, and wide-reaching “ethic” for channeling these developments along approved lines, the “genie will be out of the bottle” soon enough, with the possibilities of rogue states creating armies of super soldiers, or wealthy individuals trying to get to that “god” level. One of the things I've not touched on here, and which the author spends a lot of time with, is the economic concern … how a “baseline” of enhancements will likely have to be funded globally, to ensure that less-developed parts of the world (or poorer parts of individual countries) don't devolve into a Morlock-like subservient sub-species, while the well-to-do evolve into the Eloi (another pop-culture citation – that of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine that could have well be used here).

In the “Enhancing Humility” chapter Bess posits an interesting cultural generalization:
Reform works better than revolution. Strategies of slow, incremental change have succeeded far better at achieving the aims of historical actors than strategies of sudden, drastic change. ... it leaps out at me from the mass of historical events with such intuitive force that I feel compelled to take it seriously. I bring it up here because it has major implications for how our society chooses to pursue the bioenhancement enterprise over the coming century.
I would love to just stick in the next page or so here, where he contrasts the French revolution ending up in “the iron rule of Napoleon”, the Marxist revolution ending up as “a bizarre Orwellian nightmare under Stalin”, and the Maoist revolution ending up “in the famine of 1958-1962 and vicious factional strife of the Cultural Revolution”, with the slow achievement of Women's rights “over a dozen generations”, the growth of rights and power in Western democracies (with working conditions starkly in contrast to those detailed in the works of Charles Dickens), and the evolving status of Black rights over the past century, but that would be way too long. However, he goes on to say:
... Gradual reform, in short is not just morally superior because of its generally nonviolent character; it is also more effective in the long run, engendering forms of enduring change that penetrate deeply into the fabric of society, altering hearts and minds as well as institutions.
      When it comes to the pursuit of the enhancement enterprise, therefore, our society would do well to take the comparative history of reform and revolution into account. We should choose the long, slow, plodding road rather than the shining superhighway of radical change. Technological innovation may indeed be accelerating, but we should not allow it to transform our lives more rapidly than our social, cultural, and moral frameworks can absorb. If we permit enhancement technologies to advance too quickly, the resultant stresses could end up massively destabilizing our civilization, perhaps even tearing it apart.
Our Grandchildren Redesigned has only been out for a month at this writing, so should be available in bookstores that have futurist stock. The online big boys, of course, have it at a substantial discount (currently 36% off of cover), but oddly, quite reasonable new copies are in the new/used channel, that even with shipping come in at about a 60% discount. Frankly, this book was quite the firehose of information, but if you're into the things under discussion in it, I'm sure it will be quite a gripping read … it's certainly one of those topics that is not going away, and having read this will put you in a place of at least not being categorically surprised when these strange new worlds start manifesting around you!

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