Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolutionby Francis Fukuyama
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
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.
“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
PicadorCopyright © 2002 Francis Fukuyama
All rights reserved.
A TALE OF TWO DYSTOPIAS
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?
A STRAIGHTFORWARD SOLUTION
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.
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Meet the Author
Francis Fukuyama is Bernard Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University. In 2002, he was appointed to the President's Council on Bioethics. He is the author of The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, and The End of History and the Last Man, among other works. He lives in McLean, Virginia.
Francis Fukuyama is the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He has previously taught at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University and at the George Mason University School of Public Policy. He was a researcher at the RAND Corporation and served as the deputy director in the State Department's policy planning staff. He is the author of The End of History and the Last Man, Trust, and America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. He lives with his wife in California.
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There is no doubt that Francis Fukuyama is a thinker who performs pretty well in a strategic scale. He aptly outlines one of the leading subjects who will shape the political, cultural, religious and economic clashes of the XX1 century and is as his best both synthesizing a lot of relevant information and detecting as well the transcendence of some debates apparently out of the public and media limelight (such as the Searle-Dennett on the role and nature of consciousness) not only because their implications, but also because they are symptoms of how scientism has taken over more and more territories of the human identity to a point that is not so far away to deny it. But above all the best asset of this book consists on his clear understanding on which is at stake. The disruptive potential of the more extreme forms of technological hubris such as genetic 'improvement 'applied to human genome it is clearly stated: because as unintended consequence it could lead not only to a sort of 'arms race' between states but also within society itself (among private citizens with de facto different access to resources) inequality would acquire another dimension and meaning. Under a perspective where a society of classes could take the path of a society of castes, the whole foundations of political order, as was understood in the western tradition would crumble. The peril is simply that differences in socioeconomic terms turn into a difference in biological terms. The mere possibility of that gap is just unbearable for a modern society. If that happen class struggle never had before a stronger motivation. No less important is his identification of how inadequate is the utilitarian philosophy that pervades economical thinking which its mantra 'minimize pain/maximize pleasure' when it invades other areas of human action especially medical practice. The peril consists on blurring the difference between healing and enhancement. Actually it disorients society in important issues such as how to deal with drugs consumption. We have not to wait to extreme forms of human nature manipulation to detect that trend in the current abuses in using Prozac or Ritalin. Some cases for which the safer bet is to enforce nerve, self control and character are taking short cuts when the easy way is a technological manipulation of behavior. In this sense Fukuyama's strongest point is that even a democratic assumption of enhancement and improvement for everyone -when genetic engineering takes the helm as the leading technology to achieve those goals- is that it is not preposterous to think the biological differentiation of beings it would yield as a result may resemble rather a sort of Nietzschean dystopia where the best intentions of that pursuit have not place at all: a new order where shared human ideals have not to be recognized any longer. Fukuyama without wasting time identifies to which extend the whole conceptual building of the ethical and political tradition -at least of the west- depends on two crucial assumptions: there is a human nature and there is a human dignity. But in taking these issues he falls short. He understands that the challenge to face now is to find new secular foundations to both ideas grounded in the disintegrating bedrock of metaphysics, religion and theology, but far to solve the conundrum (after all the book is only 218 pp long) he rather gets to draw with precision the map of the future battles to come. The author intends a solution alternative to the Kantian sharp distinction between actions based on knowledge and action based on ethics (categorical imperatives) at the time he insists that science does not have -and cannot have- the last world in defining ultimate human values and goals. But he bets anyway in some sort of knowledge in route to find new foundations to the very idea of human nature, so what kind of knowledge could be that? Maybe the sort of knowledge we can find in literature which is not systematic almos
Although I agree with his ascertions that biotechnology threatens human dignity and freedom, I believe that he is quite off the mark when he insists on the existence of 'human nature.' This assumption brings him dangerously close to those who subscribe to the now infamous 'Bell-Curve' as well as the disciplines of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, both of which are inherently racist and sexist. As 'Our Greatest Social Philosopher,' I seriously question his competence in regard to social theory, specifically the work of Jacques Ellul and Michel Foucault. I was infuriated when he attempted to explain rape and murder in terms of genetic disposition. Although I believe his intentions are positive, he knows next to nothing about the latent amifications of a technological civilization. Read this book if you want an example of what the answer is not. Consult the following to get the answers you deserve.
There is something misleading in the title of this work.For it is not really about ' our posthuman future ' but rather about the possible dangers of such a future, and how to in some way regulate it and enable us to preserve our humanity. Fukuyama gives a lucid description of present day technologies, stem- cell research, efforts to extend human life, psychopharmcological developments , in order to probe their possible effects on our ' human nature'. The heart of his argument in the second part of the work is an effort to show that there is a common human nature which it is important to preserve.His critical survey of the opposition to this notion is excellent, while his description of what human nature is though instructive,not absolutely persuasive.In his definition he relies on the emotional aspects of human life and consciousness. And he does make a convincing case that it is impossible to exclude these elements and try to seek our common humanity in some one - dimensional definition, relating perhaps to our rationality or to some ideal of utility, pleasure and pain. What impresses me is the sense that Fukuyama is a deeply humane person , who has a real sense of the complexity of human life and existence. He writes that it cannot be our 'possession of moral choice,or reason,or language, or sociability,or sentience, or emotions or consciousness or any other quality' that constitute the essence of our humanity but rather the whole complex of these taken together. He understands in one of the most telling passages of the book, that 'the fact of the matter is that what we consider to be the highest and most admirable human qualities,both in ourselves and in others are often related to the way we react to ,confront ,overcome,and frequently succumb to pain,suffering and death.In the absence of these human evils there would be no sympathy ,compassion,courage,heroism,solidarity ,or strength of character'. In other words Fukuyama has a deep understanding of the threat presented by utopian efforts to provide mankind with ' happiness ' or ' freedom from pain' or ' supreme intelligence'. He also shows a very considerable sense of responsibility in discussing the kind of political arrangements and safeguards which will probably be required to guard mankind against the disastrous effects of the development of certain technologies. This work is too informed by a certain kind of modesty , and an awareness that the writer does not have all the answers, here and now. It is a work written in a clear and understandablle way on some of the most important questions facing humanity.It is a ' must read' for all who care about the human situation and the human future.
This is one of the most technologically alarmist, scientifically illiterate books I've ever had the displeasure to read. Not only does he use "genetic" interchangeably with "biology," he ignores the role environment plays in the development of organisms, and equates correlation with causation. And don't get me started on his crimes against logic (both as a formal system of reason and more poetically).