Joel Garreau

Radical Evolution

  • This summary of Radical Evolution includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Radical Evolution Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau.

American journalist and author Joel Garreau’s non-fiction book Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our BodiesAnd What It Means To Be Human (2005) describes various technologies and scenarios that will lead the world into a “posthuman” or “transhuman” future, in which humanity and technology merge to become something beyond human. The research areas that will deliver us to this exciting—and quite possibly terrifying—future are what Garreau calls the GRIN technologies: genetics, robotics, information, and nanotechnology.

The idea of enhancing our minds and bodies is nothing new, Garreau notes. From one perspective, this is the purpose of all technology going back to the wheel or to the first time someone used a rock as a weapon. However, in recent decades, the scope and capability of these enhancements have grown exponentially. Most of these enhancements come from the pharmaceutical industry and are, of course, not without side effects. They include psychotropic mood-enhancers, stimulants designed to increase alertness, and impotence pills. Garreau also describes cosmetic surgery and various sports medicine procedures designed to rebuild torn ligaments as examples of these technologies.

Nevertheless, according to Garreau, advancements made through medicine and pharmaceuticals will pale in comparison to those achieved by the GRIN technologies. He predicts that in a few decades, scientists will develop cryonic suspension systems to prolong life indefinitely. That is if they haven’t managed to hack the genetic code to create bodies that don’t age. He also predicts that virtual reality will be just one stop on the way to creating systems that allow humans to communicate with computers directly with their thoughts. That, in turn, is merely another step on the way to allowing humans to communicate directly with each other, utilizing a technique that will be effectively indistinguishable from telepathy.

What interests Garreau most is not the technologies themselves, however. Rather, Garreau is intrigued by how these innovations will affect humanity, civilization, and planet Earth. He categorizes these various impact predictions into loosely defined “scenarios.” For instance, the Curve scenario posits that information technology has been growing more rapidly than any other area. But rather than seeing information overtake all other technological concerns, there will be a bleeding effect that allows genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology to expand at equally exponential rates. From there, the scenario may evolve into something very good, very bad, or difficult to quantify at all.

It is one thing, for example, to see technological change grow exponentially before it hits an inevitable wall. It is another for technological advancement to become literally unstoppable. This, Garreau states, is the Singularity scenario. The physicist John von Neumann first described a “technological singularity,” in which the growth of technology is uncontrollable and eventually unfathomable to humanity. For Garreau’s part, he believes this reality could happen as soon as the year 2030, at which point “greater-than-human intelligence” will improve itself “at such a rate as to exceed comprehension.”

If one adopts a highly optimistic perspective, the next scenario would be the Heaven scenario. Garreau describes it as a situation where there is a continual aggregation of “almost unimaginably good things…including the conquering of disease and poverty, but also an increase in beauty, wisdom, love, truth, and peace.” Of course, with any Heaven scenario, there must also be a Hell scenario. Humanity will know, Garreau states, that it is entering the Hell scenario when “almost unimaginably bad things are happening, destroying large chunks of the human race or the biosphere, at an accelerating pace.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Garreau identifies and interviews a large number of scientists and ethicists who believe or fear that this is the next step on humanity’s evolutionary timeline. Some of the interview subjects, such as Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, believe that various avenues of research into the GRIN technologies should be abandoned altogether. Others, like environmentalist Bill McKibben, have very targeted policy prescriptions for addressing specific calamities like climate change. Still others, like President George W. Bush’s bioethics chief Leon Kass, are focused on how technologies already within our reach, such as stem cell therapies and cloning, pose a threat to human dignity.

While many scientists believe the Hell scenario is on the horizon, Garreau proposes that humanity may yet survive it and enter into a Prevail scenario. What both the Heaven and Hell scenarios have in common is that, in each case, humanity has relinquished control of technology to itself. Even if technology continues to grow in speed or size, humans can and should retain the ability to choose how that technology be applied. It may seem naive to believe that an ever-growing piece of artificial intelligence won’t eventually reach a point of total control and self-sufficiency. But here, Garreau quotes the computer scientist Jaron Lanier who argues that the effectiveness of a computer’s software does not increase at the same pace as its processing speed or capacity.

Radical Evolution is a fascinating book suggesting that while we must be smart about exponential technology growth, we cannot allow ourselves to fear it. Otherwise, we lose control over it.