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by Francis Fukuyama
Picador, 2002
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D. on May 13th 2002

Our Posthuman Future

In 1989 Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, in which he announced that the collapse of the Soviet bloc signalled nothing less than the end of history. Undeterred by the failure of history to heed his advice, Fukuyama continues to write books on the same grand scale. In this book he tackles human nature, its role in setting constraints upon moral and political systems, and the implications for that nature of biotechnology.

Briefly, Fukuyama argues that human beings have a nature that sets ends for us. This is, he says, a broadly Aristotelian view. Now, the new technologies with which he is concerned give us for the first time the ability to exercise control over that shared human nature. We can already alter emotions by intervening pharmacologically; soon, we may be able to intervene at the level of the human genome itself. This new ability threatens, Fukuyama claims, to divide humanity into two, increasingly distinct, groups. The biotechnology haves will gradually come to have a different nature to the biotechnology have-nots. Inevitably, this will cut the bonds of sympathy between the two groups. Inequality will increasingly come to be based upon the real natures of people, and not a mere artefact of convention and luck. Biotechnology therefore threatens the natural equality that is the basis of liberal democracy.

In a future posthuman age, then, the very bases of our morality and our democracy will be undermined. Without the shared ends set by nature, we will no longer have a reason to reach compromises when our projects conflict with one another. The millennia long process of the slow expansion of human moral concern will reverse, and a new war of all against all will loom. To avoid this catastrophe, Fukuyama calls for biotechnology to be closely regulated, nationally and internationally, so we can choose which aspects of it we wish to embrace and which reject.

 These are dire predictions. Unfortunately, Fukuyama’s arguments for them are weak. His assessment of the philosophical implications of genetics is marred by the fact that he fails to understand either philosophy or genetics. The list of errors he makes about philosophers is long: Rawls is a strict egalitarian; Marx claims man is a species-being (which Fukuyama takes to mean that people are naturally concerned with everyone’s welfare; what Marx said is that man has a species-being; ie. a nature). Even Fukuyama’s claim that he is an Aristolelian is false. To be sure, Aristotle bases his ethics on facts about human beings, but he is (as Fukuyama reminds us) concerned with the ends of human beings. Fukuyama’s concern is with the limits human nature places upon the pursuit of whatever ends we happen to have, not with the ends themselves.

None of this matters to anything like the same extent as his confusions over genetics. His arguments about the importance of genes for human traits entirely ignores the fact that heritability is always heritability within an environment, which is to say that we cannot begin to talk about the extent to which a trait is genetic unless we can compare its expression across a range of environments.

Given these unpropitious starting points, that Fukuyama’s conclusions are confused is unsurprising. Here I examine just his central errors. What, he asks, is human nature? Could it be (as Kant thought) the ability to make moral choices? Fukuyama rejects the suggestion, on the grounds that it clashes, as he thinks, with the findings of science. In fact, he claims, it is a mistake to identify human nature with just one, or some small number, of characteristics of human beings. Instead, he suggests that human nature is an emergent property, which supervenes upon all of our abilities, especially our ability to make moral choices, reasons, and experience emotions. Now, quite apart from the fact that moral choice has mysteriously found itself rehabilitated after having been rejected as unscientific, to say that human nature is that distinctive essence that we all possess in virtue of having all the human capabilities is entirely vacuous. It amounts to the claim that human beings are human in virtue of being human, which substitutes tautology for analysis. If Fukuyama wants to base natural rights on human nature, as he claims, he has to identify just what aspects of it support what rights, and how. Until he embarks on this project, he has told us nothing.

The implications of our newfound and projected ability to remake human beings, physically, mentally and psychologically, deserve philosophical scrutiny. Fukuyama asks many of the right questions. Unfortunately, he lacks the tools to pose them properly, let alone to answer them. Let us hope that his book has the effect of inspiring someone who has a more sophisticated understanding of both science and philosophy to explore these questions.


© 2002 Neil Levy


Dr Neil Levy is a fellow of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a dozen articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and political philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral relativism.