Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution

Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution

by Francis Fukuyama

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In 1989, Francis Fukuyama made his now-famous pronouncement that because "the major alternatives to liberal democracy had exhausted themselves," history as we knew it had reached its end. Ten years later, he revised his argument: we hadn't reached the end of history, he wrote, because we hadn't yet reached the end of science. Arguing that our greatest advances

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In 1989, Francis Fukuyama made his now-famous pronouncement that because "the major alternatives to liberal democracy had exhausted themselves," history as we knew it had reached its end. Ten years later, he revised his argument: we hadn't reached the end of history, he wrote, because we hadn't yet reached the end of science. Arguing that our greatest advances still to come will be in the life sciences, Fukuyama now asks how the ability to modify human behavior will affect liberal democracy.

To re-orient contemporary debate, Fukuyama underlines man's changing understanding of human nature through history: from Plato and Aristotle's belief that man had "natural ends," to the ideals of utopians and dictators of the modern age who sought to remake mankind for ideological ends. Fukuyama persuasively argues that the ultimate prize of the biotechnology revolution-intervention in the "germ-line," the ability to manipulate the DNA of all of one person's descendents-will have profound, and potentially terrible, consequences for our political order, even if undertaken by ordinary parents seeking to "improve" their children.

In Our Posthuman Future, our greatest social philosopher begins to describe the potential effects of exploration on the foundation of liberal democracy: the belief that human beings are equal by nature.

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Editorial Reviews

Alan Ehrenhalt
One of the ways we learn about dramatic social change . . . is that Francis Fukuyama show up to tell us it happening . . . He asks large questions; he generates coherent answers; and he changes the agenda of public debate.
The Wall Street Journal
Anthony Gottlieb
Francis Fukuyama is an analyst who does not, intellectually speaking, get out of bed for anything less than the all-encompassing grand sweep of history.
New York Times Book Review
Michael Kazin
Fukuyama is one of the few American intellectuals . . . capable of training a knowledge of world history and a grasp of social theory on topics of undeniable contemporary significance.
Washington Post Book World
They've promised not to send in the clones; the thriving biotechnology industry officially opposes reproducing humans that way. But mixed in with the cancer cures and Alzheimer's treatments that gene-splicing scientists are working on will be some developments nearly as unsettling. So argues political economist Fukuyama in this provocative book about the consequences of the biotech revolution. The author makes a well-argued case that designer babies, intelligence-enhancing drugs and longer life spans will fundamentally challenge the definition of human nature. The worst scenario: Huxley's Brave New World turns out to be a pretty good guide to the future after all. Still, Fukuyama's warning is different from the jeremiads of biotech's left-wing opponents, or even the religious objections to stem-cell research. He recognizes the many good things that will come from our growing understanding of life itself, but he also believes that the libertarian drive of the swashbuckling, Wall Street-backed biotech industry needs to be regulated by a new federal agency. That idea may not sit well with scientists and investors, but it could be in their long-term interest. Ours too.
—Kenneth Klee

Publishers Weekly
Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man; Trust) is no stranger to controversial theses, and here he advances two: that there are sound nonreligious reasons to put limits on biotechnology, and that such limits can be enforced. Fukuyama argues that "the most significant threat" from biotechnology is "the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a `posthuman' stage of history." The most obvious way that might happen is through the achievement of genetically engineered "designer babies," but he presents other, imminent routes as well: research on the genetic basis of behavior; neuropharmacology, which has already begun to reshape human behavior through drugs like Prozac and Ritalin; and the prolongation of life, to the extent that society might come "to resemble a giant nursing home." Fukuyama then draws on Aristotle and the concept of "natural right" to argue against unfettered development of biotechnology. His claim is that a substantive human nature exists, that basic ethical principles and political rights such as equality are based on judgments about that nature, and therefore that human dignity itself could be lost if human nature is altered. Finally, he argues that state power, possibly in the form of new regulatory institutions, should be used to regulate biotechnology, and that pessimism about the ability of the global community to do this is unwarranted. Throughout, Fukuyama avoids ideological straitjackets and articulates a position that is neither Luddite nor laissez-faire. The result is a well-written, carefully reasoned assessment of the perils and promise of biotechnology, and of the possible safeguards against its misuse. (Apr.) Forecast: As the FSG publicity material notes, Fukuyama famously declared in the wake of communism's collapse that "the major alternatives to liberal democracy" had "exhausted themselves." This less dramatic assessment should still win a hearing, if not among scientists then among a public concerned about science's growing power. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1989, Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history. So what happened? Here he explains that we haven't yet reached the end of science. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
To clone or not to clone? asks social philosopher Fukuyama (The Great Disruption, 1999, etc.) in his latest disquisition on science and society. Reproductive cloning (people) and therapeutic cloning (embryonic stem cells) are not the author's only concerns. What are we to do in a society that uses and abuses Prozac and Ritalin, one that is eager to exploit potential genes for intelligence or height or prolonged aging? Grim scenarios follow: the rich with designer babies; the poor ever more deprived; societies, even democracies, doomed to stagnation from the weight of aging natives dependent on youthful immigrants. And on and on to a "posthuman" existence in which membership in the human race may be problematic, given a genome spliced with so many non-Homo sapien genes. What to do? Fukuyama argues the need to restore notions of human rights, human nature, human dignity. Here he is in his element, critiquing the philosophies of Hobbes, Hume, Mill, Locke, Kant, Marx, et al., down to contemporary theorists. Fukuyama concludes that human values are intimately bound up with human emotions and that these are intrinsically linked to "species-typical behavior " (human nature redux). The final leap is to human dignity, the notion that all humanity exists on a higher moral plane than the rest of the natural world. It follows that acts that deny human dignity, such as reproductive cloning, should be banned outright. As for therapeutic cloning, genetically modified foods, human genetic engineering, etc., Fukuyama urges regulation (providing a useful summary of rules currently in place here and abroad) and wariness. Though he has famously said that there can be no end to history as long as sciencemarches on, he worries lest science take us over the edge of the slippery slope. Many won't buy the human dignity thesis or dystopian nightmares, but credit the author for laying out how we got to this pass and why we need to act.
From the Publisher
“Stunning...The genius of Our Posthuman Future is that it brings home just how important [these issues] will be in our immediate future for ordinary people.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Invaluable...Rarely has someone entering the policy arena so eloquently and precisely laid out the case for political control of emerging technology.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A timely, thoughtful and well-argued contribution to an important subject.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A provocative argument that raises the nature-versus-nurture debate and questions about the role biology plays in human nature.” —Chicago Tribune

“A lucid overview of the biotechnology revolution and its discontents...For anyone seeking an ideal entry into the biotechnology debate, Fukuyama’s book is it.”—National Review

“This groundbreaking inquiry...provides a remarkably sensible and human vision of what is at stake and what needs to be done.” —Foreign Affairs

“[A] comprehensive guidebook for policymakers.” —Dow Jones

“A cogent and important argument against the technocrats and ‘casual academic Darwinians’ who have so enthusiastically attempted to reduce our humanity to an increasingly implausible and culturally neutral calculus.” —Times Literary Supplement

“In Our Posthuman Future, he has looked past the end of history and described the end of mankind...[An] informative survey of contemporary bioscience and its political implications [and] an effort to lay ethical foundations for policy judgments.” —The American Prospect

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Our Posthuman Future

Consequence of the Biotechnology Revolution

By Francis Fukuyama


Copyright © 2002 Francis Fukuyama
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70618-0



The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has always afflicted man in his essence. The rule of enframing (Gestell) threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primaltruth.

Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology

I was born in 1952, right in the middle of the American baby boom. For any person growing up as I did in the middle decades of the twentieth century, the future and its terrifying possibilities were defined by two books, George Orwell's 1984 (first published in 1949) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (published in 1932).

The two books were far more prescient than anyone realized at the time, because they were centered on two different technologies that would in fact emerge and shape the world over the next two generations. The novel 1984 was about what we now call information technology: central to the success of the vast, totalitarian empire that had been set up over Oceania was a device called the telescreen, a wall-sized flat-panel display that could simultaneously send and receive images from each individual household to a hovering Big Brother. The telescreen was what permitted the vast centralization of social life under the Ministry of Truth and the Ministry of Love, for it allowed the government to banish privacy by monitoring every word and deed over a massive network of wires.

Brave New World, by contrast, was about the other big technological revolution about to take place, that of biotechnology. Bokanovskification, the hatching of people not in wombs but, as we now say, in vitro; the drug soma, which gave people instant happiness; the Feelies, in which sensation was simulated by implanted electrodes; and the modification of behavior through constant subliminal repetition and, when that didn't work, through the administration of various artificial hormones were what gave this book its particularly creepy ambiance.

With at least a half century separating us from the publication of these books, we can see that while the technological predictions they made were startlingly accurate, the political predictions of the first book, 1984, were entirely wrong. The year 1984 came and went, with the United states still locked in a Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. That year saw the introduction of a new model of the IBM personal computer and the beginning of what became the PC revolution. As Peter Huber has argued, the personal computer, linked to the Internet, was in fact the realization of Orwell's telescreen. But instead of becoming an instrument of centralization and tyranny, it led to just the opposite: the democratization of access to information and the decentralization of politics. Instead of Big Brother watching everyone, people could use the PC and Internet to watch Big Brother, as governments everywhere were driven to publish more information on their own activities.

Just five years after 1984, in a series of dramatic events that would earlier have seemed like political science fiction, the Soviet Union and its empire collapsed, and the totalitarian threat that Orwell had so vividly evoked vanished. People were again quick to point out that these two events—the collapse of totalitarian empires and the emergence of the personal computer, as well as other forms of inexpensive information technology, from TVs and radios to faxes and e-mail—were not unrelated. Totalitarian rule depended on a regime's ability tomaintain a monopoly over information, and once modern information technology made that impossible, the regime's power was undermined.

The political prescience of the other great dystopia, Brave New World, remains to be seen. Many of the technologies that Huxley envisioned, like in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, psychotropic drugs, and genetic engineering for the manufacture of children, are already here or just over the horizon. But this revolution has only just begun; the daily avalanche of announcements of new breakthroughs in biomedical technology and achievements such as the completion of the Human Genome Project in the year 2000 portend much more serious changes to come.

Of the nightmares evoked by these two books, Brave New World's always struck me as more subtle and more challenging. It is easy to see what's wrong with the world of 1984: the protagonist, Winston Smith, is known to hate rats above all things, so Big Brother devises a cage in which rats can bite at Smith's face in order to get him to betray his lover. This is the world of classical tyranny, technologically empowered but not so different from what we have tragically seen and known in human history.

In Brave New World, by contrast, the evil is not so obvious because no one is hurt; indeed, this is a world in which everyone gets what they want. As one of the characters notes, "The Controllers realized that force was no good," and that people would have to be seduced rather than compelled to live in an orderly society. In this world, disease and social conflict have been abolished, there is no depression, madness, loneliness, or emotional distress, sex is good and readily available. There is even a government ministry to ensure that the length of time between the appearance of a desire and its satisfaction is kept to a minimum. No one takes religion seriously any longer, no one is introspective or has unrequited longings, the biological family has been abolished, no one reads Shakespeare. But no one (save John the Savage, the book's protagonist) misses these things, either, since they are happy and healthy.

Since the novel's publication, there have probably been several million high school essays written in answer to the question, "What's wrong with this picture?" The answer given (on papers that get A's, at any rate) usually runs something like this: the people in Brave New World may be healthy and happy, but they have ceased to be human beings. They no longer struggle, aspire, love, feel pain, make difficult moral choices, have families, or do any of the things that we traditionally associate with being human. They no longer have the characteristics that give us human dignity. Indeed, there is no such thing as the human race any longer, since they have been bred by the Controllers into separate castes of Alphas, Betas, Epsilons, and Gammas who are as distant from each other as humans are from animals. Their world has become unnatural in the most profound sense imaginable, because human nature has been altered. In the words of bioethicist Leon Kass, "Unlike the man reduced by disease or slavery, the people dehumanized à la Brave New World are not miserable, don't know that they are dehumanized, and, what is worse, would not care if they knew. They are, indeed, happy slaves with a slavish happiness."

But while this kind of answer is usually adequate to satisfy the typical high school English teacher, it does not (as Kass goes on to note) probe nearly deeply enough. For one can then ask, What is so important about being a human being in the traditional way that Huxley defines it? After all, what the human race is today is the product of an evolutionary process that has been going on for millions of years, one that with any luck will continue well into the future. There are no fixed human characteristics, except for a general capability to choose what we want to be, to modify ourselves in accordance with our desires. So who is to tell us that being human and having dignity means sticking with a set of emotional responses that are the accidental by-product of our evolutionary history? There is no such thing as a biological family, no such thing as human nature or a "normal" human being, and even if there were, why should that be a guide for what is right and just? Huxley is telling us, in effect, that we should continue to feel pain, be depressed or lonely, or suffer from debilitating disease, all because that is what human beings have done for most of their existence as a species. Certainly, no one ever got elected to Congress on such a platform. Instead of taking these characteristics and saying that they are the basis for "human dignity," why don't we simply accept our destiny as creatures who modify themselves?

Huxley suggests that one source for a definition of what it means to be a human being is religion. In Brave New World, religion has been abolished and Christianity is a distant memory. The Christian tradition maintains that man is created in God's image, which is the source of human dignity. To use biotechnology to engage in what another Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, called the "abolition of man" is thus a violation of God's will. But I don't think that a careful reading of Huxley or Lewis leads to the conclusion that either writer believed religion to be the only grounds on which one could understand the meaning of being human. Both writers suggest that nature itself, and in particular human nature, has a special role in defining for us what is right and wrong, just and unjust, important and unimportant. So our final judgment on "what's wrong" with Huxley's brave new world stands or falls with our view of how important human nature is as a source of values.

The aim of this book is to argue that Huxley was right, that the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a "posthuman" stage of history. This is important, I will argue, because human nature exists, is a meaningful concept, and has provided a stable continuity to our experience as a species. It is, conjointly with religion, what defines our most basic values. Human nature shapes and constrains the possible kinds of political regimes, so a technology powerful enough to reshape what we are will have possibly malign consequences for liberal democracy and the nature of politics itself.

It may be that, as in the case of 1984, we will eventually find biotechnology's consequences are completely and surprisingly benign, and that we were wrong to lose sleep over it. It may be that the technology will in the end prove much less powerful than it seems today, or that people will be moderate and careful in their application of it. But one of the reasons I am not quite so sanguine is that biotechnology, in contrast to many other scientific advances, mixes obvious benefits with subtle harms in one seamless package.

Nuclear weapons and nuclear energy were perceived as dangerous from the start, and therefore were subject to strict regulation from the moment the Manhattan Project created the first atomic bomb in 1945. Observers like Bill Joy have worried about nanotechnology—that is, molecular-scale self-replicating machines capable of reproducing out of control and destroying their creators. But such threats are actually the easiest to deal with because they are so obvious. If you are likely to be killed by a machine you've created, you take measures to protect yourself. And so far we've had a reasonable record in keeping our machines under control.

There may be products of biotechnology that will be similarly obvious in the dangers they pose to mankind—for example, superbugs, new viruses, or genetically modified foods that produce toxic reactions. Like nuclear weapons or nanotechnology, these are in a way the easiest to deal with because once we have identified them as dangerous, we can treat them as a straightforward threat. The more typical threats raised by biotechnology, on the other hand, are those captured so well by Huxley, and are summed up in the title of an article by novelist Tom Wolfe, "Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died." Medical technology offers us in many cases a devil's bargain: longer life, but with reduced mental capacity; freedom from depression, together with freedom from creativity or spirit; therapies that blur the line between what we achieve on our own and what we achieve because of the levels of various chemicals in our brains.

Consider the following three scenarios, all of which are distinct possibilities that may unfold over the next generation or two.

The first has to do with new drugs. As a result of advances in neuropharmacology, psychologists discover that human personality is much more plastic than formerly believed. It is already the case that psychotropic drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin can affect traits like self-esteem and the ability to concentrate, but they tend to produce a host of unwanted side effects and hence are shunned except in cases of clear therapeutic need. But in the future, knowledge of genomics permits pharmaceutical companies to tailor drugs very specifically to the genetic profiles of individual patients and greatly minimize unintended side effects. Stolid people can become vivacious; introspective ones extroverted; you can adopt one personality on Wednesday and another for the weekend. There is no longer any excuse for anyone to be depressed or unhappy; even "normally" happy people can make themselves happier without worries of addiction, hangovers, or long-term brain damage.

In the second scenario, advances in stem cell research allow scientists to regenerate virtually any tissue in the body, such that life expectancies are pushed well above 100 years. If you need a new heart or liver, you just grow one inside the chest cavity of a pig or cow; brain damage from Alzheimer's and stroke can be reversed. The only problem is that there are many subtle and some not-so-subtle aspects of human aging that the biotech industry hasn't quite figured out how to fix: people grow mentally rigid and increasingly fixed in their views as they age, and try as they might, they can't make themselves sexually attractive to each other and continue to long for partners of reproductive age. Worst of all, they just refuse to get out of the way, not just of their children, but their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. On the other hand, so few people have children or any connection with traditional reproduction that it scarcely seems to matter.

In a third scenario, the wealthy routinely screen embryos before implantation so as to optimize the kind of children they have. You can increasingly tell the social background of a young person by his or her looks and intelligence; if someone doesn't live up to social expectations, he tends to blame bad genetic choices by his parents rather than himself. Human genes have been transferred to animals and even to plants, for research purposes and to produce new medical products; and animal genes have been added to certain embryos to increase their physical endurance or resistance to disease. Scientists have not dared to produce a full-scale chimera, half human and half ape, though they could; but young people begin to suspect that classmates who do much less well than they do are in fact genetically not fully human. Because, in fact, they aren't.

Sorry, but your soul just died ...

Toward the very end of his life, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." The political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence rests on the empirical fact of natural human equality. We vary greatly as individuals and by culture, but we share a common humanity that allows every human being to potentially communicate with and enter into a moral relationship with every other human being on the planet. The ultimate question raised by biotechnology is, What will happen to political rights once we are able to, in effect, breed some people with saddles on their backs, and others with boots and spurs?


What should we do in response to biotechnology that in the future will mix great potential benefits with threats that are either physical and overt or spiritual and subtle? The answer is obvious: We should use the power of the state to regulate it. And if this proves to be beyond the power of any individual nation-state to regulate, it needs to be regulated on an international basis. We need to start thinking concretely now about how to build institutions that can discriminate between good and bad uses of biotechnology, and effectively enforce these rules both nationally and internationally.

This obvious answer is not obvious to many of the participants in the current biotechnology debate. The discussion remains mired at a relatively abstract level about the ethics of procedures like cloning or stem cell research, and divided into one camp that would like to permit everything and another camp that would like to ban wide areas of research and practice. The broader debate is of course an important one, but events are moving so rapidly that we will soon need more practical guidance on how we can direct future developments so that the technology remains man's servant rather than his master. Since it seems very unlikely that we will either permit everything or ban research that is highly promising, we need to find a middle ground.


Excerpted from Our Posthuman Future by Francis Fukuyama. Copyright © 2002 Francis Fukuyama. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Frans de Waal
Our Posthuman Future is a profound and important book that warns how today's Ritalin for boisterous boys could be tomorrow's 'abolition' of human nature as we know it. Tinkering with biology threatens to diminish human dignity. Francis Fukuyama's answer to the ethical dilemmas of our biotechnical age is a morality grounded in the needs and potentials of our species (Frans de Waal, author of The Ape and the Sushi Master)

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