Our Posthuman Future
Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux ($25)
by N. N. Hooker
We, however, want to become those we are - human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves. To that end we must become the best learners and discoverers of everything that is lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists in order to be creators... (Nietzsche, The Gay Science)
In The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama brilliantly examined the paradoxes produced by humanism and the individual's need to be recognized. The displacement of religion by health, the culture of self-esteem, and the spiritual weekend were set against a background of historical dissipation. In his new book, however, Fukuyama is unwilling to tolerate such moral ambiguity. Think of it: Biotechnology has trumped philosophy. Scattershot experiments with the stuff of life are driving history, ideas are not. Nietzsche's genealogy of morals has mutated into a genetic revolution. What was once an attitude is becoming an attribute. The future is not for "free spirits and thinkers" but creatures who can be engineered to be more than equal. Natural law is no longer debated, it is rewritten. The implications are mind-boggling. Unfortunately Our Posthuman Future fails to reestablish a philosophical framework in which to contextualize our rapidly changing selves.
Our Posthuman Future, in fact, should have been titled "Yesterday's Humanism." Unlike Nietzsche, whose ubermensch was a projection of a posthuman existence, Fukuyama retreats, admonishing us to stay within our "natural" selves where a true sense of good and evil will save us from self-destructive activities like cloning and genetic engineering. Fukuyama avoids sentimentality while posing this argument, but he remains at a curious distance from his subject. Although he summarizes science quite well-I finally understand telomeres-his analysis of longevity, for instance, lacks the poetic weight of Bruce Sterling's "Schizmatrix," which finds the mortality in Shakespeare banal and morbid. Likewise, in analyzing the legal hypocrisy separating Prozac and Ecstasy, Fukuyama tries to distinguish marijuana from alcohol by arguing that the latter is more conducive to social interaction. His reliance on third hand sources might explain his ignorance of Rastifarians, but History is replete with cultures organized around substances like peyote, yage and mushrooms. At what point do substances or the state they induce become non-natural, non-human? Of course, Fukuyama needn't smoke a spliff to philosophize about drugs, but it might have saved him from using a cloistered phrase like "normal social functioning."
Most disappointingly, Fukuyama never really answers the big question: even if there is natural law, and even if transgressing it is bad, how can we stop from doing so? Against the decentralized march of biotechnology, Fukuyama proposes state control. Anticipating the obvious problem that regulation has never stopped anything, Fukuyama tries out a truly bizarre argument: "People get away with robbery and murder, which is not a reason to legalize theft and homicide." No, but it is why we have insurance and funerals, punishment and forgiveness. Societies are constructed around the fact that people do kill each other-war is a sanctioning of such. Laws are less for prevention than structuring our response to inevitabilities we can't cope with otherwise. As a friend of mine used to say, locks are for keeping honest people honest. Having unlocked genetic codes, it is ridiculous to think we won't suffer the advantages and disadvantages of such technology. The question is not how can we stop it, but what "aesthetic" should we employ? To what end?
The first publicly acknowledged cloned person is supposedly due this Fall. Some are probably here already. We don't know what effect this will have on any of our legal institutions. We are still mired in debates about the rights of fetuses and stem cell research. We have no idea what our ingestion of growth hormones or genetically altered corn will do, let alone the increased radiation from a depleted ozone layer. I sympathize with Fukuyama. His intense concern is commendable. But Fukuyama has no ubermensch - only last men. He speaks not to the future but to the past. In the end, he forgets the line from Nietzsche quoted in his earlier book: "Who would go to the madhouse voluntarily?" As long as people want to live longer and leap tall buildings, as long as they are unhappy with their biological fates, they will exercise that all-too-human prerogative: improved existence. Even if it means becoming less human as a result. As this posthuman History begins, humanists need a period of mourning and eulogies, but we also need to move on.
Fukuyama implores us not to succumb to pessimism by accepting mutation as inevitable. But why pessimism? History is loss and gain. Against what natural law is Ancient Athens or modern Cleveland better or worse than tomorrow? Fukuyama does not have Hegel's Geist or any other natural truth to assert such comparisons. He cannot resurrect a priori values such as God or natural law (which would be a bargain at $25). Nietzsche also felt the ensuing madness, yet he greeted the daybreak with a gay science. The ubermensch did not salvage humanity, rather he contextualized a more profound sense of change. The Last Man is a tourist, the humanist mourns, but the ubermensch creates. Our Posthuman Future made me return to Nietzsche in search of a way of thinking that confronts the dilemma of being between beast and god. Nietzsche encourages the reader to become who one is and love such (amor fait). For us it means taking on materials like artificial intelligence and copyrighted bacteria. Would it have been easier a hundred years ago? Perhaps. Would such be better or worse? That is open to historical interpretation.