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Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution

Author: Francis Fukuyama
Publisher: New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2002
Review Published: October 2004

 REVIEW 1: C. B. Crawford

Some would argue that the 20th century saw the emergence of what has come to be known as the knowledge revolution or "Knowledge Society" as Peter Drucker (1993) named it in its infancy a mere eleven years ago. Whether we have more knowledge is a point of contention, but few can make the assertion that the widespread adoption of computer solutions has been something short of a miracle. The knowledge revolution has not yet ended, but developed countries are making substantial application of the use of that technology, and one of the most significant uses comes in the application of computer modeling to biotechnical research.

In Our Posthuman Future, Francis Fukuyama, Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University and member of the Presidentís Council on Bioethics, presents the idea that biotechnology represents the next paradigmatic shift - and again, this assertion should come as no surprise to readers immersed in the field. What Fukuyama does provide is a lucid argument as to the moral and social responsibilities we have in the area of biotechnological research from a rich multi-dimensional perspective. Fukuyama notes the real problem, "the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology research is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a 'posthuman' stage of history" (7). Fukuyama's solution does not come as a surprise to many. He advocates the use of state control (national or international) asserted on the research and commercialization process of biotechnology projects that go beyond the moral boundaries into areas where humans should not tread. The beauty of Fukuyama's contribution is two-fold: his mastery of setting the stage by recounting the various biotechnical research initiatives that have brought us to this point is detailed, and his moral advocacy is broad-based and moves well beyond utilitarian concerns. These two issues become the central issues of the book.

Fukuyama begins with a discussion of some of the historic advances in neuroscience research, with a great discussion of historic genetic and anthropological research by Sir Francis Galton, Margaret Mead, and Karl Pearson, as well as a number of psychologists like L. L. Thurstone and James Flynn. His central thesis in this discussion condenses to the point that intelligence (and other genetic characteristics and pathologies) has been linked to genetics for some time. Fukuyama contends that crime, sexuality, disease, and even the prolongation of human life are altered when answers become based on genetic enhancement rather than normative data. When the goal of the research is to substantially augment the genetic code to produce smarter, sexually conforming adults living disease free lives that last well beyond "quality life," there are moral issues that must be confronted a priori. Additionally, Fukuyama discusses the current genetic research initiative, the Human Genome Project, and its impact on human reproductive choices. Fukuyama warns that creation of "designer babies" is sometime away, but technology exists now for genetic pre-selection in vitro. The prospect of human cloning has become a political issue because of the real moral challenges associated with extending existing biotech research to human subjects. Fukuyama also objects to the use of human subjects suggesting this type of research may have moral implications even if the primary purpose is not for genetic engineering. Fukuyama's position is best clarified when he states:
    Even if genetic engineering never materializes, the first three stages of development in biotechnology -- greater knowledge about genetic causation, neuropharmacology, and the prolongation of life -- will have important consequences for the politics of the twenty-first century. These developments will be hugely controversial because they will challenge dearly held notions of human equality and the capacity for moral choice; they will give societies new techniques for controlling the behavior of their citizens; they will change our understanding of human personality and identity; they will upend existing social hierarchies and affect the rate of intellectual, material, and political progress; and they will affect the nature of global politics. (82)
Traditional moral objections to biotechnology research stem from three major positions as Fukuyama points out. First, there are historical objections to manipulation of genetic codes dating back to eugenics experimentation of the 20th century. Second, there are deep moral reservations due to religious issues. Finally, there are concerns that are based more or less on utilitarian considerations. Fukuyama suggests that the primary rationale for rejection of biotechnology research that substantially alters humanity is embodied in the idea that there are certain divine, natural, and legal rights that prevent it. While religious rights are relative to one's faith, and legal rights are not ends of their own volition, natural rights do offer Fukuyama some refuge as an objection to biotechnological engineering research. He suggests that the ability of humans to set their own moral standards is the central human right, but it takes more than human nature to define the "is" from the "ought." Fukuyama is quick to note the tenuous basis on which he rests his case in human nature, but considers the question at length suggesting that morality should be based on those principles that are timeless -- humans are what humans have always been. Human dignity is a natural outcome of natural rights and human nature, and with this argument Fukuyama is able to provide rational argument against biotechnology on the grounds that research that changes the basic nature of humanity and lessens human dignity is not moral. Human potential is sufficient to justify human dignity, as Fukuyama points out.

Finally, Fukuyama takes on the issue of who tames the beast -- the state, religious institutions, the scientific community, or some other entity. Certainly, there are a variety of enthusiasts that seek to profit from biotechnological research, and there are nations that seek to promote this type of research for their own political and economic ends. But Fukuyama warns that there can be political control and that there are perils to thinking otherwise:
    This kind of pessimism about the inevitability of technological advances is wrong, and it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if believed by too many people. For it simply is not the case that the speed and scope of technological development cannot be controlled. There have been many dangerous or ethically controversial technologies that have been subject to effective political control. (188)
What Fukyuama might underplay is the truth that once the "genie is out of the bottle, she will not easily return." Once the technologies of human control have been harnessed in the laboratory and the research is shared, it will diffuse in a rapid diffusion of innovation curve due to the importance of the discovery. While the political solution offers some hope, it remains to be seen if an active coalition like the UN, EU, or the Big 7 will be sufficient to control the dispersal of derelict technologies that threaten our human nature.

Fukuyama's primary contribution to the literature rests in his ability to objectively discuss this topic from the perspective of scientist, clergy, philosopher, and parent nearly simultaneously. Reconciling utilitarian perspectives with moral and divine right is anathema in certain circles, but Fukuyama provides a very strong rationalization that does just this. Fukuyama's discussion of historic events related to biotechnology provides good basis for current policy makers, but does not bore the reader with useless details. Further, Fukuyama provides the essence of how best to control the biotechnological giant, but likely does not go far enough in the specifics of what it might realistically take to be successful.

Overall, Our Posthuman Future is an exemplar that provides good basis for controlling the biotechnical revolution that is underway. The writing style is very solid and understandable, and his positions are well researched and internally consistent. Even though the solution may be simplistic, the merit of the book makes it a more than acceptable read for any learned individual interested in the natural right argument opposing biotechnology research.

C. B. Crawford:
Chris is the Assistant Provost for Quality Management and Professor of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University. He has published widely in the areas of argument, person-centered communication, transformational leadership, innovation, and most recently in knowledge management.  <ccrawfor@fhsu.edu>

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