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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1749

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...

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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 human rights, as cited in the Declaration of Independence. Rights may be said to derive from three possible sources: God, nature, or humans themselves. Fukuyama, citing the philosophers John Locke (1632-1704), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and even Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), points out that in today’s liberal democracies, the divine source of rights is not widely accepted. Rights based on human nature have also been under attack since the eighteenth century; the argument from human nature is usually referred to as the “naturalistic fallacy,” which states that nature itself cannot provide any discernable basis for the concept of human rights. Rights based on the human assertion of rights—that is, that human rights are what humans say they are—is also highly questionable. Fukuyama’s position is to reject both the naturalistic fallacy and the human assertion of rights and calls for a return to the pre-Kantian philosophic position that grounds rights and morality in nature.

Maintaining that human nature is far too complicated to be defined by simple terms such as pleasure and pain, Fukuyama returns to Plato (c. 428-348 or 347 b.c.e.) and Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) to capture the term thymos: spiritedness or pride, which the Greeks believed to be the primary component of a human being. Thymos is accompanied by two other components to make up the total human being. These are eros, or desire, and nous, or rationality. It is human pride and emotion that determine whether actions are beautiful or repulsive, desirable or infuriating, humane or inhumane, providing freedom or creating oppression. This range of sensitivity is then tempered by rationality to construct a working moral system or culture that may be altered by extraordinary change in time or circumstance, such as a world war or a widespread famine. According to this view, human nature is grounded in the useful and good, with the ability to adjust to given social circumstances. This is the position held by Thomas Aquinas (1224 or 1225-1274) and most Western philosophers and moralists until the advent of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who maintained a radical Protestant view that human nature is basically sinful and that high moral good can be obtained only by oppressing the natural. Kant’s position was embraced and reinforced throughout modern history by moralists and dictators who sought to enslave, oppress, or destroy the individual.

Human nature, however, is neither good nor bad. It does contain an innate tendency toward competitiveness and even violence, an evolutionary trait that it shares with other primates, but it also contains the rational means to control such tendencies, and because human nature is grounded in a desire for individual freedom and dignity, it is also capable of recognizing that desire for freedom and dignity in other individuals and groups. Humans are also, through evolution, social animals, and most will adjust the demands of their individual natures to remain part of a social group. This aspect of human nature, according to Fukuyama, is the factor which has led to the creation of liberal democracies throughout the world. In these constructs, Fukuyama is building on the work of contemporary thinkers such as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and John Robinson, as well as the nineteenth century rebel philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). It is the need for freedom and dignity, and thus the ability to recognize those essential human needs in others, upon which people must depend as they face the very real potential danger of a posthuman society, a society in which biotechnological success might well rob humanity of its most precious commodity—its human nature. As Fukuyama observes, it is well worth pondering what the creation of a genetic overclass might do to this most precious attribute: universal human dignity.

What is to de done? First, people must not fall prey to the idea that there is no human nature. They must be careful of falling under the spell of those who argue that in the future, people will no longer be slaves to their genes but their master. People must take control, not of their genes, but of the political process. This control must begin at the level of state- nations, since international control is more difficult to organize. Such control is nothing new. Many countries, including Japan, Germany, France, India, and the United Kingdom, have already banned reproductive cloning. As long ago as 1938, the United States established the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which controls which foods and drugs can be marketed to U.S. citizens. The powers of the FDA were greatly increased following the thalidomide scandals of the 1950’s and 1960’s, in which babies were born with horrifying birth defects caused by their mothers using the drug during pregnancy. Joint international actions will be more difficult, but Fukuyama is heartened by such past events as the extensive international agreements to limit the production and use of nuclear weapons. He cites movements already underway, such as the Cartagena Protacol on Biosafety, adopted by scores of countries in 2000, which restricts the distribution and sale of biologically modified organisms (BMOs) throughout Europe and other parts of the world.

There is no doubt that major changes are pending in the human condition through the power of the life sciences. Fukuyama calls for political good will, hard work, and vigilance in the sensible control of biotechnology so that a dismal posthuman future may be avoided, but the problem is far from simple. There is the reasonable desire to be healthy and the responsibility of the medical community to heal illness. There is the responsibility of the scientific community to seek truth and knowledge, no matter what the opposition, religious or otherwise. There is the entrepreneurial passion of the pharmaceutical industry to promote and sell its products. Everyone has a basic human right to health and enhancement. Above all, “red lines” must be drawn around the most important quality of all: human nature, with its need for the dignity and equality for each individual. This can only be done through a determined political process of control of biotechnology at national and international levels. The United States, as world leader, has the ethical obligation, in Fukuyama’s view, to spearhead such a process.

Sources for Further Study

Choice 40 (October, 2002): 298.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 5, 2002, p. 3.

The New York Review of Books 49 (May 9, 2002): 28.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (May 5, 2002): 11.

Publishers Weekly 249 (February 18, 2002): 82.

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