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May 9, 2002
All Too Human

The last man at the end of history is a tough act to follow. Unless, that is, you’re a genetically enhanced clone of the last man. In that case, writes Francis Fukuyama in Our Posthuman Future, history will pass into your hands in the form of a Brave New World-style dystopia. In fact, he thinks that such a future is already upon us. Mood-altering drugs like Prozac and Ritalin are contemporary versions of soma, allowing (or forcing) us to conform to a social norm of vapid cheerfulness. And just around the corner are genetic engineering techniques that will let the wealthy confer genes for beauty and IQ on their designer babies. If biotechnology proceeds unchecked, Fukuyama asserts, society will become a hereditary hierarchy of Alpha planners and Epsilon drones.

In The End of History and the Last Man, his controversial 1992 retrospective on the fall of Communism, Fukuyama framed history as a Hegelian dialectic culminating in liberal democracy. Biotechnology, he now argues, threatens to undo that synthesis. It will inaugurate a “kinder, gentler eugenics,” working insidiously through consumer choice rather than government diktat, imposing a relentlessly utilitarian view of human nature under the guise of therapy and self-enhancement. It will open up new methods of social engineering that impose a numbing psychological conformity, while it lets elites embed their privileges in their germ-line and perhaps even secede from the species. The genetically enhanced will come to think of themselves as natural aristocrats, while the underprivileged, pacified by therapeutic neuropharmaceuticals, will accept subordination and narrowed horizons as the inescapable lot of inferior DNA. We will lose fraternity, and with it liberty and equality.

Anxieties about superviruses and toxic GM foods are widespread, as is the “untutored repugnance,” in the words of bioethicist Leon Kass, that many feel toward transgenic chimeras, octuplet tragedies and other excesses of reproductive technology. Fukuyama is less concerned about the palpably terrifying and nauseating aspects of biotechnology, which he feels are easily foreseen and headed off, than with the subtler political, social and spiritual pitfalls. He fears that in tinkering with the human frame we will lose the human essence. He raises important, if not exactly novel, issues.

But Fukuyama’s focus is off, because biotechnology is more a symptom than an instigator of the trends that worry him. It’s not an independent force, but a way for people to jockey for advantage in a society all too regimented and hierarchical in its own right. Fukuyama should go back to his Hegelian roots and ask whether the dialectic of history is really over, or whether there are still internal contradictions that drive modern society toward posthumanism. Why does liberal—especially American—society crave biotechnology? Why must we drug ourselves into happiness? Why do we feel that life is so Darwinian that only a genetic elite can get ahead?

Fukuyama’s alarm about biotechnology is fed by a credulous acceptance of its claims. He takes it for granted that emotions boil down to neurotransmitter levels, that mood elevators are “far more effective than early childhood socialization and Freudian talk therapies” at forming personality, and that mental attributes like intelligence and competitiveness are amenable to genetic manipulation. He provides little scholarly backing for these dubious, HMO-inspired claims and never manages to reconcile their inconsistencies.

He doesn’t notice, for example, that his neuropharmacological zombie scenario is incompatible with his genetically engineered master-race scenario. He writes with awe of the second-wave psychotropics to come: benzodiazepines that “reduce anxiety” and increase wakefulness, “acetylcholine system enhancers” that “improve factual recall” and “dopamine system enhancers” that “increase stamina and motivation.” Although none of these drugs sound like they would add much to our current stash of gin, cigarettes, coffee and amphetamines, according to Fukuyama “virtually everything that the popular imagination envisions genetic engineering accomplishing is much more likely to be accomplished sooner through neuropharmacology.” But that’s good news—right?—since it means the democratization of the benefits of gene privilege. Who needs designer genes when you can pop some cheap, mass-produced superiority pill?

Fukuyama is too busy forecasting civil war between genetic haves and have-nots to dwell on that contradiction. An even deeper one crops up when, inevitably, he invokes complexity theory. The “human essence,” or “Factor X,” as he dubs it, is an “emergent property” of the “complex adaptive system” that is the human genome, and so can’t be grokked by the reductionist methods of gene science. Complexity theory is always used to defend the holistic integrity of some big thing—a rain forest, say, or the stock market—that people don’t want touched. In such “non-linear” systems, small disturbances snowball into big ones, like the proverbial butterfly that sets off a hurricane. Stripped of the mystical verbiage, Fukuyama’s implication is that tweaking any part of the genome will have unintended consequences that shunt the human essence off on a radically different path to Factor Y.

That’s a good point, indeed a devastating one for Fukuyama’s thesis: For if the genome is an unfathomably complex and fragile ecology, then genetic engineering will never make much headway. A few simple single-gene traits may yield to it, but not complex and only tenuously “genetic” characteristics like memory or competitiveness, “enhancements” to which would probably give rise to psychotic freaks of science—people who can’t forget anything, or people who literally never give up.

The scientific incoherence of Fukuyama’s arguments is ultimately beside the point. Our Posthuman Future is about the discontents of liberal democracy. It is a revisiting of The End of History, substituting trendy biological determinism for stodgy German idealism. In the earlier book, the motor of progress is thymos—the human desire for recognition and dignity. The first man at the beginning of history was the warrior who gained recognition from slaves, a precursor of the feudal overlord and the Bolshevik commissar. Each such social arrangement collapsed because it thwarted the thymotic needs of the masses, until capitalist liberal democracy, by enshrining the autonomy and dignity of all citizens, resolved this internal contradiction and brought the dialectic of history to a close.

Our Posthuman Future translates this scheme into the supposedly clear-headed language of sociobiology. Thus, it is “the evolutionary theory of kin selection,” not Hegelian teleology, that “predict[s] the bankruptcy and ultimate failure of Communism.” Thymos turns out to be serotonin, which fuels the “struggle for status” within “dominance hierarchies” from chimpanzee troops to the Roman Empire. The advent of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors therefore has world-historical reverberations: “Would Caesar or Napoleon have felt the need to conquer most of Europe if he had been able to pop a Prozac?”

In passages like this, Fukuyama’s worry seems to be that biotechnology is not the bane but the fulfillment of liberalism—therapeutic, ameliorative and non-heroic, promising “relief from pain and suffering” at the expense of the “genius or ambition” that drives men of destiny. Like liberal democracy, biotechnology will bring the zeitgeist to a permanent halt—and that troubles Fukuyama. He can’t decide whether he wants history to end or not.

His ambivalence goes back to The End of History, where he acknowledged some misgivings about the liberal order. The left critique—that the inequalities of capitalism make a mockery of liberalism’s pretense of universal human dignity—he largely dismissed. The Nietzschean critique—that liberal democracy is a gray bourgeois mediocrity against which the great-souled Ubermensch must rebel—he took very seriously. Many of Our Posthuman Future’s complaints, about society’s decrepitude and the unnatural confusion of feminine and masculine, have a Nietzschean ring to them.

Prozac, for example, gives depressed women “more of that alpha-male feeling that comes with high serotonin,” while Ritalin makes boys sit still in class as if they were girls. “Together, the two sexes are gently nudged toward that androgynous median personality, self-satisfied and socially compliant, that is the current politically correct outcome.” And life-extending medical treatments threaten to turn society into a “giant nursing home” where the young cater to a senile and, because women outlive men, effeminate gerontocracy, thus sapping our national vigor: “The world may well be divided between a North whose political tone is set by elderly women and a South driven by ... super-empowered angry young men.”

But Fukuyama finally breaks with Nietzsche and with what he sees as the nihilistic thrust of biotechnology, especially human germ-line engineering. Implicit in that project, he feels, is the idea that human nature is open-ended, that there is in fact no such thing as human nature other than a will-to-power that tries to accrue ever more capabilities by re-engineering—or even by “downloading” consciousness into computers, obliterating the biological underpinnings of human life. Fukuyama rejects this conceit, arguing that our capacity for language, reason, moral intuitions and sociability are all to some extent hard-wired into our brains by evolution. Human nature, grounded in our genome, is what makes possible human values.

Fukuyama’s discussion of these issues is insightful, although marred by woolly scientific conceits. The real point of all the complexity gobbledygook is to impart an acceptable secular veneer to a philosophical, ultimately religious notion—that the human germ line, i.e. human nature, is sacred and untouchable, to be revered for its own sake, not tampered with and exploited for instrumental purposes. For if human nature is dead, then all is permitted, and we might as well breed humans into functional castes, as long as everyone is kept high on serotonin.

Science cannot demonstrate this proposition, nor solve the mystery of Factor X. But Fukuyama is right in a crucial respect: A humane order depends on an idea of an innate human nature. Our impulses toward compassion, social solidarity and moral reciprocity all rest on the conviction that other people are fundamentally just like us, and so must be treated like us. Whatever the scientific basis for this belief, it’s an article of faith that a just society can’t do without.

But when we give up on human nature, it won’t be because of biotechnology. Liberal society still offers up plenty of affronts to thymos—especially at the workplace, which looks more like a brave new world every day. Ritalin is there, after all, to keep us focused on mindless busywork, while Prozac, if you’re a depressed female Enron accountant, lets you put a brave face on a business that you don’t understand but which is probably fraudulent and definitely emptying out your 401(k). And where once we had occupations, mastered through training and practice, now we’re either “knowledge workers” or “service workers,” functionally mysterious castes that rely on interior personal essences, like IQ or servility.

It’s no wonder then that popular culture now views genetic engineering not as a nightmare scenario but as a ticket out of the rat race. In movies and TV shows like X-Men and Dark Angel, transgenics get whisked off to elite private schools, where their capabilities are carefully nurtured. They graduate to become irreplaceable members of interdependent work teams, with unique specialties—kick-boxing, telepathy, breathing underwater, magnetizing nearby metals—that are hard to outsource or automate. They are labor aristocrats in a world where the next best thing is casual employment as a bicycle messenger.

So if we believe that genes outweigh environment, it’s because we’ve grown disenchanted with the environment. We used to meet people, learn new ideas and gain practical experience, all from interacting with the environment. Nowadays the environment is for suckers. We’re told that everything we learn today will be obsolete tomorrow. Entrance into college is based on your scholastic “aptitude,” which is unaffected by whether you grew up in Beverly Hills or South Central. We live in a “winner-take-all society,” so there’s no longer a payoff to solidarity or mutual aid. When you reach your benefits cutoff, or your portfolio tanks, you have only your personal responsibility to back you up. Genes didn’t matter so much when we thought the environment provided skills and friends and social institutions we could count on to transform our life circumstances. Now we know better. The environment passeth away. Genes abide.

One wishes Fukuyama would probe these attitudes, instead of tacitly endorsing them and wringing his hands over the consequences. He ends his book with a sensible call for thoroughgoing government regulation of biotechnology. But he should go further and look at the failure of Davos-stage liberal democracy to live up to the ideals he claims it embodies. Biotechnology hype simply mirrors a world that aggrandizes a Nietzschean few and humiliates millions. Unless we learn to treat people as ends and not means, the posthuman future will follow from an inhuman present.


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