Review of Our Posthuman Future

Posted: September 7, 2015 at 7:49 am

Francis Fukuyama, the well-known author of The End of History and the Last Man, takes on a subject far from his usual field of international political economy: biotechnology. Yet, in his introduction, he shows that there is indeed a link: his 1989 book met with a great deal of criticism, and one argument he found impossible to refute was that there could be no end of history unless there was an end of science. This new book takes that concept further, and considers the impact of modern biology on the understanding of politics.

Being a child of the 1950s, Fukuyama cites two books that were not only decisive in forming his worldview, and that of others growing up in the same period, but which act as templates for examining how our world might evolve. George Orwells 1984, which posits a world of centralized control, never came to be as such, partly because the Internet which developed is the opposite of the centralized system shown in this dystopia. But Aldous Huxleys Brave New World still gives us food for thought, as the biotechnology revolution gets underway. In Huxleys world, drugs were made to ensure that peoples every need and desire be met, essentially abolishing human nature. Fukuyama argues that, Huxley was right, that the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and move us into a posthuman stage of history.

Fukuyama seems worried more by the possibility that the biotech revolution will have political consequences rather than any specific effect on individuals. He sees the potential for class wars, as the rich have access to drugs and techniques that make them, and their children, smarter, stronger, and longer-living. This is indeed a different issue than the more basic moral questions than arise, and he is right to raise it. For what would happen in a world, which is already strongly polarized between haves and have-nots, when the haves not only enjoy better goods, food and living conditions, but also life, by purchasing extra years of living, new organs when the old ones break down, or by designing their children before their births.

As the floodgates of biotechnology open, there are several areas of exploration that, unfortunately, get conflated or confused. The main issues are not limited to human cloning, which has gotten by far the greatest amount of press. Other issues involve cognitive neuroscience, and the possibility of controlling behavior; neuropharmacology, and the creation of drugs that enhance certain emotions and repress others; genetic engineering, where new plants and animals can be created, or where humans can be modified; and the prolongation of life, either through the use of chemicals or transplants, or other, as yet undiscovered techniques.

What Fukuyama succeeds in showing in this book is the extent to which the biotechnology revolution can and will affect us. Far beyond the simple debate over human cloning and stem-cell research, which have led to distinct camps digging into the trenches, defending either scientific or religious beliefs, the myriad issues involvedsome of which are already present, others which may or may not exist, according to the success or failure of scientistswill have a great effect on the future of our civilization. But will the effect be greater than other revolutions, such as the agricultural and industrial revolutions? Fukuyama calls for common sense and the regulation of experiments and applications, so mistakes are not made through precipitation.

In short, this is an essential book, for two reasons. First, because its lucid, objective presentation of the issues and their context allows the reader to understand what is at stake without undue religious or racist leanings which have often, over the years, been lurking behind many of these questions. And second, because, like it or not, these issues exist, and choices will have to be made, and soon.

Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.

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Review of Our Posthuman Future

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