Steve Kettmann's Reviews > Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution

Our Posthuman Future by Francis Fukuyama
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May 02, 10

A fascinating book, as I write in my 2002 review for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Francis Fukuyama argues that biotechnology could lead to the end of humankind as we know it
Reviewed by Steve Kettmann

Sunday, April 21, 2002

Our Posthuman Future

Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution

By Francis Fukuyama


Reviewers try not to go overboard, but here's a humble prediction: "Our Posthuman Future," the latest from the author of "The End of History and the Last Man," could be the most important book of the year.
Francis Fukuyama has taken a stunning step forward with this exploration not only of the ins and outs of a designer-baby future, but also of the politics and even the political philosophy of a world in which advances in biotechnology fundamentally shape who we are as human beings.

Books this smart just do not come along very often. How many other writers could blend thorough updates on the cutting edge of advances in the biological sciences with hard-won insights into what Kant and Hobbes mean in the here and now with a pitch-perfect rundown on why "Star Trek" fans are fascinated by Spock?

"The coolly analytical Mr. Spock in the TV series 'Star Trek' appears at times more likable than the emotional Mr. Scott only because we suspect that somewhere beneath his rational exterior lurk deeply buried human feelings," he writes. "Certainly many of the female characters he encountered in the series hoped they could rouse something more than robotic responses from him."

The Spock reference is anything but gratuitous. Fukuyama seeks to make a case for a return to looking to the ineffable qualities of human nature as a foundation for the basic building blocks of political philosophy we typically call human rights. The idea is simple enough: That which makes us human (or half-human, in Spock's case) springs in the end as much from our capacity for a wide range of emotions as anything else.

"While many would list human reason and human moral choice as the most important unique human characteristics that give our species dignity, I would argue that possession of the full human emotional gamut is at least as important, if not more so," he writes.

Given the thunder-clap impact of Fukuyama's most famous work, "The End of History," it's reasonable to assume that many will heed the warning implicit in such pronouncements. He's saying that as designer drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin shape the moods and personalities of huge numbers of people, and science gives us more insights into the wiring of the brain and what it means, an overly rationalistic conception of who we are as humans becomes increasingly dangerous.

Those words we all intoned in grade school about all "men"

being "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," that was Jefferson, in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, making an essentially parallel argument. Fukuyama stands with Jefferson, and Locke and Hobbes, in arguing that human rights should be grounded in human nature.

If that assertion sounds self-evident, it's not. Many disagree. What amounts to a growing human propensity for self-importance and self-awe at the power of the rational mind has led many to make the argument that human nature is readily alterable. Major figures like B.F. Skinner have attempted to reduce human behavior down to a question of positive and negative reinforcement. Economists, too, make a fetish of reductive models for how people will behave. Fukuyama, like Tolstoy, for example, believes that underneath the layers of rationality is something fundamentally human that defies easy characterization.

"The problem is that human nature is far too complex to be reduced to simple categories like 'pain' and 'pleasure,' " he writes. "Some pains and pleasures are deeper, stronger, and more abiding than others. The pleasure we derive from reading a trashy pulp fiction novel is different from the pleasure of reading 'War and Peace' or 'Madame Bovary' with the benefit of life experience of the sort that these latter novels address."

The major culprit in steering our big thinkers away from this seemingly self-evident line of thinking (that as the Kevin Spacey character in "K-Pax" tells the Jeff Bridges character: "All living creatures in the universe know the difference between right and wrong") was Kant. He got us started on shadowboxing with notions about how we had to use our reason to overcome human nature, rather than looking to human nature as a fountainhead for who and what we are.

If this all sounds a little rarefied for some tastes, the genius of "Our Posthuman Future" is that it brings home just how important it will be in our immediate future for people like you and me to explore such questions. Soon enough, for example, it's likely that increases in life expectancy and decreases in birth rate will dramatically boost median ages, so that many generations will simultaneously be competing in the workforce, rather than one clearing out for the next. Questions of right and wrong, and the relative importance of conflicting values, take on greater clarity in such scenarios.

That's not even getting into all the other head-scratching possibilities, such as the rich using genetic therapies to produce a super race, possibly leading to genetic wars. As Fukuyama notes, "There are very few domestic political issues today in our rich, self-satisfied liberal democracies that can cause people to get terribly upset, but the specter of rising genetic inequality may well get people off their couches and into the streets."

What's desperately needed, in short, is not just a broader understanding of the advances in science and technology that can have so many consequences for how we live, but also a heightening of our collective moral imagination as we attempt as a civilization to come to terms with questions so much larger than us.

"[T:]he posthuman world could be one that is far more hierarchical and competitive than the one that currently exists, and full of social conflict as a result," he concludes. "It could be one in which any notion of 'shared humanity' is lost, because we have mixed human genes with those of so many other species that we no longer have a clear idea of what a human being is. It could be one in which the median person is living well into his or her second century, sitting in a nursing home hoping for an unattainable death. Or it could be the kind of soft tyranny envisioned in "Brave New World," in which everyone is healthy and happy but has forgotten the meaning of hope, fear or struggle."

Steve Kettmann, Berlin correspondent for, has written on politics and biotechnology issues for many publications.

This article appeared on page RV - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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