There have been extraordinary advances in the life sciences over the past half-century, culminating in the discovery of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and the pace has quickened of late with the widespread application of biotechnology in the lives of much of the world’s population. As Francis Fukuyama observes in his very significant ethical work Our Posthuman Future, it will soon be routinely possible for parents to screen their embryos for a wide range of disorders and have only those with desirable genes implanted in the mother’s womb. While this process might be acceptable for aborting embryos with severe disabilities, as is done today, it is another matter when it comes to aborting female babies, as is also done today in China. Fukuyama asks his readers to pause with him and consider the consequences of the biotechnology revolution.
Fukuyama’s approach is thoughtful and thorough. He works hard to avoid the easy choice of science fiction melodrama. He begins with what is already commonplace in the brave new biotechnological world—the widespread and massive administration of such drugs as Prozac and Ritalin to children and young people. While medical intervention is certainly called for in cases of clinical aggressiveness or depression, Fukuyama observes that some psychiatrists see attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder everywhere and that some 15 million young boys are said to be suffering from the problem. He denies the massiveness of the epidemic and argues that attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is but a small tail on the normal curve of young male behavior. Young human beings, especially males, are supposed to run, jump, shout, and play games, not sit quietly at a desk all day. By injudiciously administering such drugs as Prozac and Ritalin, society is turning its youth into androgynous beings and tinkering dangerously with basic human nature.
Pharmaceuticals are not the only threat to human nature posed by the biotechnical revolution. The process of prolonging human life is in full sway. While no one wants to see another human die, advances in medical technology and information have produced an ever-aging population that is not replenishing itself at the same rate as in the past. Moreover, biotechnology is also on the verge of making even more significant breakthroughs that will permit the engineering of babies with unlimited resistance to disease and aging, who thus may look forward to indefinitely long life.
Genetic engineering begins with decisions about which embryos to save and which to discard. If females are routinely discarded simply because they are females, as they now are in some parts of Asia, China will find itself in a situation before the middle of the twenty-first century in which as much as one fifth of its male population will not be able to find brides. In other parts of the world, genetic engineers will clone and grow embryos simply to obtain stem cells or desirable genes that will then be grafted on to other embryos. Since this is an expensive process, Fukuyama posits that the genetically best-endowed children will be purchased by the wealthiest parents. What of simply reproducing oneself? Cloning is, and seems certain to remain, an extremely expensive process. Consequently, only the very richest of the rich would be able to clone themselves. In this situation, is seems possible that an Albert Einstein might be lost but that a person whose wealth came about by accident might be preserved.
Fukuyama feels that genetic manipulation is worrying for two significant reasons. It has not always been practiced ethically in the past, and it poses the very real danger of destroying the very thing which makes people significant: human nature. As for past ethical problems, he cites Nazi Germany’s experiments in eugenics, as well as similar experiments throughout the world. There is also the matter of religious opposition to genetic manipulation. However, the overriding issue is the destruction of humankind by seemingly well-meaning efforts at improving biological structures.
The question is: What is human nature? The answer to this query is the major burden of Fukuyama’s book, and he does a masterful job of exploring this complicated and perplexing issue. He begins with a question concerning the definition of...
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