As Mustapha Mond put it in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, whether human nature is fixed or fundamentally changeable makes “all the difference in the world.” Those who believe that human nature is unchanging generally also believe that human beings receive their distinctive form from either nature or God. While they may disagree greatly over its origins, a belief in the constancy of human nature is common to both Christianity and classical thought. Both teach that it is our sempiternal nature that allows for man’s peculiar greatness and misery. Conversely, those who think that human nature is open to change typically believe that there are no genuinely natural human qualities and characteristics. What we call “human nature” is in fact a comforting, unscientific conceit of human pride. So-called human nature is in reality essentially plastic, historically molded and remolded by a long series of accidents in an evolutionary process.
But in our time, advances in biotechnology have added another possible means of altering the character of human life. Far from being dependent on evolutionary accident, human nature can now be brought under the control of the human will. As Mustapha Mond proudly declares at the end of Huxley’s dystopia, there is no longer “any need for civilized man to bear anything that’s seriously unpleasant.” The implications of this view are both breathtaking and frightening. Future advances in biotechnology hold out the hope of improving the human condition; yet, at the same time, they raise the possibility of transforming what it has heretofore meant to be a human being.
Francis Fukuyama, professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, realizes the precarious position in which we currently find ourselves. As Fukuyama states in the first chapter of Our Posthuman Future, “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.” Fukuyama is best known as the author of the widely read and even more widely debated 1989 essay “The End of History?” In that essay, Fukuyama used a sweeping and rather idiosyncratic Hegelio-Marxist analysis to argue that the remarkable collapse of the Soviet Union signaled that History in the strong sense of that term had at last come to an end. The West’s victory in the Cold War marked the last stage in human historical development, proving once and for all that liberal capitalist democracy fulfills mankind’s natural desire for “recognition” better than any other political order.
But in Our Posthuman Future, Fukuyama rather reluctantly concedes that History may not be over after all. If, for example, biotechnology can use germ-line therapy to successfully alter the physical make-up of the human body and brain, then, he argues, History will once again be set in motion. Fukuyama’s interest in this question is by no means narrowly academic. On the contrary, his concerns are emphatically moral and political. As he makes painfully clear, what neither the scientists nor many of our elected leaders presently understand is that human nature is what “shapes and constrains . . . the nature of politics” and thus that the biotechnological transformation of human beings could have “malign consequences for liberal democracy.”
Fukuyama begins his book with an informative overview of the current state of the biotechnological revolution, sketching the recent advances in neurological science, neuropharmacology’s latest efforts to manipulate and control the emotions and human behavior, the attempt to radically prolong the natural lifespan of human beings (an effort Leon Kass has perceptively dubbed “the immortality project”; see FT, May 2001), and the prospects for genetic engineering. Fukuyama is clearly no Luddite; he is too much a partisan of human well-being to dismiss all biotechnological advancements as either bad or undesirable. But unlike those seduced by promises of endless benefits, he knows that each biotechnological advancement raises difficult and serious questions that must be directly confronted.
Take, for example, Serotoninreuptake pharmaceuticals such as Zoloft and Prozac that are now routinely used to treat people who suffer from clinical depression. Early precursors to future neuropharmaceuticals that will be designed to match an individual’s particular genome, these drugs have helped many people lead what appear to be happier lives. But is having a relatively low level of serotonin really a pathological condition that needs to be chemically treated? Or is it instead that serotonin levels, like so many other biological features, naturally differ from person to person? This is but one of many instances in which biotechnologies blur the line between medical therapy and technological manipulation and enhancement of mankind.
Genetic engineering is an area of research in which Fukuyama rightly thinks biotechnology leaps over that line. Although presently beyond our scientific capabilities, in the future we very well may be able to alter the human germ-line itself. Such manipulation of the human genome would allow for new genes to be inserted directly into the fertilized egg, resulting in permanent genetic changes that would then be passed down from generation to generation. Such a procedure could be used for a variety of purposes, from repairing identifiable genetic defects such as deafness to increasing physical strength to elevating IQ. This is the path that Fukuyama sees as leading straight to a posthuman future. An alteration in the genetic make-up of human beings would undoubtedly cause a rupture in our commonly shared human nature and the world it has helped create. Such alterations in the genetic structure of individual human beings could very well bring about a world where there could be, at least in principle, a variety of posthuman species.
In the last part of his book, Fukuyama argues that in order to prevent biotechnology from changing the very face of humanity democratic societies must establish a regulatory legislative framework “to separate legitimate and illegitimate uses” of biotechnology. The actions of such a regulatory schema would range from banning certain biotechnologies such as human cloning and genetic engineering to regulating the application of others. And in Fukuyama’s view, the time to act is now, before the biotech genie escapes the bottle completely. Fukuyama has little faith in the libertarian claim that the free market can or even should be allowed to decide the fate of biotechnology. The all-too-real potential for biotechnology to be abused by individuals and states, not to mention the potentially dangerous effects of such abuse, belies the moral naiveté of the libertarian position. Anticipating the objections of those scientific purists who would claim that the integrity of science demands that it should be allowed to chart its own course, Fukuyama notes that democratic societies already place scientific research under political control. Democracies regulate what scientists can and cannot do in matters such as the development and use of nuclear power and biochemistry, because they realize that “science by itself cannot establish the ends to which it is put.” Establishing these ends through prudent political oversight, Fukuyama argues, is one of the duties of a self-governing people.
But one has to wonder if this kind of argument can finally win the day. While many, indeed most, democratic governments do regulate the use of nuclear and biochemical technologies, the objections to their regulation are considerably weaker than those typically launched by those who wish to use biotechnologies to cure diseases and ease human suffering. It is much easier to explain why we should not use technologies to create life-threatening chemical weapons than it is to explain why we should not use germ-line therapy to raise low IQs. In a world that increasingly views the compassionate alleviation of suffering as the oral imperative, a stronger case has to be made as to why we should not use all the forms of biotechnology at our disposal.
Fukuyama attempts to build such a case in the central section of his book, where he discusses human rights, human nature, and human dignity. Yet he also worries that many readers may find this part of his book “too philosophical,” and even goes so far as to state that “those not inclined to more theoretical discussions of politics may choose to skip over some of the chapters here.” But surely this is inadequate. Faced with the prospect of a postmodern future, can citizens and statesmen within a liberal democracy really afford “to skip over” such discussions? Fukuyama’s apparent willingness to subordinate the philosophical issues raised by advances in biotechnology weakens the force of his warnings about the implications of those advances.
Despite this shortcoming, Fukuyama has some fine things to say about the importance of letting what we already know about human nature and human dignity guide our thinking about biotechnology. Combining his “end of History” analysis with the sociobiological account of behavior that he sketched in his last book, The Great Disruption, Fukuyama argues that real “political freedom . . . [means] the freedom to pursue those ends that our nature has established.” Moreover, as the best scientific and philosophical arguments show, while human nature is to some extent “plastic . . . it is not infinitely malleable.” This is in fact the reason why human nature “shapes and constrains” the scope of political life. And while Fukuyama remains somewhat skeptical of religious claims about the nature of human beings, he believes that Catholic anthropology more or less articulates the true dignity of man. Citing John Paul II’s 1996 “Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,” Fukuyama affirms the truth of Catholicism’s claim that at some point there was an “ontological leap . . . in the evolutionary process.” Fukuyama claims that it was this leap that produced what is distinctively dignified in human beings—and that it is precisely this distinctiveness that is jeopardized by the biotech project.
Yet for all the truth in this view, there is something fundamentally incoherent about Fukuyama’s defense of human nature, rights, and dignity. Fukuyama uses reductionist sociobiology to describe human behavior and yet also insists that human beings are ontologically different from other creatures. Our Posthuman Future thus in some ways suffers from the same basic flaw as The Great Disruption, which relied heavily on sociobiological theories. In both works, Fukuyama tries to construct an account of human life and human sociality by cobbling together a premodern account of the transcendent ends of human beings and a thoroughly modern account of the reductionist origins of human behavior.
What gets lost in all this is a sense of just what is genuinely at stake in the biotechnological revolution. Gilbert Meilaender has asked whether a world designed by people willing to embrace such biotechnologies as genetic engineering would be a place in which the genetically engineered would want to live. Meilaender’s question has the virtue of making us think not only about what the results of the radical biotech project will do to future generations, but also about what our participation in it will do to us. Perhaps the greatest reason for not willing a “posthuman” future—whether or not such a future is even possible—is not that we risk corrupting the dignity of some distant future generation but rather that we risk violating the dignity of our own nature here and now. The true “abolition of man,” we must remember, is not something we do to others, but, perversely if unknowingly, something we do to ourselves.
Marc D. Guerra is Assistant Professor of Theology at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the editor of Reason, Revolution, and Human Affairs: Selected Writings of James V. Schall (2001).