MIND Reviews: October/November 2005

Only Posthuman

Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies--and What It Means to Be Human                                                                                                             by Joel Garreau. Doubleday, 2005 ($26)

Is technology about to transform humanity? And would this be good? In his thought-provoking book, Washington Post reporter Joel Garreau parlays interviews with technologists and pundits into diverse scenarios of how genetic, robotic and other technologies might alter human prospects and even lead to a "posthuman" world.

In Garreau's "Heaven" scenario, technology makes people smarter, stronger and happier. Computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, for one, forecasts a growing convergence of humans and intelligent machines; ultimately, Kurzweil believes, people will be immortal, existing as "software" that can operate in various bodies. As an alternative heaven, biomedical futurist Gregory Stock sees genetic engineering as a way to continual mental and physical upgrades.

In the "Hell" scenario, political analyst Francis Fukuyama frets that genetic engineering will undermine democracy and the fundamental equality among citizens it fosters. Computer-networking pioneer Bill Joy fears that humanity might be enslaved or exterminated by smart robots and that self-replicating nanobots could bury the planet in "gray goo."

Heaven and Hell assume that the future will be driven inexorably by rapid technological change. Another scenario, "Prevail," is less predetermined; human choices, cultures and values more strongly shape technological developments, which are sometimes slowed or reversed. One version of Prevail comes from virtual-reality maven Jaron Lanier, who expects that technology will give people greater and more varied connections to one another.

In the end, Garreau sides largely with technology's enthusiasts over its critics. He pre-sents a "Transcend" scenario in which humans embrace radical technologies while developing practices and institutions needed for this new world, such as gift giving to ensure that advances are broadly distributed. In this picture, people get much of Heaven while limiting the scourges of Hell.

Radical Evolution has some weaknesses. Garreau's interlocutors do not always fit neatly into his categories. Also, Garreau sometimes overstates the imminence of technological change beyond the plausible. Altogether, though, the book is a valuable contribution to an important debate about the human--and possibly posthuman--future. --Kenneth Silber

Suck It Up

Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind                                           by Nancy Sherman. Oxford University Press, 2005 ($26)

In this age of live combat coverage, war's ravages are well known. Soldiers witnessing horrendous carnage often become numb and tortured souls, painfully reliving battle moments. Yet these same soldiers must move on, despite psychic trauma. In Stoic Warriors, Nancy Sherman addresses how soldiers gird themselves for combat. "This book is about 'sucking it up,'" she notes--about the role of Stoicism in modern life. A philosopher at Georgetown University and, formerly, the U.S. Naval Academy, Sherman traces the origin of today's military training to the Stoics, a group of philosophers who flourished in Athens and Rome more than 2,000 years ago.

This article was originally published with the title "Mind Reads."

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