Beyond the hazards most of us know about--smallpox, terrorists, global warming--Rees introduces the new threats of the 21st century and the unholy political and scientific alliances that have made them possible. He spells out doomsday scenarios for cosmic collisions, high-energy experiments gone wrong, and self-replicating machines that steadily devour the biosphere. If we can avoid driving ourselves to extinction, he writes, a glorious future awaits; if not, our devices may very well destroy the universe.
What happens here on Earth, in this century, could conceivably make the difference between a near eternity filled with ever more complex and subtle forms of life and one filled with nothing but base matter.
For many technological debacles, Rees places much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the scientists who participate in perfecting environmental destruction, biological menaces, and ever-more powerful weapons. So is there any hope for humanity? Rees is vaguely optimistic on this point, offering solutions that would require a level of worldwide cooperation humans have yet to exhibit. If the daily news isn't enough to make you want to crawl under a rock, this book will do the trick. --Therese Littleton
'Rees is at his most learned and fluent when discussing these risk calculations he writes with rare clarity and conciseness' -- Matt Ridley in the Sunday Telegraph
'Terrifying Impassioned not just a catalogue of scare stories but a clarion call for scientists to come together...' -- John Cornwell in the Sunday Times
That a scientist so distinguished as Rees should air these fierce anxieties is a sign that something is amiss. -- J G Ballard in the Daily Telegraph
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Twenty-first century science may alter human beings themselves-not just how they live.
A superintelligent machine could be the last invention humans ever make.
In the past century, there were more changes than in the previous thousand years. The new century will see changes that will dwarf those of the last" This was an oft-expressed sentiment in the years 2000 and 2001, at the dawn of the new millennium; but these words actually date from more than one hundred years ago, and refer to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not the twentieth and twenty-first. They are from a 1902 lecture entitled "Discovery of the Future" presented by the young H.G. Wells at the Royal Institution in London.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Darwin and the geologists had already delineated, in crude outline, how Earth and its biosphere had evolved. Earth's full age was still not recognised, but estimates had risen to hundreds of millions of years. Wells himself was taught these ideas, still novel and inflammatory at that time, by Darwin's greatest advocate and propagandist, T.H. Huxley.
Wells's lecture was mainly in visionary mode. "Humanity," he said, "has come some way, and the distance we have travelled gives us some earnest of the way we have to go. All the past is but the beginning of a beginning; all that the human mind has accomplished is but the dream before the awakening." His rather purple prose still resonates a hundred years later. Our scientific understanding-of atoms, life and the cosmos-has burgeoned in a fashion that not even he conceived: certainly Wells was right in predicting that the twentieth century would see more changes than the previous thousand years. Spinoffs from novel discoveries have transformed our world and our lives. The amazing technical innovations would surely have elated him, as would the prospects for the coming decades.
But Wells wasn't a naive optimist. His lecture highlighted the risk of global disaster: "It is impossible to show why certain things should not utterly destroy and end the human race and story; why night should not presently come down and make all our dreams and efforts vain . . . something from space, or pestilence, or some great disease of the atmosphere, some trailing cometary poison, some great emanation of vapour from the interior of the Earth, or new animals to prey on us, or some drug or wrecking madness in the mind of man." In his later years, Wells became more pessimistic, especially in his final book, The Mind at the End of its Tether. His near despair about the "downside" of science might have deepened were he writing today. Humans already have the wherewithal to destroy their civilisation by nuclear war: in the new century, they are acquiring biological expertise that could be equally lethal; our integrated society will become more vulnerable to cyber-risks; and human pressure on the environment is building up dangerously. The tensions between benign and damaging spinoffs from new discoveries, and the threats posed by the Promethean power science gives us, are disquietingly real, and sharpening up.
Wells's audience at the Royal Institution would have already known him as the author of The Time Machine. In this classic story the chrononaut gently eased the throttle of his machine forward: "night came like the turning out of a light, and in another moment came tomorrow." As he sped up "the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness. . . . I travelled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the Earth's fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old Earth ebb away." He encounters an era where the human species has split into two: the effete and infantile Eloi, and the brutish underground Morlocks who exploit them. He ends up thirty million years hence, in a world where all familiar forms of life have become extinct. He then returns to the present, bringing strange plants as evidence of his trip.
In Wells's story it takes eight hundred thousand years for humans to divide into two subspecies, a time span that accords with modern ideas of how long it took for humanity to emerge via natural selection. (Evidence for our earliest hominoid ancestors extends back for four million years; it is about forty thousand years since "modern" humans superseded the Neanderthals.) But in the new century, changes in human bodies and brains won't be restricted to the pace of Darwinian selection, nor even to that of selective breeding. Genetic engineering and biotechnology, if widely practiced, could transmogrify humanity's physique and mentality far faster than Wells foresaw. Indeed, Lee Silver, in his book Remaking Eden, conjectures that it could take only a few generations for humanity to divide into two species: if the technology enabling parents to "design" genetically advantaged children were available only to the wealthy, there would be a widening divergence between the "GenRich" and the "Naturals." Nongenetic changes could be even more sudden, transforming humanity's mental character in less than a generation, as quickly as new drugs can be developed and marketed. The fundamentals of humanity, essentially unaltered throughout recorded history, could start to be transformed within this century.