The Magazine

Stopping the Future

Francis Fukuyama defends humanity.

Apr 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 32 • By J. BOTTUM
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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.