Our Post-Human Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution by Francis Fukuyama

“I have been over into the future, and it works.”
— Lincoln Steffens, Autobiography

Francis Fukuyama’s Our Post-Human Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution bills itself as a clarion call to the public and to politicians, alerting us to the imminent threats posed by advancements in genetic engineering and biotechnology, and admonishing us to act quickly to prevent such technologies from spiraling out of control. According to Fukuyama, this Pandora’s box can still be shut, but only if we marshal the appropriate scientific and political forces and legislate our way to a safer tomorrow.

Now, science fiction has a venerable tradition exploring the darker side of scientific discoveries. In film in particular, these scenarios have played out with increasing sophistication over the years. What remains constant among stories as disparate as “Them”, “Blade Runner”, and “Gattaca” is the explicit message that human manipulation of the natural world seldom improves humanity’s lot. But Fukuyama takes things one step further. The pace of contemporary scientific research and experimentation threatens not only humanity’s future, but, even more ominously, the very essence of what it means to be human.

Fukuyama, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, is best known for splashing onto the public stage with his neo-Hegelian treatise The End of History. To quote the dust jacket of his most recent book, Fukuyama now realizes that history has not come to an end because “we haven’t yet reached the end of science.” A reader would be forgiven for thinking that having history back is a good thing. Alas, the only thing Fukuyama’s about-face ushers in is a steady stream of dire predictions on just how bleak the future looks to be.

So, what does the future hold? Some possibilities Fukuyama considers include:

Human cloning and the cloning of human organs, for reproductive or experimental purposes, thrives on the black market. Clones may be bred without full cognitive abilities, ushering in a new “slave” race.

Designer babies — let your imagination run wild on this one.

Hybrid creatures that combine human and non-human genes a la “The Island of Dr. Moreau” are created in research laboratories, illegal or not, throughout the globe.

Psychotropic drugs that improve or enhance traits like memory, intelligence, stamina, and self-esteem become commonplace.

Homosexuality becomes “voluntary” due to controlling the levels of testosterone prenatal embryos are exposed to, creating tension for those children whose parents opt not to have the procedure performed.

And these are but some of the scenarios Fukuyama envisages. What unites them is the act of tampering with or modifying “human nature” to achieve post-human abilities. But Fukuyama’s concern isn’t just to document the ways future technologies may alter human nature, full stop. The more significant threat, he argues, lies with the effects such technologies would have on our political institutions as a whole. As he writes, “[h]uman nature shapes and constrains the possible kinds of political regimes, so a technology powerful enough to reshape what we are will have possibly malign consequences for liberal democracy and the nature of politics itself.” (7)

To give the gist of the argument: democratic political institutions rest on a notion of equality that is rooted in our shared biological heritage, a biology that, even given individual variations, constrains each of us in certain ways and imposes a relatively uniform set of abilities and talents across the board. For instance, while Michael Jordan may be able to jump fifteen feet to slam dunk a basketball, and so in this sense is exceptionally physically gifted, no human being can jump the length of the court. The danger associated with modifying human nature, then, lies in disturbing our natural equality, and, in the process, disrupting the basis of our polity. As Fukuyama poses the question, “what will happen to political rights once we are able to, in effect, breed some people with saddles on their backs, and others with boots and spurs?” (10)

Our Post-Human Future is structured into three parts. The first offers a “taking stock” of the current state of technology and where we may be headed, the second canvases current thinking on human rights, human nature, and human dignity, and the third lays out Fukuyama’s recommendations for action to (hopefully) forestall disaster. The philosophical meat of the book is in the second section where he engages in an extended discussion of human nature and of competing accounts of what it means to be human. Here his discussion draws on the wisdom of ancient philosophers and extends to an analysis of contemporary value theory, offering a concise snapshot of the main positions ethicists and philosophers hold. This is a valuable and insightful treatment, and worth reading to get a feel for the nuances of a complex debate, even if Fukuyama contributes little new information to the conversation.

The gay-making hypothesis, by contrast, smacks of tendentious writing, and illustrates a problem that recurs throughout the book. Namely, that only those already ideologically aligned with Fukuyama are going to find much of his reasoning compelling. The problem may arise, at least in part, due to the scope of his effort. The issues Fukuyama wants to discuss are so complex and multifaceted that there are always going to be questions left unanswered and replies not given. Fukuyama is forced to make assertions and choices in order simply to keep the momentum going, usually just at points where an interlocutor would object. The result is a discussion that often feels incomplete to say the least.

And what of Fukuyama’s recommendations to address the impending crisis? Other than calling for the formation of agencies with world-oversight jurisdiction and “real enforcement policies,” he doesn’t offer much by way of concrete suggestions. But perhaps he doesn’t see that as his role, either. Because Fukuyama’s stance is one of when, and not if, genetic engineering will come into mainstream practice, the pressing issue is what procedures will and will not be sanctioned, and who will enforce any such decisions.

Many of the technologies Fukuyama discusses are no longer the stuff of science fiction, and, as he stresses, we as a society need to make the shift from thinking of them as hypothetical, fantastical possibilities, to ones of pressing international concern. Even if one rejects Fukuyama’s ideological stance, then, he does everyone a great service by engaging in the debate.