Our Posthuman Future:
Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
(ISBN: 0374236437; 272 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 2002)
Reviewed by Damien Broderick of Australia
and initially published in the Weekend Australian Newspaper.
(June 10, 2002)
Everyone has mixed feelings about the future, especially the many powerful technologies changing our world -- and us as well. Trash TV excites us with visions of bionic limbs for the helpless, robot puppies craving attention but never messing the carpet, painless laser dentistry, clones, and weird genetic hybrids.
Up pops the weary cliché now 70 years old Brave New World! If few have read the book (it's rather dull), everyone knows what's meanta future of sedated, giggly hedonists cloned like sheep then decanted from bottles. In 1932, when Aldous Huxley's book caused its first sensation, we had no cloned sheep. Now we await cloned babies any day. We rush to watch George Lucas's Attack of the Clones. Anxiety rife on the silver screen! Meanwhile, mad children and terrorists like Theodore Kaczynski (the "Unibomber") murder with homemade bombs to express their distaste for this relentless and unprecedented future that has, well, exploded into reality. It's refreshing, then, to find a public intellectual of Dr. Fukuyama's standing take on the intensely real, serious topic of accelerating biotechnology. Instant fame embraced Fukuyama a decade back when his conservative The End of History seemed to explain the Soviet Union's abrupt collapse. Liberal humanism -- democratic, realistic and market-driven rather than authoritarian -- had won the cold war against its authoritarian and deludedly utopian foes. Why? Because it worked in harmony with human nature. Hardly a new thesis, nor a watertight one, but pundits embraced it with relish and a sigh of relief.
In subsequent books, he looked at the pivotal need in a liberal order for civil trust, and claimed that human dignity and accurate recognition of each citizen's value was crucial to civic health. Dignity's source, interestingly, was not some God-given special status of humankind; he claimed in The Great Disruption (1999) that "a great deal of social behavior is not learned but part of the genetic inheritance of man and his great ape forbears." It is our species' nature, our evolved essence as humans rather than sheep or wolves, that grants us those general rights which flourish best under global capitalism.
Now Fukuyama extends that analysis into the future, toward the recommencement of a history he had claimed was effectively at an end. Rather belatedly, he has realized the obvious"There can be no end of history without an end of modern natural science and technology," and that's not likely. Indeed, "We appear to be poised at the cusp of one of the most momentous periods of technological advance in history."
I have an interest to declare here. In 1997, I published The Spike, one of the first studies of these thunderously converging technologies, showing that they'll comprise an ever-steepening escalator of radical change. From early `transhuman' adoption of patches and revamps for our luckless fatal condition, we might shift to a genuinely posthuman state where augmented people meet or perhaps blend with AI minds now in the early stages of lab development. It was a speculation widely scorned as far-fetched and psychologically insupportable. How remarkable, then, to find a thinker of Dr. Fukuyama's conservative credentials adopting just this view -- while warning us, inevitably, of the urgent need to stop it before we go blind. Libertarians, greedy corporations and scientists hungry for their cut will baulk at restriction and regulation, Fukuyama argues, but that's what we must put in place, and the sooner the better. Only government can perform this service. Ideally all the world's regimes must combine to outlaw radical transformations of the human genome, or less drastic options such as pre-implantation embryo selection that lets parents choose their healthiest possible children.
Many people will agree without hesitation, drawing upon the ancient wisdom of the `Yuck factor' "How disgusting!" Yet the same yuck factor that allegedly deters decent folks from cloning ourselves once propped up racist discrimination and prejudice against the disabled. Years hence, it might seem as incredibly offensive to title a big box-office movie Attack of the Clones as to imagine one (perhaps filmed in 1932) called Attack of the Negroes, or Attack of the Jews. Cloned humans will be human, even those who are posthuman.
So, too, will the ageless be human - people with extra genes, say, designed to keep their cellular DNA ship-shape -- although Fukuyama has his doubts. Just as Prozac and Ritalin smooth out human passions, he worries that science will corrode our sacred nature. The detailed core of his small book is an argument, unfashionable in the humanities but increasingly accepted in the life sciences, that certain species-typical characteristics are shared by all humans. This inviolable human nature provides the basis for our dignity. Citing the Pope approvingly, Fukuyama seems ready to affirm that a non-material soul gets inserted into our rude flesh, but he pulls back into metaphorall that matters is that "some very important... leap" occurred during evolutionary history, and recurs during gestation. No doubt, but why would this make more-than-ordinary-human beings somehow less-than-human?
"Much of our political world rests on the existence of a stable human 'essence'... We may be about to enter into a posthuman future, in which technology will give us the capacity gradually to alter that essence over time." Images of Star Trek's emotionless Mr. Spock recur, with no indication why enhanced and perhaps superintelligent people should be less, rather than more richly, emotional and benevolent. Really, though, Fukuyama just feels in his bones that such technological progress "does not serve human ends," that it must create ever more terrible rifts between rival genetic haves and have-nots.
That's clearly one possibility, but reminds me of Marx's theory of the inevitable immiseration[*] of capitalism's poor. As a child of working stiffs, gazing at my big computer screen and drinking my microwaved coffee, I rather doubt it. Wealth derived from knowledge, especially the kind that improves health and lifespan, tends to spread ever more widely -- as it is doing even in the Third World. Fukuyama ignores, or dismisses, the prospect of widespread abundance via nanotechnology and AI, yet these are no more unlikely than advanced biotech. Yes, "a person who has not confronted suffering and death has no depth," but we do not welcome anthrax for its existential spritzig. His summary of the state of play in biotechnology and the laws constraining it is excellent, but he forgets that "the freedom of political communities to protect the values they hold most dear" often has been a charter for ignorance and fearful bigotry.
[* Editor's Note: Immiseration is a term from European/Marxist economic and political analysis; in this context, it means `making the condition of workers more and more miserable', usually by means of impoverishment; that is, by paying them less and less, making them generally more dissatisfied.]