Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. By Francis Fukuyama.

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $25.00. xiii 256 p; ill.; no index. ISBN: 0–374–23643–7. 2002.

11/13/2012 Hugo Chesshire

Francis Fukuyama’s work is perhaps misleadingly titled, since it does not contain much of great substance about posthumanity, the future, or biotechnology. This is not a pop-science account of modern biotech. Instead, the questions raised by the development of biotechnology have been used as a springboard from which to dive into a discussion of rights theory and the framing of an argument against the positivistic rights discourse with which modern liberalism and science have draped themselves. Fukuyama’s perspective may not be terribly original, as it references and draws upon ancient ideas – literally – but it is worth asking whether these ancient ideas can still have relevance for the modern world. Criticisms of his lack of scientific depth are rather unfair, especially since they tend to come from that paradigm wherein only a “true” scientist with an understanding of technique could make moral judgements about science. Fukuyama’s contention is that it is not scientists but the democratic state that ought to sit in judgement of these techniques. Referencing Aristotle as much as he does, it is probably fair to say that he favours the Aristotelian argument that the judgement of the masses is generally superior, even when compared to that of the experts – although this may fall into a positivistic trap itself, as a naturalistic rights theory would be forced to concede that the judgement of the masses would be wrong where it conflicts with natural law. Insomuch as the book concerns biotechnology, Fukuyama’s premise is stated early on – that Aldous Huxley was right, that biotechnology may well usher in a post-human future, and that, rather than lavishing the praise that our society reserves for the scientific and the technical on these developments, we ought to greet them with something approaching the disquiet and unease that accompanies a reading of Brave New World. Perhaps, as Huxley suggests, something of our humanness is lost through the application of biotechnology, and Fukuyama tends to agree. First, he establishes a concept of humanness derived not from positivism, or from religion (which


has, as he observes, become the principal wellspring of objections to biotechnology), but from observations and deductions concerning human nature made in the mode of Aristotle. From this perspective, he sets out to demonstrate that the rampant and unchecked use of biotechnology poses some danger to our humanness. Fukuyama examines several facets of the biotechnology revolution which he feels are causes for trepidation. For example, gerontology is likely to worsen the aging-demographic problem and the north-south divide through the extension of life (and, he fears, may only extend infirmity rather than youth and middle age), Ritalin and Prozac tend to steer people towards a bland median of thought and behaviour, and genetic engineering may give rise to a “designer baby” phenomenon, with an attendant and alarming resurgence of interest in eugenics, albeit in a more libertarian mode. The important point is not that these outcomes are inevitable; the problem is that they are both conceivable and plausible, and that there seems to be no coherent ethicaltheoretical framework outside of the religious from which to address them. Fukuyama finds the idea of a discoverable, innate human nature or essence most convincing, and makes a good argument that the positivistic-rights theorists actually do assume something about human nature, despite claims to the contrary, since positivistic rights can never be universal without some covert appeal to naturalism. In the case of Immanuel Kant, for example, these “covert” naturalistic claims are that humans are rational, that they benefit from and use their power of rationality, and that they can develop their rationality over time. Fukuyama proposes that the “naturalistic fallacy” is flawed, and that we should return to a rightstheory grounded in pre-Kantian tradition and derived from nature. He posits that perhaps the concept of rights itself is flawed. Plato and Aristotle do not mention “rights” in their discussions of human goods and ends, and perhaps it is that they are


looking at the ceiling rather than the floor, so to speak. The rights discourse concerning the state, for example, is preoccupied with protecting citizens from its potential abuses. Plato and Aristotle prefer to focus on the ideals of good statesmanship, justice and sagacious governance – of the state, and of oneself. Rather than focusing on a rights discourse, which inevitably tends to be drawn towards the negative (the need to protect from rather than the need to educate or strive towards), Fukuyama proposes that we could take a leaf from the Greeks and move toward a discourse centred on human needs and interests. In his opinion, the problem is not necessarily the technology itself. The problematic is encountered when technology is applied by a secular society which would reject objections made on religious grounds, especially when that society is overly concerned with wealth and scientific progress, and is unburdened by ethical and moral questions raised outside of a positivist framework. Religion is a source of these questions, but not the only one. However, the scientific society may tend to lump all moralistic qualms together in the spiritual tent and dismiss them as superstitious, medieval, unscientific and outmoded. In such a society, attempts by the state to limit the pursuit of morally dubious avenues of technological development will be stymied by the lack of an alternative philosophical grounding in which to base them – a grounding which Fukuyama believes can be found in classical thought. A problem with this analysis is that Fukuyama seems to fall into this positivist trap himself. He attempts to define the human quality that calls for respect and dignity as “Factor X,” and spends some time trying to define it and defend it from arguments from, for example, Peter Singer’s philosophy or the Confucian tradition, both of which deny any clear separation of humankind from the animal kingdom or the cosmos in general. But it seems characteristic of the positivist mindset and the technological-scientific paradigm to desire that this “Factor X” be


named, defined, or perhaps even quantified. Is it not possible that the source of our common human dignity is something undefinable, something that we can never pin down exactly or contrive some legal definition for but, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, something that we can know when we see it? Human essence might not even be found in being at all, but in a nonbeing that gives rise to human attributes – perhaps as nonbeing in Daoism is understood as a generative ontological space from which being appears, or as a nothing that hides behind the particular being-ness of humanity, as in Heideggerian thought. Fukuyama’s desire to pin down an identifiable humanness behind each human’s existence is probably derived from the Socratic concept of the forms; humanness might exist as a noumenon in this fashion. His “Factor X” is the human quality that demands or deserves a modicum of respect and dignity; is “Factor X” therefore the form of respectability or dignity? Moreover, if it were a form in the Socratic tradition, would this not mean that individual humans would not possess respectability or dignity but only approach them – and to varying degrees? A problem of a more practical inclination is that these arguments derived from Aristotle and countering Kantian notions of autonomy and rationality may end up rejecting autonomy and rationality entirely, as in the Aristotelian concept of natural slavery. The naturally slavish are not possessed of true rationality or autonomy, although it should be noted that Fukuyama questions Aristotle’s convictions on the actual existence of the naturally slavish. This can even be transformed into an assault on the concept of innate human dignity and respectability that Fukuyama wants us to consider. The problem arises, for example, in his call for state regulation of biotechnology in the name of an ethical regime that firstly rejects positivism, secondly, does not derive from conceptions of human rights or Kantian autonomy but from naturalism, and


thirdly, emphasises human aspirations rather than human rights. In all of his prescriptions, one can find problems. Let us say that gerontology may indeed compound demographic problems as Fukuyama suggests. Does he believe that the state either could or should tell the elderly that they cannot receive life-extending therapies because the world is just too crowded for them – and if not, has it occurred to him that others might use his arguments in just this way? In his concluding chapter, Fukuyama wrestles inconclusively and unsatisfactorily with this problem. A possible solution is to distinguish between therapy and enhancement, allowing the former and banning the latter. However, as he admits, this is rife with flaws; not only could “enhancement” be construed as covering many preventative measures, but in the Foucauldian analysis so much of pathology is socially constructed, leaving it hard to establish what is therapeutic. His propositions reject the fatalistic view of technology as something outside of human control, and posit that it is within the grasp of humanity to harness and control the development of technology. In the end, despite the title, the book is of the most interest as a philosophical revitalization of classical thought in the biotechnology age and as an argument against Kantian positivist, scientific, libertarian hegemony. However, those looking for an indepth review of the actual technologies, or for a well-developed set of policy prescriptions, should look elsewhere.