BOOKS: by Dr John Whitehall (reviewer)News Weekly
Our Posthuman Future, by Francis Fukuyama
, August 10, 2002
OUR POSTHUMAN FUTURE: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama
Allen and Unwin
Rec. price: $49.95 (Hardback)In 1989, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama stimulated passionate debate in learned circles by asserting the decline of communism and the ascendancy of liberal democracy meant "The End of History": Mankind had reached "the end point ... of ideological evolution". Gone were the heady days of tectonic shifts in history. Ahead were listless days of ennui in which "daring, courage, imagination and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation".
Things have not turned out as prophesied and even Fukuyama has found further challenges in his post-historical age. He has written a new book, calling it Our Post-Human Future
in catchy deference to his earlier claims.
Surprisingly, it is not about a world ravaged by Arab terror in which humanoids subsist in nuclear deserts or cities deserted in biological warfare. For Fukuyama, the greatest challenge to humanity will be the "consequences of the biotechnology revolution".
The essence of what makes us human has the potential to be manipulated by pharmacological and genetic engineering to such an extent a post-human species will emerge to begin post-human history.
Instead of this being an evolutionary leap of progress, Fukuyama worries that the "post-human world" could be "far more hierarchical and competitive ... and full of social conflict" than the present one. It could fulfil the nightmare of Huxley's Brave New World,
and be a "soft tyranny ... in which everyone is healthy and happy but has forgotten the meaning of hope, fear, or struggle", the source of human character. The admixture of animal and human genes might obscure the very definition of humanity.
To present his grave case, Fukuyama has divided his book into three parts. The first considers developments in neuropharmacology and genetics. The second defines human nature. The third analyses what can be done to try to preserve that nature.
In the first section Fukuyama argues that the prophecies of Orwell's 1984
and Huxley's Brave New World
were "far more prescient than anyone realised". The former correctly prophesied developments in information technology, even if it failed to see they would weaken the totalitarian Soviet state and not substantiate it.
Huxley foresaw the biological revolution of "in vitro fertilisation, surrogate motherhood, pyschotropic drugs and genetic engineering" constituting, for Fukuyama, the greater "nightmare" of the two books because Huxley's evil is "more subtle and more challenging" in that force is not applied: people are seduced into a dehumanised state.
Fukuyama is frightened. He declares:
"The aim of this book is to argue that Huxley was right, that the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a posthumanist age of history".
The author recites now standard concerns about the potential effects of genetic engineering on human nature, but warns that "virtually everything that popular imagination envisions" about that engineering is likely to be realised more quickly by means of psychotropic drugs. He discusses neuropharmacology and concludes that the widespread use of Prosac and Ritalin is a "harbinger" of a drug-manipulated human race. He perceives a "disconcerting symmetry" between the two drugs.
The former is "prescribed heavily for depressed women lacking in self-esteem" resulting in the "alpha-male feeling that comes with high serotonin levels". Ritalin is prescribed for "young boys who do not want to sit still in class because nature never designed them to behave in that way".
"Together", he concludes, "the two sexes are gently nudged toward that androgynous median personality, self-satisfied and socially compliant that is the current politically correct outcome in American society."
In Part II, Fukuyama works to define human nature and prove there are derived rights and dignity. He struggles with evolutionary and materialist concepts. If evolution is continuing, what is wrong with helping it with some drugs or a bit of genetic engineering? What is immutable about human nature? If "being human" is merely the sum of electrical impulses, what is inherently valuable about it?
For me, this struggle of Fukuyama was the most interesting part of the book, though, as the author labours, so must the reader. In the end, against all evolutionary argument, Fukuyama seems to believe there is an essential quality of human nature that is not just electrical, and that the development of that nature has reached a standard of value that cannot be improved.
The vicissitudes of life are essential to the molding of the quality of that nature. Human nature is forged by the conflicts of life. If we institute chemical or genetic happiness, the essence of human nature will decay.
Come on Francis, call it a soul! Come on ... discover the Pauline precedents of your conclusions. It was that early saint who wrote of tribulations forging human character.
The last part of the book is on the mechanics of controlling biotechnology. He questions ethical committees "captured" by the pharmacology industry, visits the amorality of science, acknowledges there are fortunes to be won and, therefore, corruption to be feared, and recognises there are countries with a "lower degree of regard for the sanctity of human life" which are beyond control.
The religious culture of those countries does not permit "as sharp an ethical distinction between mankind and the rest of natural creation as does Christianity" he confesses. Fukuyama urges the formation of new regulatory bodies but does not seem to have confidence in their success.