The Magazine

Does Human Nature Have a Future?

The end of history, Bobos, and biotechnology.

Feb 4, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 20 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
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Bobos claim to be laid-back bohemian nonjudgmentalists on everything. Or almost everything: When it comes to the soul, they reject as repressive the morality of traditional religion, but when it comes to the body, they are far from being laissez faire. They are pro-choice on abortion. But when it comes to seatbelts and smoking, there ought to be a law. Being chaste, they say, is unrealistically hard for our young people. But they can and should just say no to drunkenness and obesity. Sex of all kinds can be safe, but being fat is genuinely risky business. In their puritanical disdain for cigarettes, drunkenness, and rich food, the Bobos show themselves to be far more bourgeois than bohemian. Comparatively speaking, their predecessors--the martini-drinking, chain-smoking, dessert-eating, and war-fighting WASP establishment--laughed in the face of death.

But if Bobos, as I believe, are really the most bourgeois or Hobbesian Americans to date, then they must still be distinctively human. They are defined, above all, by their rebellion against death, against the necessity that constrains us all. Life is far harder for them than it is for any other animal. Their distinctive qualities seem to be evidence of their human nature. The Bobos' behavior is far more predictable and unbohemian than they would like to believe, but no other animal behaves as they do. We are tempted to conclude that at least for now their lives are still defined by their natures in a distinctively human way.

That conclusion stands even without the introduction of more subtle and controversial evidence for Bobos' human nature. Their inability to speak of their love for other human beings and God doesn't really show that they don't have such longings, or that those longings are not natural. Their ridiculous spirituality and pseudo-bohemian pretensions are not really satisfying. They are diversions. Bobos restlessly over-organize their own and their children's lives to keep themselves from having time to think about how empty their lives are. They constantly plan for their children's future because they can't figure out how to be in love with them in the present. Bobos are perhaps equally afraid of death and of the truth that whatever they do they cannot fend off death. They seem unable to come to terms with the ineradicable vulnerability and mortality of those they really do love. Bobos can't help but be troubled, because they seem to have been deprived of the words with which to describe truthfully their experiences as beings with speech by nature. They can't say what they really know about love and death.

It's not altogether bad news that Bobos, despite what they say even to themselves, are really screwed up. For they are screwed up in a distinctively human way. They do not really experience themselves as being fully at home in this world. And so they suggest, in a way despite themselves, that human nature does have a future.

To be sure, we don't know yet whether Bobos have what it takes to cope with the present terrorist threat. Bobos don't have the virtues associated with war, and they can't imagine their own lives without easily acquired wealth and liberty. But maybe the challenge of war will cause them to confront the truth about their natures more clearly. Harsh necessity may make them more courageous. The renewed need to be responsible citizens may well make them both less bohemian and less bourgeois. The president has said we are all soldiers now. Even the security-obsessed Bobos may become lovers of liberty. It seems that man as a political animal is back. So even Bobos, perhaps, will now acknowledge that war allows certain virtues to flourish in human nature, or at least that wherever we find human beings, war will always be a possibility.

But in truth, we don't know to what extent we are really at war yet. So far the main sacrifice the president has asked of American citizens is to be inconvenienced at airports. The stock market has returned to the September 10 level, and very few Bobos work in the troubled airline industry. It could be that the problem of global terrorism will be contained quite well by a relatively small and expertly trained elite military force abroad and an equally expert "homeland" intelligence service. Bobos' children may well not be drafted, and few of them will volunteer. American opinion was affected significantly by September 11, but American behavior has changed hardly at all so far. For a while, maybe for a long while, the new Hot War will affect daily life here in America even less than the old Cold War did.

IV) Still, history seems far less certainly at an end than it did in the Clinton era, and so human nature would seem to have a future--unless, of course, human nature itself actually can be changed by biotechnological progress. Many experts say that advances in biotechnology could soon add at least a couple of decades to the average human life, with the not-so-remote possibility of doubling the average human lifespan. We could design our babies and improve our descendants and the species. Is it conceivable that Bobos will resist such "progress"?

Perhaps it's unlikely. After all, why wouldn't Bobos welcome such remarkable advances, which would seem to be an extension of the progress they have already made through their rigorous regimes of diet and exercise? For Bobos, opposing the latest biotechnological breakthroughs would seem almost as unthinkable as choosing against bodily health today. Who wouldn't choose the best available body and brain for his or her child? The brain, our biologists tell us, like the rest of the body is merely a mechanism for comfortable self-preservation. Who would make perverse choices against what is best for any of our children? Should the law even allow it?

Bobos are nonjudgmental on every issue but health and fashion, and so they cannot oppose the claims of self-preservation with some higher principle. They seem to lack a point of view that would allow them to see there are good human reasons to choose against indefinite longevity. For one thing, with the near disappearance of death would also come the near banning of birth. Sex finally really would have nothing to do with reproduction. Would human life be worth living if it were completely freed from the hard and joyous responsibilities of birth, parenting, and aging? Choosing against indefinite longevity would be choosing against mere self-preservation, and for virtue, for love, birth, and death. Could Bobos summon the courage to make such a choice? Are they too obsessed with the fear of death to realize that an indefinitely long life, without virtue, might immeasurably heighten the fear of sickness and of death? The more death seems accidental rather than necessary, the more we will go to extraordinary lengths--living in lead houses and never going outside--to avoid what no longer seems so inevitable. Biotechnological progress might make life progressively more hellish. But rejecting or even directing biotechnology would seem to require a political will that Bobos have not yet shown they possess.

Yet the argument that biotechnological progress will necessarily make us more miserably death-obsessed is itself questionable. We have already had great successes with neuro-pharmacology or drug therapy. Ritalin and Prozac are powerful, widely used drugs that change human experience and behavior. Who can deny that they help those who are severely disruptive or depressed? But everyone also knows that Ritalin is now given to boys who used to be regarded merely as spirited or aggressive. And Prozac calms women who used to be regarded merely as nervous or anxious. Drugs are taking the edge off being either a man or a woman, and they perhaps are leading us to the sort of androgyny that Marx, for example, thought we would have at the end of history.

And we have no reason not to expect that in the future drugs will do a progressively better job of taking the edge off the psychological effects of just being human. We will conquer our troubling propensities to be moved by love and death by chemically managing our moods. As Walker Percy predicted in The Thanatos Syndrome, we may be able to free ourselves from all the stress of self-consciousness, becoming happy and productive animals who in the right environment are never in a bad mood. We could, in other words, make sociobiology's view of man true by eliminating all those perverse features of human nature that have made this view untrue so far.

Unbridled biotechnology could destroy human nature. The result would not really be a return to nature, but rather the human construction of an unalienated human environment. Biotechnological success would then be, from one view, the decisive evidence for and the final act of human freedom: We will make ourselves into what we imagined natural perfection to be. We will make ourselves fully at home in the world.

The political objection to depriving human beings of the pains, problems, and perversities that naturally arise from self-consciousness is that we will have succumbed to a form of tyranny. And yet we may well not be able to recognize that we are enslaved. In the Brave New World the tyrants will be the experts who exempt themselves from the consciousness-negating treatment. We have a hard time seeing experts as tyrants, because they don't claim to rule through personal authority but on the basis of the impersonal results of scientific studies. After all, as more than one observer has noted, most Americans have no idea of the extent to which they have already surrendered their sovereignty--their personal judgments concerning their personal experiences--to such experts.

But we, thank God, still seem able to see our new Islamic enemies as tyrants. Our enemies believe they can defeat us because we are in the decadent thrall of the illusion that we can dispense with some of the human virtues, especially the manly ones. September 11 had the virtue of reminding Americans that it is good that human beings are, at their best, naturally spirited defenders of truth and liberty. It reminded us that the virtue of courage is indispensable not only for living well but for living at all. It also reminded us that, despite our best efforts, religious and political distinctions have not withered away. Perhaps it would be better if they did not. Surely the Brave New World can and should be resisted. Perhaps even our Bobos and our experts can come to understand that a distinctively human life, with all its suffering and limitations, is good, precisely because the longing to love others and God is not an illusion, nor does it finally go unsatisfied.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College, and author of the forthcoming "Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls" (ISI Books).