We Can Build You


Call it pollution, call it enhancement, but genetic engineering is here to stay. Nobody stays neutral: Ramez Naam loves it, Pete Shanks hates it, and their books provide comically extreme elaborations of their respective positions. Don’t be misled by the subtitle of Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed. The only activists and skeptics Shanks cares for are the ones who want to stop genetic engineering right now, and he writes in a mode of monitory condemnation that makes even the notoriously puritanical Times health writer Jane Brody sound wildly permissive. Shanks provides a well-informed account of current biotechnology, including useful bibliographies of print and online resources, but his bossy certainty damages the book. Of course, he’s often right: Given the already unequal distribution of health care dollars, it’s not hard to accept that human GE is “potentially a driver of inequality”; we risk endorsing discrimination in parents’ quest for the “genetically perfect” baby (and in reality, no such thing exists). But Shanks may alienate readers with his dogmatism. “Calling twins ‘natural clones’ or clones ‘delayed twins’ is either simplistic or propaganda designed to make the process seem familiar and thus acceptable,” he opines. This and other similar statements (“The mindset that considers cloning appropriate is precisely the mindset that embraces the idea of human GE,” he says dismissively) feel like intellectual bullying, and his boldface type and bullet-point lists reveal a desire to indoctrinate rather than to persuade.

Shanks accepts without question the conservative bioethicist Leon Kass’s “wisdom of repugnance,” which makes the gut feelings of ordinary people a better basis for judgment than the knowledge of scientists and ethicists. “We have a common genetic heritage,” Shanks states, “our gene pool is a genetic commons, and no individual has the right to pollute it.” But many Americans used to reject interracial marriage on similar grounds, and there are good reasons not to rely on repugnance. Less precise in its science, goofier yet far more likable than Human Genetic Engineering, Naam’s More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement celebrates biotechnology with evangelical fervor, arguing that “rather than prohibiting the exploration of new technologies, society ought to focus on spreading the power to alter our own minds and bodies to as many people as possible.” Naam likes science fiction even more than science fact. Will identifying each gene their unborn child carries really “give parents an idea of a prospective child’s appearance, intelligence and personality”? Even assuming that neural prosthetics will shortly allow us to pipe information directly from the emotional centers of our loved ones’ brains straight to our own “empathy centers,” are we likely to want to know all the thoughts and feelings of the people around us? (Naam’s portrait of marital sex enhanced by neural implants devolves into soft-focus porn, but surely not all sexual couplings would benefit from mind reading.) And whether or not the human life span can be doubled, it seems singularly unlikely that life extension will cause people to “reach states of mental and emotional capacity for growth that simply can’t be satisfied in one human lifetime.” But this cheerful gullibility makes Naam’s book an enjoyable and stimulating read.

What others merely imagine, the Australian performance artist known as Stelarc makes flesh. Suspended from cables running through the hooks that pierce his skin, a naked Stelarc hangs poised as if in flight over East 11th Street: It’s Superman! The photographs in Stelarc: The Monograph (out this fall from MIT) document his use of robotics, surgery, biotechnology, prosthetics, and computer software to reconfigure his own body as a cyborg. Stelarc believes the human body’s on its way to obsolescence, but not all this volume’s contributors agree with him. A demonstration of his prosthetic Extended Arm brings tears to one essayist’s eyes, reminding her of the persistence and pathos of bodily attachments. Whether it’s pierced and suspended from cables, scaffolded in metal prostheses, or penetrated by a miniature camera that broadcasts from inside his intestinal tract, Stelarc’s body remains “wet, unpredictable, emotively disorderly, itself a technological marvel.”

A real marvel is Michael Chorost, author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. Born hard of hearing after his mother contracted rubella during pregnancy, Chorost lost the rest of his hearing one random terrifying day in adulthood. Rebuilt tells the story of his choice to undergo surgery for a cochlear implant, a complex apparatus of chips and electrodes and processors that triggers the auditory nerves in a pattern the brain learns to interpret as sound. With a background in computer programming and literary study, Chorost is better suited than Stelarc to explore what it means to become a kind of cyborg, and he brings to his fascinating subject great intellectual clarity, the habit of self-examination, and a willingness to expose himself.

It turns out that surgery is just the beginning, and Chorost calls for a more systematic training program for patients struggling to integrate technology into their bodies in order to become “more human.” He is particularly compelling on the inner workings of the code that sorts out sounds into different frequencies and the disorienting effects of the two different software programs that control the implant’s electrode array: “One new version of the world would be unsettling enough,” says Chorost, who in the aftermath of the surgery felt less like a hearing person than “the receptor of a flood of data, which I was constantly stitching into meaningful language a half-second or so after I actually heard it.” Stranger and more unsettling than Stelarc’s body art, Chorost’s celebration of the technology that allowed him to hear again shows the futility of drawing a line between man and machine.

Jenny Davidson teaches 18th-century British literature at Columbia. She is the author of two books: a novel, Heredity; and a monograph, Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen (Cambridge). She blogs at Light Reading.