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National Observer Home > No. 58 - Spring 2003 > Book ReviewsSpring 2003 cover

 

OUR POSTHUMAN FUTURE


by Francis Fukuyama

London: Profile Books, 2002, pp. 256, $49.95

Fukuyama claims that if biotechnology continues as uncontrolled as it is now, we could well become citizens in a society like that in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. To curtail this development, he advocates strong governmental regulation of biotechnology. Such measures would stand in the way of what could become "our posthuman future."

In order to describe what might otherwise be lost, Fukuyama embarks upon an inquiry into the definition of human nature itself. However, the result is a reductionistic account, unable to uphold any basis for human dignity, because it cannot break free from the constraints of a fundamental materialism. What promises to be the foundation of Fukuyama's argument proves to be its greatest weakness.

Because Fukuyama maintains that human nature is the result of progressive evolution, he finds himself in a quandary. He must demonstrate that "human nature exists, is a meaningful concept, has provided a stable continuity to our experience as a species. It is, conjointly with religion, what defines our most basic values." Yet, he must also explain how it is that this nature did not always exist - that at a certain point in history we became human. He argues that this moment occurred when our genetic makeup "endowed us" with the essential wholeness that is the foundation of human dignity. It is on this basis that we should model forms of regulations for advances in biotechnology.

Fukuyama refers to this position as an "ontological leap", a notion which he acknowledges that he shares with the current Pope. However, he maintains that "the problem of how consciousness arose does not require recourse to the direct intervention of God. It does not, on the other hand, rule it out, either." This ambivalence runs throughout his philosophical discussion. Significantly, this means that his discussion of ethics leaves us with a definition of human nature inadequate to current issues in biotechnology.

Consequently, he defines human essence as what he calls "Factor X", which is not one part of the human, but rather that which cannot be reduced to the possession of moral choice, or reason, or language, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forth as a ground for human dignity: "It is all of these qualities coming together in a human whole that make up Factor X. Every member of the human species possesses a genetic endowment that allows him or her to become a whole human being, an endowment that distinguishes a human in essence from other types of creatures."

In his quest to describe human essence, in terms both acceptable to anyone interested in the field of biotechnology and in a way that does not demote it to one of its parts, Fukuyama arrives at his own form of reductionism. The human is an aggregate of his or her genes that allow for the possibility of human "qualities". It is not one of these qualities but their sum that make the person human. One is left to wonder whether his strong sense of progress is adequate for a discussion of essence.

It is this sense of progress which seems ill equipped to achieve Fukuyama's explicit goal - protection of the human species. It is certainly not capable of providing a basis for laws intended to protect the human person from conception until death. One's genes allow one to "become a whole human being", but Fukuyama cannot pinpoint exactly when this takes place.

That this has ramifications for any technology involved with embryo research becomes evident in Fukuyama’s own views. He holds that if we are to accord dignity to an embryo, it is only "because it has the potential to become a full human being". This use of potentiality for becoming a full human being, however, opens the back door to a debate which Fukuyama seemingly tries to avoid. He undoubtedly emphasises that the human being is a whole which is more than the sum of its parts. Inherent in the concept of potentiality though is a point of determination, the point where this potentiality should be considered actual. What kind of calculus should be involved, then, to determine at which point the whole exceeds the sum of the parts? Would, for example, the lack of consciousness imply that human nature is no longer whole? This would open the way for something Fukuyama himself is against, namely experimentation without the consent of the patient.

Fukuyama's primary definition of human nature ultimately undermines that which he wishes to achieve before it is too late - the implementation of governmental structures to avoid the potentially detrimental consequences of biomedical research and practice. Yet his understanding of the nature of human life and its dignity would seem to rule out the very possibility of such regulation. If regulators do not know exactly what they are protecting, what enforceable regulations could they make? Fukuyama claims that the time for commissions of scientists, philosophers, theologians and bioethicists is over. "It is time", he says, "to move from thinking to acting, from recommending to legislating. We need institutions with real enforcement powers." If such institutions are to function though, their members should certainly have some basis of consensus about the definition of the human person. Fukuyama's own deficient sense of what it is to be human should give us pause.

The real usefulness of this book rests in considering the implications of Fukuyama's underlying presuppositions, which it appears he would like to have the same strength as a metaphysics, but which founder due to his ingrained materialism.

We are left with the timely reminder that when we act we should do so on the basis of rigorous metaphysical thought.

Renee Ryan