“Mankind in the Third Millennium”

My look at Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry concludes.

Review: “Mankind in the Third Millennium”, Brian Stableford, 1986.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

This bit of futurology is adapted from a lecture delivered to a Symposum for Young Scientists and Engineers held by the Japan Science Foundation, and, understandably, it’s not included in any of the post-1991 reprints of the collection.

It expands on Stableford’s remarks in the collection’s introduction that he views, despite the perils and follies depicted in its stories, bioengineering as a positive thing.

In his preliminary remarks, Stableford says that man is defined by his technology as a “tool-using” animal. Archaeological periods are defined by human tools. But technology is not just machines and tools. It is things like selective breeding of animals and writing. 

He thinks the view of many historians, that history partly chronicles the social, cultural, and political adaptations made when a new technology is introduced, is not completely correct. Adaptations to technology are mediated by cultural and political forces. After all, China did not do what Europeans did with gunpowder, paper, and block printing. Man can choose the shape of future technologies and future societies. 

Technological change produces understandable and justifiable fears and anxieties in people. It generates wealth inequality and means for the poor to be very aware of that inequality. It produces in each of us the certain knowledge that the world we grow old in will not be the world into which we were born. Most people understandably subscribe to the old adage, “Better the devil you know”. 

And we are acutely aware of the problems (real, trivial, or imagined) of current technologies in power generation, industrial production, and weapons. We fear harm to the biosphere. Because of this, there are many who feel the problems of technological development justify abandoning or scaling back the use of certain technologies.

Stableford is not one: 

“Others, however, feel that we would be paying a very high price if we were to surrender all the benefits of modern technologies in order to cut these costs. To those who adopt the latter viewpoint, and I am one of them, it seems both unwise and unrealistic to think that the clock can simply be turned back.” 

He thinks some technologies might solve at least some of our problems.

He stresses that neither he or anyone else can predict the future. If the future is partly shaped by future technologies, they, in turn, depend on future discoveries which are not predictable.

Imagination can shape the process of invention if not produce reliable predictions. A man in a society withhout the wheel could not have possibly imagined all the consequences, the social and political changes, that would result from that invention through the millennia. However, a man contemplating the domestication of a horse for the first time can imaginatively and reliably predict what such a deed would mean. 

Medical technology and inorganic chemistry are two technologies furthered by imagining possibilities and realizing them through research. It is possible to imagine where, in a given field, a “scope of discovery” exists to be realized by further work.

Stableford then mentions the book of futurology he co-authored with David Langford, The Third Millennium: A History of the World, A.D. 2000-3000. It was “designed for entertainment” and “had a good deal of humour and whimsey in it”. But its technological forecasts were based on a “theoretical understanding” of current science. Specifically, that was in the areas of plasma physics (and the attendant prediction in that book that, eventually, we will have fusion power) and “biochemical genetics”. 

In 1986, he says

“We do not yet know how genes carry blueprints for the structure of whole organisms as well as the materials for building them, but there is no reason to suppose that we cannot find out.” 

Indeed, in the years since, we have made strides in that area through cheap gene sequencing and massive data analysis. 

We sharply divide the world into machines and living things even though some of technology is the result, (e.g. plastics) of organic chemistry. That is a categorical error he argues, “not merely stupid but dangerous”. 

In a metaphorical sense, all parts of the biosphere carry out manufacturing processes. Through selective breeding and genetic engineering, we already have (even in 1986) altered some organisms’ manufacturing processes to human ends. Stableford thinks that it is reasonable to think that we will one day be able to produce artificial photosynthesis and artificial protein production. (We already have achieved the latter but only on a very small, uneconomical scale.) 

As predicted in that book, he thinks its entirely possible to eventually have living houses, biological systems of mining, biological batteries, and artificial photosynthesis. It is also reasonable to think that genetic engineering will be able to cure diseases and eventually regenerate lost limbs and repair damaged organs. If human lifespans are now probably three times what they were in our species’ early days, genetic engineering should be able to expand on that. 

Of courses, there are pitfalls. Thrillers imagining bioengineering plagues may be lurid, but the danger is still real. There are serious moral issues with in vitro fertilization and frozen embroyes.  But we must not mount a “blanket opposition” to genetic engineering on the grounds it’s “unnatural”. The possibility of a plague from the lab must be balanced against agricultural and medical advances. 

Stableford contends biotechnology will enable us to lead more human lives and help with the problems of our inorganic technologies: wastes from industrial processes, resource limitation, and soil exhaustion. 

“A technology of tissue-culture production, ultimately augmented by a technology of artificial photosynthesis, would allow us to cease entirely our dependencies and use of other living creatures. We would not only be able to liberate which we use and on which we prey, but the plants too.” 

He forcefully states

“The pattern of progress I have tried to lay out in my various ventures in speculative future history aims for nothing less than the competent technological control of the entire biosphere. . . . Mankind has no God-given right to win the great game of survival, but if we are to win that game, this is what winning must consist of.” 

Stableford states his convinction that contraception, Malthus’ “moral restraint”, can avoid a dieoff and that modern communications will create “a community out of the whole human race”. 

He talks about those who make exaggerated arguments about man’s impending doom out of hope of rousing people to embrace solutions. He thinks that’s necessary, but here he is strenously arguing for an optimistic vision of the future. Technology, in all its forms, is a “human solution to human problems, and the quest to secure and improve human nature.” 

Stableford lays out a speculative and ideaological argument for at least his future biotechnology speculations. 

Now, 36 years later, technology has moved on. Some of the problems Stableford cites (specifically, soil exhaustion) aren’t much in the public mind though they still exist to one extent or another. We have new perils from bioengineering and new promises. 

I may not agree with all of Stableford’s goals or assumptions, but, besides the style of his fiction and its philosophical and speculative content, what I like about it is that it often challenges me and that includes his bioengineering speculations.

In the field of tinkering with biological organisms, when and where should we stop? And on what grounds?

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