Published in 2005, Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution offers multiple perspectives on the future of human kind. Interviewing world-class thinkers, engineers, and philosophers, the author examines not only our decisions, but our decision making process—for the heart of Garreau’s thesis maintains that human nature changes.
We’ve all wondered whether we’re still part of that process. Over the years, our species has gradually removed ourselves from the brutality of natural selection. Americans, especially, have enjoyed long periods without significant culling; so do we yet evolve? Garreau thinks so. Physically, we create medicine that can alter our appearances and heal our wounds, while other intellectual constructions seem to grow exponentially. Can humans maintain control over these creations? His book’s subtitle alludes to the wisdom it will take to guide this giant: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human. What follows is an argument over what course that path looks like: heaven, hell, or prevail.
The heaven scenario involves advances so great that nanotechnology works invisibly around us, and our bodies regenerate into perpetuity. Societies, thriving on our highest human emotions, live far from the reptilian R-complex. Art and music elevate, while education becomes the most important career in the world. Machines shrink to miniscule, while their capabilities unfold endlessly.
Hell offers the negative: class warfare between the haves and have-nots, pretties versus uglies; technology so advanced that it achieves sentience—then replicates itself. It’s nothing we haven’t imagined between The Matrix and Blade Runner back to its source at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
What is different is that these diametric views are examined and upheld by visionaries who are helping to create it. While most scientists, computer geniuses, and government-sponsored gurus see their work as seeds planted toward Eden, there are many others who fear dragon teeth being sown. Bill Joy, the founder of networking giant Sun Microsystems and known in geekdom as the Edison of the Internet, emerges as one interesting story. Clearly no Luddite, Joy’s vision once anticipated a Star Trekian future, but now glares sidelong at the mechanism of the Empire. The complexity of this man cannot be summarized here, nor can any of the fascinating characters Garreau profiles. Suffice it to say that each offers a perspective utterly human in its depth.
More federalist than anti-federalist thought is expanded upon in the next two sections of the book: prevail and transcendence. Another personality, Martin E. P. Seligman suggests three levels of happiness: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life. The pleasant one is all downhill racing: base pleasures and Sushi feelings. This may be where many Americans find themselves—whether that be through computer porn or Viagra, Cartoon Network or crack. The good life rises above this. Referencing Aristotle and Jefferson, Seligman sees something more than existence; he sees a life that is fully lived. Even better than a life in tune, though, is a life in chorus. The meaningful life is one in which the instrument of one joins the symphony of all with great elegance and complexity. The latter view rings as Madisonian; it’s the citizen harmonizing with the Constitution. Or, through National Academy metaphor, it is Will’s brown box growing up through the center of the spectrum and bearing beautiful rainbow-colored fruit.
If the author leans toward an advancement of humanity, the reader should not be surprised. After all, the title of the work suggests a continuation, rather than The End. Garreau makes no hypothesis about the length this evolution will take. Experts who don’t forecast a technological maelstrom, range from those who think perfection will rise as a tsunami of advancement called The Singularity to those who predict a more gradual tide.
Most importantly, the author goes beyond a catalog of neat inventions to the thought needed to manage such a wave. How can we control this evolution without the ultimate wipe-out? As a teacher, I can’t help but imagine the role of a well-rounded education in all of this. Clearly, literature, history, and communication help us to perceive such changes, while a well-constituted government provides balance to the Constitution’s board. Can we produce thinkers able to ride the rising swell? Will we realize that the technical instruction manual of standardized tests can never replace the feel of paddling out, popping up, and surfing?
Garreau’s work suggests that we had better learn quickly. In a world economy, to remain stoically anti-federalist may just leave Americans as hydrophobic doomsayers gawking at the wall of a world-cleansing flood. While a ride upon The Wave—one dwarfing both the dawn of industry and the hope of Renaissance—Duuuude, that would be the totality of all that is rad.