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

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. 256 pages.* Those familiar with the work of this member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, have come to expect rigorous philosophical analysis combined with the latest social science data. This book – which revisits and revises the author’s “end of history” thesis first articulated in a 1989 book and then again in a 1999 article – does not disappoint on that score. By the “end of history,” Fukuyama had meant that all of the alternatives to liberal democracy had failed. But there was one irrefutable argument against his original thesis: “there could be no end of history unless there was an end of science” (p. xii). However, we are far from an end to science. Our Posthuman Future was written to rethink advances in the life sciences and their effects on political life. The book is composed of a preface, three parts containing twelve chapters, notes, and a bibliography. I will give an overview of the book’s contents and then focus on the material in Part II. Part I articulates “some plausible pathways to the future” (p. 16), along with their possible consequences, in the areas of brain research, neuropharmacology, the prolongation of life, and genetic engineering. Chapter 1 articulates the basic thesis of the book. Against Orwell’s 1984, Fukuyama argues that Huxley’s vision in Brave New World was the more prescient: “the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a ‘posthuman’ stage of history” (p. 7). Why human nature is important – and Fukuyama is one of the few intellectuals today confronting this question – we will see later. Ch. 2 shows us how modern biotechnology “has already produced effects that will have consequences for world politics in the coming generation, even if genetic engineering fails to produce a single designer baby before then” (p. 19). This chapter focuses on our (growing) knowledge about genes and the related ancient question of “nature” versus “nurture” in human behavior. Fukuyama gives us the latest research on the heritability of intelligence, the relationship between genes and crime, and the role of genes in sexuality, especially in homosexuality. Ch. 3 could have been titled “From Freud to Prozac.” Here, Fukuyama singles out Prozac and Ritilin, among other psychotropic drugs, as two that, coinciding with the “neurotransmitter revolution” (p. 42), have contributed to overthrowing the Freudian account of mental illness. These drugs are “harbingers of things to come” (p. 53), e.g., “cosmetic pharmacology, that is, the taking of a drug not for its therapeutic value but simply because it makes one feel ‘better than good.’” This happiness in a pill looks uncomfortably like the soma of Huxley’s Brave New World (p. 46). Ch. 4 explores the developing social and political crisis – within and between societies – brought about by biotechnology’s extension of the life span, coupled with the depopulation explosion in the developed countries. Ch. 5 treats the “fourth pathway to the future” – human genetic engineering. Here Fukuyama reviews both the possibilities and the constraints on this technology, as well as the reasons for being cautious in thinking that significant alteration of human nature is years away. Ch. 6 tells us, in the words of its title, “Why We Should Worry.” Fukuyama notes that “the specter of eugenics” (p. 85) has hung over the field of genetics from the beginning.

Thus, he prefers the term “breeding” (p. 88). This term “has no necessary connotations of state sponsorship, but it is appropriately suggestive of genetic engineering’s dehumanizing potential” (p. 85). Against this “kinder, gentler eugenics” (p. 87) that will be subject to individual parental choice – from which great harms could still come about – are three categories of objections: religious, utilitarian or economic, and philosophical. Fukuyama gently dismisses the first (in his search for convincing secular arguments) as unpersuasive in a pluralistic society and recognizes the second as limited because it has difficulty encompassing “moral imperatives” (p. 100). The philosophical objection is dealt with in Part II. The final three chapters of Part III concern how we are to draw lines, i.e., regulate, with respect to biotechnology, which offers a mix of goods and bads. Although Fukuyama affirms “We should use the power of the state to regulate [biotechnology]” (p. 10; 181184), his advice that “it will not be a fruitful exercise to spend a lot of time arguing precisely where [red lines] should be placed,” does not inspire confidence. “As in other areas of regulation, many of these decisions will have to be made on a trial-and-error basis by administrative agencies…” (p. 211). In Part II, Fukuyama attempts to ground natural rights (his preferred term over the denatured human rights) in human nature. This section is the most valuable of the book, because Fukuyama shows – if not entirely successfully – that what is at stake with biotechnology is not simply economic or physical harms, but “the very grounding of the human moral sense” (p. 102). After reviewing the confusion surrounding “rights talk” and the disagreement over the sources from which rights derive, Fukuyama shows why philosophy must “return to the pre-Kantian tradition that grounds rights and morality in nature” (p. 112), i.e., in some concept of “what human beings actually are as a species” (p. 128). He also addresses the principal objection to doing this – the “naturalistic fallacy” (pp. 114-128). Fukuyama then fills out his conception of human nature and defends it against those who would either deny that such a thing exists or deny any uniqueness to it (e.g., “animal rights” proponents). To privilege the human species, Fukuyama argues, is not “speciesism,” but a view that resides in “a belief about human dignity that can be defended on the basis of an empirically grounded view of human specificity” (p. 147). This dignity is rooted in “consciousness” as it combines with “human reason, human language, human moral choice, and human emotions in ways that are capable of producing human politics, human art, or human religion” (p. 170). We are “complex wholes rather than the sum of simple parts.” This fact, and not any single quality such as reason by itself grounds human dignity (p. 171). What Fukuyama calls “Factor X” or the human essence, then, is actually “all of these qualities coming together in a human whole” (p. 171). The question of human dignity is important because we need to know what human values to protect from any future advances in biotechnology, e.g., the problem of “genetic inequality” (pp. 151-160). Fukuyama would safeguard “the full range of our complex, evolved natures against attempts at self-modification” (p. 172). Unfortunately, Fukuyama does not extend the full range of protection to the human embryo. He writes: “From a natural-rights perspective…one could argue that it is reasonable to assign the unborn different rights from those of either infants or children” (pp. 175-176).

Still, even though the embryo has less moral worth than an infant, because the embryo has the “potential to become a full human being,” it has “a higher moral status than other kinds of cells or tissue that scientists work with” (p. 176). Thus, e.g., Fukuyama believes that human cloning should be “banned outright” (p. 183). However, given the fact that Fukuyama is open to the life sciences informing his empirically based conception of human nature, it is paradoxical that Fukuyama does not see that these same life sciences teach us that the embryo is already a human being with potential. This error is the greatest weakness in what is an otherwise admirably informative and in some ways, prophetic book on the “biotechnology revolution.” Mark S. Latkovic, STD Professor of Moral Theology Sacred Heart Major Seminary Detroit, MI *A slightly different version of this book review appeared in The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Winter 2002): 765-767.