Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
By Francis Fukuyama
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272 pages, $25
In the early 1970s, alarm spread about a new scientific technique called recombinant DNA, and its potential for harm. The concept was easy to understand: you take a gene out of one living thing and put it in another. In this case scientists proposed to insert human genes into bacteria, where they could be more easily manipulated.
Even the most pedestrian mind could imagine evil applications--deadlier strains of old viruses or designer babies--but the benefits were equally compelling. Before it, fundamental advances on cellular disease didn’t seem possible. Recombinant DNA changed all that.
But the majority of Americans were against the research, worried about its consequences. So leading scientists met to debate a moratorium. Passions were strong on both sides. When some scientists suggested recombinant bacteria were unsafe since it was capable of infecting people, some British researchers mixed it into their milk and drank it.
Yet the group managed to set aside parochial interests for the greater benefit of their enterprise. One reason was safety, but the more compelling impetus was to “keep the Feds out,” as one participant put it. Senator Edward Kennedy was leading a charge to wrap new rules around biomedical research. The scientists sensed their independence was on the line. The compromise they reached on a set of restrictions was enough to thwart Mr. Kennedy’s broader efforts, and the only limits ever enacted were those the scientists drafted.
Government restrictions on scientific research are again at issue, championed by a growing number who worry about the way in which biotechnology, from human cloning to gene manipulation to experimentation with fetal stem cells, is changing the human essence. One of the most articulate voices belongs to Francis Fukuyama, who worries about the danger of these scientific achievements, believing that those closest to the action--scientists and bioethicists--cannot be trusted to raise the alarm. He believes too many scientists are interested in conquering nature and that many bioethicists “have become nothing more than sophisticated and sophistic justifiers of whatever it is the scientific community wants to do.”
Mr. Fukuyama, now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, is perhaps best known for his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), where he argued that with the demise of communism, liberal democracy had emerged without rival as a political system with universal appeal. In his latest book, Mr. Fukuyama has no desire to see history played out again, believing the posthuman future is one that needs to be avoided. Genetic engineering of the human germ line, where scientists make permanent changes to the genes in the egg or sperm, would seem to pose the most direct threat, by altering the unique qualities that define human nature.
The optimism about science that imbued The End of History is absent from Our Posthuman Future. Mr. Fukuyama fleetingly notes scientists’ responsible record of self-regulation, but says they now have too many ties to the industries that profit off their achievements to be counted on. He credits science for giving history its forward direction, but he is much less certain that biotechnology will be handled with the same wisdom.
Genetic engineering has some rather obvious potential benefits, Mr. Fukuyama argues, holding out the possibility of curing gene-determined diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. There is also, however, the opportunity for the same science to be used to nefarious purpose like enhancing intelligence. These improvements will become heritable, setting forth classes of people who can afford such improvements and those who cannot.
Fukuyama believes some things should be banned outright, like the cloning of people, which he regards as immoral in itself and as the opener for worse things, like enhancing human qualities by germ-line genetic engineering. He doubts the ability of national commissions to address the problems raised by biotechnology, calling instead for legislation and “institutions with real enforcement powers.”
His interest is more than academic. He has President Bush’s ear as a member of his Council on Bioethics, and Mr. Fukuyama’s views prevail in Washington. Legislation seems inevitable. Whatever its merits, it would be better if scientists could voluntarily adopt these restrictions on their own.
But all the scientists have managed so far are a few public protests like those full-page advertisements, signed by 40 Nobel Laureates, in the New York Times. In the end, most scientists can’t see beyond their politics, and their personal views supporting abortion, which have infected every aspect of these debates, to realize the public faith is at stake.
As scientists experiment with germ-line engineering, through which we could strengthen our progeny by improving their DNA, with embryo selection, with DNA manipulation and human cloning, Fukuyama’s intuition that biotechnology could derange certain fundamental beliefs about what it means to be human is clearly sound. But rogue scientists will always find their way around government bans, whether it means designing their research around poorly worded legislation or moving their labs to Bermuda.
Human experimentation, Mr. Fukuyama argues, is clearly an affront to the ontological uniqueness of human beings. So is reproductive cloning, which would fundamentally alter the nature of the relationship between parents and their children.
Too bad scientists don’t agree. They would do well to sense this consensus mood and seize the debate on their own terms. So far, they’ve remained content to hide inside their white lab coats, while others define it for them.
Scott Gottlieb is a visiting fellow at AEI.