SECTION: Section 7; Page 28; Column 3; Book Review Desk
HEADLINE: The Usual Future
BYLINE: By David S. Bennahum
The New York Times, October 13, 1996
EVOLUTION ISN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE
The Augmented Animal and the Whole Wired World.
By Walter Truett Anderson.
223 pp. New York:
W. H. Freeman & Company. $22.95.
A CENTRAL theme of our century is obsession with new technologies and the yen
to wear the mantle of the cutting edge. The agent shifts -- atomic energy and
jet travel in the 1950's, space travel in the 60's, computers in the 80's -- but
the conclusion is always the same: We are on the cusp of redefining humanity.
In the 90's, the techno-catalyst capturing the attention of the
future-minded is "self-organizing systems" -- computer networks, like the
Internet, that appear to run themselves; "genetic algorithms," or computer
programs that program themselves; currency markets that govern themselves. The
unifying motif is that technology, mimicking the complex ebb and flow of nature
(computers are likened to DNA), is hijacking the process of evolution, and
before long we will see a new organism based on man-machine symbiosis. From now
on, the theories go, we're going to evolve with our machines, creating a world
where government plays little role and computer networks are the conduits of
The coming catalyst-to-change-all-things is the commingling of digital
technology with the analog technology of chromosomes -- the genetic A, C, G, T
of DNA meets the digital 0 and 1 of computer programming to create a new
science, "bio-information." "Bio-information" is the subject of Walter Truett
Anderson's new book, "Evolution Isn't What It Used to Be." Mr. Anderson, the
author of "Reality Isn't What It Used to Be" and a syndicated columnist, gives
us a whirlwind introduction to the usual suspects. Genetic engineering means we
can eradicate fatal illnesses like Tay-Sachs disease. Computers-as-DNA permit us
to design new drugs electronically, saving time and opening new vistas for
experimentation. Worldwide networks of satellites and communications lines act
as a global nervous system, giving us rich feedback on how to manage the
planet's natural resources.
These threads, or what Mr. Anderson calls "augmentations," converge with
singular impact. "If I were to summarize the various evolutionary processes we
have discussed," he writes, "I would say that we are seeing a shift of the
boundary between the given and the made." In other words, everything is
changeable, from the microscopic (genes) to the macroscopic (Earth), and from
now on, "whether we like it or not, we are all worldmakers."
What's frustrating about this book is that these ideas, inherently
interesting and explosive (the Ubermensch becomes a real possibility), don't go
beyond other recent explorations into the future-is-now (some, it should be
said, better detailed and clearer). Among them are "Out of Control: The Rise of
Neo-Biological Civilization" (1994), by Kevin Kelly, the executive editor of
Wired magazine; "The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-Evolution of Humans and
Machines" (1993), by Bruce Mazlish, a professor of history at M.I.T.; and
"Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines Into a Global Superorganism"
(1993), by Gregory Stock, who was trained as a biophysicist. What's missing from
Mr. Anderson's writing is what's missing from his predecessors': an examination
of the social impact of change.
As "worldmakers" we adopt a new set of responsibilities. If we are merging to
form a new kind of species, what of those who are left behind? Or those who
refuse to change? In the end, do we have any control over these events? Mr.
Anderson recognizes that a moral analysis is necessary. "The job," he writes,
"is to keep learning about those impacts and finding patterns of management and
governance -- ways to live in the world with a full willingness to accept the
extent of human power to change it -- that are sensible and humane." This kind
of interpretation, on the part of someone who understands technology, is what's
needed, and not another assertion that everything is changing forever and
there's not much we can do about it. Unfortunately, Mr. Anderson isn't game.
by David S. Bennahum