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Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 64 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0385509657
ISBN-10: 0385509650
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Washington Post reporter Garreau takes readers on a cross-country trip into the future as he interviews scientists and other thinkers grappling with the implications of our newfound—and, to some, frightening—knowledge of the genome. Highlighting what he calls "the Curve"—the rate of exponential change in technology—Garreau (Edge City: Life on the New Frontier) breaks the central part of his book into four scenarios. In "Heaven," genetic engineering will make us stronger and healthier, help us live longer and metabolize our food more efficiently. "Hell" resembles the island of Dr. Moreau: science runs amok, we cripple the genome of our food supplies, and babies are born with unexpected deformities instead of the improved characteristics promised by gene therapies. The "Prevail" scenario might also be called Muddling Through: even if we make a mistake now and then, we will figure out how to slow potentially harmful changes and speed up potentially beneficial ones. Last, "Transcend" considers that humans might conquer the difficulties that lie ahead and emerge into a new age beyond our wildest dreams. Science buffs fascinated by the leading edges of societal and technological change and readers concerned by the ethical issues that change presents will find much to ponder in Garreau's nonjudgmentallook into our possible futures Agent, John Brockman.(On sale May 17)

From Scientific American

What's in store for humanity? It is becoming clear that we will use our growing technological powers to transform not only the world around us but ourselves, too. Many forms of human enhancement are already routine--sports medicine, psychotropic mood drugs, wakefulness and alertness enhancers, cosmetic surgery, drugs for sexual performance. Much more will become possible in coming decades.

Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution joins several recent titles that attempt to make sense of the radical future possibilities for our species. The potential prospects include superintelligent machines, nonaging bodies, direct connections between human brains or between brain and computer, fully realistic virtual reality, and the reanimation of patients in cryonic suspension. As enablers of such miracles, Garreau mentions especially "GRIN technologies"--genetics, robotics, information technology and nanotechnology.

The focus of Garreau's book, however, is not on the nuts and bolts of the technology itself but rather on what it will all mean for us humans. His reporting skills well honed by his work as a journalist and editor at the Washington Post, Garreau is constantly on the lookout for the human story behind the ideas. Biographical sketches of the people he has interviewed for the book get approximately equal airtime with their opinions about human extinction and transcendence. The bulk of one interviewee's beard, the size of another's collection of musical instruments, the length of a third's pants: as Garreau knows all too well, these are the indispensable rivets to hold the attention of the current version of Homo sapiens while we try to ponder whether we will have indefinite life spans or whether the world will end before our children have a chance to grow up.

Garreau organizes his material around several scenarios. Unfortunately, these are not very carefully delineated. It is not clear whether all of them are meant to represent separate possibilities.

In the Curve Scenario, information technology continues to improve exponentially, and this progress bleeds over into adjacent fields such as genetics, robotics and nanotechnology. In the Singularity Scenario, "the Curve of exponentially increasing technological change is unstoppable" and leads, "before 2030, to the creation of greater-than-human intelligence," which proceeds to improve itself "at such a rate as to exceed comprehension." There is a Heaven Scenario, which serves as a rubric for a future in which "almost unimaginably good things ... including the conquering of disease and poverty, but also an increase in beauty, wisdom, love, truth and peace" are happening pretty much on their own accord, without deliberate steering. Garreau associates this view with the distinguished inventor Ray Kurzweil. We are told that one of the early "warning signs" that we are entering the Heaven Scenario is that the phrase "The Singularity" enters common usage.

There is also a Hell Scenario. The chief talking head assigned to this scenario is Bill Joy, who was a co-founder of Sun Microsystems. In April 2000 Joy published a bombshell article in Wired entitled "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," which described how the author had come to the realization that advances in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics will eventually pose grave threats to human survival. The article argued for the relinquishment of some lines of research in these fields. Since then, we learn, Joy has got divorced, quit Sun, and put the book he was preparing on hold. "Overall his affect was markedly flat," Garreau writes.

One of the early warning signs that we are entering Hell is that "almost unimaginably bad things are happening, destroying large chunks of the human race or the biosphere, at an accelerating pace." Aside from Bill Joy, the chapter on the Hell Scenario features appearances by Francis Fukuyama, Martin Rees, Bill McKibben, Leon Kass and Frankenstein. The common denominator of these fellows is that they have confronted the potential for catastrophic technological downsides. But their worries are not all of the same kind. For example, while Joy focuses on direct threats to human survival (such as bioterrorism), Kass, who is chairman of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, is more concerned about subtle ways in which our quest for technological mastery could undermine the foundations of human dignity. These very different sorts of concerns could have been kept more clearly distinct.

Garreau's last scenario, Prevail, extols the human knack for muddling through--"the ability of ordinary people facing overwhelming odds to rise to the occasion because it is the right thing." The defining characteristic of the Prevail Scenario is that human beings are picking and choosing their futures in an effective manner. The main representative selected for this scenario is Jaron Lanier (the guy with the large collection of musical instruments). Lanier dreams of creating more ways for people to share their thoughts and experiences, and he is fond of pointing out that faster computer hardware does not necessarily lead to equivalent improvements in the usefulness of the software that runs on the computers.

In the final chapter, Garreau asks: "Will we forever keep mum about our obviously intense desire to break the bonds of mortality? Or should we lift the taboo and start dealing with it?" His implied answer is yes. He then asks, "Shall we be bashful about these lines we are crossing because we do not have a way to make them meaningful?" At this point, Garreau has a constructive proposal: let's create some new rituals. Perhaps, he suggests, we should have "a liturgy of life everlasting as a person receives her first cellular age-reversal workup." Why not indeed?

In the meantime, there is still some work left to do in the laboratories. If we develop the cure for aging in a timely fashion, while steering clear of the disasters that Joy and others have foretold, we may one day get to enjoy indefinite life spans with much improved physical and mental capacities--and some cracking new ceremonies, too.

Nick Bostrom is in the faculty of philosophy at the University of Oxford. Many of his papers are available at Nickbostrom.com


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (May 17, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385509650
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385509657
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,000,526 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jeffrey Leach HALL OF FAME on August 31, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Imagine a world in which human beings no longer worry about procuring food. Imagine a world in which disease becomes a thing of the past. Imagine a world in which mortality gives way to human/machine hybrids that can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Sounds good, doesn't it? If so, imagine a different sort of world, a world in which a small class of people in possession of this sort of technology genetically engineers babies. Imagine a world in which these same people turn traditional humans into slaves. Imagine, even, the technology in this possible future spiraling out of control and turning the planet into gray sludge. Sounds scary, doesn't it? These two scenarios play a central role in Joel Garreau's "Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies--And What It Means to Be Human." Another scenario plays out in the book, one in which human beings prevail over sudden technological changes and, by doing so, accept or reject which forms of "radical evolution" to adopt. The subsequent conversation on these three themes fills pages with marvels that boggle the imagination. Could even a fraction of these events really occur in the next twenty to thirty years?

Garreau thinks so, and he begins his examination of GRIN (Genetic, robotic, information, and nanotechnological) advancements by seeking out the wunderkinds working at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). These are the folks brainstorming such projects as vaccines to prevent pain, suits that can allow soldiers to carry hundreds of pounds of weight with ease, and dozens of other incredible inventions. It was their predecessor, ARPA, which created what we now know as the Internet.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Garreau takes a scenario planner's view of what he considers some inevitable advancements in the GRIN technologies (genetics, robotics, information technology, and nanotechnology), which will enable humans to exert radical and powerful upon themselves, each other, and the environment. These four technologies are interacting synergistically, therefore multiplying the power and impact of each. But even more importantly, according to Garreau, the pace of change itself is accelerating faster than a lot of people realize.

For Garreau, the result is that there will shortly (within 30 years) arrive a massive tide of change that will sweep a substantial portion of humanity up, and leave others behind. Garreau wonders if the different portions of humanity will even recognize each other as human. Should we call it the geek's version of the fundamentalist Christian idea of The Rapture?

This coming tide is called by some the Singularity, and by others the Spike (think of the graph that slopes gradually and then curves up to the top right at the end). Garreau tries to be present both sides of the debate about whether this can and should happen, but he's unsuccessful.

For instance, there is some contrary evidence to the accelerating returns argument. Yes, computing hardware follows Moore's law, and so do several other technologies. But do those lead to radical social upheavals? If things are really accelerating, they should. Look at the changes introduced between 1900-1950 (roughly): the combustion engine, the automobile, the airplane, the jet engine, the rocket, the telephone, the radio, the television, nuclear power & weapons, and the computer. Each of them had a massive impact.
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I first read Mr. Garreau's previous book "The Nine Nations of North America." At the time I was trying to decide where I wanted to live. He pegged me like an entomologist peggs a bug with a pin to it's place in the collection. (If you're curious, I found my home in the Big Empty.)

Then his next book Edge Cities, about the definition of new and growning centers of culture, business, etc around the edge of the Big Cities that have become too big, too crime ridden, too expensive again helped define what I was looking for.

Now he's done this one on what the future may hold. He investigates a lot of leading edge scientific projects and examines what the future may be like if they truly come to pass bringing the 'benefit' that they promise. He then ties these into three senarios that he calls Heaven, Hell and Prevail.

His descriptions of where science may be going is great. His forecasts of the future remind me of the old saying that 'Predicting the future is easy, it's being right that's difficult.'

Whatever the future holds, it won't be as forecast. It'll be something different. Perhaps, indeed, almost certainly it will contain elements of all three senarios Mr. Garreau is describing. But it will also have big changes forced on it by the every increasing shortage of oil. The AIDS pandemic is just getting a good start, and so far at least I don't see any immediate end. Warfare is changing with al-Qaida on the one hand and the nuclear aspirations of North Korea and Iran.

This book is a great attempt at laying out one direction the world can go, it's worth reading for that alone. Just keep an open mind.
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