Where Descartes Meets Darwin
Amory Lovins, a recovering physicist, is cofounder and
CEO of Rocky Mountain
Institute (www.rmi.org), an entrepreneurial nonprofit applied research
center in Old Snowmass, Colorado. His technological and policy innovations
have been recognized by a MacArthur Fellowship, the Heinz, Lindbergh,
World Technology, and Heroes for the Planet Awards, and the Mitchell,
Nissan, Onassis, and "Alternative Nobel" Prizes. He emailed
this commentary to NPQ.
Old Snowmass, ColoradoWhen my friend Bill Joy wrote his now-famous
article in Wired, I was glad that someone with impeccable credentials
as a technological innovatorthe father of Unix and Java, among other
inventionshad explained why many thoughtful technologists feel uneasy.
But I became alarmed when a seemingly well-informed journalist for a top
Eastern newspaper, interviewing me about that article, seemed surprised
that anyone who wasnt a neo-Luddite should worry: technological
innovations vast benefits, he opined, surely outweigh its shadow
side, or we wouldnt be doing it. I realized then that Francis Bacons
enthusiastic but undiscriminating goal for science"the enlarging
of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible"could
use a little tutorial about unintended consequences.
In scarcely more than a half-century, our species has developed at least
four technologies that are ft, as someone gravely remarked, "for
a wise, far-seeing, and incorruptible people." The first, nuclear
fission, clearly had and retains the potential to annihilate humanity.
Cold War terror is now history, but we are entering a more subtly dangerous
period. Fifty-five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fewer people remember
what it means to kindle a small star over a city. Vigilance is relaxing,
yet bomb-making technology has become widely available in greatly simplified
forms. The only missing ingredientfissionable materialis spreading
into ever more numerous and less responsible hands. (Saddam Hussein nearly
made bombs and is still trying; if he doesnt yet succeed, someone
else probably will.) Some of the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads,
too, seem to have gone missing. Having worked for decades on nuclear nonproliferation,
I wouldnt be in the least surprised to wake up tomorrow morning
and discover that nuclear terrorism, or even nuclear war, was underway.
There have been near-misses. Once made, bomb materials last nearly forever.
Human institutions and attention dont. Can we go on being luckynearly
Then theres the manipulation of genes. I dont call it by the
euphemism "genetic engineering," because while it moves genes,
its not about genetics, and "engineering" implies an understanding
of how causal mechanisms translate action into effect, but were
far from understanding how genetic patterns turn into organisms. Unfortunately,
were also well along in changing those patterns anyhowand
thereby changing science from a way of understanding how nature works
into a tool for changing what nature is.
Biotechnology is seeking to transform both the speed and the goal of biological
evolution. It speeds up evolution by roughly a billionfold, from a measured
pace in which innovations are rigorously pre-tested over eons (and whatever
doesnt work gets recalled by the Manufacturer) to the frenetic pace
of next quarters earnings reports. At that pace, mistakes cant
be detected in advance, especially by a compromised and biologically unskilled
regulatory system. Then, since the products have a life of their own and
are deliberately broadcast through the environment, mistakes can quickly
escape and multiply.
Biotechnology also changes the goal of evolution from evolutionary success
to economic proftto survival not of the fittest but of the fattest.
This industrialization of life, fundamentally changing the nature of the
3.8-billion-year-old life process, is carried out by people skilled in
gene-splicing technique and biochemistry, but generally ignorant of key
biological fundamentalsecology and evolutionary biology. Its
very clever kids with PhDs in "molecular biology," playing with
dangerous stuff they dont understand.
There are already early signs of nasty surprises: transgenes spreading
far beyond their intended recipients at far greater than expected speeds,
herbicide-resistant superweeds, gene-spliced insecticides that kill more
than their targets, protective strategies that dont work, crop yields
falling short of expectations, backlash against the abuse of intellectual-property
law, and more. It could get worse. Speciation may be natures way
of keeping pathogens in a box where they learn proper behaviorfor
example, that its a bad strategy to kill your host. But inserting
genes from unrelated organisms into random sites in the genome may let
pathogens vault the species barrier, entering new realms where they have
no idea how to behave.
Some theologians suggestnot from ignorance or superstition but out
of deep biological wisdomthat it was not through mere carelessness
that the Creator failed to put fish genes into strawberries. Biodiversity
is already perfectly adequate without our needing to create novel lifeforms,
unneeded for nutrition and unwelcome in the marketplace, to correct Gods
And, of course, the technology is prone to abuse. Any high-school kid
can now buy a gene-splicing kit for basement experiments with recombinant
DNA. Its not unduly difficult to splice deadly toxins into common
bacteria: some amateurs have already been caught doing so, and some countries
(if not also non-national terrorist groups) employ teams of amoral but
skilled scientists to create dreadful new plagues. Thats dangerous
to do, but even more dangerous to use. Its also far easier, cheaper,
and more concealable than developing nuclear bombs. It will be a pleasant
surprise if no designer epidemics are unleashed on the world, accidentally
Genetic manipulation, far from being the pinnacle of industrial modernity,
is actually the last gasp of industrial primitivism, applying a reductionist
and mechanistic mindset to living systems that dont work that way.
Its the biggest intellectual collision since the Reformation: Descartes
meets Darwin. Yet its astonishingly devoid of compelling social
or economic rationale. Perhaps its most striking feature (just like nuclear
power) is the insubstantiality of its actual benefits. We are assured
that biotech is the only way to feed the world, just as we were told that
nuclear power is the only way to keep the lights on. The reality is just
the opposite. Both technologies cost more and work worse than well-established
alternatives outside the commercial orthodoxyalternatives that are
better buys for customers but less profitable for input suppliers.
Nuclear power, for example, has died of an incurable attack of market
forces, suffering the greatest collapse of any industrial enterprise in
world history. In the US it has absorbed more than a trillion dollars,
yet delivers less energy than biomass, or 1/20th as much as energy efficiency.
It is the worlds slowest-growing energy source today, while efficiency
and renewables are the fastest. Similarly, genetic manipulation, after
20 years of commercialization, has no proven example and little promise
of beating the yields, resilience, or economics of biologically informed
agriculture that seeks not to supplant but to imitate nature. On the contrary,
genetically modified crops are trading at a discount and unmodified crops
at a premiumthe spread equaling the profits the promoters had hoped
to captureand the market values Monsantos life-science business
at approximately zero. Such sad ends to good intentions are inevitable
when technologies are deliberately shielded from market and political
accountability so that they get no feedback. Systems without feedback
are stupid by definition.
The third of Bill Joys four horsemen is nano-technologythe
emerging technique of making self-replicating machines at molecular scale.
This holds promise of "desktop manufacturing" that could assemble
anything, one atom at a time, very cheaply, with no waste. On the other
hand, roughly comparable materials and energy efficiency are already available
from other techniques described in our recent book with Paul Hawken, Natural
Capitalism, and in Janine Benyus book, Biomimicry. Those techniques,
however, lack nanotechnologys scary potential for microbe-sized,
self-replicating antipersonnel weapons.
Im far less qualified than Bill Joy to comment on his fourth worrywhere
artificial intelligence is taking us. But as one of the worlds most
capable computer scientists, he deserves to be taken seriously when he
asks whether this art, too, may change for the worse not only what we
can do but also who we are.
My purpose in summarizing these concerns (explained elsewhere in detail)
is not to scorn my colleagues in technological innovation, nor to sow
panic, nor to gripe about the general goal of progress. As a technologist
whose lifes work is innovation to create a more secure, prosperous
and life-sustaining world, my questions are about means, not ends. My
purpose here is rather to invite us all to use our critical faculties
and our market and political responsibilities to create the sort of world
we want. When the most powerful force we know in the universesix
billion human minds wrapping around a problemis harnessed, it should
create happiness and satisfaction rather than suffering and injustice.
Our new tools are so sharp, doubled-edged, even deadly, that we need to
be sure they wont injure us. If we cant be confident about
that, then we should lay them down and choose safer ones.
The coming decades will be our species graduation test, when we
discover whether this opposable-thumbs-and-large-forebrain experiment
was a good idea. The search for intelligent life on Earth shows promise,
but is now entering its most critical stage. Lets not mess it up
now by blandly assuming that whatever is possible is also wise.
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