pursue, Bacon wrote in Novum Organum, was to “extend the
power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe.”
Not much has changed in four hundred years. Brand’s mantra, “we are as gods and we have to get good at it,” is simply a
rewording of Bacon’s ambition. This is a project that sees the
world as imperfect and the duty of enlightened human engineers
as correcting the imperfections. The end result will be a planned
and controlled world of wealth, happiness, and peace for all: a
rationalist utopia, designed and run by rationalists. Probably we
will be able to live forever, having worked out how to “download”
our consciousness into machines.
The de-extinctors are right about one thing: humans have always been engineers, tool makers, tinkerers. From wheat strains
to breeds of dog, humanity has been busy “improving” on nature
since history began. But we are now approaching a point at which
our power to do so will move way beyond this kind of slow, gradual
tinkering. Soon we will be able to build our own worlds, and there
are plenty of people slavering at the prospect.
In April of last year, Antony Evans (who
hails from — you guessed it — California)
sought to raise funds on the crowdfunding
website Kickstarter to create, using synthetic
biology, “natural lighting with no electricity” in the form of glowing plants. Evans
imagines a future in which trees glow in the
streets, replacing street lamps. No longer discrete organisms with their own needs and
purpose, trees will become our silent slaves.
Evans sought to raise $65,000 for the project;
he ended up with nearly $500,000.
Say what you like about religion, but it
at least teaches us that we are not gods. The
ethic that is promoted by the de-extinctors and their kind tells
us that we are gods and it is our right and our destiny to act like
them. While it may sometimes pose as conservation or environmentalism, this is in reality the latest expression of human chauvinism, another manifestation of the empire of Homo sapiens. If
it marches forward, it will usher in the end of the animal, and
the end of the wild. It will lead us toward a New Nature, entirely
the product of our human-ness. There will be no escape from
ourselves. We might call it Total Civilization.
“I Am Stewart Brand, revivor of extinct species,” declaims
Brand on the web forum Reddit. I am Ozymandias, king of
kings: pleased to meet you.
SOMETIMES I ASK myself why I give a shit about any of this.
Why do I feel that the forests matter? The becks, the orangutans,
the hornbills, the giant anteaters, the speckled wood butterflies? I
Those feelings—those passions—are a result of my em-
bodied, intuitive reaction to the world I am part of. They are an
animal response to living in a world of beauty, depth, and com-
plexity, and feeling that this external abundance is a part of my
internal life. They are a result of me feeling, assuming, knowing,
that the earth is not a machine; that all is alive, still. They are a
result of me feeling small in the face of all this, and being grate-
ful for the humility this forces upon me, even if sometimes it
may be against my will.
I could rationalize all this if I needed to.
I could tell myself that it is a feeling that
has evolved because it is useful to me in my
struggle to survive as an organism in the
maelstrom of life. I could tell myself, as the
biologist E. O. Wilson does in his book
Con-silience, that we stand in awe of nature, or of
god, in the same way a dog stands in awe of
its master. We are primates, we need leaders,
Because the fact is, many of us do see something in the wild
world that we need. We do see something magical or even holy in
waterfalls and cloud formations and herds of ibex. These experiences are real, and they are not going away. If we have a sense that
there is something higher than our reason can explain to be found
in the woods and the fields, and if this is the real reason our hearts
break when the woods and the fields are bulldozed in the name of
economics, then this sense, like our ability to love or experience
beauty or horror, is entirely “subjective.” But it is also entirely real.
Our culture is enthralled with science and in awe of what it can
Many of us do
magical or holy
in waterfalls and
and herds of ibex.