Al Gore – former vice president, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, best-selling author, high-tech and green-tech entrepreneur, and Paul Revere of climate change – has recently released The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. The book’s ambitious goal – and one that should be high priority for us all – is figuring out how to safeguard a truly human future when, as Gore puts it, “[d]emocracy and capitalism have both been hacked.”
One of the six drivers Gore identifies is “The Reinvention of Life and Death,” which he suggests is parallel to climate change in its importance for the human future. In a chapter of that title, he covers human biotech and related issues at length. The discussion is wide-ranging, with anecdotes and comments about topics including personalized medicine, inheritable genetic modification, gene patenting, epigenetics, synthetic biology, bioweapons, human cloning, stem cell research, eugenics past and present, the Singularity, human enhancement, athletic gene doping, fetal gene tests, and genetic discrimination.
Gore draws on the observations of a range of players in biotech-related research and policy. He quotes the Center for Genetics and Society’s Richard Hayes and myself (though he misidentifies my affiliation in what seems to be an editing error).
Gore is clearly unsettled by the social and ethical challenges that many of these practices and technologies pose. His language is often striking, as in his comment about the “new capability to change the being in human being” and his reference to the prospect of “Earth Inc” (i.e., global capitalism) moving into the domain of life. He asks,
Will the emergent potential for altering the fabric of life and the genetic design of human beings be accompanied by the emergence of wisdom sufficient for the far-reaching decisions that will soon confront us, or will these technologies be widely dispersed without adequate consideration of the full spectrum of consequences they could entail?
And in his concluding pages, he calls for protocols to guide decisions about human genetic modification.
[W]e should place priority on the development of safeguards against unwise permanent alterations in the human gene pool. Now that we have become the principal agents of evolution, it is crucially important to recognize that the pursuit of short-term goals through human modification can be dangerously inconsistent with the long-term best interests of the human species. As yet, however, we have not developed adequate criteria – much less decision-making protocols – for use in guiding such decisions. We must do so quickly.
Gore has promoted the book on the David Letterman and Jon Stewart shows, and at numerous appearances. The reviews have been mixed, but telling. The Wall Street Journal warns, “Readers of the former vice president's book might be excused for thinking that all of the evils in the world come from corporations.” The New York Times ends on an equivocal note: “Whether the forces of enlightened public opinion will prevail over clashing values and conflicting interests remains to be seen.” But the book-buying public is clearly taking note: As of February 26, The Future has reached number 4 on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction list.
Let’s hope The Future sparks wider and deeper appreciation of human biotechnologies as one of the key forces we need to harness for the common good, and that it nourishes the sense of urgency and big-picture thinking it exemplifies.