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24 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2006
Washington Post reporter and editor Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution could have been a good introduction to the debate over the future of humanity once the inevitable technological and knowledge explosion known by its prophets as the Singularity occurs. Instead, it's an unconsciously one-sided view of the near and middle future that ignores the more intriguing aspects of the debate.

His starting point is what he calls The Curve, a supposedly looming transcendent upswing in technological and biotechnical achievement that will change human existence in unprecedented ways within the next few decades. The Curve will be a step of a far greater and different type than any we have experienced before, even the major transformations which followed the introductions of the car, the airplane, atomic power and weaponry, the space age, and the Internet.

Garreau first takes a look at what he calls the Heaven scenario, made famous in futurist circles by sf writer Vernor Vinge and inventor Ray Kurzweil. This is the view that the soon-to-appear Curve is Vinge's Singularity, an event that will make us all gods: physically perfect (if we choose to retain physical bodies at all, which will be gauche and unnecessary when we can simply be uploaded as computer software and thus freed from the unpleasantness and messiness of physical existence); practically immortal; and unconstrained by energy requirements from pursuing any endeavor we might want to. This is the glowing Singularity known disparagingly as the Rapture of the Nerds by its doubters.

Garreau interviewed Kurzweil extensively for this book. The most valuable parts of the book are what important figures such as Kurzweil, Bill Joy, and Francis Fukuyama have to say. The problem is that the reader has to cut through a lot of Garreau to get to a little Kurzweil. Garreau himself (his travel ordeals reaching his subjects, where and what he ate and drank on his travels, his opinions on DDT and nuclear fission, and other ramblings) is by far the major personality in the book - an odd choice for a reporter to make.

Garreau next considers the Hell scenario, for an exposition of which he turns to Sun Microsystems former chief scientist Bill Joy, who has made himself wildly unpopular in futurist circles by expressing fears about soon-to-happen Curve-inspired developments such as genetically engineered diseases targeted at specific races or groups, etc. Joy is portrayed as a prophet of doom whose negativity is just as simplistic and wrongheaded as Kurzweil's futurist cheerleading.

So having scorned the too hot and too cold porridges, Garreau turns to the just right one: the Prevail scenario, which involves a soft landing by humanity on the new technologies.

Garreau takes the purple giraffe approach to the debate over The Curve. He first dismisses the exorbitant claims of the purple giraffes' rabid partisans who claim that all our problems will magically disappear once the purple giraffes arrive here. He then looks at the claims of those who would demonize the purple giraffes and who are frantically warning the rest of us about the terrors that the reign of the giraffes will bring. Garreau finds this approach equally one-sided.

So with an air of smug self-congratulation over his Solomonic wisdom, his reasonable Middle Way, his gift for seeing both sides of an issue which most of the rest of us lack, Garreau concludes that the giraffes' arrival won't mean either Heaven or Hell. Sure, they will change everything radically once they get here - ands that will be soon - but we'll muddle through. Problem solved.

Of course, the real question is about the (probably fictitious) giraffes, not about their effects. That's why I say Garreau has missed the more intriguing aspects of the debate. For example, not once in the book proper is Roger Penrose mentioned. There is one brief reference to him in the "For Further Reading" bibliography that follows the book, and that is all. This a glaring omission that grates on anyone who is passingly familiar with futurist issues, but whose absence is probably not noticed by newcomers to these issues. I feel such newcomers have been poorly served by Garreau's book and will gain from it a misleading impression of the status of The Curve, and of computer consciouness and "uploading" of people to software, in genuine scientific circles.

The only very brief consideration which Garreau pays to the idea that we may still simply be in the middle of an era of continual, churning change (as we always have been), instead of on the cusp of an explosion of a different type of change than we have ever known before, is when he walks around a symposium in Boston and asks attendees why some of them might not be believers in the imminence of The Curve (Garreau's capital letters). When he doesn't receive any knock-down arguments against The Curve, he concludes that his, and the Heaven, Hell, and Prevail proponents' beliefs in it, are beyond question.

This is of course completely backward and unscientific. It is essentially impossible to actively disprove all possible hypotheses one at a time. That is why the burden of proof in scientific circles has always rested on those making the new claims, not on those who are not making them. And the more unprecedented the claims, the heavier the burden of proof is. It's impossible to prove that the purple giraffes don't exist or aren't coming. But you can't conclude from their doubters' inability to disprove them that they're on their way here.

There are many, many flaws in Garreau's writing and reasoning, such as it is. He constantly interjects himself into the story, which is distracting as well as boring. Who really needs to hear about the details of his interviews with his famous subjects? The point is what they have to say, not where they said it or how many layovers Garreau had on his flight to meet them.

The book is permeated with Garreau's aging hippy sensibilities. He quotes from the Whole Earth catalog. He speaks with approval of the Rachel Carson-inspired ban on DDT (a senselessly tragic ban which has killed more human beings than all the dictators throughout history have managed to do). He speaks with fearful hippy horror about nuclear energy, the irrational fear of which has condemned billions to live in poverty and squalor. If he is going to get all of his scientific opinions from the popular culture, I wish he would expose himself to Steven Milloy, Michael Crichton, Roger Penrose, and the more sensible French environmental movement, which correctly sees nuclear energy as the Greenest alternative energy source.

One example of his poor reasoning should suffice: "To get from the formation of the Earth to the first muticellular organisms took perhaps 4 billion years. Getting from tiny organisms to the first mammals took 400 million years. Getting from mammals to the first primitive monkeys took 150 million years. Getting from monkeys to hominid species such as chimpanzees took something like 30 million years. Notice how the pace accelerates?"

But the "pace" hasn't necessarily accelerated if the size of the steps varies greatly. Garreau's landmarks are arbitrary ones, not carefully calibrated equidistant ones. Most scientists, and probably most people on the street, would see the jump from tiny organisms to mammals to be far, far greater than the jump from monkeys to hominids. So the fact that the one step took 400 million years and the other took 30 million years might actually represent a great decrease in the pace of evolution. Or maybe not. But the point is that Garreau tries to interject a mathematical calculation of rate of change to a magazine-quiz style sequence of events.

Garreau misses the chance to really explore the interesting questions of what a new humanity might mean. Religion gets a very brief mention in the last chapter, in the form of some mystical references to Teilhard de Chardin. On the psychological side Garreau does dutifully cite the point that many make that computer consciousness and uploading seem to be an idea whose popularity peaks with men in their 50s, who always put the onset of this new era within the next 20 years (thus granting them immortality). But he doesn't really follow up on this point, or on how the wish may be father to the thought.

He speaks with people who are clearly misfits and partial failures on the human, social level, who clearly have an unhealthy hatred of their own physical beings, but he accepts their "everyone will be on an equal software footing in the future" views as being rational rather than emotional, antihuman rejections of our actual existences in favor of some sterile life as software.

Skip this one unless you already have enough of a background on the subject not to be in danger of being misled by Garreau's biases and omissions. And even then, just skim this for the money quotes from the principals themselves.
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63 of 98 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2005
RADICAL EVOLUTION's format is a typical journalistic survey of a field, rambling over the landscape, interviewing principals and speculating breezily, without going into too much depth. This can be done well, but Garreau doesn't manage it here. His "focus" is on GRIN technologies -- genetics, robots, information and nanotech.

He presents three scenarios, a utopian Heaven, a dystopian Hell, and an odd, optimistic third one he calls Prevail. Ray Kurzweil, no surprise, is the main figure in the Heaven scenario, (Kurzweil thinks it would be just swell to be transmogrified from carbon into silicon -- into computer software), while Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems is the central character in the Hell scenario. As far as this goes, my view is decisively on the Hell side. Joy is most concerned, according to Garreau, about the possibility of deadly genetically engineered plagues.

Personally, I'm more concerned about the misuse of genetic engineering applied to human beings, which Garreau also addresses -- see the movie GATTACA for a glimpse of this dystopia -- and here I am in synch with Francis Fukuyama (see his OUR POSTHUMAN FUTURE). The Prevail scenario is based on a rejection of techo-determinism, and maintains that since humans have muddled through this far, we'll probably muddle through again, exercising choice in the use of the GRIN genies. Whistling in the dark? The human species, now multiplied to the point of filling our finite planet, faces many problems that are utterly new -- it is a trite fallacy to think "muddling through" applies to any situation, forever.

Other than the breezy and non-systematic treatment of the topic(s), my main complaint is what is left out. The index does not have a single entry for OIL. The only entries for ENERGY are for topics related to cell chemistry, part of the discussion of genetic engineering. ALL of these scenarios of futuristic technology are going to be severely affected by the looming Hubbert's Peak for oil. Kurzweil's dreams and Joy's nightmares may never come to pass because we overshoot the ecosystem and civilization crashes.

Alternatively, *part* of civilization crashes, and what remains is reduced to a much lower standard of living, with little energy or funding for cutting edge scientific research. Part of the reason I see Joy's fears as much more compelling than Kurzweil's hopes, is that since the crash is likely not to happen all at once, the elites will manage to pursue genetic engineering even as much of the planet is reduced to (or remains in) a state of barbarism. In the absence of the rapid development of renewable energy (and time is running out!), coal will most likely be used in large quantities again, leading to runaway global warming. Perhaps the elites will genetically modify themselves in order to survive in the poisoned atmosphere.

This book is very thin stuff, lacking in mental nutrients. I recommend looking elsewhere, including Fukuyama's book and books on global warming/climate change and the clean/renewable energy transition. See my review of Kurzweil's THE SINGULARITY IS NEAR about humans turning into machines -- you can read it yourself and decide whether he's describing Heaven or Hell.
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3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2012
I made it about 80 pages in before I started to believe that reading this book was actually going to hurt my understanding of the world. It was 80 pages of hyperbolic exaggeration that concern work and studies that in reality have serious problems that may never be solved.

I thought it would be good to read as a review of futurists so I wouldn't have to read them to understand their points, but Garreau appears to be a futurist's futurist: the leaning towards fabrication and scenario planning (science fiction writing) is accepted as a baseline, to which he reaches for ever higher flights of fantasy.

After the 80 page mark (which ends in the middle of Kurzweil's heaven) this book might start really cooking along, I don't know: it was not my cup of tea. Why base your knowledge of reality on fantasies extrapolated from fantasies?
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