A Review of the Book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution

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Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (Francis Fukuyama; New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002)

Although discussion of the consequences of biotechnology does comprise the strongest part of Fukuyama’s latest book, his title is misleading. His purpose is not merely to delineate the consequences of biotechnology, but to argue that biotechnology threatens both the very definition of a human being and the existing social fabric. Fukuyama further asserts that government institutions should be established to evaluate and regulate biotechnological innovations.

The introductory chapter in Part I outlines the book’s thesis and uses Huxley’s Brave New World as an analogy for the subtle alterations of human nature and society likely to result from biotechnology. Such alterations will likely face limited opposition because “everyone gets what they want.” The next four chapters each discuss a burgeoning area of biotechnology (brain science, neuropharmacology/behavior control, life extending technology, and genetic engineering [GE]) and their impact on society. GE is portrayed as the most significant technology because it threatens to modify human nature. The last chapter of Part I summarizes concerns—which include GE’s promise of a “kinder gentler eugenics” and an increase in the number of discarded embryos as a means of eliminating defective genes and increasing reproductive choice—raised by such technological interventions. Fukuyama briefly discusses religious, utilitarian, and philosophical objections to biotechnology. He acknowledges that religious grounds for evaluating biotechnology are clearest and widely held and therefore argues for their greater tolerance in pluralistic democracies. He points out that utilitarian approaches emphasize measurable factors over intangible effects on human rights, justice, and morality. Philosophically speaking, Fukuyama believes that human rights are grounded in human nature as the basis for the human moral sense, social skills, and philosophical discussion.

Drawing upon a view of humanity akin to that of natural law, Fukuyama offers in Part II an argument that many religious as well as non-religious people can endorse. He writes from an evolutionary perspective, yet argues for a form of natural law without acknowledging a Lawgiver. He fears tampering with human nature without convincingly articulating why human evolution should not be self-directed. He believes that rights provide “the only shared and widely intelligible vocabulary…for talking about ultimate human goods or ends” and that the only suitable approach is to derive rights from human nature since “human rights that speak to the most deeply felt and universal human drives, ambitions and behaviors will be a...solid foundation for political order.” Fukuyama defines human nature as all genetically determined human characteristics and behaviors. He views human dignity as based in aspects of human nature (the human moral sense, consciousness, and range of human emotions) that reductionist science cannot explain, which make humans more than the sum of their parts.

The final prescriptive section argues that technology can and should be controlled, outlines existing institutions for controlling biotechnology, and advocates further development of national and international regulatory institutions without specifying what should characterize them.

As a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Fukuyama and the views he espouses should be of interest to anyone seriously involved in bioethics. Despite the fact that the bases of his arguments may differ from those put forth by the religious community, Fukuyama should be viewed as an ally by Christians and others who believe that humans have special dignity and/or who advocate selective, rather than unbridled, use of biotechnology.