Bill McKibben, author of the renowned book The End of Nature,
has a new concern: the end of human nature.
In his just published book, Enough: Staying Human in an
Engineered Age, McKibben zeroes in on the prospect that new
genetic technologies could ultimately be used to create "post-human"
children, whose character and skills would be designed by parents
or society. As McKibben sees it, when genetics merges with other
new technologies, such as robotics or nanotechnology, the word
"human" may not even be part of the equation. The
greatest danger, he argues, comes not from any future genetic
dictatorship, but rather from genetic or other technological
enhancements that, at least on the surface, seem desirable.
The result, McKibben fears, would be the loss of what he most
values in human existence, values he hopes others share. His
new book surveys what scientists are cooking up, then delivers
his meditations on the choices we will face and on whether we
will have the wisdom to say "Enough."
While some experts doubt that the technologies in question
will ever develop to the point that McKibben fears, others equally
expert argue that it is just a matter of time. Earlier this
year, University of Wisconsin scientists announced that they
had successfully carried out targeted genetic changes in human
embryonic stem cells, declaring they now had a technique "that
allows us to manipulate every part of the human genome that
The risks associated with genetic experimentation with human
subjects present a major obstacle to perfecting this technology.
But DNA double helix co-discoverer James Watson, for one, is
unfazed: in his own new book he argues that scientists should
proceed with the experiments even though "they put lives
at risk." For McKibben, this is unthinkable.
McKibben spoke to Salon about the Watson worldview, the politics
of genetically modified humans, and his own view of the human
A theme of a recent talk you gave to the Rachel Carson Society
was "the legacy of questioning progress." Lately your
writing has been focusing on human genetic engineering. What's
the question that you are pursuing in this area? And what kinds
of conclusions have you come to?
I'm interested in, and have always been interested in, threshold
issues. Issues that are large enough that if you go past a certain
point, everything's different. That's why I've been interested
in climate change, on which I've spent most of my work. Unlike
other environmental issues, everything changes if you change
the temperature of the atmosphere.
The first such threshold issue was nuclear weapons. The second
one is climate change. And the next great one is this question
of whether or not we are going to tinker with human genetics
-- in particular, with the human germ line: with making genetic
changes that we will pass on to future generations.
This technology is much riper than people understand. We've
performed large-scale changes on every other mammal that you
can name. And we have the capacity to begin to do it with people.
There are teams of people now trying to clone human beings.
Quite likely, we'll succeed. This is a fateful moment. If we
go past it, then what our definition of a human being will change.
We will think of ourselves as an endlessly improvable species,
and that will have all kinds of sad effects.
For me, the saddest ones have less to do with all the practical
dangers, or even with the very clear dangers to democracy, than
with the even more basic questions of identity and meaning.
It's extremely hard in the modern world to carve out an identity
as it is, a thoroughgoing, full identity, because we have so
little context in our lives. But now even our very individuality
will be up for grabs. If you turn out to have been engineered
by your parents to have a certain temperament or a certain kind
of intelligence, you will spend your entire life unclear [about]
what is you and what isn't, in a far deeper way than we have
ever had to confront before.
So the point of this book, "Enough," is that we are
reaching one of these really significant points in human history
where we have to decide if we have enough power already and
whether we can afford to bypass some. My contention is that
we can, that human beings as currently constituted are good
enough. In fact they're kind of wonderful in a lot of ways.
And that it would be a grave mistake, for any reason, to begin
to undermine that.
Happily, the technologies are such that you can use other,
much less dangerous genetic technologies to deal with questions
of human disease, to deal with cystic fibrosis or sickle cell
anemia or the other sadnesses that are genetically transmitted.
You don't need to do that kind of fundamental re-engineering
of human embryos to accomplish those ends.
People don't realize that and tend to think of it all as a
piece. Happily it isn't. One of the points of writing this book
is to begin to explain those distinctions to people.
You've encountered scientists like James Watson. These scientists
claim that it's precisely germ-line engineering which might
save the human species from things like viral epidemics that
might occur due to climate change.
Watson's biggest argument is that the epidemic he's most concerned
about is the epidemic of human stupidity, and that's what we
need to save people from by engineering their brains to make
them work better.
James Watson has a very good brain for a certain kind of scientific
inquiry. But I think there's very little indication in his other
thinking that he sets the kind of standard for what we should
aspire to in the human brain in general. I think we're OK without
When I interviewed Watson, he specifically mentioned germ-line
engineering as a salvation from viral epidemics like AIDS.
The places where AIDS is endemic, across Africa, across Asia
now, even across the poor parts of this country -- no one is
seriously talking about doing germ-line engineering of tens
of millions of embryos of poor people every year. That's a complete
joke. I mean, you can't come up with 50 cents a year to provide
them with bed nets to keep them from getting malaria.
We're not going to put IVF [in vitro fertilization] clinics
in every corner of the developing world. Germ-line engineering
is a technology aimed at the very rich to allow them to act
out their whims and fantasies on their children.
So you would ban germ-line engineering? Is this one of the
areas of progress that you would not want to be pursued, and
instead we should enact laws forbidding its application to humans?
If so, would you apply such a ban to other species as well?
My sense is that human genetic engineering is now a mature
enough technology that we can begin to sense where the line
should be. So-called somatic genetic engineering seems OK within
appropriate bounds, treating people who already exist and who
already have some problem, and in such a way that those changes
aren't inheritable. That seems sensible. It can be misused.
It needs to be governed carefully. Germ-line genetic engineering
is on the other side of this "enough" point, it seems
Just to be clear: If I went into an IVF clinic and I said
that I carry a high risk for diabetes, and we've come up with
a genetic solution to that, you would say...
I would say that if you have a disease that's genetically determined
and so serious that it needs to be dealt with, then let's use
some other technologies, like pre-implantation genetic diagnosis
or something like that, if it's a truly tragic disease like
cystic fibrosis and you're determined. Just like we use genetic
screening of parents now to avoid those sorts of things. That
makes some sense. But if the question is, should we begin engineering
embryos against prospective problems that may someday develop?
then, no. It's the double black diamond ski slope of all slippery
Given the relative quiescence and even antagonism of much
of the American public in responding to the challenges of self-induced
climate change, how do you think about the prospects for politically
responding to a challenge like germ-line engineering?
The advantage of human genetic engineering over climate change
is that we haven't done it yet. When you're dealing with climate
change, you have to go and rewrite the entire basis of the economic
system to get at it. That's a hard task, and it's been a hard
one since the beginning. This will be a hard task for other
reasons, but at least we're not already deep into it.
Social conservatives, including opponents of abortion rights,
have been so vocal in their own opposition to human cloning.
Does that make you uncomfortable politically?
My intent is not to promote alliances with social conservatives.
My intent is to make progressives understand that this is a
really dangerous issue that they need to take on. So my allies
in this are people like Judy Norsigian [of the Boston Women's
Health Collective] or Tom Hayden or Greenpeace or all the other
people who have taken this stance.
Have you ever taken a day or an evening or a weekend and
thought through the possibility of re-engineering the human
species? There are scientists and even bioethicists who are
actively promoting it, saying: "Let's go for it. Let's
really alter the human species. There is no essential human
nature that we need to protect. Whatever we call human nature
is part of the problem, maybe even part of the problem that
won't allow us to adequately respond to the climate change that
we've induced." Have you ever allowed yourself to pursue
that line of fantasy, if not thought, and consider it as an
You know, it's entirely possible to make the case that human
beings are a huge problem and that we'd be better off with something
else in their place. Of course, everyone who's ever dealt seriously
with environmental issues or issues of war and peace, or any
other of the great human failings can think that. For me, we
remain a sweet, interesting, intriguing species, full of enormous
potential that we have yet to fully realize. I think that we've
got all kinds of room to find out good ways of being human within
our biological limitations.