Skip to Content

The Trouble with Knowledge

Technology that alters human nature will upset our inherited moral categories, argues one of Britain’s most esteemed philosophers. In a posthuman future, he asks, how will our children and grandchildren know right from wrong?

In his novel Erewhon, published in 1872, Samuel Butler describes an imagi­nary country (a “nowhere”) in which all machines are forbidden. The inhabitants had once availed themselves of watches, steam engines, mechanical pumps and hoists, and all the other devices that could be admired in the great exhibitions of Victorian England. ¶ But unlike Butler’s Victorian contemporaries, they had perceived the terrible danger that these things represented. Machines, they realized, were always improving. Never for one moment did they take a step backwards into imperfections that they had surpassed. Always, the next machine was better, more versatile, and more fully adapted to its uses than the last.

Inevitably, therefore, the process of improvement would continue, until machines had no need of humans at all–until they were able to produce and reproduce themselves. At that point, like all creatures obedient to the law of evolution, the machines would be locked in a struggle with their competitors. Their only competitor would be man. Hence, foreseeing that the machines would otherwise destroy them, the inhabitants of ­Erewhon had destroyed the machines.

The fear of the Erewhonians was not irrational; but its premise was unconvincing–at least to Butler’s readers. The idea of a self-reproducing machine seemed, to most of them, a mere literary fantasy. Sixty years later, however, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, the portrait of another imaginary country, in which humans are produced as machines are produced, according to specifications laid down by official policy. Intelligence, interests, pleasures, and pains are all controlled, either genetically or by conditioning, and all those aspects of the human psyche in which eccentricities, commitments, deep emotions, and virtues might take root are deliberately prevented from developing. And if humans can be produced as machines are produced, in factories controlled by humans, why cannot machines be produced as humans are now produced, by self-reproduction?

Scientific advances had made Huxley’s prophecy rather more plausible than Butler’s. But if Huxley’s readers felt a chill of apprehension, it was for another reason than any Erewhonian fear of machine rule. The world described by Huxley is one that has crossed a moral barrier. Even if the Erewhonians were right to fear the machines, and even if they had let the machines develop to the point of danger, they themselves would not have been changed by this. In any future crisis, their sense of solidarity, duty, and heroism could be marshaled in their own defense. Human nature would have remained–a fixed point in their universe, the premise from which all their practical reasoning began. But suppose human beings become a laboratory product, as Huxley envisaged. What then remains of human nature? Where is the fixed point, the thing that cannot be touched, the thing beyond choice, for the sake of which all choice is undertaken?

That is a loaded way of putting it. But it captures, I believe, the growing fear in our society of scientific advance, and in particular the fear of genetic engineering and the possibilities that it opens to us. As science advances, bringing nearer and nearer the day when Jill can be designed by Jack for uses of his own, many people are beginning to share Huxley’s anxiety. Technology, they fear, will imperil human freedom. One generation will be able to assert what the bioethicist Leon Kass has called a “genetic despotism” over the next, and gradually, as human nature is transformed in accordance with our own designs, the point and value of life will slip from our grasp.

‘Twas Ever Thus
The problems of biotechnology are in one respect like the problems of any technology. All discoveries, however beneficial, have unwanted side effects, and any technology can be used to good or bad ends. Hence there is no technological advance that is not greeted, at some stage, by protests. History does not record the protests that surrounded the invention of the wheel. But it certainly records the protests that surrounded the invention of the railways. For the great critic and social philosopher John Ruskin, the railways were a ruthless assault on rural tranquility: they destroyed the sense of place, they uprooted settled communities, they overran the countryside with steel-clad ugliness and urban sprawl. They set us all in motion, when the true point of human life, Ruskin thought, was to stay quietly where we were. Oddly enough, the railway bridges and stations of England were built according to aesthetic principles influenced through and through by Ruskin’s writings, and in particular by The Stones of Venice; they are looked back on now with intense nostalgia, as symbols of peace, place, and distance. And campaigners against automobiles adduce railways as their ideal of a safe, environmentally friendly, and aesthetically pleasing link from place to place across a continent.

Even if Ruskin’s protest against the railways has lost its persuasive force, it belongs to a habit of mind that is one of our deepest instincts. For Ruskin, the railways threatened one of the fixed points in our moral universe, which was the earth itself–the earth that provides the food we eat, the water we drink, and the stones with which we build. There is a natural way of using the earth, which is to respect it as our home. When we build, we must treat the land as a place of settlement, into which our lives are harmlessly slotted like those of fish in the sea. In a similar vein, contemporary environmentalists complain that by exploiting the earth for our ephemeral purposes, we treat as a means what should be respected as an end.

Like Ruskin, environmentalists who lament the costs of present knowledge tend to forget the costs of former ignorance. Burning wood caused the deforestation of Europe, the desertification of North Africa, and the drying up of lakes and rivers all over the Middle East. This was an environmental catastrophe, which could have been prevented had the Romans and other ancients known what we know about soil erosion, microclimates, and the chemistry of carbon. The environmental problems that we confront today are not going to be cured by returning to old ways of life or old ways of extracting energy. It is not technology that has caused our environmental problems but incompetent technology–technology that has failed to address the real question, of how to extract energy without damaging the planet. As Butler might have said to the inhabitants of Erewhon, Don’t destroy the machines; let the machines take over. But first make sure they are correctly programmed.

However, that response does not get to the heart of the current anxiety. Our desire for a controlled environment wars with our sense that some things ought to be beyond our control–things like the tides, the seasons, the movement around us of the elemental forces on which we depend. To attempt to bring them under control is, we believe, to challenge fate, whose only law is the law of unintended consequences.

The “I” and the “We”
There are two contrasting attitudes that we take toward practical questions, which we might call the “I” attitude and the “we” attitude. As a rational agent, I see the world as a theater of action, in which I and my goals take a central place. I act to increase my power, to acquire the means to realize my objectives, to bring others to my side, and to work with them to overcome obstacles. This “I” attitude is implanted deep in the psyche, since it defines the starting point of all practical reasoning and contains an indelible intimation of the thing that distinguishes people from the rest of nature–namely, their freedom. There is a sense in which animals, too, are free: they make choices, do things both freely and under constraint. But animals are not accountable for what they do. They are not called upon to justify their conduct, nor are they persuaded or dissuaded by dialogue with others. This strange feature of the human condition has puzzled philosophers since Aristotle; and it is the foundation of all that is most important to us. All those goals that make human life into a thing of intrinsic value–justice, community, love–have their origin in the mutual accountability of persons, who respond to each other “I” to “I.”

Behind all my projects, however, like a horizon against which they are projected, is another and quite different attitude. I am aware that I belong to a kind, and that kind has a place in nature. I am also aware that we are part of a world to which we are adapted. Whereas the “I” attitude seeks change and improvement, overcoming the challenges presented by nature, the “we” attitude seeks stasis and accommodation, confirming that we and our world are at one. Things that threaten the equilibrium between human beings and our environment, either by destroying that environment or by undermining human nature, awaken in us a profound sense of unease, even of sacrilege. The “we” attitude tells us that we must never disturb the two fixed points of our universe, the environment and human nature. This attitude may be the residue of prehistorical events, an unconscious memory of the original harmony between “our hunting fathers” and their natural home, from which our species departed on its journey into knowledge. But it continues to exert its influence on our practical reasoning, filling our minds with ideas of a prelapsarian innocence.

It will be objected that human nature does not stand still. The “I” ’ attitude restlessly pursues the path of invention, and in doing so radically changes the focus and the goal of human conduct. Consider television. Here is a technological achievement that has changed our world. It is a source of pleasure to billions and a channel of instruction and information that keeps people comfortably entertained at home when they might otherwise have been outside fighting. Such, at least, is the good side of it. But as with so much technology, there is a bad side too. The physical effects of television, in the form of obesity, heart disease, and general apathy, are observable everywhere. So too are the mental effects: the shortened attention span, the inability to comprehend abstract arguments, the exaggerated appetite for visual stimulus, the enhanced aggression when dealing with ordinary things, and the debilitating addiction to the very thing that causes those faults, which is the moving image on the screen. All this has been well documented (and in “Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor,” an article in the February 2002 Scientific American, Mihaly ­Csikszentmihalyi and Robert Kubey make a stab at identifying the neurological cause of the addiction). Those of us who take due note of the arguments will, drawing on our vision of human nature and of the capacities and virtues required for its fulfillment, control our children’s viewing times, try our hand at programming the machine with TiVo or a built-in censor. Failing that, we will revert to the Erewhonian solution and do as my father did when, after an elevating speech about the damage we humans inflict on ourselves by absorbing passively the entertainment that we should be creating actively, he tossed the thing through the window and then ran down the stairs to finish it off with a hammer.

The change in human nature that has come from television is, however, both small and manageable. We can deal with it through our old moral and prudential categories. Children raised on television can understand one who tells them that there are other and better forms of entertainment; there are clear examples of “conversion experiences,” in which addicts suddenly and definitively turn the thing off. Television has not led us to revise the list of human virtues so as to include apathy and voyeurism, or to downgrade the appeal of courage, justice, and self-sacrificing love. All in all, it leaves our vision of happiness unaltered. True, it has proved to be no more than a stepping stone toward other and more radical forms of entertainment and communication. But, we are apt to feel, it is best to accept these technological advances, to take comfort in the ability of human beings to adapt to them, and to incorporate them into new forms of community and new ways of reaching out to our kind. For the kind hasn’t changed, nor have its needs (see “Literacy and Text Messaging” on

But this returns me to Huxley’s dystopia. As Huxley foresaw, the same easygoing attitude cannot be taken in the face of those technological developments that bring human life itself within our power. From the moral point of view, biotechnology is inherently problematic. It is not simply that the research needed to develop its techniques involves the manipulation of living things, both animal and human, in ways that some would regard as immoral. It is that the techniques themselves are inherently subversive. Like other technical advances, they can be applied to the benefit of human beings and also to their harm. But however they are applied, when they are applied to us, they alter us in ways that affect our conception of what we are. Since our moral opinions derive from our conception of human nature, this alteration leaves us disoriented, without the capacity to judge the right and wrong of what we do. Some welcome this development, believing with Nietzsche that human nature must be transcended, into a world “beyond good and evil.” For others, however, Nietzsche’s prophecy of the Übermensch and his postmoral world should serve as a warning. For such people there is a perceived need for the President’s Council on Bioethics, whose mission is “to undertake fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of developments in biomedical and behavioral science and technology.”

Whichever line we take, we must recognize that we are at a turning point in our ability to alter our biological nature. We already have powers to prevent fertility and also to promote it. We can initiate life in a laboratory, and nurture it in vitro. We can screen for genetic disorders in embryos and decide from the results whether they ought to survive (see “Picking the Best Embryo from the Bunch” on We can insert new genes into parts of the adult body and will soon be able to insert them into gametes and embryos. There is hope, as the fertility expert Robert Winston suggested in his Alfred ­Deakin Lecture in Melbourne on May 13, 2001, that we might engineer the removal of the gene that causes beta thalassemia (a form of anemia)–a gene carried by one out of seven Sardinians. We can replace body parts with artificial versions, and we can transplant organs from one body to another. We can wire computer chips into the body–and maybe soon into the brain, to enhance memory or even intelligence. We are on the verge of a stem-cell therapy that could reverse some forms of blindness (see “Using Stem Cells to Cure Blindness” on All such developments both fascinate and alarm us. They promise relief from degenerative diseases. But they also undermine that “fixed point” on which the “we” attitude is focused, the fixed point of human nature–the fixedness of which was safeguarded by traditional religion in the doctrine that we are created in God’s image and are therefore as unchangeable as He.

The Anxiety of Age
Human anxieties are never more vividly felt than when we contemplate old age. In earlier times, when it was generally assumed that human life had a divinely ordained span of threescore years and ten, when doctors did not reproach themselves when their octogenarian patients died, and when the scarcity of medical resources meant that the young had precedence in the use of them, old age was not an ethical problem. Cures that increased the chances of a long life were accepted as unquestionable benefits. And the old Hippocratic oath, by which doctors dedicate themselves to the goal of restoring health and refuse to harm their patients, seemed sufficient to resolve the occasional moral dilemmas. Joint replacements, organ transplants, and the possibilities of stem-cell therapy (to name just a few techniques) have changed all that. Old age is fast becoming a disease in its own right, and one that can be prolonged far beyond the previously recognized norms. Old people can be kept alive with spare parts donated by or purchased from younger people. One day, in the not-too-distant future, they will be patched up with stem cells taken from embryos. And with each medical advance, new ways of dying reveal themselves, along with new ways of being an unutterable nuisance to others. As biotechnology goes on postponing the day of reckoning, old age becomes an ever more visible reality among us–to the point where, in a few decades, there will be whole societies in which the majority are over 50 years old.

The second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that entropy is always increasing, seems to imply that all systems will randomize in the long run, ourselves included, and therefore that the right thing is to accept old age and its attendant ills with whatever serenity we can muster. We can more easily do this if we follow our ancestors and associate aging with wisdom and dignity. By pursuing wisdom, old people make themselves useful to the young and so ensure the only kind of earthly afterlife that matters, which is the affectionate memory of those who are not yet dead. So people used to think, at least; but Aubrey de Grey, a highly controversial self-described “theoretical biogerontologist,” will have none of it. The answer to the moral problems of longevity, he believes, is to replace longevity with indefinite life, so that we all have the chance to be eternally young. De Grey’s obsessive pursuit of the elixir of eternal life, which was described by Sherwin Nuland in the February 2005 issue of this magazine, must surely represent an extreme case of technological confidence. Decay, de Grey argues, is reversible: import enough energy into a system and order can be indefinitely preserved. In the case of aging, this requires us to reverse all the processes that lead to the collective suicide of a colony of human cells. A tall order, perhaps, but not one that we can rule out a priori.

What if de Grey’s project succeeds? The “I” attitude rejoices at the thought of immortality; but the “we” attitude prompts us to hesitate. Imagine a world in which every human being, barring accidents, could stay around forever. If the planet were to bear the weight of its immortal passengers, their numbers would have to be strictly limited. Reproduction, beyond a certain point, would have to be ruled out. Resources would have to be precisely allocated and scarcities avoided. For these eternal beings would be dangerous–and especially to each other. They would have worked out ways to exert and survive aggression, and these abilities would put them way ahead of any mortal competitors–ahead of everything save themselves. Life among the immortals would be scary beyond belief; its possibility would depend on a rigorous system of totalitarian control, which would forbid the ordinary forms of human happiness, not least the bearing and loving of children. Hardened by centuries of cynical dealings, the joyless predators would prowl around each other, seeking the small, spare advantages that are the only things worth aiming at in a world where everything is allocated by a committee of immortal enforcers.

The Moral Confrontation
Now, it is not as though the world of art and literature has been silent on this issue. Poetry, drama, painting, and music show us that mortality is inextricably woven into the human scheme of things; that our virtues and our loves are the virtues and loves of dying creatures; that everything that leads us to cherish one another, to sacrifice ourselves, to make sublime and heroic gestures, is predicated on the assumption that we are vulnerable and transient, with only a fleeting claim on the things of this world. On such grounds Leon Kass has argued for what he calls the “blessings of finitude”–for the intimate connection between the things that we value and the fleetingness of life.

That is not how Aubrey de Grey sees the matter. He told Nuland that “the right to live as long as you choose is the world’s most fundamental right.” De Grey silences all moral qualms about his mission by affirming his belief that he has a moral duty to proceed with it. What greater benefit can be offered to humanity than the benefit that overcomes the curse of Adam and vanquishes our greatest fear? As for future generations and the love of children, in de Grey’s view reproduction has until now been simply the “done thing,” the result of indoctrination into values that will have no place among the immortals.

De Grey argues that we have a moral duty to provide people with the choice as to how long they will live. Sherwin Nuland rightly protests that “as with every other of his formulations, this one–the concept of untrammeled freedom of choice for the individual–is taken out of the context of its biological and societal surroundings. Like everything else, it is treated in vitrorather than in vivo.” But then, isn’t that the direction in which we are going? The inhabitants of Huxley’s brave new world are produced in vitro and never really emerge from the bottle. They too have “untrammeled freedom of choice,” but it is an illusory freedom, since their controlled encounter with reality presents them only with the experiences and the ambitions that their makers allow. There is no room in their world for virtue, love, or self-sacrifice, since they are accountable for nothing that happens to them and nothing that they do. The lonely “savage,” grieving for his mother and nurturing his spirit on Shakespeare, reacts to the spectacle of that world by committing suicide. For it is a world without meaning, a world in which the categories that endow things with moral significance no longer apply.

The Morality of the Body
Huxley’s tale reminds us that our moral concepts are developed in vivo, not in vitro. And they are rooted in the very “we” attitude that is threatened by the careless pursuit of mastery. When we envisage situations that involve a reshaping of human nature, so that all those features that traditional morality was designed to regulate–aggression, fragility, the dread of oblivion; love, hope, the thrill of desire–either disappear or are transformed entirely, then we conjure worlds that we cannot understand and that do not in fact contain us. Were we, like Huxley’s savage, to find ourselves washed up on these imagined shores, we should be as disoriented and unconsoled as he. The right to life is not a right to immortality but a right to live and die unmolested, a right to pursue the projects that mortals naturally assume, all of which are predicated on their transience. To speak of a “right to life” in a world where life is freed from the conditions that make it meaningful is to lift the concept from the context that provides its sense.

Even if immortality lies forever beyond our reach, the progress of biotechnology has created moral problems of a kind that place their own strain upon the ordinary conscience. Cosmetic surgery, organ transplants, mood-enhancing drugs–all such things have begun to change our conception of the body and its relation to the self. It is often complained against Descartes that he made so radical a distinction between mind and body as to make it impossible to understand how there could be any connection between them. But even Descartes protested that “I am not merely lodged in my body as a pilot in a ship”–implying that there is an intimacy of connection here that makes it entirely natural to say of my body that it is not mine but me. Can we still say that when so much that happens to my body happens by my own design?

On the other hand, the idea that both body and brain are property is gaining ground. Cosmetic surgery (on which Americans spend approximately $10 billion a year) and mood-enhancing drugs make it possible for people to alter their bodies and brains, to appear with new faces and even new personalities, and yet somehow retain that core of self-­identity that enables them to say these new bodies and new characters are “theirs.” In these and other ways, there arises a separation between self and body of a kind that might lead us once again to entertain ideas of “untrammeled freedom.” And the new world of enhanced bodies and shriveled selves will be one dominated by the “I” attitude–a world in which the “we” attitude has retreated into silence. Imagine a race of humans who can not merely live forever but also alter their physiognomy and even their fundamental character at will, who can reëngineer their bodies, taking spare parts from others or from embryos, perhaps growing embryos for the purpose. Maybe, since children will be a threat in any case in the world to which these people belong, human embryos will be bred only for spare parts and never allowed that “right to life” that Aubrey de Grey promises to all of us forever. Without doubt these new humans will strive to outdo one another in beauty, strength, cheerfulness, and all the other features that bring success in life–and will, with time, become equally successful, which means, of course, not successful at all.

We can go on imagining futuristic scenarios of this kind, and there is no real limit to them. Techniques now opening before us–cloning, hybridization, genetic manipulation–present possibilities that both fascinate and frighten us. Already researchers have implanted a variety of human genetic sequences into the DNA of mice, so as to induce diseases previously observed only in humans–all in the worthy cause of finding a cure. Such experiments inevitably recall science fiction stories about hybrids of humans and animals. Ordinary people, confronted with these scenarios, will throw up their hands and say, “Don’t go there!” This was the reaction of the British Parliament last year when it proposed a law that would forbid the hybridization of human embryos. Interestingly enough, however, scientists already working on the project complained that the government had not understood its value, that important medical breakthroughs were promised, that the research would bring hope to many who are currently suffering from terminal ailments. In other words, the project should be permitted, since the results might be beneficial.

Hubris and Piety
Sherwin Nuland refers to his own “secular spiritual” position, which prompts him to recoil from this kind of radical refashioning of human destiny. I know what he means. Religious people, who see their time on earth as a pilgrimage, will have no difficulty in understanding that some discoveries should not be pursued; didn’t death enter the world through the lust for knowledge? There are techniques that we ought not to develop, since in developing them we are playing at God, as Adam played at God in trying to distinguish good and evil for himself. The Greeks described this playing at God as hubris and also as an offense against sebas, or piety. And hubris, they believed, brings down the vengeance of Olympus. The Romans took over the idea of piety and made it into the cornerstone of their somewhat godless, or at any rate very earthbound, religion. And the Roman pietas corresponds, I believe, to the “secular spiritual” hesitation expressed by Nuland. Piety is a kind of metaphysical humility–a recognition of our dependence and fragility, and of the dangers of meddling too much in nature’s secrets. It is another name for the “we” attitude that I have been expounding in this essay, the attitude that asks us to respect the fixed points that we should never displace from their allotted positions in our moral universe.

By putting the problem in that way, however, we endow it with an insoluble character. The “we” attitude, which puts intuitive limits on our desire for knowledge and power, is an attitude that we have every reason to acquire. But it is not a reasonable attitude. On the contrary, it involves a rooted refusal to reason, a determination to draw a line and to take a stand at the point fixed by our moral intuitions. “Don’t go there!” is all it has to say to us; and its deliverances are as unpersuasive to the person who does not share them as the taboos of a primitive religion. Indeed, some would respond, the Roman concept of piety is no real advance over the Polynesian concept of taboo: these are just two different names for the same fear, the same retreat, the same offense against knowledge and discovery. We have no alternative, as rational creatures, to pursuing the path that knowledge has opened up to us.

Moreover, by closing off particular paths we risk depriving ourselves of the very knowledge that we need if the fixed points are really to be safeguarded. The earth can be saved only if we find alternatives to fossil fuels–and find them soon. Biotechnology may look like a threat to one of our fixed points (human nature), but it may be the final anchor of the other (the earth). For it promises one of the most plausible avenues to sources of clean and renewable energy–for example, fuel generated from biomass by carefully engineered microörganisms (see “Why Termite Guts Could Bring Better Biofuels” on And if the fixity of human nature seems to be at risk from biotechnology, we should remember that it is part of our nature to take risks with our nature–to adapt it to our uses in order to enhance our beauty, our knowledge, and our power. Why should it be acceptable to achieve these results through clothes, books, and exercise, and not by transferring a gene or two? If it is a violation of our nature to manipulate our genes, why is it not also a violation of our nature to forbid this? We are free, after all, and attempts to curtail our freedom, when not justified by some urgent need, diminish us.

The Future of Freedom
But what happens to freedom in the posthuman future? Leon Kass’s anxiety, that genetic manipulation might permit a new kind of despotism of one generation over the next, is widely shared. If Jack can implant genes into Jill, developing her in vitro according to goals of his own, what remains of Jill’s freedom, and how will she react to her creator? Jill will not be a slave, exactly, but many people think that her designed nature will put in question her ability to be truly herself in the world. But what, exactly, is the worry?

When Mary Shelley imagined the creation of Frankenstein’s lonely monster, she was astute enough to see that if the monster was to be a human replica, it would have to be like us in ways other than its physical appearance and its animal life. It would have to be capable of hope and despair, admiration and contempt, love and hate. And in her story the monster became evil, as you or I might become evil, not because he was made that way, but because he searched the world for love and never found it. As we might put it, programmed into the monster were those moral capacities and emotional needs that are the core of human freedom. It is not that Frankenstein had to implant into the monster some peculiar spark of transcendence so as to endow it with freedom. With speech comes reason, with reason accountability, and with accountability all those emotions and states of mind that are the felt reality of freedom.

A rational freedom means the ability to act upon our conscious decisions, on the basis of reasoned assessments of the options, and thereby to become answerable to others for the things that we do. All rational beings have this ability, since that is what rationality means. We no more remove this freedom from our children by genetic manipulation than we remove it by choosing our sexual partners on the basis of beauty, strength, or intelligence–and thereby increasing the likelihood that those attributes will be passed on to our children. Whatever Jack does to engineer Jill, she will have the freedom to thwart his purposes and to use her powers against him. By being accountable to him, she will force him to be accountable to her. The worst thing Jack could do to Jill is what Frankenstein did to his monster–look on her as in some way outside the sphere of human freedom.

The sphere of freedom is not one of untrammeled freedom. It is a sphere of responsibility, in which people pay for their freedoms by accounting for their use. Freedom comes into being through the exercise of rational choice, in the conditions of society, and Jack makes himself answerable for Jill’s future in the very fact of freely choosing to influence it. If this is so, then the kind of genetic engineering that frightens Kass might be less of a challenge than he believes. It will not alter what is fixed in human nature, for little in our nature is fixed apart from this attribute that distinguishes us and that makes it impossible for others to control what we do. And Jill, when she emerges from whatever dish she was grown in, will have not only the “I” attitude that comes with freedom but also the “we” attitude that causes her to look around herself and wonder what kind she belongs to, and what environment belongs to her. She might go the way of Frankenstein’s monster, offering love and never receiving it. But the chances are that she will be as well adapted to her world as we are to ours, and as repelled by the processes that created her as we might be. And when it is her turn to have children, she will leave their genetic makeup to her gods.

Roger Scruton is research professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, VA, and the author of more than 30 books, including Modern Philosophy. He farms in Wiltshire, England, and in Rappahannock County, VA.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

How scientists traced a mysterious covid case back to six toilets

When wastewater surveillance turns into a hunt for a single infected individual, the ethics get tricky.

It’s time to retire the term “user”

The proliferation of AI means we need a new word.

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

Sam Altman says helpful agents are poised to become AI’s killer function

Open AI’s CEO says we won’t need new hardware or lots more training data to get there.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.