Nick Hackworth

THE POSTHUMAN FUTURE: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution by Francis Fukuyama

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Why not seize the power?” asks geneticist Lee Silver of biotechnology, a power that promises to put us in control of our evolutionary destiny and propel us into a “posthuman” future. Developments in biotechnology are indeed likely to amount to the most radical technological revolution ever seen, changing the very physical and mental make-up of mankind: changes that will have far-reaching social and political consequences.

Here Francis Fukuyama, famous for his often-misunderstood neo-Hegelian work, The End of History and the Last Man, sets out his stall with admirable clarity, emphasising the radical nature of biotechnology; the threat it poses to human nature; the threat it poses to global social and political stability, and arguing persuasively the necessity of regulating biotechnology on a global basis. The range of issues raised in such a short book is indicative of how important this debate is and the relatively little public and media attention afforded to the topic stands as a condemnation of the poverty of contemporary political discourse.

The book is divided into three parts. The first focuses on specific biotechnologies and the effects they are likely to have, biologically, socially and politically. It does so in language aimed at the general reader, thus serving as a brief primer in biotechnology. The second part is pure political philosophy. Here, Fukuyama articulates his controversial belief that there is such a thing as human nature, which he defines as “the sum of the behaviour and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors”, and that it is from this nature that human rights derive, some of which are threatened by the potential consequences of biotechnology. Fukuyama finishes with practical advice on regulation; what should be regulated and how.

As Fukuyama acknowledges, the issue of regulation and control of biotechnology is particularly fraught because its potential consequences run the full gamut of possibilities from the utopian to the nightmarish. In the dystopia of unfettered biotech development by private companies, our social elites will translate their transitory social and economic advantages into permanent genetic advantage, creating an ever-widening genetic gap between classes. As a glimpse of what might be bred, Fukuyama quotes a comment by Geoffrey Bourne, former director of the Primate Center at Emory University, in the United States, who said: “It would be very important to try to produce an ape-human cross,” and notes that one company, Advanced Cell Technology, successfully transplanted human DNA into a cow’s egg and grew the embryo for a couple of days before destroying it. Yet the same technologies that provoke such fears could cleanse the world of a host of genetically determined diseases, prolong life and produce super-abundant crops to feed the world.

While acknowledging the positive aspects of biotechnology, Fukuyama makes a compelling case for limiting the fields in which biotechnological research and development should be allowed and he calls for an immediate ban on human cloning to set a precedent. One core characteristic of human nature, as Fukuyama defines it, is the demand for “an equality of recognition or respect” which Fukuyama translates as a right to an equality of “human dignity”. That right will count for nothing if only the rich can afford “designer babies” and scientists mix human with non-human genes, thus ruining the relative biological equality of our species.

Some have criticised Fukuyama’s assessment of biotechnology as alarmist and have castigated him for unnecessarily dragging the question of human nature into the debate. Neither criticism seems particularly justifiable. In any case, the real value of this book lies in its clear explanation of the problem and in the possibility that it may raise the profile of biotechnology in the media and in public awareness.

If we don’t give this issue the time and thought it deserves, we might soon find ourselves in a “posthuman” future we don’t like, with little hope of a return to the past.