Generosity and The Search

We consider some purported “indirect and intangible harms” of human enhancement today in Bioethics, in Russell Blackford’s next Humanity Enhanced chapter; and we begin Richard Powers’ Generosity: An Enhancement. It’s a novel about a world just slightly off-kilter from ours, and in a way it’s also about indirect, intangible, unintended harms we might self-inflict if we continue down the road of genomic self-improvement. So, it’s a cautionary tale whose cryptic epigraph may need translating (and not just from Albert Camus’ French): 

La vrai generosite envers l’avenir consiste a tout donner au present.

In A&P we wrap up Carl Sagan’s Gifford Lectures in The Varieties of Scientific Experience, with “The Search.” What are we searching for? Life elsewhere, meaning and happiness here. An answer to what William James called our most “vital question,” the future of life. You could say we’re searching for an upgrade, dreaming of an enhanced future, taking steps in the present to get there. What would Camus say?

Part One of Generosity begins with a quote from Kay Redfield Jamison that speaks directly to the spirit of “search” and exploration:

Exuberance carries us places we would not otherwise go – across the savannah, to the moon, into the imagination – and if we ourselves are not so exuberant we will, caught up by the contagious joy of those who are, be inclined collectively to go yonder.

 The crucial bioethical choices we’ll be making in the near future promise great or terrible consequences for what the Aussie humanist in Generosity (uncannily resembling our man Blackford) calls the future of “human nature.” This story has just begun. Powers wants us to understand that we, collectively, will write the sequel. It’s not out yet. The future’s coming fast but it’s not yet fully determined. (That, we noted last class, is part of what Bill McKibben was trying to communicate as well, in Enough.)


“But this is when the story is at its most desperate: when techne and sophia are still kin, when the distant climax is still ambiguous, the outcome a dead heat between salvation and ruin.”

Blackford’s prosaic tone is a lot less urgent, but he’s still urging: “the burden of proof [is] on those who favor suppression of a practice,” and “little warning needs to be given against the creation of beings who would suffer and perhaps be driven to desperation, like the monster depicted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

Well, there are no Frankenstein monsters in Generosity, but Powers is giving warning: slow down, don’t rush to embrace enhancements whose consequences may engender unanticipated despair. Try telling Thassadit Amzwar that “little warning needs to be given.”

We’re reading  Generosity because it raises some of the most profoundly meaningful life issues we face, questions about the possibility of meaningful experience in the human future as we move forward into an increasingly engineered, digitized, hive-minded, televised, entertained (to death?) world of applied biotechnology. These are questions about our own authorship and appropriation of the meanings of our lives, questions about fact and fiction and science fiction becoming fact.

May I suggest that anyone who’s challenged by the density or initial indirection of this book consider giving a tandem listen to the excellent audio version available at audible.com.




Meanwhile, back in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan concludes with an emboldening motivational speech.

If we know only one kind of life, we are extremely limited in our understanding even of that kind of life… [The Search] goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.

And so may we go, boldly. 

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