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.

But as modernity careened bloodily from side to side while liberalism's triumph worked itself out over the last two centuries, certain people have felt the desire to get off the boat. For some in America, for instance, the impetus was the disaster of socialist economics. For others it was an inability to stomach abortion. For others it was crime rates. For others it was euthanasia. For a few recent converts it is biotechnology and cloning. But, for all of them, a point is reached where they decide, "This is where I say, 'Enough.' This is a good place to stop."

Thus the economic libertarians wish to hold their position in the 1890s, the Evangelicals in the 1920s, the Southern agrarians in the 1940s, and the National Review conservatives in the 1950s. For a century and a half after the French Revolution, Catholicism stood as the only major force opposed to modernity, and even after the great rush of Vatican II aggiornamento, Catholics essentially froze the modernity they were willing to accept at 1964. A variety of factors drew off the neoconservatives around 1972.

Reagan's great conservative coalition of the 1980s was essentially a uniting of all these dissenters from the liberal project under one big Republican tent, and it was enormously successful in closing off certain economic lines that advanced thought had once assumed were identical with modern liberalism. Who now defends big government? Who still believes in the superior efficiency of a centrally planned economy?

But in other ways, the Reagan revolution was unsuccessful--as the continued rise of out-of-wedlock births and the apparent ineradicability of abortion and our lockstep march toward biotechnology's Brave New World all demonstrate. And that is because, in a certain way, there was never any chance of success. Examined closely, each disembarking group proves to have been seeking not to undo modernity but to freeze it at a particular moment--a moment when certain vestigial elements left over from the premodern world kept at bay the worst effects of modern times.

And yet, lacking a coherent unmodern philosophy, we can offer no compelling reasons for modernity to stop where we wish it to. The economic and political battles against communism, by returning liberalism to its original course, certainly changed the direction of modernity. But they did nothing to slow modernity down. Over the last few decades, for example, political scientists, sociologists, and scholars of the American Founding have all pointed out that a smidgen of religious belief seems necessary to prevent modern liberalism from devouring its own political and economic gains. But this insight hasn't brought us much, for a culture's religious belief doesn't derive from the desire that the culture have a religious belief. Meanwhile, since its Enlightenment beginning, modernity has conceived of religion as its great enemy, and the antireligious impulse of the modern world is still steaming on and on--unchecked by our recognition that it ought not to, that it ought to have stopped somewhere before this.

Or, for another example, consider the question of whether we could have had a liberalism that was against abortion. We did manage to find an anti-Communist liberalism, after all--however much the Communists insisted that the future was theirs and that they were merely liberals in a hurry. And, hard as it is to remember, there was a moment around 1969 when several liberal writers were insisting that care for the poor and the weak demanded the rejection of abortion. But the liberationist impulse was simply too strong, and the sexual revolution too much fun. And so abortion came, despite opposition from those who wanted a modernity without it. Having bought a ticket this far, what means--what right, for that matter--did they have to stop the boat from going further?

AND NOW, at last, modernity has brought us the biotech revolution, and Francis Fukuyama has reached his point of saying, "Enough. We must get off." God knows, he's right. The first third of his book is utterly convincing proof that we are heading straight onto reefs that will destroy us. But the question is how we are to prevent that--for it is the internal motor of modernity itself that has driven us here, and Fukuyama accepts vast seas of modern development.

His answer relies on the claim, put at length in his last book, "The Great Disruption," that a "reconstitution of the social order" has been taking place in recent years. We have, he admits, gone through a very bad stretch: "With all of the blessings that flow from a more complex, information-based economy, certain bad things also happened to our social and moral life." But against those bad things, human nature has at last begun to reassert itself. "By nature," he writes, humans "organize themselves into not just families and tribes, but higher-level groups, and are capable of the moral virtues necessary to sustain such communities." And though the reconstituted society may not be all that conservatives desire, we have, as it were, reached a natural harbor and stopping point. We are no longer sailing deeper into the chaos that the great cultural disruption of the 1960s brought us.

"Human nature" is a distinctly premodern notion: a philosophical essence (to its proponents) or invention (to its rejecters) that overcomes the apparent divide between metaphysics and ethics; a way to connect the structure of reality with the moral life. If we are built in a certain fashion, then there are generally right and generally wrong ways to try to live.

A Christian vision of man as made in the image of God comes very quickly to positive ethical laws. Aristotle's account of human beings as aimed at happiness through friendship and contemplation issues almost as quickly in precise demands. Fukuyama, however, is reluctant to give a precise definition of what human nature might be. In "Our Posthuman Future," he offers one loose account based on statistical norms--and a second by arguing backwards from the politically accepted truth of natural rights to the existence of at least as much human nature as is necessary to support those rights. But, whatever human nature is, its reality is not necessarily incompatible with a modern outlook on things. Indeed, before the Great Disruption, most enlightened thought assumed its truth. And there are two pieces of modern evidence that suggest this human nature actually exists: the fact that a return to common sense has caused the cultural chaos to level off in recent years, and the fact that the trendiest science--in the guise of evolutionary biology--has been increasingly prone to the rediscovery of human nature.

All of this, of course, provides reasons to stay on board modernity's boat. But now, Fukuyama points out, biotechnology wants either to redefine or to abolish human nature.

His analysis here is brilliant. Think for a moment, he demands, of what the world will look like when masses of people survive beyond their hundredth birthday. What will happen to jobs, positions, honors, and wealth? What will happen when First World nations have a median age of sixty, while Third World nations have a median age of twenty?

THINK, FOR THAT MATTER, of what will happen when anti-depressants and mood-changers reach perfection. "Prozac and Ritalin are only the first generation of psychotropic drugs," he notes. "In the future, virtually everything that the popular imagination envisions genetic engineering accomplishing is much more likely to be accomplished sooner through neuropharmacology."

Fukuyama has been almost alone in insisting that our huge cultural investment in such drugs is of a piece with biotechnology, but his argument in "Our Posthuman Future" is convincing. The immortality project, the perfect-baby project, and the universal-happiness project are all aimed at the same end: the amelioration and consequent elimination of the human condition. Our notions of natural rights, our claims of human dignity and equality, are all based on the complex interplay of birth, health, aging, and death. And when these have changed as completely as biotechnology wants to change them, what will remain of rights, dignity, and equality?

Indeed, what will remain of humanity itself? Fukuyama opens with a curious quotation from Martin Heidegger: "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. . . . Man [is threatened] 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 primal truth." It's never easy to figure out what Heidegger's stray gerunds and knotted participles mean, but the claim here seems to be exactly what worries Fukuyama: that we can actually close off to ourselves, by changing human nature, the truth of reality itself.

The problem Fukuyama faces is how to prevent this biotech future from coming to pass. He has an analysis that shows stopping it to be necessary. And he has, in the last third of his book, a device of massive and immediate government regulation that he thinks will work. What he lacks is a coherent means to connect the two. He demands that we convince ourselves we need to defend human nature. But this human nature proves, at last, to be merely the same kind of premodern vestige that all the previous passengers disembarking from the modern boat tried to claim: something needed by modernity in order to preserve its liberal political gains, but nonetheless incompatible with modernity.

Fukuyama's difficulty is that he has bought too much else in modernity to reject biotechnology easily. You can see this in the support he claims from evolutionary biology, for one branch of science is unlikely to give sufficient ammunition to fight the horrors brought about by another branch. With a thick account of human nature, it might be possible to accept good science and reject bad. ("Our Posthuman Future" praises Pope John Paul II's treatment of evolution in this context.) Fukuyama, however, mistrusts thick accounts. He is too modern to think he can persuade us with the pope's religious claim, too current to imagine he can restore us to Aristotle's philosophical view, and too scientific to rely on Aldous Huxley's literary understanding. But without some such support present generally in the culture, the government regulations for which he calls are doomed. The political pressure from activist groups will be too great. The moral confusion of politicians will be too massive. And, most of all, the internal motor of science will be too powerful.

THERE WAS a revealing moment last June, during testimony on the House of Representatives' bill to ban human cloning, when Congressman Ted Strickland of Ohio complained, "We should not allow theology, philosophy, or politics to interfere with the decision we make" on what ought to be a purely scientific matter. Like so much that has been said in the cloning debate, it was both profoundly silly and profoundly true. Strickland was merely exasperated and vulgar enough to say out loud what we all perfectly well understand. Science has its own imperative force, and we cannot resist it without ceasing to be modern. Unless we embrace as a culture some coherent unmodernism, there is no preventing the biotech future. You and I--and Francis Fukuyama--may get off the boat, but the boat is going on.

We've had one attempt to cobble an anti-modern philosophy solely from the resources of modernity itself; it was called "postmodernism," and apart from encouraging a residual suspicion of all science, it did nothing to solve our problem and a great deal to exacerbate it. What we need instead is someone of Fukuyama's intelligence and skill to gather up the premodern elements necessary to maintain the political advances of modernity--and to build them into a new and coherent philosophical vehicle to take us out of these dangerous waters.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.