Kenan Malik’s review of Our Posthuman Future by Francis …

Posted: August 19, 2015 at 8:44 am

Capitalism, Francis Fukuyama announced more than a decade ago, is the promised land at the End of History. The collapse of the Soviet Union confirmed that there was neither an alternative to the market, nor a possibility of transcending capitalism.

Not even the events of September 11, which have led many critics to mock the ‘End of History’ thesis, have given Fukuyama cause to change his mind. The end of history, Fukuyama argues, means not the termination of conflict, simply the recognition that nothing can improve upon capitalism. Why? Because, as he puts it in Our Posthuman Future, capitalist institutions ‘are grounded in assumptions about human nature that are far more realistic than those of their competitors’.

Yet even Fukuyama has come to worry that the reports of History’s death might have been a mite exaggerated. Capitalism, he fears, is undermining its own foundations. Not, as Marx thought, through the agency of the working class, but as a result of the unrestricted advance of science and technology. Science, and in particular biotechnology, has, Fukuyama believes, the potential to change the kinds of beings we are, and in so doing to ‘recommence history’, propelling us from a human to a posthuman world. From the end of history to the end of human nature as we know it.

Fukuyama’s argument runs something like this. Human values are rooted in human nature. Human nature is rooted in our biological being, in particular in our genes. Messing around with human biology could alter human nature, transform our values and undermine capitalism. ‘What is ultimately at stake with biotechnology’, Fukuyama declares, ‘is… the very grounding of the human moral sense.’ We therefore need international regulation to obstruct any technological advance that might ‘disrupt either the unity or the continuity of human nature, and thereby the human rights that are based upon it.’

While most worried about genetic engineering, other technologies also concern Fukuyama. Cloning is an ‘unnatural form’ of reproduction that might create ‘unnatural urges’ in a parent whose spouse has been cloned. Prozac is giving women ‘more of the alpha-male feeling that comes with high serotonin levels’, while Ritalin is making ‘young boys… sit still’ even though ‘nature never designed them to behave that way.’

Even attempt to slow down the ageing process is ‘unnatural’ and fraught with danger. The world, Fukuyama believes, may soon be divided ‘between a North whose political tone is set by elderly women’ (since women tend to live longer than men) and ‘a South driven by… super-empowered angry young men’. The consequence will not simply be more days like September 11, but also a disinclination on the part of the West to use force in response, since women are apparently naturally less aggressive than men.

Such fears may seem to carry all the scholarly weight of a Hollywood dystopian fantasy (Gataca meets The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, perhaps). If capitalism is as natural as Fukuyama claims, how is it that for virtually the whole of human history people abided by entirely different sets of values and beliefs? And what exactly worries Fukuyama about genetic engineering? That we will be turned into a race of beings who believe that the market may not be the best way to promote human flourishing? Or (God forbid) that we will lose our attachment to the sanctity of property?

As for the dangers of longevity, life expectancy has doubled in the past two centuries – without any evidence of social breakdown. Nor is there any evidence that the extension of the franchise to women at the beginning of the twentieth century made that century any less violent than the nineteenth.

Absurd though such arguments may seem to be, at the heart of Fukuyama’s book is a discussion, not of biotechnology, but of what it is to be human. To understand his alarmism about biotechnology, we have to understand his confusions over human nature.

For Fukuyama, humans as a species possess an inner essence or nature, which he defines as ‘the sum total of the behaviour and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors.’ From this perspective, humans seem little more than sophisticated animals. ‘Many of the attributes that were once held to be unique to human beings – including language, culture, reason, consciousness, and the like – are’, Fukuyama believes, ‘characteristic of a wide variety of nonhuman animals’.

At the same time, though, Fukuyama presents humans as exceptional beings. While all animals have a nature, only humans possess ‘dignity’. Dignity gives humans a ‘superior… moral status that raises us all above the rest of animal creation and yet makes us equals of one another qua human beings.’ Such dignity, Fukuyama believes, resides in a mysterious ‘Factor X’ which is the ‘essential human quality’ that remains after ‘all of a person’s contingent and accidental characteristics’ have been stripped away. It is Factor X that Fukuyama wants to preserve from the clutches of biotechnologists.

And therein lies the problem. ‘Factor X’ appears to be both the same as human nature the ‘essence’ of our humanity – and also that which makes humans entirely distinct from the rest of nature. Indeed, Fukuyama suggests that somewhere along the human evolutionary journey there occurred ‘a very important qualitative, if not ontological, leap’, that came to separate Man and Beast.

Fukuyama is right, I think, to assert the ‘dual character’ of human existence, of humans as both animal and yet more-than-animal. But he seems not to recognise what this means for the concept of human nature. If humans are qualitatively distinct from the rest of the natural world, then the human ‘essence’ cannot be simply rooted in nature.

What sets humans apart is not some mysterious Factor X hidden somewhere in our biology but rather our ability to act as conscious agents. Uniquely among organisms, humans are both objects of nature and subjects that can, to some extent at least, shape our own fate. We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, traits the possession of which allow us to design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws.

It is only because humans are conscious agents that we possess moral values. As Fukuyama himself observes, ‘Only human beings can formulate, debate, and modify abstract rules of justice’. This is why we should not ‘confuse human politics with the social behaviour of any other species’.

Human values, in other words, are not fixed in our nature, but emerge from our capacity to transcend that nature. To a certain degree, Fukuyama recognises this. Violence, he suggests, ‘may be natural to human beings’. But so, too, is ‘the propensity to control and channel violence’. Humans are capable of ‘reasoning about their situation’ and of ‘understanding the need to create rules and institutions that constrain violence’. Humans, therefore, possess the capacity to rise above their natural inclinations and, through the use of reason, to shape their values.

But if this is so, then no amount of biotechnological intervention will transform our fundamental values. What may transform them, however, is the kind of pessimism that Fukuyama expresses in his End of Human Nature thesis.

Fukuyama rightly worries about the ‘medicalisation of society’ – the inclination tendency to view personal, social and political problems in biological or medical terms. In part, at least, this arises from the growing tendency of our age to view humans as weak-willed, sick or damaged, as victims lacking the capacity to transcend their situation, either individually or collectively. Biotechnology, Fukuyama believes, can only entrench such perceptions, making it easier for individuals who ‘would like to absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions.’

But Fukuyama’s own belief that values are embedded in our biology, and should be ring-fenced for protection, can only exacerbate this problem. If our values were simply evolved adaptations, then the notion of moral responsibility would indeed appear to be fragile. And what would then be wrong with popping a pill or performing a bit of genetic surgery to improve our moral condition?

The real debate is not about whether biotechnology will undermine our values, but about the kind of values to which we aspire. Do we want a human-centred morality rooted in concrete human needs (such as for solutions to brain disorders and genetic illnesses like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cystic fibrosis)? Or are we happy with a moral code that undermines the promise of medical advance in the name of a mythical human nature?

For Fukuyama ‘There are good prudential reasons to defer to the natural order of things and not to think that human beings can easily improve upon it through casual intervention’. But why should the ‘natural order of things’ be better than human creation? After all, we only need medicine because nature has left us with jerry-built bodies that tend constantly to break down with headaches and backaches, cancers and coronaries, schizophrenia and depression.

‘If the artificial is not better than that natural’, John Stuart Mill once asked, ‘to what end are all the arts of life?’ ‘It’s unnatural’ has always been the cry of those who seek to obstruct progress and restrain ‘the arts of life’. It’s an argument no more valid in response to biotechnology than it was in response to vaccination, heart transplants or IVF treatment. The ‘duty of man’, as Mill put it, ‘is the same in respect to his own nature as in respect to the nature of other things, namely not to follow but to amend it.’

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Kenan Malik’s review of Our Posthuman Future by Francis …

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