Tuesday, June 20, 2006; 1:00 PM
What will it mean to be human in the next 5, 10 or 15 years? Washington Post staff writer Joel Garreau explores that question through interviews with thinkers and scientists in his book "Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human," which was released in paperback last month.
In a previous Live Online , he explains that "for the first time in millennia, our technologies are not so much aimed outward, in the fashion of fire, clothes, agriculture, cities, and space travel. Instead, they are increasingly aimed inward at modifying our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities, progeny, and possibly our souls."
To continue the discussion, he was online Tuesday, June 20 at 1 p.m. ET .
A transcript follows .
About this series:
Joel Garreau: the idea behind "radical evolution" is that we are at an inflection point in history.
for the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, our technologies are not so much aimed outward, at modifying our environment, in the fashion of fire, clothes, agriculture, cities and space travel.
instead, our technologies are increasingly aimed inward -- at modifying our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities and progeny. if you can do all that, then we are well on our way to becoming the first species to control our own evolution -- and what it means to be human.
this is not happening in some distant science-fiction future. it is happening right now, on our watch.
for example, i recently had a piece in the paper about the huge rise in the use of "smart pills" on university campuses to enhance cognition, attention, focus, and short-term memory:
A Dose Of Genius
By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006; Page D01
these are brand-name pharmaceuticals being used by the "healthy" to enhance themselves. and they are only the first primitive generation of these mind enhancing pharmaceuticals. within three to five years, if ongoing human clinical trials being conducted by four competing u.s. companies continue successfully, we should have memory drugs on the market.
like most human enhancements, these are initially aimed at the very sick -- such as early stage alzheimer's patients. but they are expected to be commercial blockbusters if they are picked up by the more than 70 million baby boomers seeking to banish their senior moments. most breath-taking, however, is the idea that memory is at the core of much learning. what happens when young people start taking these pharmacueticals to gain hundreds of points on their SATs?
this is just the beginning. four intertwining technologies are increasing at exponential rates. i call them the GRIN technologies -- genetics, robotics, information technology and nanotechnology. all have the power to dramatically change our capabilities now and in the next decade.
i don't care much about the gear, however. my area of interest is culture and values -- who we are, how we got that way, where we're headed and what makes us tick.
in "radical evolution," i lay out three scenarios about where this takes us, that you hear discussed in the halls of the digerati -- "heaven," "hell" and "prevail."
in the heaven scenario, all of these erupting technologies soon banish pain, suffering, stupidity, ignorance, ugliness, and even death. it is essentially indistinguish from the christian version of heaven and it happens within our lifetimes. and it could happen. it is credible.
in the hell scenario, the spectacular powers of these technologies get into the hands of madmen or fools. the optimistic version of this scenario is that we wipe out the human race within the next 25 years. the pessimistic version has us wiping out all of life on earth. and again, this is credible and possible.
the prevail scenario is not some middle ground between these two. it is way off in its own territory. prevail argues that the problem with the heaven and hell scenarios is that they are technodeterministic -- that they are based on a belief that how many transistors you can get to talk to each other will determine human history.
prevail is fundamentally different. prevail believes that the critical element is how many ornery, unpredictable, imaginative, cussed *humans* you can get to talk to each other.
at the heart of prevail is the notion of co-evolution. that's the idea that what really matters is not how quickly our challenges are increasing -- which they demonstrably are. the big deal is whether our solutions are increasing at a matching pace.
there are historical reasons to be optimistic about this. in the dark ages, it was easy to imagine that humans didn't have much of a future, surrounded as they were by plague, ignorance and marauding hordes. but then came the printing press, and we could suddenly share, store, and transmit our ideas in ways that had never before been possible. the result was the renaissance, global trade, the enlightenment, science itself and democracy. all these solutions were beyond the imagination of any individual or even any one country. but they emerged in a bottom up way.
similarly, on 9/11, the fourth airplane, flight 93, did not make it to its target. why? because the air force was so quick on the trigger? no. because the white house was so smart? no. what happened was that a few dozen people on board that aircraft -- empowered by their mobile telephone technology -- figured out, diagnosed and cured their society's ills in under an hour flat, at the ultimate expense to themselves.
the key question is whether we will thus continue to come up with "good enough" solutions -- on the fly -- that will allow us not only to prevail, but to transcend what it now means to be human.
i'll be back at 1:00 to discuss this further.
Reston, Va.: A joke I've heard, addresses people's fear of radical human evolution:
An anthropologist was about to announce his major discovery to the press and photographers. He announced that he had found the missing link to civilized man. Bulb flashes and a chorus of questions from the press. He announced. "The missing link to civilized man is...Us . Unless you consider what we have been doing to each other the last thousand years is civilized."
Humanity needs another step-up in evolution as we greatly expand our capacity for both creativity and destruction.
Joel, what do you think about this?
Joel Garreau: at the beginning of "radical evolution," there is a new yorker cartoon i bought the rights to. it shows a staircase. on the first step is a little moneky. on the next, a bigger one, on the next, a cro magnon, and on the next, a guy in a suit. the caption has the cro-magnon saying to the suit:
"i was wondering when you'd notice there's lots more steps."
Laurel, Md.: Will all these advances make us happier?
I've read numerous comparisons about things like how a modern slum-dweller lives better than an 1800's Indian chief; or the average middle-class American is better off than King Louis XIV.
But no matter how much you improve the overall condition of humanity, those at the bottom will feel ripped-off and turn to social pathologies like crime, drugs and sex.
Economists have documented, for instance, that an overall good like the entrance of women into the equal workplace, has had the effect of driving up the price of homes so that the two-earner couple is only a little better off than one-earner couples used to be.
Despite rhetoric that rising tides lift all ships, aren't certain things inherently competitive, and only one's relative position to everyone else matters?
Joel Garreau: i think that's a critical question.
in "radical evolution" i write:
If we're talking about managing transcendence-of coming up with
specific ways to Prevail-how would we measure success? How would
we know whether or not we were progressing in the program to shape
our next humans? When asked what we want for our children, we usually
say "happiness." So one of the more obvious places to start might be
whether or not we were seeing an increase in happiness.
There are three levels of happiness, Martin E. P. Seligman points out.
They involve the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life.
Seligman is president of the American Psychological Association, Fox
Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and
the author of Authentic Happiness. Each of these levels of happiness could
be influenced by a transformation of human nature, and each might be
a good measure of whether we are managing transcendence effectively.The pleasant life is the easy one. It consists of having as many positive
emotions as you can. "That's the Hollywood view of happiness, the Debbie
Reynolds, smiley giggly view of happiness," Seligman says. It's about
base pleasures, raw feelings, thrills, orgasms. That one's going to be a snap
to enhance-the drugs alone.
More interesting is the good life. It means the fulfillment of potential.
That is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he talked about the
pursuit of happiness. He was picking up on Aristotle's idea of eudaemonia,
defined as "the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life
affording them scope." Seligman says, "Aristotle talks about the pleasures
of contemplation and the pleasures of good conversation. When one is in
eudaemonia, time stops. You feel completely at home. Self-consciousness
is blocked. You're one with the music. There are six virtues we find
endorsed across cultures. They are nonarbitrary-first, a wisdom and
knowledge cluster; second, a courage cluster; third, virtues like love and
humanity; fourth, a justice cluster; fifth a temperance and moderation
cluster; and sixth a spirituality and transcendence cluster. We sent people
up to northern Greenland, and down to the Masai, and are involved in a
70-nation study in which we look at the ubiquity of these. Indeed, we're
beginning to have the view that those six virtues are just as much a part of
human nature as walking on two feet is."
This second form of happiness involves the full exercise of your vital
powers. If our vital powers and our scope are dramatically, almost
unimaginably transformed, it's hard to see how this pursuit of happiness
will not be enhanced in a measurable way.
The third form of happiness that is inevitably soughtby humans is the
pursuit of a meaningful life. "There is one thing we know about meaning,"
says Seligman, "that meaning consists in attachment to something
bigger than you are. The larger the thing that you can credibly attach
yourself to, the more meaning you get out of life. Aristotle said the two
noblest professions are teaching and politics, and I believe that as well.
Raising children, and projecting a positive human future through your
children, is a meaningful form of life. Saving the whales is a meaningful
form of life. Fighting in Iraq is a meaningful form of life. Being an Arab
terrorist is a meaningful form of life. Notice this isn't a distinction between
good and evil. That's not part of this. This isn't a theory of everything.
This is a theory of meaning, and the theory says, joining and
serving in things larger than you that you believe in while using your
highest strengths is a recipe for meaning. One of the things people don't
like about my theory is that suicide bombers and the firemen who savedlives and lost their lives both had meaningful lives. I would condemn one
as evil and the other as good, but not on the grounds of meaning."
It's impossible that there will be a drug for meaning, Seligman says. But if
meaning suggests deploying your greatest strengths in the service of something
you believe is larger than you are-pursuing the infinite game-that
would seem to go to the heart of the measure of The Prevail Scenario: increased
human connections. "Religion isn't about believing things," Armstrong
says. "It's ethical alchemy. It's about behaving in a way that changes
you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness. It doesn't really
matter what you believe as long as it leads you to practical compassion. If
your belief in a traditional God makes you come out imbued with a desire to
feel with your fellow human beings, to make a place for them in your heart,
to work to end suffering in the world, then it's good."
Introducing compassion into the equation is at the core of meaning.
"Without more kindliness in the world, technological power would
mainly serve to increase men's capacity to inflict harm on one another,"
Bertrand Russell once wrote. Compassion may thus be at the core of successfully
managing transcendence-of coming up with a practical way to
Prevail over the blind forces of change.
Jerusalem, Israel: In spite of all the major biotechnological innovations we are seeing there is as far as I understand, as yet, no sign that mankind is anywhere near abandoning the basic 'platform' of the 'individual human being and mind' as know it. Am I wrong about this?
Joel Garreau: in "radical evolution," one of the core questions i try to address is -- if we're talking about transcending what we currently mean by human, what does that mean? what is human nature?
there are lots of answers to that question, it turns out.
if you mean by human our current biological inheritance, then it's pretty clear that will change.
if you mean by human that curious and unpredictable species that steals fire from the gods every chance it gets, then i suspect that will remain the same.
your question states the basic platform is the individual human being and mind. maybe. but we are also an intensely social species. solitary confinement for us is an almost intolerable punishment.
Prevail's trick is that it embraces uncertainty. Even in the face of unprecedented
threats, it displays a faith that the ragged human convoy of
divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity and humor
will wend its way to glory. It puts a shocking premium on Faulkner's
hope that man will prevail "because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion
and sacrifice and endurance." It assumes that even as change picks up speed, giving us less and less time to react, we will still be able to rely
on the impulse that Churchill described when he said, "Americans can
always be counted on to do the right thing-after they have exhausted all
Reston, Va.: Joel, Please comment on the following: John Smart addresses in his powerpoint on Evolution and >Development (Evo Devo)-, that increasingly intelligent systems are wise, ethical, resilient, and continue to learn. My conclusion from this is that our radical evolution will create a global intelligence with the capacity for wise action considering the ecological whole, including us human beings.
We need not fear our coming radical evolution, only that it may come too late to save us from environmental degradation and consequent ruinous wars over scarce resources.
Increasingly intelligent systems have "Emergent Properties: -...Information Intelligence -Wisdom (world models), - Information Interdependence (Ethics), - Informatioin Immunity (Resiliency), - Information Incompletelness (Search)"
John Smart's powerpoint Apr 2006 -College: Accelerating Change, Foresight and Evo Devo (153 slides, 9MB)http:/
Joel Garreau: i hope john's right. but he is a highly vocal proponents of the "heaven" scenario -- that all this technology will carry us to bliss automatically.
there are two other scenarios, however, which we ignore at our peril -- "hell" and "prevail".
one of the big problems is that the proponents of the heaven and hell scenarios talk past each other. they don't see their vision of the future as one logical possibility among many. they see it as an inevitable prediction.
by contrast, i don't have a crystal ball, alas. i lay out the possibilities. i try my best to be a good reporter laying out the structure of our futures -- which very well could end up in "heaven" or "hell."
i have to admit, however, that my heart is in "prevail." that means us humans working together in a bottom-up way to control our own futures, rather than have them controlled for us by our technologies.
Reston, Va.: Joel, Please comment on the following quote:
"Teilhard De Chardin insists that only by cultivating our moral sense of obligation to life can we overcome our present fear and anxiety for the human future. For him the fundamental law of morality is thus to liberate that conscious energy that seeks further to unify the world. This is the energy of human love, an impulse toward unity, an impulse of mind and heart that manifests itself particularly in the relish a person has for creative tasks undertaken from a sense of duty." --One
Transhumanist's Creed as quoted by John Smart:
"How to be a Strategic Futurist" Nov. 2005
Joel Garreau: this is heavy stuff we're discussing here. we can not detect any other intelligent life in the universe. one possibility that has occurred to me: this may be the final exam. maybe every intelligent species gets to the point where they can take control of their own evolution. and maybe every body else has flunked.
"Someday after mastering winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness
the energies of love," writes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. "And then,
for the second time in the history of the world, man will discover fire."
Greenbelt, Md.: I've heard a lot about new research into mental illness that is focusing on the genes that cause mental illnessess such as Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disporder. How far away do you think we are from a gene therapy treatment for mental disorders vs a medicine treatment such as pills? Are there potential dangers to this type of treatment? I look forward to your response and I look forward to reading the book.
Joel Garreau: all the evidence suggests that genetic engineering that safely and reversibly provides treatments is at least five or ten years away.
a lot of people in the field, however, think that the 2006 olympics might have been the last one without bootleg gene doping. their only question is whether it will first show up in the 2008 olympics, or the ones in 2012.
pharmaceuticals based on genetic understanding, by contrast, are expected to constitute more than half the new drugs coming on line by 2010.
Cognitive Dissonance: So why is it that people want to push all sorts of pills down their own throats, but insist their eggs come from free-range chickens and their burgers from organic cows? No genetic engineering in my soybeans, but give me stem-cell therapy, Lasik, plastic surgery, and piercings from head to toe. Any thoughts on this?
Joel Garreau: i think this business of reinventing what it means to be human is dramatically changing all our politics.
the old idea of what constitutes "left" and "right" i think are an industrial age construct, based on who's got the means of production and who doesn't.
they increasingly don't describe reality, however, for exactly the reasons you point out. prince charles and a lot of bioconservatives, for example, are on the same side as some very determined feminists and environmentalists.
i think the real political divide increasingly is not between left and right, but between those who are intrigued by what is happening and wish to shape it, and those who fear the future, and want to stop it.
Hendersonville, N.C.: UAL 93 suggests to me that ordinary people having access to technology that only governments had in the past makes them better able to govern themselves. Will government allow movement of power from itself toward individuals? Will individuals accept responsibility for the consequences of their decisions if they have the power over themselves?
Joel Garreau: i have not much confidence in top-down responses from our authorities to address a lot of these questions.
i think we have a long way to go and a short time to get there. i don't think we can wait for the senate or the white house to solve our problems.
that's why i was typing as fast as i could to get "radical evolution" out. most of these questions are right now being debated only in the halls of the technological elite. i think these questions have to get out to ordinary people like us, to grapple with, as soon as possible.
Boulder, Colo.: All the things youve been talking about - while they affect society as it is - are basically dealing with the individual within the society, rather than dealing with an evolutionary change on a societal level, that would be healthy and intimate, rather than alienated and alienating as we have now.
What is your perspective on the evolution of the -societal- organism?
Joel Garreau: i think that's the critical question -- whether we in groups can come up with answers that are "good enough" to be adopted quickly by others.
for example, i am glad that bioconservatives are asking whether pain and suffering should not be eliminated, because they are essential to being human. i don't think their answers are terribly pragmatic, but i welcome such profound questions.
i wish we had asked as many deep questions back when we were being sold nuclear power.
btw, i think the rise of so much fundamentalism -- christian, muslim, jewish, political right, political left, and even buddhist -- can be traced to people having only so much capacity to handle dramatic change. when the ground starts moving beneath their feet, they reach for answers that seem solid, even if they are simplistic.
Reston, Va.: Hi Joel, I'm delighted at the wisdom in this discussion. I think the following process is a key part of our path towards a Prevail scenario. What do you think?
Democracy & the Scientific Method 9/05
A process underlying evolution is the development of intelligence. A key to human intelligent choices is a generic, collaborative information processing, problem solving, and decision making process. This process underlies especially the Democratic Process and the Scientific Method.
Collaborative problem solving and decision making is a collective means of systematically considering and evaluating all the information available to a group, in order to arrive at the best decision.
Compare your understanding of the Democratic Process and the Scientific Method, to this list of information processing and decision making commonalities:
"1. There is and a reliance on the "maximum induction from relevant individual experience. . . -and alternative modes of interpretation."
2. The " public process of validation" is insisted upon.
3. agreement is reached by "consensual validation" by people collaboratively defining and solving problems with participation of those affected.
4. Safeguards are taken against the mistaken idea of the majority, through "public and ready access to information relevant to a decision," and the responsibility of the individual to interpret, discuss, and persuade others to his conclusions.
5. A spirit of experimentation pervades the decision process, new leaders and policies are open to continuing a valuation and challenge.
6. The primary difference is the "democratic methodologies extends to the creation and testing of patterns of social control. -and that] scientific methodology focuses upon the validation of knowledge."
Quotes from John Dewey, I believe from his book: Democracy and Education, 1916.
Joel Garreau: that's a great list.
one of the things that gives me hope about "prevailing" is that this conversation we're having about what it means to be human is not just an artifact of people in the united states, or europe.
it is also being developed by people with vastly different reference points in china, india, korea, japan and elsewhere.
the good news about this is that where one group may hit the wall in coming up with solutions, other humans elsewhere may come up with elegant work-arounds based on entirely different experiences and contexts.
Washington, D.C.: Your Smart Pills story looks very interesting. What kind of role does ethics play as we move towards advancements in how we learn, think or survive in society with these new kinds of technologies?
Joel Garreau: ethics is at the heart of us taking control of our own evolution.
ethics is about not what we *can* do, which is a very great deal, not all of it wise.
ethics is about what we *should* do -- and why.
i also think the development of ethics is a strongly social activity -- not only developing them, but getting other people to see the wisdom of adopting them.
it would be great if such strong social activity lead us to what has been called a new "axial age"
in roughly the period between 800 b.c. and 200 b.c., the foundations of most of the world's current religions and ethical systems were laid around the world by groups -- from the greeks to the chinese to the people of india -- who had no contact with each other.
what was in the water?
karl jaspers and karen armstrong, who have each written about this, see this axial age as a period of unique and fundamental focus on
transcendence that is "the beginning of humanity as we now know it."
All over the world, humans simultaneously began to wake up to a burning need to grapple with deep and cosmic questions.
If profound restatements of how the world works arose all over
the planet the last time we had a transition on the scale of that from biological evolution to cultural evolution, will it happen again as we move
from cultural evolution to technological evolution?
Great Falls, Va.: With advances in genetic alteration, particullarly with DNA, how soon do you think there could be conception between two same sex couples?
Joel Garreau: it's been done in mice already. research in england seems to show it might work in humans.
i think the big question is coming to grips with all of us getting into this future together.
there is a nightmare scenario in which humans are already breaking up into different kinds. the "enhanced" are those who embrace these technologies. the "naturals" are the ones who have access to these technologies, but choose not to indulge, like todays vegetarians. and then there are "the rest," who for reasons of geography or money do not have access to these technologies, and envy, fear and loathe those who do.
this is a nightmare because it's been a long time since we've seen more than one kind of human walk the earth -- 25,000 years if you think the neanderthals are sufficiently different from us. 50,000 years if you think you have to go back to the neanderthals.
ecology teaches us that if more than one species competes for the same ecological niche, it usually ends badly for one of them.
this is not the only scenario, however.
because the price of these technologies drop on a curve, such that you can get over 500 million times as much information processing today for a dollar, compared to the first chip in 1959, these technologies are getting out to the "have-nots" much faster than any other technology in the past, whether it be television, refrigeration, automobiles, radio, or what have you.
in 2008, we will pass an amazing milestone. more humans on this whole planet will have cell phones than don't. these are the real personal computers, and it will mean the majority of the planet will be linked for the first time.
there are already 30 african nations with more cell phones than land lines. in lagos, nigeria, if you look at the billboards, you will be convinced that the biggest portions of the economy are health food supplements, evangelical churches -- and cell phones.
Washington, D.C.: For all the talk that the present political system isn't going to be able to handle the changes that are about to come about, all of the responses that seem to be offered by futurists sure seem to fall into the same old ideological camps. Only they are supported by predictions about what 'will' happen in technology, as opposed to what has happened in history. Why should I belive people when they say we'll make the amazing advances we supposedly will? Nanotechnology based, efficient solar power would be incredible, for example-- but it's hard for me not to think back to the 1950s, when nuclear power would supposedly revolutionize the world. It resulted in changes, absolutely-- but they were of a fundamentally different order than what was envisioned. What makes these predictions any different?
Joel Garreau: that's why i don't make predictions. i don't have a crystal ball. ; -)
the question i ask myself, however, is that given what is undeniably in the pipeline and what is in existence right now, and given the velocity of development, does it not seem possibly that some significant portion of all this might work?
if so, do you think it has the potential to change some fundamentals? and if so, should we not be engaging in what this means to our shared idea of what it means to be human?
Courthouse, Va.: What are the societal factors either domestically or globally that could really derail the most radical aspects of the GRIN technologies that you've written about? Are they most likely economic, religious, political, etc.?
Joel Garreau: barring some planetary catastrophe of biblical proportions, i only see four limits to these technologies:
* the way atoms and molecules behave.
* human ingenuity.
* the market.
* our willingness to come up with ways to shape these technologies in ways we find ethical and intelligent through our own culture and values.
as a practical matter, i don't see many limits in the first three. even if we were to renounce some technology in the united states, for example, like stem cells, i don't see how that will stop people in china or india from persuing them.
i think that means that this is all up to us, and our ability to persuade others to collaborate in making this future humane.
Joel Garreau: thanks, all.
this has been great.
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