Back to Zarathustra

Back to Zarathustra

Occasionally, you can identify the point when a technology system shifts from bemused fantasy to legitimate concern: it drops from the science fiction shelf to the popular science category. So it is with the confluence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, and cognitive sciences, or NBIC. Among the newer books discussing this increasingly fashionable topic -- and doing so in a quite accessible, self-consciously fair, and very readable manner -- is Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution. Interestingly, one of Garreau's main themes, that we are likely approaching a historical inflexion point, is reflected not just in the popular literature, but also in the scientific literature. As Nature puts it, the Anthropocene, the era of a world increasingly defined by human activity, is already here. It is even reflected in politics: many say that the President's Council on Bioethics has been structured by the neo-conservatives dominating the Administration as a bulwark against biotechnology that might change humans, an issue they regard as fundamental. Similarly, for many environmentalists continuing evolution of technological and economic systems is seen in highly negative and even apocalyptic terms, with predictions of increasing loss of biodiversity, increasing human appropriation of land and other resources, increasing impacts on the dynamics of fundamental natural systems -- and, as with the neo-conservatives, biotechnology is intensely problematic. In Europe, the Precautionary Principle with its deep skepticism regarding technological evolution is increasingly embedded in public policy. Behind all these positions is an assumption that some technologies must, and can, be stopped or at least impeded for the foreseeable future.

Obviously, how and whether technology should be restricted, how and by whom its costs and benefits should be weighed, and who has the ethical responsibility for technological systems, are complex and contentious questions. Moreover, any assertion that history is at a turning point must be treated with caution given the normal human tendency to exaggerate the importance of the particular period within which one is living -- although it is hard for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the rapid and accelerating scientific and technological changes occurring to reject the reality of profound and fundamental change.

But such debates seem to miss an essential question. Looking at humans from the outside, and starting with first principles, what is the dominant characteristic one would expect to find in a species that in an extraordinarily short time evolves to dominate a planet? Because, quite simply, that’s what’s happened.

Put that way, the answer is clear and simple: a Nietzschean will to power. Power expressed in competing with each other, power expressed in ever increasing control of the external environment, power expressed in cultural competition at many levels across the ages, power expressed in ever more foundational technological systems. Certainly, societies have eschewed some technologies -- the SST in the United States, for example, or nuclear power in some countries -- but only where the economics were unfavorable and alternatives existed. Some cultures throughout history have even sharply curtailed their science and technology development; the prime examples are Islam in the 11th and 12th centuries, China in the 15th century, and Japan in the 1600’s (guns and gunpowder). Generally, this was done to preserve social stability or desired cultural characteristics (e.g., preserving the feudal Japanese culture against the democracy of violence implied by gunpowder and guns). In these cases, however, suppression of technology failed over time as other cultures (Northern Europe) adopted the technologies and gained ascendancy.

It seems a difficult but historically unarguable conclusion that the will to power is fundamental to being human. The implications are severe. For one thing, the necessary governance scale for policy in areas such as the environmental or social implications of NBIC is obviously global, not regional. Europe may not like genetically modified organisms, and the United States may ban stem cell technology -- but that only passes the torch to others. Cultural competition is only one manifestation of the will to power, which operates across the species as a whole at all scales. More profoundly, the will to power likely has driven human evolution biologically, and now drives it culturally and technologically: the idea that we are the end point of evolution, or that we have stopped evolving (indeed, that we are not evolving more rapidly than we ever have before) seems a desperate fantasy, almost willful blindness. Idealistic arguments, whether good or bad, are mere utopian wistfulness if they do not understand, and accommodate, this perhaps most important and fundamental dimension of our species -- the will to power.

Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.