Commentary Magazine


Our Posthuman Future by Francis Fukuyama

Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 256 pp. $25.00

A great deal has changed since our prehistorical forebears emerged from the African savanna some 200 centuries ago. Human beings have engineered ever larger and more complex societies, marked not only by advances in technology but also, for many of us, by substantial expansions of political freedom and opportunity. The life of Western man, once destined to be (in Thomas Hobbes’s famous phrase) “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” is now prosperous, pleasant, safe, and long. But there is one thing that we have never been able to modify, and that is our biology. We share with our plains-dwelling, hunter-gatherer ancestors essentially the same genes and the same brains, and they give rise in turn to the same stock of basic instincts, fears, desires, and uncertainties.

If Francis Fukuyama is right, this may not hold true for much longer. In Our Posthuman Future, the eminent social theorist looks into the crystal ball of biotechnology and descries something new: the ability to manipulate human nature by means of improved medical knowledge, behavior-altering drugs, and, eventually, genetic engineering. The question is, will this ability bring with it fundamental changes in the way we live our lives—and if so, should we care? Do we have anything to lose by embracing technologies that will enable us to live longer, become smarter, and feel better? Why not “seize the power,” as the geneticist Lee Silver has asked, echoing Friedrich Nietzsche?

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Finding an answer depends, first and foremost, on having a clear idea about where the biotechnology revolution may take us. Accordingly, the first part of Our Posthuman Future is given over to mapping what Fukuyama sees as the four major stages of our journey through the Nietzschean wilderness.

The first stage coincides with an increased understanding of the way the brain shapes human behavior, or, more precisely, the way it shapes individual differences in behavior. Here Fukuyama focuses on three hot-button topics—IQ, criminal behavior, and homosexuality—and the political implications that flow from the finding that each trait is, to some extent, biologically based.

On these particular topics, Fukuyama offers few really novel insights; his central message seems to be that we cannot ignore scientific findings just because they raise unpleasant concerns. But to the extent that traits like IQ and sexuality are among the most likely future targets of biotechnological manipulation, certain familiar controversies—if IQ is heritable, is social stratification inevitable? if homosexuality is genetic, should discrimination be banned?—do provide a useful preview of debates to come.

Fukuyama’s second stage involves the increasing use of neuropharmacological agents to control behavior, tailor personality, and manufacture emotions. Ritalin and Prozac are just the tip of the iceberg; more powerful psychotropic drugs may soon be available to reduce anxiety, increase stamina, improve cognitive performance, and decrease sensitivity to pain. In the absence of serious side effects, it is hard to see how any meaningful restrictions could be imposed on their use. Surely any attempt to do so would be met with stiff resistance from doctors, social-service providers, pharmaceutical companies, and ordinary people wishing to better themselves through pharmacology.

At the same time, advances in biomedicine are likely, in the third stage, to push back the limits of the human lifespan. While we naturally tend to take a benign view of any technological development that prolongs life and promotes health, Fukuyama points out the unique political problems posed by an immense graying population. In the United States and Europe, debates over pension reform and national health care have already begun to focus on the increasing share of society’s resources being devoted to the elderly. A shift in the demographic balance will also affect the structure of family obligations and social hierarchies. In one scenario, healthier elderly workers may opt to remain in the workforce, leaving fewer opportunities for the young. In another, medicine that preserves the body may not defeat age-related mental deterioration, with the result that more and more people will live longer in a vegetative state and the world will come to resemble an enormous nursing home.

Finally, there is the largely unknown territory of genetic engineering. This fourth stage is the most speculative, and likely the farthest off, but it is also the most revolutionary in its potential to transform human society. Like neuropharmacology and other forms of biomedicine, genetic engineering has some rather obvious potential benefits: diseases like Huntington’s chorea and cystic fibrosis may one day be cured by genetic means. There is also, however, the possibility that genetic technology will be used for purposes like enhancing height or intelligence, and that these “improvements” can be made heritable, thus yielding classes of people who can afford such improvements and those who cannot.

At the end of the journey, Fukuyama writes, we are faced with a series of choices, and these choices are and will increasingly be accompanied by conflicts among groups with differing interests: old and young, rich and poor, genetic haves and have-nots. Some of the solutions to these conflicts might seem almost unthinkable today. Fukuyama suggests, for example, that we may eventually have to adopt a form of institutional “ageism” in order to allow young people to enter the workforce. Likewise, liberal democratic states might some day find themselves intervening to help “genetically disadvantaged” people raise the IQ’s of their offspring.

And these possibilities represent just a few of the issues that we might yet face. True, a trait like IQ may turn out to be so complex, and its determinants so numerous, that genetically enhancing it will prove practically impossible. All the same, at least one of the four pathways will likely lead to a “posthuman” future. (Fukuyama thinks that neuropharmacology, the second pathway, will be able to accomplish everything we expect from genetic engineering, the fourth—only faster.) How are we to navigate this bewildering moral terrain? What restrictions can we or should we place on the use of biotechnology? Is there a single standard that can guide our decision-making, some core principle that is worth defending?

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Fukuyama devotes the second part of his book to answering this question in the affirmative. There is a human nature, he says, and it consists of the stock of innate ideas, species-typical emotional responses, and forms of cognition that human beings have acquired over their evolutionary history. This includes such basic instincts as sociability, an affinity for kin, and a desire for property and gain.

The uniqueness of this particular set of ideas and behaviors is, according to Fukuyama, the source of human dignity, and also the basis for any justified effort to defend and protect human nature from tampering. Rights, too, flow from this conception of nature; the most fundamental of these serve to advance universal and deeply felt human drives and ambitions. Change the source of those drives and ambitions, and we risk undermining the entire moral and political edifice we have built on the notion of human rights.

But what exactly is human nature, and how do we come to know about it? Here Fukuyama is perhaps deliberately vague. He suggests that the “classical” accounts of Plato and Aristotle should be revisited in light of modern empirical knowledge derived from fields like neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology. These disciplines have helped to illuminate what Fukuyama calls “innate forms of human cognition” (like language) that in turn lie at the heart of human nature. We may not know precisely what these innate forms are, but together they constitute a genetic Factor X that “etches a bright red line around the whole of the human race.” In Fukuyama’s words:

[I]n the evolutionary process that leads from prehuman ancestor to human beings, there was a qualitative leap that transformed the prehuman precursors of language, reason, and emotion into a human whole that cannot be explained as a simple sum of its parts, and that remains an essentially mysterious process.

Something similar happens on the individual level as well, in the developmental process that leads from an embryo to an adult human being. Somehow, a cluster of cells is transformed into a being with consciousness and the capacity for moral choice. Fukuyama eschews a religious explanation for this “qualitative leap”; he makes it clear that his concept of human nature does not depend on notions like “ensoulment,” or the creation of man in God’s image, and so is presumably strictly Darwinian.

Nevertheless, his view leads to a position on moral issues that is not dissimilar to one reached on the basis of religious belief. Human experimentation is clearly, for Fukuyama, an affront to the ontological uniqueness of human beings. So is reproductive cloning, which would fundamentally alter the nature of the relationship between parents and children.

Other questions are less clear-cut. Is it permissible to harvest stem cells from aborted embryos? What about genetic engineering? Characteristically, Fukuyama offers no answers. What he advocates is that we use the measuring stick of human dignity to arrive at an informed consensus about what applications of biotechnology are permissible, first on a national and then on an international level. We must, in other words, take charge of our destiny:

We do not have to regard ourselves as slaves to inevitable technological progress when that progress does not serve human ends. True freedom means the freedom of political communities to protect the values they hold most dear, and it is that freedom that we need to exercise with regard to the biotechnology revolution today.

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Francis Fukuyama is not the first author to have pondered how biological science and its applications are challenging our understanding of what it means to be human. He begins his book with a nod to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), a novel about a biotechnological dystopia that now seems eerily viable. One might go back even farther, to H.G. Wells’s science-fiction classics The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897), with their penetrating insights into the moral implications of human efforts to “improve upon” nature.

But Fukuyama is no science-fiction writer, and Our Posthuman Future is no speculative fantasy. It is, rather, a thoroughly reasoned and careful assessment of the biotechnological revolution currently under way: the advances it is likely to bring, how those advances might affect the realm of politics, what the moral issues are, and how we should face them. In this exercise there are many what-ifs, and Fukuyama does not evade the nuances of possibility and likelihood; to the contrary, he doggedly tracks down their practical consequences. The result is a sort of philosophical guidebook to the 21st century, posthuman or not.

As impressive as his effort is, Fukuyama sometimes treads a very fine line, and nowhere more so than in his discussion of human nature. There is a scientific case to be made for human nature as the source of human morality—a case best made, perhaps, by the biologist E.O. Wilson in his books On Human Nature (1978) and Consilience (1998). Where Fukuyama departs from Wilson and other more biologically-minded writers is in his strenuous insistence that human nature gives us a superior moral status to other living beings. But just where his argument should be strongest, it also falls short.

On the one hand, Fukuyama seems to downplay our understanding of certain attributes that he deems critical to human uniqueness and yet somehow “mysterious.” His assertion that scientists have little to say about the evolutionary origins or purpose of human emotions appears to ignore a long and productive line of research that stretches back to Charles Darwin’s monumental The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). On the other hand, he pays scant attention to language, the one cognitive ability that humans certainly possess and animals certainly do not. As a consequence, Fukuyama really does not seem able to tell us, in the end, all that much about the basis for human uniqueness.

To be fair, a deeper analysis might only muddy the waters further. The last thing anybody needs is to be sidetracked into a debate over whether a particular mental faculty can or cannot account for everything we intuitively associate with being human; such quibbles obscure the more essential point that there is indeed something in our ontological makeup that makes human dignity a meaningful and defensible concept. Unfortunately, Fukuyama’s solution—identifying human nature with some mysterious and ineffable but genetically rooted Factor X—is not likely to convince anyone who is skeptical of arguments from nature in the first place.

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Whether any of this matters is another question. What makes us special is an interesting question from a philosophical perspective, but practically speaking it is not clear that we need find an answer. What is needed is to take seriously the developments Fukuyama worries about, as well as his core (if admittedly problematic) idea that future moral dilemmas will have to be solved by reference to a concept of dignity based on human nature.

The biotechnology revolution may allow some of us to enhance our looks, or improve our strength or stamina. It seems somewhat less likely, at least in the short or medium term, to allow us to alter significantly the natural distribution of human intelligence, personality, or any other centrally important trait. But there remains the very real danger that we will use arbitrary genetic markers as a way of discriminating among classes of people—or as a mechanism for disclaiming responsibility for our own behavior.

In light of this possibility, it will be increasingly necessary to keep in mind that Factor X, whatever its metaphysical packaging, endows all human beings (and only human beings) with the capacity for reason and moral choice. As long as we hew tightly to the principles of human dignity and equality that most of us already hold dear, the road to our human future may, just may, be negotiable.

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About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.




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