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Margaret Atwood: Our Most Important Prophet of Doom

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Every generation takes for granted beliefs or practices that strike later generations as unconscionable. Just try explaining to your children public executions, chattel slavery, or eugenics. Your offspring will gape, stunned, until it dawns on them that the society you’re raising them to take part in has an astonishing capacity not to think things through. So, what’s not being thought through right now? The competition is stiff: the continued use of fossil fuels when catastrophic storms batter our shores, feeding our children off toxin-leaching plastic tableware, etc., etc.

You’d think that the professionals most likely to predict our regrets would be statisticians, trained as they are to rank the likelihood of negative outcomes. But prognostication of this sort is more gift than skill, since you need a finely tuned moral sensor as much as, if not more than, advanced numeracy. You can’t say what history will deem barbaric unless you feel a punch in the stomach every time you encounter it. This is why it was a novelist, not a statistician, who first sounded the alarm—for me—about a fast-tumbling cascade of changes I hadn’t thought hard about before.

The novelist is Margaret Atwood. What she made me think about is bioengineering. She’s not the first to worry about it, goodness knows. You can take your pick of Cassandras: Michael Crichton, Mary Shelley, whoever made Gattaca. Literature and pop culture never stop obsessing about the bastard spawn of technology and biology, although movies love to have it both ways, wallowing happily in high-tech gadgetry even as they deplore its effects.

Feverish as all this artistic angst is, what’s remarkable is that it barely keeps pace with reality. We are hurtling ever faster toward a point of no return. Consider that, just earlier this year, MIT researchers managed to implant false memories in mice. Or that the now-common procedure of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) lets would-be parents in fertility treatment test their multiple embryos for defects and discard the embryos they don’t want. One of these days, we may also be able to slow down aging by stopping the degradation of telomeres. (Telomeres are the caps on the ends of chromosomes that keep them from fraying.)

Let’s assume we really are approaching the state of what some people call transhumanism and others call posthumanism, where bioengineering will have winnowed out disease, dimwittedness, madness, old age, and—why not?—death. Would that be a bad thing? Reason magazine’s Ronald Bailey doesn’t think so. He celebrates it as “liberation biology”—liberation in the libertarian sense, “a biotechnological future determined by the choices and decisions of individuals who want to use technology to help themselves and their families live richer, fuller lives.” The naysayers disagree. (They always do.) Philosophers and environmentalists such as Jürgen Habermas, Francis Fukuyama, and Bill McKibben—Bailey dismisses their kind as bioconservatives—think that all these individual choices will add up to a large and dangerous one for humanity as a whole. Take PGD, which may eventually allow us to manipulate genes for enhanced intelligence or beauty just as easily as we can now weed out defective ones. The anti-bioengineering contingent has a few problems with this. First, pre-programming by parents violates the freedom of children to cultivate their talents as they see fit; there’s an important psychological difference between having superb visual-spatial reasoning because nature gave it to you and having it because your parents thought it would help you get into MIT. Second, this kind of tinkering with genetic material, affordable to some, unattainable by others, risks wiping out the notion of a shared humanity, with potentially grave political results. How would it change our understanding of the Declaration of Independence if all men (and women) weren’t created equal?

There’s a comeback to these objections: Future generations could undo what we’ve done if they don’t like it. But that, too, could change. So far, all this tampering with the human body affects only “somatic” cells—the cells we already have. But we are very close to what’s called germ-line engineering, in which we eradicate disease or add enhancements to the cells and genes we pass on to our children. What we do then will be irreversible. Indeed, germ-line engineering has already occurred. Before 2009, scientists had altered the germ cells of many creatures—bacteria, mice, rabbits—but not of primates, which are physiologically more complex. That year, however, Japanese scientists crossed marmosets with jelly-fish genes, causing them to shine green under ultra-violet light, and the glow-in-the-dark monkeys made glow-in-the-dark babies. Perform this miracle on the human primate, and it will be “as if man had been suddenly appointed managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution,” as biologist Julian Huxley once put it.

Given how close reality has come to surpassing imagination, what do the Atwoods of the world have to offer? Only what good novelists have always offered: a sense of the tragic, a respect for the power of malevolence, a grasp of how things go awry. In her most recent works, a trilogy in the anti-utopian tradition of Brave New World and 1984that she began with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and ended this September with MaddAddam, transhumanism meets capitalism. In place of Orwell’s totalitarian state, Atwood gives us an all-powerful genetic-engineering industry. Biotech corporations have superseded governments and turned criminal. Since they are so good at keeping people healthy, they have to come up with new profit centers, so they add viruses to their vitamins. Wandering comically through this circus of the macabre is a menagerie of genetically spliced animals: pigoons or pig-balloons, whose enormous porcine bodies grow human organs, including brain tissue, for transplantation; Mo’Hairs, sheep who produce silky ringlets that can be grafted onto human scalps; and wolvogs, dogs crossed with wolves used for security reasons.

There’s only one way for this latter-day Babylon to end, and that is in apocalypse. I give away nothing if I tell you that Atwood wipes out almost all the humans, and that, in the after-time, the few who remain are more prey than hunter, at the mercy of the eerily intelligent pigoons and savage wolvogs. But what you’ll take away is not the end of humanity—that happens in every novel these days—but the fertility of Atwood’s paranoia. Her trilogy teems with deliciously ghoulish skewerings of posthuman dreams. They are too legion and complicated to summarize here, so let me pilfer some from her essays. In a generally positive review of McKibben’s anti- genetic-engineering manifesto Enough, Atwood points out that he doesn’t “go all the way down, into the dark realms of envy, cheating, payoffs, and megalomaniacal revenge.” You might imagine, for example, your enemy bribing your gene doctor “so that your baby turns out like Hannibal the Cannibal.” Or the ways in which promises of immortality could be broken. What if, she asks in another essay, the employees of a cryogenics facility “unfreeze your head and hook it up to a monitor and run your most painful memories on it as cheap entertainment. Your whole life would be as a sideshow freak!” Or “there would be a natural catastrophe—an earthquake, a tornado—the grid goes down—your head rots.” Or worse: The world comes to an end and some survivors come across a mysteriously functioning fridge. What do they see? Not “leftover brie,” writes Atwood, not “a thing of yogurt way past the due date,” but a frozen head. What are your chances of immortality then? Not good. “They see protein!” she continues. “They say, Get the cooking pot. They say, Feast time!"

Judith Shulevitz is the science editor of The New Republic.