Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
Francis Fukuyama; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 272 pages; $25
Francis Fukuyama thinks big and always on the cutting edge. But he’s no windbag intellectual. He actually knows things; he works hard to master the political, economic, and scientific information required to support his breathtaking theoretical claims.
For most of us, the end of the Cold War was a big enough deal in itself, but for Fukuyama, it was the end of history. About the time a Democratic president announced that the era of big government was over and ended welfare as we had known it, Fukuyama proclaimed that human nature was reasserting itself against the misguided social experiments of recent decades. Thinking about Fukuyama’s first two big books (The End of History and the Last Man and The Great Disruption) together, we were left to wonder whether he meant to identify leftist social reform with history and the end of history with the truth of sociobiology. Does the end of the great disruption mean that human beings have become fundamentally just like the other animals again? The doctrine that we are really just very, very smart chimps might, after all, be regarded as quite conservative: Chimps aren’t revolutionary animals, and they don’t make history in the Marxian or Hegelian sense.
But in his newest and best book, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Fukuyama does make it clear that human beings are fundamentally different from the chimps. Sociobiology—meaning evolutionary biology as it is ordinarily understood—gives only an incomplete account of human nature. The human difference is in its origin mysterious. As long as that mystery exists, it makes no sense to say that history is over. As Marx said, the end of history would be the withering away of human mystery, and human beings would finally be fully at home or unalienated in the world. Fukuyama not only acknowledges the human mystery; he locates it in our distinctive natural capabilities, in the brains that allow us to develop languages complex enough to describe the truth about the world around us and ourselves. He does not commit the existentialist error of saying that the human difference is unnatural and absurd. He believes it is clearly something good and worth fighting to preserve against those who would use biotechnology to change our natures.
Fukuyama is very close in places to sounding like a Thomist. He distinguishes his view from that of certain Christians and scientists who believe that the concept of human dignity is incompatible with the findings of modern natural science. We do not have to choose between reason and revelation, because what we know through reason is compatible with what is taught by Christian revelation.
Most Catholics, Fukuyama notes, have accepted the fact that evolution in some sense almost certainly occurred; they do not join conservative Protestants in defending an antievolutionist scientific creationism. Pope John Paul II has argued that we can say we are the descendants of subhuman animals while still insisting that at some point there was an “ontological leap” in the evolutionary process for which evolutionary science cannot really account. Human beings—especially the human mind—cannot be understood in the way scientists understand subhuman nature. And it is that genuine and fundamental difference in the character of our natural being that is the only firm foundation for our claim to special dignity. Human beings behave in some ways better and in some ways worse than other animals; we have splendid virtues and sordid vices. And only self-conscious animals have poets, priests, philosophers, physicists, and princes (and presidents).
The most instructive parts of the book describe how both genetic engineering and psychotropic drugs might transform our natures in a “posthuman” future. Fukuyama’s main fear seems to be that we are on the verge of a Brave New World where the great mass of human beings will become less than human. They will become like Nietzsche’s “last men,” with little or no self-consciousness and so without the capacity to be moved by love, death, the truth, and God.
Fukuyama clearly regards his chapter on human dignity as the key to his book. Only if there is “a viable concept of dignity out there” can we develop an effective political strategy to subordinate biotechnology to moral and political control. Fukuyama does well in presenting the beginnings of such a regulatory strategy. But his view of human dignity does not inform the whole book as well as it might. In his chapter on human rights, he tries to argue that rights should be regarded as natural, but his argument is itself too infused with sociobiological reductionism to be coherent. He ends the chapter by claiming that History in the Hegelian-Marxian sense exists, refusing to discard the untenable distinction between subhuman nature and human history on which Hegel and Marx mistakenly rely. And his chapter on human nature continues this confusion a bit by not making it clear enough why chimps don’t have rights, in spite of the fact that they exhibit certain characteristics once considered peculiarly human. In truth, human rights, human nature, and human dignity should have been considered more clearly as a whole, and Fukuyama’s inability to do so at this point means that he is stuck somewhere between contemporary sociobiology and St. Thomas—but moving in the right direction.
There may not be much a Catholic reader can learn from Fukuyama that he couldn’t have learned better from, say, Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. But it is at least reassuring to discover that what the best Catholic thinkers teach about human nature and natural science is now being defended by some of the best non-Catholic thinkers. In Fukuyama, Catholics have found a talented ally in the quest to regulate biotechnological developments according to what is best for the human person.
This review appeared originally in the September 2002 edition of Crisis Magazine.