Our Posthuman Future , by Francis Fukuyama

Book Review

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Our Posthuman Future : Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama
Hardcover - 272 pages
First Edition, April 2002
Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux
ISBN 0-374-23643-7
ISBN 0374236437

In Our Posthuman Future Francis Fukuyama expresses apprehension that biotechnology might change human nature for the worst, he surveys the history of ethical philosophy in search of the "Factor X" which makes us human, and he calls for international legal regulations to draw the lines between acceptable and unacceptable uses of biotechnology.

Fukuyama supports the "natural rights" argument [see, for example, pages 13, 109, 129] that has been associated with political philosophers as diverse as Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson. In this view, individual rights and moral behavior can only be based on the existence of a constant and identifiable "human nature" and our willingness to act in accordance with it.

Our Posthuman Future : Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution , by Francis Fukuyama - Hardcover Nonfiction

Despite the misuse of heredity arguments by racists [20] there is genuine evidence that hereditary universals exist. For example, there is "something about adolescent males" [33] that causes them to be aggressive about taking risks, a tendency found on continents around the world. Here the author cites [33-34] the work of anthropologist Richard Wrangham, author of the 1996 book Demonic Males : Apes and the Origins of Human Violence . Such universals must have a genetic origin. We now know there are "molecular pathways between genes and aggression," and biologists have even been able to produce violent mice by tinkering with the genes that control their enzymes. [34] They have also been able to produce mice with superior memories through genetic modification. [24] Fukuyama summarizes the recent investigations into whether genes determine intelligence, sex orientation, and predisposition to commit crimes [25-35].

But the "neurotransmitter revolution" [42] has led to applications related to social regimentation. Ritalin has become "a pill for socially controlling children," [52] as if to bypass for our own convenience the fact that evolution did not design children to sit in school and be quiet. The author finds this an example of what Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) called "tyranny of the majority." [53]

Thus the first two of what Fukuyama calls "some plausible pathways to the future" [16] are (1) our discovery of the influence of genetics and brain structure on human behavior, and (2) manipulation of emotions and behavior through pharmacology.

"The third pathway by which contemporary biotechnology will affect politics is the prolongation of life." [57] Demographics will be affected by a combination of increases in life expectancy and increases in fertility rates, factors which will add to any local effects of immigration [57-63]. The author speculates about the effects on "age-graded hierarchies," that is, administrative roles in which influential positions are correlated with age, such as seniority, tenure and review committees. [64-66] He also fears that life will be prolonged without correspondingly reducing the dependency of the elderly on other people's support [67-69].

The fourth "pathway" to the future will be genetic engineering, which will introduce among some the desire for "designer babies," [76] bringing a number of technical and ethical problems [77-78].

[See also our review of the 2001 book, The Impact of the Gene : From Mendel's Peas to Designer Babies , by Colin Tudge.]

Table of Contents
Our Posthuman Future : Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution , by Francis Fukuyama
Part I : Pathways to the Future 
1. A Tale of Two Dystopias3
2. Sciences of the Brain18
3. Neuropharmacology and the Control of Behavior41
4. The Prolongation of Life57
5. Genetic Engineering72
6. Why We Should Worry84
Part II : Being Human 
7. Human Rights105
8. Human Nature129
9. Human Dignity148
Part III : What To Do 
10. The Political Control of Bioyrchnology181
11. How Biotechnology is Regulated Today195
12. Policies for the Future203

In the chapter entitled "Why We Should Worry," Fukuyama considers the association between eugenics and totalitarian states [84-88]. Next he addresses religious considerations [88-91]. Finally he inspects "utilitarian concerns" -- his alternative name for "economic considerations." The market economic system has frequently been unable to attend to "negative externalities" [91-93]. In producing designer babies, we will face the hazard that biotechnology will be used to enforce Politically Correct ways of feeling and thinking [93]. There will also be a flood of "zero sum" modifications, for example, an offspring designed to be faster runner will have no advantage in a race against others who were also designed to be faster runners. [97]

The author therefore prefers "deference to nature" [97] and leaving human nature alone. If we fail to leave our nature alone, we may engineer out of ourselves "some essential quality that has always underpinned our sense of who we are." [101] "Worse yet, we might make this change without recognizing that we had lost something of great value." [101]

After this tour of the four conceivable pathways to the future, Fukuyama returns in Chapter 7 to the topic with which he began the book, the relationship between human rights and human nature.

The empiricist David Hume (1711-1776) argued that nature cannot be a guide to moral behavior because there is no way to derive an "ought" from an "is." Most philosophers would say that to attempt to use nature as a guide to what is right would be to commit "the naturalistic fallacy" [112-117]. Another empiricist, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) wished to replace the ontological theory of morality (based on a view of intrinsic human nature) with a deontological theory (without assumptions about human nature). Kant concluded that morality can be defined in terms of any rational agents capable of making choices, whether or not they are human, as long as they submit to reason [119-120]. Fukuyama then looks at the effort of contemporary Kantian philosopher John Rawls to define morality in deontological terms by relating it to "reciprocity" -- the general characteristic among societies that individuals treat others reciprocally with the respectful consideration that has been shown in the treatment of themselves [121].

Fukuyama then delves more deeply into the concept of human nature. While some human characteristics are normally distributed, such as height or test scores [130-132], there are others which are not, such as blood types, which appear in discrete types with nothing in between them [134-135]. Several recent works, including Noam Chomsky's discovery of "deep structures" of all human languages [140] and Rawl's point that reciprocality is universal [142] have made it implausible for modern thinkers to defend the thesis of John Locke (1632-1704) that a human being starts out in life as a tabula rasa (blank slate) upon which any characteristics can be written [140-143].

Fukuyama therefore searches for that Factor X which makes us human, without which, he believes, human dignity can't have a foundation [149]. He notes that "in the political realm we are required to respect people equally on the basis of their possession of Factor X." [152]

The author is not satisfied with either the religious answer that all souls are equal before God [150], nor with Kant's answer that right is based on our capacity to make rational choices [151], nor with the Darwinian position "that species do not have essences" as a species is merely a snapshot at moment between what came before and what will come afterwards [152]. The author criticizes [152-154] the opinion of genetic scientist Lee M. Silver, author of Remaking Eden : How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family , that there is no "natural order" that genetic engineering might destroy. Silver has written, "Why not control what has been left to chance in the past?" [153] Fukuyama also considers the 1996 statement by Pope John Paul II that humans evolved from nonhuman animals but an "ontological leap" occurred to make us into special souls [161]. He weighs the fact that evolution is a nonlinear system which exhibits chaos due to its sensitivity to initial conditions [162-163]. He discusses the contrast between the belief of Daniel Dennett, the author of Consciousness Explained , that consciousness is a sequence of operations as in a computer, and the opinion of John R. Searle, the author of The Mystery of Consciousness and several other books , that consciousness is a biological property that a computer could not duplicate [166-171].

Fukuyama concludes, "Factor X cannot be reduced to the possession of moral choice, or reason, or language, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forth as a ground for human dignity. It is all these qualities coming together in a human whole that make up factor X." [171]

The author returns to the issue of political consequences. If we have the power, some of us will be tempted to judge what are good and bad emotions [172]. We cannot find consolation in the fact that designer babies are a long way off, because we have already begun to move in the wrong direction by using pharmacology to control how people think [173]. We already have a precedent for a "hierarchy is the assignment of political rights" in the facts that children are recognized as not yet prepared to vote, and people convicted of felonies have lost their right to vote [175]. We cannot trust biotech businesses to regulate themselves because they are ruled by their own financial interests [184, 204]. "Science by itself cannot establish the ends to which it is put." [185] "It is only 'theology, philosophy or politics' that can establish the ends of science and the technology that science produces, and pronounce on whether those ends are good or bad." [185] Society won't leave it up to parents to determine whether they want designer babies, as we already have several precedents for limiting the power of parents (they cannot neglect their children, they must send them to school, etc.) The solution has to be found in political democracy [186] and it will only work if it is international [188].

Fukuyama discards arguments that this international regulation of biotechnology is unobtainable. First of all, we continue to fight crime, even if this effort has imperfect results, demonstrating that we recognize that inability to be entirely successful doesn't mean that we shouldn't try [189]. Furthermore, biotechnology would be easier to regulate than nuclear weapons, since the technology being found in the wrong hands wouldn't produce immediate catastrophic results [192]. We don't have to start with global agreement, since we can begin at a national level and then engage in international diplomacy [193-194]. We must permit genetic engineering for therapeutic reasons, while adopting a "broad-brush ban" on human cloning and the production of designer babies [208]. We must find an answer to Lee Silver's objection that its impossible to find a boundary between "therapy" and "enhancement." [209] We may have to establish new legal institutions, since such present agencies as the FDA and the NIH don't have it within their mandates to issue the type of regulations needed [212-213]. Furthermore, the regulations must apply to all biotechnology research, not only to that which receives federal funding [214-215].

Fukuyama closes with a summary of the points that numerous governments and many political philosophers base themselves on the belief in "natural rights", and he reminds us that human nature is not "infinitely malleable." [218]

Our Posthuman Future is a stimulating book throughout, and not a single phrase is uninformative. I find fault, however, with the author's reliance on the "natural rights" axiom, since such "natural rights," assuming they exist, are nevertheless undiscoverable, and we have only fallible opinions about what they might consist of. Even if morality objectively exists, that doesn't imply that it's knowable. Fukuyama has also seemed to bypass Lee Silver's important question, "Why not control what has been left to chance in the past?" [153] Perhaps a more reasonable answer would be that we know too little about our human-nature-determining genes to even consider redesigning them, and a moratorium for several more centuries would be feasible, while a permanent ban is much harder to defend or conceive.

Reviewed by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com

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Our Posthuman Future : Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama
ISBN 0-374-23643-7 / ISBN 0374236437

Book description from the publisher's press release

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama made his now-famous pronouncement that because the major alternatives to liberal democracy had exhausted themselves, history as we knew it had reached its end. Ten years later, he revised his argument: we hadn't reached the end of history, he wrote, because we hadn't yet reached the end of science. Arguing that the greatest advances still to come will be in the life sciences, Fukuyama now asks how the ability to modify human behavior will affect liberal democracy.

To reorient contemporary debate, Fukuyama underlines man's changing understanding of human nature through history: from Plato and Aristotle's belief that man had "natural ends" to the ideals of utopians and dictators of the modern age who sought to remake mankind for ideological ends: Fukuyama persuasively argues that the ultimate prize of the biotechnology revolution -- intervention in the "germ line," the ability to manipulate the DNA of all of one person's descendants -- will have profound, and potentially terrible, consequences for our political order, even if undertaken by ordinary parents seeking to "improve" their children.

In Our Posthuman Future , our greatest social philosopher describes the potential effects of our exploration on the foundation of liberal democracy: the belief that human beings are equal by nature.

About the Author

Francis Fukuyama is Bernard Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. In 2002, he was appointed to the President's Council on Bioethics. He is the author of The Great Disruption : Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order , Trust : The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity , and The End of History and The Last Man , among other works. He lives in McLean, Virginia.


"Our Posthuman Future is a profound and important book that warns how today's Ritalin for boisterous boys could be tomorrow's 'abolition' of human nature as we know it. Tinkering with biology threatens to diminish human dignity. Francis Fukuyama's answer to the ethical dilemmas of our biotechnical age is a morality grounded in the needs and potentials of our species"

-- Frans de Waal, author of The Ape and the Sushi Master

"One of the ways we learn about dramatic social change ... is that Francis Fukuyama show up to tell us it happening .... He asks large questions; he generates coherent answers; and he changes the agenda of public debate."

-- Alan Ehrenhalt, The Wall Street Journal

"Francis Fukuyama is an analyst who does not, intellectually speaking, get out of bed for anything less than the all-encompassing grand sweep of history."

-- Anthony Gottlieb, The New York Times Book Review

"Fukuyama is one of the few American intellectuals ... capable of training a knowledge of world history and a grasp of social theory on topics of undeniable contemporary significance."

-- Michael Kazin, The Washington Post Book World

Please click here for book price and shipping information ...
This is an Amazon.com link for
Our Posthuman Future : Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama
ISBN 0-374-23643-7 / ISBN 0374236437