The Synthetic Age
Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World
- Winner of the 2018 Nautilus Award in the Ecology and Environment category.
224 pp., 6 x 9 in,
- Published: February 19, 2019
- Published: March 16, 2018
- Published: February 22, 2019
Imagining a future in which humans fundamentally reshape the natural world using nanotechnology, synthetic biology, de-extinction, and climate engineering.
We have all heard that there are no longer any places left on Earth untouched by humans. The significance of this goes beyond statistics documenting melting glaciers and shrinking species counts. It signals a new geological epoch. In The Synthetic Age, Christopher Preston argues that what is most startling about this coming epoch is not only how much impact humans have had but, more important, how much deliberate shaping they will start to do. Emerging technologies promise to give us the power to take over some of Nature's most basic operations. It is not just that we are exiting the Holocene and entering the Anthropocene; it is that we are leaving behind the time in which planetary change is just the unintended consequence of unbridled industrialism. A world designed by engineers and technicians means the birth of the planet's first Synthetic Age.
Preston describes a range of technologies that will reconfigure Earth's very metabolism: nanotechnologies that can restructure natural forms of matter; “molecular manufacturing” that offers unlimited repurposing; synthetic biology's potential to build, not just read, a genome; “biological mini-machines” that can outdesign evolution; the relocation and resurrection of species; and climate engineering attempts to manage solar radiation by synthesizing a volcanic haze, cool surface temperatures by increasing the brightness of clouds, and remove carbon from the atmosphere with artificial trees that capture carbon from the breeze.
What does it mean when humans shift from being caretakers of the Earth to being shapers of it? And in whom should we trust to decide the contours of our synthetic future? These questions are too important to be left to the engineers.
The Synthetic Age is a powerful exposé of our ability to play nature and outperform evolution. This well-written and accessible book reminds us that humanity must accompany its ever-expanding technical prowess with a greater sense of responsibility of planetary proportions.
Calestous Juma, Professor, Harvard Kennedy School; author of Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies
Preston's thorough and engaging exploration of the many ways that our species has learned to control the natural world, from manipulating molecules to reorganizing ecosystems to controlling the climate, provides a compelling argument in favor of renaming the present epoch the Synthetic Age. The book is a fascinating combination of history, science, and ethics that asks us to consider what we value most in nature and in our own humanity.
Beth Shapiro, Professor, Physical and Biological Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz; author of How to Clone a Mammoth
Preston thoroughly examines the promises and the perils of the forthcoming Synthetic Age. But I fear—more than he does—the prospect of living an artificial life on a denatured planet. I concede that we face a Semi-Anthropocene, a Symbiotic Age, hoping to keep the natural basics on a wonderland Earth.
Holmes Rolston, Colorado State University
Christopher Preston is a philosopher who writes for you and me about the most important development in human history—the remaking of the planet from top to bottom, or rather from bottom to top. In the midst of distressing upheavals, he counsels and inspires calm engagement in the decisions that are upon us.
Albert Borgmann, Regents Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Montana; author of Real American Ethics and Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life
Whether you are a techno-optimist or deeply skeptical of technological fixes to environmental problems, Preston's overview of emerging technologies and call for a broad-based, truly democratic decision-making process is sure to resonate. In the Anthropocene, humans have a responsibility to care for our planet with collective, conscious intention. Preston makes clear the stakes involved and the decisions that lie ahead. We all must ask ourselves where our own values lie.
Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
Preston's book is an excellent spur and contribution to this necessary debate....Highly recommended.
The Synthetic Age succeeds quite brilliantly in its goals. In providing clear, engaging explanations, often with an effective use of humor, Preston offers non-specialist readers a useful understanding of technological advances that are often hidden behind paywalls or impenetrable thickets of jargon. Preston has made thoughtful choices in terms of his audience: his intended readers may appreciate the fluid readability and concise length of the text, while scientists may disagree with the simplifications or chafe at the lack of footnotes or other forms of citation through much of the book. Similarly, scholars in the environmental humanities may feel the disconnect between the text's supposed neutrality and its unexamined biases. Ultimately, Preston's position as a non-scientist is a strength and demonstrates the interdisciplinarity and democracy essential to consciously choosing a new age that reflects the best that our species has to offer.