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.

The Stoics' core message was that human emotions are not passive reactions but are subject to cognitive control. Thoughts, opinions and interpretations cause, mediate and shape emotions, which the Stoics saw as "something of an act of judgment and will, and a matter of our own responsibility." But Stoicism can also become extreme, enabling individuals to detach themselves to survive or to kill, which sometimes leaves the doer with lasting trauma. Blending analysis of ancient texts with modern history, anecdotes and tales from combat survivors, Sherman delves into soldiers' hearts and minds, revealing how Stoic thought prepared them for catastrophe, including discipline of mind and body, manners, demeanor, anger, fear, resilience and grief.

This issue could not be more pressing, as Sherman writes, "given the U.S. Army's expansion of 'stop-loss' orders to keep soldiers from leaving the service and the general malaise of a war in Iraq." Thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer psychic trauma but feel that not toughing it out signals weakness. Others will fear the stigma of seeking help, worrying about dishonorable discharge or the shame of not bearing up.

Sherman argues that toughing it out stoically is both a blessing and a curse. She cautions that in pursuing self-reliance and self-mastery, we must also be aware of the need to fortify and renew ourselves through human fellowship, empathy and respect, while striving to "cultivate humanity." This wisdom, of course, applies just as meaningfully to modern peace as it does to ancient war. --Richard Lipkin

High on Life

Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile                                                                                  by Daniel Nettle. Oxford University Press, 2005 ($21)

The right to "the pursuit of happiness" is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and Americans are obviously hot on the trail: they pop pills, go to therapy, and spend millions of dollars on self-help tapes. Daniel Nettle, a British psychologist, tries to explain what happiness is and critiques the methods people are using to achieve it. And although Happiness is far from a how-to book, Nettle does conclude with a bit of advice on finding it.

Nettle begins by defining the kind of happiness that interests him. Joy, the simple pleasure from finding lost money, is too trivial, and the "good life" is too much of a moralization. Instead his work focuses on "subjective well-being" or life satisfaction--which he says is what most people are seeking. Paradoxically, although many of the great European ponderers of the human condition--he quotes Freud, Sartre, Schopenhauer and others--agree with Western religions that life is a somewhat grim journey toward death, opinion surveys consistently show that people everywhere consider themselves fairly happy. They plan to be happier in the future, too. In light of this penchant, Nettle believes evolution has endowed us with a "happiness system" that allows us to feel satisfied with life yet remain convinced that if only we had another child, made more money or lost 10 pounds we would be truly happy.

Not all our pursuits are equally effective, he says. Americans today have far more money than their grandparents did; still, there is no sign they are happier. Having more social connections and good marriages, on the other hand, does promote satisfaction, and Nettle essentially equates happiness with satisfaction. He enlivens this discussion with some odd facts: people believe they can overcome almost any adversity, but living in constantly noisy places reduces happiness. And although most things money can buy quickly fade in value, breast implants seem to create a lasting high.

The book includes one chapter on the interactions of Prozac, opiates, ecstasy, and the serotonin and dopamine systems and how these compounds work in our brains to fight depression or induce feelings of pleasure. Yet Nettle does not consider biochemistry a source of happiness, and he moves on.

He concludes this pleasant, jargon-free book with some advice: total happiness is not attainable, but you can manipulate your mind and life to reduce the impact of negative emotion, increase positive emotion and--most important--stop consciously seeking happiness at all. He quotes an old joke about the Dalai Lama, who is visited by a rich acolyte bearing a huge, gift-wrapped box. The Dalai Lama opens the box to find it empty and exclaims, "Exactly what I've always wanted!" --Jonathan Beard

Losing Nature's Nurture

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder                        by Richard Louv. Algonquin Books, 2005 ($24.95)

Unstructured outdoor play was standard for me as a hyperactive child growing up in the rural Midwest. I fondly recall digging forts, climbing trees and catching frogs without concern for kidnappers or West Nile virus. According to newspaper columnist and child advocate Richard Louv, such carefree days are gone for America's youth.

Boys and girls now live a "de-natured childhood," Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods. He cites multiple causes for why children spend less time outdoors and why they have less access to nature: our growing addiction to electronic media, the relinquishment of green spaces to development, parents' exaggerated fears of natural and human predators, and the threat of lawsuits and vandalism that has prompted community officials to forbid access to their land.

Drawing on personal experience and the perspectives of urban planners, educators, naturalists and psychologists, Louv links children's alienation from nature to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression and anxiety disorders, not to mention childhood obesity. The connections seem tenuous at times, but it is hard not to agree with him based on the acres of anecdotal evidence that he presents. According to Louv, the replacement of open meadows, woods and wetlands by manicured lawns, golf courses and housing developments has led children away from the natural world. What little time they spend outside is on designer playgrounds or fenced yards and is structured, safe and isolating. Such antiseptic spaces provide little opportunity for exploration, imagination or peaceful contemplation.

Louv's idea is not new. Theodore Roosevelt saw a prophylactic dose of nature as a counter to mounting urban malaise in the early 20th century, and others since have expanded on the theme. What Louv adds is a focus on the restorative qualities of nature for children. He recommends that we reacquaint our children and ourselves with nature through hiking, fishing, bird-watching and disorganized, creative play. By doing so, he argues, we may lessen the frequency and severity of emotional and mental ailments and come to recognize the importance of preserving nature.

At times Louv seems to conflate physical activity (a game of freeze tag) with nature play (building a tree fort), and it is hard to know which benefits children most. This confusion may be caused by a deficiency in our larger understanding of the role nature plays in a child's development. At Louv's prompting, perhaps we will see further inquiry into this matter. In the meantime, parents, educators, therapists and city officials can benefit from taking seriously Louv's call for a "nature-child reunion."--Jeanne Hamming