- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

OUR POSTHUMAN FUTURE: CONSEQUENCES OF THE BIOTECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION
By Francis Fukuyama
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, $25, 256 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN SIEFF


Francis Fukuyama will likely never escape the vague but increasing sense of ridicule that has accompanied him ever since he proclaimed "The End of History" and the eschatological Hegelian triumph of the liberal democratic nation state in his 1989 book "The End of History and the Last Man." The definitive put down of that long fashionable and still deeply influential, but astonishingly naive and dangerously over-optimistic thesis, was provided by wry former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski when he dryly opined, "After the End of History comes … more history."
It was therefore, with both anticipation and foreboding that one opened the pages of "Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution," Mr. Fukuyama's latest opus. Would one be saddled with more of the same ponderous Great Thoughts the most pretentious collection of truisms and cliches wrapped around the wackiest wild predictions since Alvin Toffler last put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard?
Mercifully no. Mr. Fukuyama's forays into the ethics, opportunities and deadly dangers of biotechnology are a revelation and a relief. They are a relief because, although the implications of the technology are vast, Mr. Fukuyama wisely restrains himself from the kind of sweeping conclusions that finally made the intellectual roller-coaster ride of "The End of History" so hard to swallow. Here he is asking intelligent questions instead of proclaiming ludicrous answers. And they are a revelation because Mr. Fukuyama documents how so much of what is still widely assumed to be bizarre, impossible fantasy is now on the brink of becoming achievable fact.
This is an excellently written, muscularly argued and very useful overview of much of the research and most of the ethical arguments about What We Should Do and Not Do in dealing with the immensely powerful biotechnological and genetic engineering tools that are now inexorably falling into our hands. Unlike in "The End of History" and some of his earlier works, Mr. Fukuyama here does not attempt to produce any vast sweeping and original conceptual overview within which to view his subject. The concerns he expresses and quotes from the mouths of others have been a staple of scientific and philosophical debate since Aldous Huxley wrote his presciently brilliant "Brave New World" more than seven decades ago.
Instead the author wears the hats of reporter and philosophical tour guide, or debate moderator, and they sit well on him. Usually it is a scathing put down to say the author of a major new study lacks originality. Here it is meant as high praise. Mr. Fukuyama brings together much scientific and sociological research with a concise and valuable discussion of how human species behavior has been assessed and evaluated.
The decent, liberal democratic Mr. Fukuyama also shows both mischief and shrewdness in using quotes from Friedrich Nietzsche to introduce many of his chapters. The brilliant but loathsome Nietzsche carries more than a hint of menace and daring disquiet whenever he is rolled out, despite all the attempts of generations of ludicrous mainstream American admirers whom Irish scholar Conor Cruise O'Brien memorably characterized as "The Gentle Nietzschians" to prettify him and purge him of brutality and disrepute.
By allowing Nietzsche's tone to impregnate his pages, Mr. Fukuyama maintains a sense of danger and of the potential of Promethean power straining at the leash to explode and run rampant that the quiet, measured tone of his own prose alone would not. So vast are the implications of applied biotechnology for the future potential genetic and behavioral manipulation of the human race that a sense of disquiet and of the challenge to traditional moral boundaries is entirely appropriate.
Mr. Fukuyama fully justifies this sense of disquiet. Reading his pages, it is impossible not be reminded of the lament of the Creator in the 11th chapter of the Book of Genesis on seeing the rapid achievements of the human race when they banded together to build the Tower of Babel. "Behold … this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do."
Here is Geoffrey Bourne , former director of the primate center at Emory University saying, "It would be very important scientifically to try and produce an ape-human cross." Other researchers, Mr. Fukuyama notes, "have suggested using women as 'hosts' for the embryos of chimpanzees or gorillas." Even more repulsively, a company called Advanced Cell Technologies, he reports, has claimed to have already "successfully transferred human DNA into a cow's egg and gotten it to grow into a blastocyst before it was destroyed."
As one progresses through this fine and frightening book, the sense of contrast with "The End of History" 13 years ago becomes ever more striking and disquieting. There, Mr. Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of the Aristotelian mean the victory of the Lockean liberal democratic state of toleration, reason and compromise over all the totalitarian monsters and mad fanaticisms that had drowned the 20th century in tidal waves of blood. Here, he is worryingly monitoring the emergence of a scientific Frankenstein's Monster from within the greatest achievements and aspirations of that same world, which may inexorably destroy it.
This book is the product of a less personally ambitious but far more mature mind than its famous predecessor. But in attempting less, Mr. Fukuyama has achieved more. The decent, free market, liberal democratic millennium he celebrated as "the End of History" is here being clearly challenged by technologies and powers thrown into the hands of human beings who lack the collective wisdom and restraint, or institutional safeguards, to let alone, never mind control and direct them.
"The 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," Mr. Fukuyama warns. Yet it is still not too late. "We do not have to accept any of these (threatening and sinister) future worlds under a false banner of liberty," he concludes in his final paragraph. "We do not have to regard ourselves as slaves to inevitable technological progress when that progress does not serve human ends."
In order to maintain human freedom, Mr. Fukuyama argues, the unlimited intellectual and technological freedom to do anything, just because it can be done, must be curbed. In other words, the moral warning expressed in Genesis 11 must be invoked to prevent the dystopian visions of Nietzsche and Huxley, among others, from ever coming to pass. That is just as well. The "Star Wars" vision of clone armies threatening to topple the long enjoyed freedoms and happiness of an ancient republic that has lost its sense of danger may be closer than we think.

Martin Sieff is managing editor, international affairs, at United Press International.


LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide