Authors: Yuval Noah Harari
But what if after fertilising even numerous eggs, you find that all of them contain some deadly mutations? Should you destroy all the embryos? Instead of doing that, why not replace the problematic genes? A breakthrough case involves mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are tiny organelles within human cells, which produce the energy used by the cell. They have their own set of genes, which is completely separate from the DNA in the cell’s nucleus. Defective mitochondrial DNA leads to various debilitating or even deadly diseases. It is technically feasible with current
technology to overcome mitochondrial genetic diseases by creating a ‘three-parent baby’. The baby’s nuclear DNA comes from two parents, while the mitochondrial DNA comes from a third person. In 2000 Sharon Saarinen from West Bloomfield, Michigan, gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Alana. Alana’s nuclear DNA came from her mother, Sharon, and her father, Paul, but her mitochondrial DNA came from another woman. From a purely technical perspective, Alana has three biological parents. A year later, in 2001, the US government banned this treatment, due to safety and ethical concerns.
However, on 3 February 2015 the British Parliament voted in favour of the so-called ‘three-parent embryo’ law, allowing this treatment – and related research – in the UK.
At present it is technically unfeasible, and illegal, to replace nuclear DNA, but if and when the technical difficulties are solved, the same logic that favoured the replacement of defective mitochondrial DNA would seem to warrant doing the same with nuclear DNA.
Following selection and replacement, the next potential step is amendment. Once it becomes possible to amend deadly genes, why go through the hassle of inserting some foreign DNA, when you can just rewrite the code and turn a dangerous mutant gene into its benign version? Then we might start using the same mechanism to fix not just lethal genes, but also those responsible for less deadly illnesses, for autism, for stupidity and for obesity. Who would like his or her child to suffer from any of these? Suppose a genetic test indicates that your would-be daughter will in all likelihood be smart, beautiful and kind – but will suffer from chronic depression. Wouldn’t you want to save her from years of misery by a quick and painless intervention in the test tube?
And while you are at it, why not give the child a little push? Life is hard and challenging even for healthy people. So it would surely come in handy if the little girl had a stronger-than-normal immune system, an above-average memory or a particularly sunny disposition. And even if you don’t want that for your child – what if the neighbours are doing it for theirs? Would you have your child lag behind? And if the government forbids all citizens from engineering their babies, what if the North Koreans are doing it and producing amazing geniuses, artists and athletes that far outperform ours? And like that, in baby steps, we are on our way to a genetic child catalogue.
Healing is the initial justification for every upgrade. Find some professors experimenting in genetic engineering or brain–computer interfaces, and ask them why they are engaged in such research. In all likelihood they would reply that they are doing it to cure disease. ‘With the help of genetic engineering,’ they would explain, ‘we could defeat cancer. And if we could connect brains and computers directly, we could cure schizophrenia.’ Maybe, but it will surely not end there. When we successfully connect brains and computers, will we use this technology only to cure schizophrenia? If anybody really believes this, then they may know a great deal about brains and computers, but far less about the human psyche and human society. Once you achieve a momentous breakthrough, you cannot restrict its use to healing and completely forbid using it for upgrading.
Of course humans can and do limit their use of new technologies. Thus the eugenics movement fell from favour after the Second World War, and though trade in human organs is now both possible and potentially very lucrative, it has so far remained a peripheral activity. Designer babies may one day become as technologically feasible as murdering people to harvest their organs – yet remain as peripheral.
Just as we have escaped the clutches of Chekhov’s Law in warfare, we can also escape them in other fields of action. Some guns appear on stage without ever being fired. This is why it is so vital to think about humanity’s new agenda. Precisely because we have some choice regarding the use of new technologies, we had better understand what is happening and make up our minds about it before it makes up our minds for us.
The Paradox of Knowledge
The prediction that in the twenty-first century humankind is likely to aim for immortality, bliss and divinity may anger, alienate or frighten any number of people, so a few clarifications are in order.
Firstly, this is not what most individuals will actually do in the twenty-first century. It is what humankind as a collective will do. Most people will probably play only a minor role, if any, in these projects. Even if famine, plague and war become less prevalent, billions of humans in developing countries and seedy neighbourhoods will continue to deal with poverty, illness and violence even as the elites are already reaching for eternal youth and godlike powers. This seems patently unjust. One could argue that as long as there is a single child dying from malnutrition or a single adult killed in drug-lord warfare, humankind should focus all its efforts on combating these woes. Only once the last sword is beaten into a ploughshare should we turn our minds to the next big thing. But history doesn’t work like that. Those living in palaces have always had different agendas to those living in shacks, and that is unlikely to change in the twenty-first century.
Secondly, this is a historical prediction, not a political manifesto. Even if we disregard the fate of slum-dwellers, it is far from clear that we should be aiming at immortality, bliss and divinity. Adopting these particular projects might be a big mistake. But history is full of big mistakes. Given our past record and our current values, we are likely to reach out for bliss, divinity and immortality – even if it kills us.
Thirdly, reaching out is not the same as obtaining. History is often shaped by exaggerated hopes. Twentieth-century Russian history was largely shaped by the communist attempt to overcome inequality, but it didn’t succeed. My prediction is focused on what humankind will
to achieve in the twenty-first century – not what it will
in achieving. Our future economy, society and politics will be shaped by the attempt to overcome death. It does not follow that in 2100 humans will be immortal.
Fourthly, and most importantly, this prediction is less of a prophecy and more a way of discussing our present choices. If the discussion makes us choose differently, so that the prediction is proven wrong, all the better. What’s the point of making predictions if they cannot change anything?
Some complex systems, such as the weather, are oblivious to our predictions. The process of human development, in contrast, reacts to them. Indeed, the better our forecasts, the more reactions they engender. Hence paradoxically, as we accumulate more data and increase our computing power, events become wilder and more unexpected. The more we know, the less we can predict. Imagine, for example, that one day experts decipher the basic laws of the economy. Once this happens, banks, governments, investors and customers will begin to use this new knowledge to act in novel ways, and gain an edge over their competitors. For what is the use of new knowledge if it doesn’t lead to novel behaviours? Alas, once people change the way they behave, the economic theories become obsolete. We may know how the economy functioned in the past – but we no longer understand how it functions in the present, not to mention the future.
This is not a hypothetical example. In the middle of the nineteenth century Karl Marx reached brilliant economic insights.
Based on these insights he predicted an increasingly violent conflict between the proletariat and the capitalists, ending with the inevitable victory of the former and the collapse of the capitalist system. Marx was certain that the revolution would start in countries that spearheaded the Industrial Revolution – such as Britain, France and the USA – and spread to the rest of the world.
Marx forgot that capitalists know how to read. At first only a handful of disciples took Marx seriously and read his writings. But as these socialist firebrands gained adherents and power, the capitalists became alarmed. They too perused
, adopting many of the tools and insights of Marxist analysis. In the twentieth century everybody from street urchins to presidents embraced a Marxist approach to economics and history. Even diehard capitalists who vehemently resisted the Marxist prognosis still made use of the Marxist diagnosis. When the CIA analysed the situation in Vietnam or Chile in the 1960s, it divided society into classes. When Nixon or Thatcher looked at the globe, they asked themselves who controls the vital means of production. From 1989 to 1991 George Bush oversaw the demise of the Evil Empire of communism, only to be defeated in the 1992 elections by Bill Clinton. Clinton’s winning campaign strategy was summarised in the motto: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Marx could not have said it better.
As people adopted the Marxist diagnosis, they changed their behaviour accordingly. Capitalists in countries such as Britain and France strove to better the lot of the workers, strengthen their national consciousness and integrate them into the political system. Consequently when workers began voting in elections and Labour gained power in one country after another, the capitalists could still sleep soundly in their beds. As a result, Marx’s predictions came to naught. Communist revolutions never engulfed the leading industrial powers such as Britain, France and the USA, and the dictatorship of the proletariat was consigned to the dustbin of history.
This is the paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and
the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated.
Centuries ago human knowledge increased slowly, so politics and economics changed at a leisurely pace too. Today our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed, and theoretically we should understand the world better and better. But the very opposite is happening. Our new-found knowledge leads to faster economic, social and political changes; in an attempt to understand what is happening, we accelerate the accumulation of knowledge, which leads only to faster and greater upheavals. Consequently we are less and less able to make sense of the present or forecast the future. In 1016 it was relatively easy to predict how Europe would look in 1050. Sure, dynasties might fall, unknown raiders might invade, and natural disasters might strike; yet it was clear that in 1050 Europe would still be ruled by kings and priests, that it would be an agricultural society, that most of its inhabitants would be peasants, and that it would continue to suffer greatly from famines, plagues and wars. In contrast, in 2016 we have no idea how Europe will look in 2050. We cannot say what kind of political system it will have, how its job market will be structured, or even what kind of bodies its inhabitants will possess.
A Brief History of Lawns
If history doesn’t follow any stable rules, and if we cannot predict its future course, why study it? It often seems that the chief aim of science is to predict the future – meteorologists are expected to forecast whether tomorrow will bring rain or sunshine; economists should know whether devaluing the currency will avert or precipitate an economic crisis; good doctors foresee whether chemotherapy or radiation therapy will be more successful in curing lung cancer. Similarly, historians are asked to examine the actions of our ancestors so that we can repeat their wise decisions and avoid their mistakes. But it almost never works like that because the present is just too different from the past. It is a waste of time to study Hannibal’s tactics in the Second Punic War so as to copy
them in the Third World War. What worked well in cavalry battles will not necessarily be of much benefit in cyber warfare.
Science is not just about predicting the future, though. Scholars in all fields often seek to broaden our horizons, thereby opening before us new and unknown futures. This is especially true of history. Though historians occasionally try their hand at prophecy (without notable success), the study of history aims above all to make us aware of possibilities we don’t normally consider. Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it.
Each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics and society, but also our thoughts, fears and dreams. The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.
Studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past. It enables us to turn our head this way and that, and begin to notice possibilities that our ancestors could not imagine, or didn’t want us to imagine. By observing the accidental chain of events that led us here, we realise how our very thoughts and dreams took shape – and we can begin to think and dream differently. Studying history will not tell us what to choose, but at least it gives us more options.
Movements seeking to change the world often begin by rewriting history, thereby enabling people to reimagine the future. Whether you want workers to go on a general strike, women to take possession of their bodies, or oppressed minorities to demand political rights – the first step is to retell their history. The new history will explain that ‘our present situation is neither natural nor eternal. Things were different once. Only a string of chance
events created the unjust world we know today. If we act wisely, we can change that world, and create a much better one.’ This is why Marxists recount the history of capitalism; why feminists study the formation of patriarchal societies; and why African Americans commemorate the horrors of the slave trade. They aim not to perpetuate the past, but rather to be liberated from it.