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by Pierre Baldi
MIT Press, 2001
Review by John Caulfield, Ph.D. on Oct 16th 2001

The Shattered SelfSome 31 years ago, Alvin Toffler published a very influential nook entitled Future Shock. Its warning was that the world was changing so fast that humans, who evolved for a much less rapid adaptation, would begin to have trouble adapting, Today, Ludism and fundamentalism thrive in advanced countries. His prophecy has been fulfilled.

In almost the same spirit, Pierre Baldi has written this book to prepare readers for what is about to happen in the 21st Century - especially as it impacts our concepts of what we humans are. The day I wrote this, I heard a radio commentator noting that the artificial heart success just being celebrated gave him "the creeps." The heart is so central to a human that it should not be made of plastic. Phone-in listeners agreed enthusiastically that such things need to be stopped. If only they had read Baldi's book!

Providing the necessary background at a high school level, Baldi deals briefly with the history of what he calls "decentering" wherein first the sun, then human bodies, and finally conscious thought have been transformed from central to peripheral positions in the universe.

Molecular biology is his entry point into the 21st century. Most of the material will be familiar to everyone reading this review. But, his note on the relationship between the growth of tomatoes and the growth of cancers was new and quite stimulating to me.

Issues affecting human reproduction come next - Viagra, "test tube babies," sexless reproduction, reproductionless sex, sex selection, Siamese twins, cloning, life extension, DNA manipulation, children rearing clones of their parents are among topics discussed.

Although it is barely related to his theme, Baldi includes a brief discussion of the Internet. Moore's law, and so forth. Even here, developments are explosive and (to some) threatening.

He then turns to "The Last Frontier: the Brain." Here, Baldi seems to me uncharacteristically conservative. Many researchers (myself included) think that they already understand the broad outline of human perception, consciousness, self consciousness, emotions, and mystic experiences. If we are right, our view of what a human is changes drastically. I argue that humanity does not lose its grandeur in the process, but I avoid discussing such things outside the company of scholars.

All of this challenges ethics in two ways. First, it challenges the external basis for ethics - an external and eternal ruler and lawmaker. Second, it challenges us to deal with totally new situations for which there are no accepted ethical standards.

Baldi then speculates on what he calls "the end of natural evolution." We can now interfere with natural evolution in ways our grandparents could never have dreamed. The great outcry against genetically modified plants is certainly politically motivated, but it works so well because we fear the end of natural evolution. Nameless scientists take on the role of God himself in directing evolution (provided God indulges in evolution at all according to the user's beliefs).

Like it or not, this Brave New World is no longer the stuff of fiction. Baldi hopes to prepare readers for it.

© 2001 John Caulfield

H. John Caulfield, Distinguished Research Professor, Fisk University, Nashville, TN.

This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001