Reading guide for Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau

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Radical Evolution

The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human

By Joel Garreau

Radical Evolution
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  • Hardcover: May 2005,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: May 2006,
    400 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

One afternoon last fall, I was preparing for a parent-faculty meeting and chatting with the novelist Adrienne Garreau, whose husband Joel was working on a new book. I had greatly enjoyed Joel's Edge City the year before, so I asked her when the new book would be out and what it was titled. "Soon," she replied, "and we have not decided on a title yet." Flippantly, I offered to suggest one if she would let me read a draft of the book and, to my surprise, she agreed, dropping off a sheath of papers on a cardboard box later that afternoon.

My students the next day might well have wished she hadn't, because what I thought would be a leisurely perusal quickly transformed into a late-night compulsive read. My classes the next day were shoddily prepared, and I only just managed to pull myself away from the manuscript at the last minute. I started emailing title suggestions that within hours, but as I progressed I realized that my first reactions were too simplistic, not taking into account the shifts in the book's development, so I sent retractions and revisions, which were in turn retracted hours later. When I finished, I immediately passed the draft on to a friend, who thanked me while explaining that with exams coming up and a new novel to teach, he probably would not get to it for a few weeks. "Just read the first chapter," I implored. Two days later, he wanted to talk about the entire book over dinner.

Radical Evolution evoked a similar reaction from my book club, a group of men who meet monthly for a meal and an often raucous discussion. Given the book's futuristic emphasis, it seemed appropriate to read it before publication, either on computer screens or PDF files, and so with Joel's generous consent and my urging, we paired it with Brave New World, a novel that eerily predicts many of the all-too-real advances Joel discusses. We never really got to Brave New World that evening, though, because we all found it hard to exhaust Radical Evolution. There was so much to say, to wonder, to debate.

I never helped much with the title, probably because there is so much here that is so rich that any attempt to sum it up in a pithy phrase seems to do the book an injustice, though Radical Evolution is far better than anything I generated. Indeed, the motivating question of the book is what it means for human beings as a species to take control of their minds and bodies: whether we are approaching a utopian era in which we will determine our own destinies, whether we will spin out of control and be struck down for our hubris in playing God, or whether we are entering a more complex and multi-layered era of negotiation between our basic human nature and our power to manipulate our lives. Of course, our species has always been distinguished by our ability to control; what Joel Garreau has succeeded in communicating so clearly is how the stakes change as this manipulation shifts from an outside environment to what we think of as our inner selves. It is a shift that may not be reversible, one that may set in motion an irreversible series of decisions. The players in this book debate whether this movement leads to Heaven or Hell, but it is in framing this moment as one of choice and in tracing these divergent paths that Radical Evolution creates a consciousness of the pivotal nature of this point in human history.

Yet this is just as much a book about people as it is a book about ideas. We meet the visionaries who imagined the internet, virtual reality, the World Wide Web, the technology of warfare, the possibilities of genetic manipulation, robotics, and nanotechnology, and through their voices we come to understand these technologies in fundamentally human ways. We see medical advances through the eyes of the severely disabled, and we debate the relative benefits of pharmaceutical wizardry that will offer options, not just to mankind, but to our children in their college years. Joel Garreau takes us back two decades to put predictions for the next twenty years in perspective, introducing this myriad of possibilities as an emerging dimension of our own lives. Radical Evolution becomes a deeply personal book, and one that is undeniably important as well as compulsively engaging. Joel Garreau reveals what future generations will clearly see as the truly meaningful questions of our time, far more significant than the petty issues that continually call for our attention.

So if you have not yet started, find a comfortable chair, preferably one not surrounded by blinking green LED lights, and settle in. I am sure you will sleep just fine, and you can take all the time you want. Just read the first chapter.

Huntington Lyman, Ph.D.


  1. Radical Evolution concerns people as much as technology, and discusses some of the ways that these new technological developments will change how we work, date, interact and live our lives. Can you think of other ways that the technologies discussed in the book may impact and change our world?

     
  2. The fable of the peasant's wish dramatically illustrates the power of a curve that rises exponentially (47). How likely do you think it is that technological progress and power will continue to advance according to Moore's Law? What technological obstacles or human decisions might eventually slow this curve? What are the implications if there is no end in sight?

     
  3. A 1943 report by Ryan and Gross classifies people as Innovators, Early Adaptors, the Early Majority, the Later Majority, and Laggards (60-61). Which are you? Do you have a predictable reaction to innovations, or does it vary? How likely are you to embrace some of the new capabilities discussed in the book that will be available to us in the next fifteen years?

     
  4. Radical Evolution presents a menu of possibilities quickly evolving into reality, including our ability to block pain, to regrow amputated limbs, to improve memory, to function on far less sleep, to live well past 100, and to significantly enhance athletic ability. Which of these enhancements might you make for yourself? Are there extreme circumstances in which your choice might be different? Perhaps most importantly, which of these options would you accept or deny for your children and grandchildren?

     
  5. Throughout the book, Garreau puts into perspective the changes we have witnessed in our own lifetime, listing events that seem like ancient history that occurred only 25 years ago (65-66). What have been the most significant innovations in your lifetime, and how have they changed your life in ways you would not have dreamed back in 1990? Have these changes ultimately improved or degraded the quality of your life?

     
  6. The acronym GRIN stands for genetics, robotics, information and nanotechnology. Which of these do you think has the most potential for radically transforming our lives in the foreseeable future? Which do you think have the least potential to radically transform our lives?

     
  7. Ray Kurzweil, known for his uncanny accuracy, makes a series of predictions about the future (97-105), and forecasting of the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Commerce is summarized in a list (113-114). Which of these predictions do you see as most likely? Do any of them seem absurd, exaggerated, or doubtful? In what small ways are we seeing some of these predications coming true now?

     
  8. The changes and advances discussed in Radical Evolution have the potential to act as social levelers or as dividers of people. One vision of the future sees future generations as divided into the Enhanced, the Naturals, and The Rest (157). Do you see technology as uniting or dividing us in the future?

     
  9. The Heaven Scenario (130) and the Hell Scenario (185) share many assumptions but come to opposite conclusions. What premises do both accept, and what are the critical differences in determining what sort of future we are creating?

     
  10. Jaron Lanier proposes, "even if technology is advancing along an exponential curve, that does not mean humans cannot creatively shape the impact of human nature and society in largely unpredictable ways" (206). What, in practical terms, does this mean to you? What sort of human reaction might humans have towards the possibilities that technology will offer us in the near future?

     
  11. Garreau offers the phenomenon of cell phone "swarming" as an example of a creative reaction to a technological innovation. Can you think of other examples of unexpected adaptations to a new technology, particularly ones that struck you as creative and original responses?

     
  12. Perhaps the most important and dramatic example of the human capacity for consciously resisting what once seemed inevitable is the absence of an exchange of nuclear weapons since the conclusion of World War II. Is this an aberration or an indicator of a human ability to limit technology when it threatens what is fundamental to our species' existence?

     
  13. Clearly, Garreau inclines towards the Prevail Scenario. Is this wishful thinking, or the most reasonable prediction? Which scenario ultimately seems most convincing to you, and why?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Broadway Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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