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Radical Evolution: A Book Review

I managed to get my hands on an advanced copy of Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution : The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human. If you like reading about the things we write about here, Garreau's book is easily the best to cover these topics since Kurzweil's Age of Spiritual Machines. Order it today. It's that good.

Not that I agree with all of Garreau's thoughts here. After outlining the possible technologies that the future may bring (what he calls the GRIN technologies - genetics, robotics, information, and nano-tech), he divides his book into several sections: Heaven, Hell, and Prevail. His idea is that there are some people - Ray Kurzweil being the most prominent - that see nothing but "Heaven" ahead. Others, like Leon Kass, see every new development as a harbinger of coming dystopia - the "Hell" scenario.

Then Garreau outlines a scenario that he obviously leans toward - "Prevail." In the Prevail scenario we will advance with the same "two-steps-forward, one-step-back" rhythm that we've always experienced. New technologies will bring new problems that will be solved, as we're able.

Heaven, Hell, and Prevail make for nice clean divisions in a book, but I don't think that Kurzweil (or we Speculists) can be so easily pigeonholed as utopians. Even Leon Kass might be less of a dystopian in reality than he is portrayed here. Instead, almost all people who consider the future would accept some form of Garreau's idea of Prevail. Prevail is really a sliding scale with Heaven at one extreme and Hell at the other.

No doubt The Speculist falls on the optimistic half of that spectrum. We believe that our accelerating development will provide more solutions than problems. We're Billy Joel futurists:

'Cause the good ole days weren't
Always good
And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems

But that isn't "Heaven."

Enough nitpicking...Radical Evolution is a gold mine of information about coming technology. I especially enjoyed the section on DARPA. Just a quick example: Garreau mentions DARPA's "Unconventional Pathogen Countermeasures" program. The goal of this project is to create super-soldiers that are resistant to all disease.

The object of the game is to discover the essential part of life common to many of these pathogens...and interrupt them. An example would be finding an enzyme that appears only in bacteria, but not in us... Another [method of attacking disease in general] is "genomic glue" - something that sticks onto the genome of the pathogen so tightly that it prevents the genome from being read...

How far along is DARPA in the development of this kind of wonder drug? The interview subject wouldn't say, but there is this tantalizing clue:

The nice part, so far, is that the bugs have not been able to develop resistance to the treatment no matter how hard the researchers have tried to induce it.

Radical Evolution is thick with this sort of reporting. This one is not to be missed. Look for it May 17, 2005.



One of the scenarios in Age of Spiritual Machines has a posthuman, post-singularity being (whose progress we have followed since she was a kid) declare that "life is still hard." Kurzweil is definitely an optimist, but you are correct to point out that that doesn't mean he thinks the future will be heaven.

To put it in other terms, I'm coming to think that our future will look more like a sequence of narrowly averted Greek tragedies than it will fairy tale.

Sounds like an interesting book!

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