Fukuyama looks at a 'Posthuman Future'

April 21, 2002|By Craig Eisendrath | By Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 261 pages. $25.

In still another trendy book, Francis Fukuyama, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University and author of the best-selling The End of History and the Last Man, leads the reader through his own confusions about biotechnology.

The book makes hard reading. Again and again, Fukuyama, who is billed by his publisher as "our greatest social philosopher," changes his meaning of concepts, distorts others, takes parts for wholes, and illustrates clearly the lesson of his earlier books -- that he is a moderately assiduous journalist, and an unclear thinker.

Fukuyama's central thesis is that progress in biotechnology threatens the stability of human nature, and therefore needs to be regulated. He then provides a spotty chapter on brain research, and a useful, if sometimes confusing, review of research and advances in neuropharmacology and behavioral control, life prolongation, and genetic engineering.

Throughout the book, Fukuyama's language is maddeningly imprecise. At one point, he questions the use of psychiatric pharmaceuticals because they interfere with natural processes -- "therapies which blur the line between what we achieve on our own and what we achieve because of the levels of various chemicals in our brain." But doesn't any pharmaceutical, such as aspirin, interfere with what the body is doing?

Or Fukuyama indulges in wild overstatements like "So few people have children or any connection with traditional reproduction that it scarcely seems to matter." Or he gratuitously associates unrelated ideas, as in "Agitprop, labor camps, reeducation, Freudianism, early childhood conditioning, behaviorism -- all of these were techniques for pounding the square peg of human nature into the round hole of social planning." His lack of understanding of psychotherapy suggests willful ignorance.

When Fukuyama attempts to discuss human rights and human nature, he is simply over his head, sometimes crediting and discrediting the same ideas as they suit him, and unclear just what he is saying. His knowledge of philosophy seems spotty at best. In the end, he fails to establish any convincing theory of human rights, although at various times he says it is relevant and irrelevant to his argument. He also seems unable to present any convincing description of human nature, except to indicate it is what humans typically do. His discussion of statistics would send a competent statistician into a panic.

In the end, Fukuyama argues for the design of new regulatory machinery for biotechnology, and tries to create some kind of standard that discriminates between drugs or techniques which are concerned with enhancement vs. therapy. In his view, it is bad to attempt to improve human beings or better their behavior; it is good to correct them so they approach statistical norms.

The difference between improvement and correction becomes quite blurred, as does virtually every other element of his argument. Not to worry, Fukuyama says, just design the regulatory machinery. "Once we agree in principle that we will need a capability to draw red lines, it will not be a fruitful exercise to spend a lot of time arguing precisely where they should be placed. What is more important is to think about the design of institutions and how those institutions can be extended internationally."

If that is his conclusion, one can only wonder what this book is about. Clearly, the topic is of great public concern, and awaits a better book in which it is more competently discussed.

Craig Eisendrath is the author of four nonfiction books and six plays, he has just completed a study of Western thought, Beyond Permanence: Western Thought in the New Millennium. His Crisis Game: A Novel of the Cold War, appeared in January. A former Foreign Service officer, he is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. The former executive director of the Pennsylvania HumanitieshCouncil, he earned hs Ph.D. in the History of American civilization at Harvard University.

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