The Magazine

Stopping the Future

Francis Fukuyama defends humanity.

Apr 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 32 • By J. BOTTUM
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Our Posthuman Future
Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp., $25

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA is right, of course, when he says in his new book, "Our Posthuman Future," that we should be frightened by the Brave New World that eugenic biotechnology has opened up for us. He's right about the probable causes. He's right about the likely effects. He's right about the incapacity of researchers to prevent themselves from pursuing new scientific discoveries. He's right about the inability of patients to stop themselves from demanding new scientific cures. He's right about nearly everything--except his reason for being right.

A political scientist at Johns Hopkins, Fukuyama first came to fame with his 1989 essay "The End of History" (published in book form in 1992 as "The End of History and the Last Man"), in which he argued that liberal democracy no longer faced any challengers in world history. Since then, he's produced two other books: "Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity" and "The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order." But, he writes in the preface to "Our Posthuman Future," he continued to think about the various critiques his "end of history" thesis received. And he found himself least able to dismiss the one which pointed out that the rise of liberal democracy is not the only defining feature of modern times. Science has pushed along modernity as well. And the end of history cannot have been reached until the end of science, for science always holds out the possibility that some technological advance will undo the gains of political and economic liberalism.

Along the way, as he worked his way through this thicket of issues, Fukuyama emerged as one of the most thoughtful and important commentators on cloning and biotechnology. Recently appointed a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, he's grown increasingly worried about the damage being done by science to human nature itself--a nature that is necessary, he believes, to claim and maintain the natural rights and human dignity that are at the heart of liberal democracy.

So, in "Our Posthuman Future," he sets out to define the dangers posed by biotechnology and to propose a solution. In the first section of the book, "Pathways to the Future," he points out the extent of the changes looming. In vitro fertilization already routinely screens embryos for birth defects before implantation. Human-animal hybrids are rapidly becoming a reality. And germ-line engineering, in which genetic changes will be handed on to future generations, is coming soon. All of these are eugenic in purpose. All of them portend the end of a distinction between medicine and enhancement. And all of them weaken the natural basis of rights and dignity.

The book's second section, "Being Human," takes up the question of human nature's vulnerability to scientific attack, and the final section, "What To Do," makes an impassioned call for the government to respond to this threat with significant regulation and watchdog organizations.

Fukuyama presents all this with his usual seriousness and learning. Analysis of the science moves as easily on the page as political theory, while he ranges through intellectual history, congressional debate, and popular culture. Fukuyama has a gift for a certain kind of nonpolemical prose that invites agreement without overpowering the reader. "Our Posthuman Future" is consistently fascinating and thought-provoking. But it's also finally unpersuasive--even for those who begin with the desire to halt eugenic biotechnology before it destroys us. And if we could only reach down to why the book is unpersuasive, we'd have some insight into the philosophical dilemma we face at this dangerous moment.

ESSENTIALLY, Francis Fukuyama is caught in what we might call the great modern conservative dilemma. Politically speaking, modernity is liberalism, and liberalism is modernity. It was Fukuyama himself who pointed this out in "The End of History and the Last Man." History hadn't come to an end in 1989, he insisted; the fall of Soviet communism was merely the final proof of liberalism's implacable triumph. History, as the clash of genuine alternatives, had actually ended right where Hegel said it had--in 1806, when Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Jena ensured that there no longer existed any real political possibilities besides liberalism.