September 1, 2005


By Brad Allenby

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


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.