Observer Review: Our Posthuman Future By Francis Fukuyama Essay, Research Paper
A penny for his thoughtsOur Posthuman FutureFrancis FukuyamaProfile ?17.99, pp400A little, for Francis Fukuyama, has gone a long way. In 1989 he made himself famous by opining that, with the breaching of the Berlin Wall, history had ended. His pronouncement hardly qualified as an idea; it was a slogan, crassly bolstering American triumphalism. At the time he was a middling policy wonk in the federal government, so he was merely doing his job by dressing up propaganda as philosophy.History soon enough resumed (or, as Fukuyama would put it, recommenced), but no one remembered that in doing so it cancelled his prophetic credentials. Every so often in the past decade he has attempted to reassert himself as a savant by thinking up a new slogan. The last, in a diatribe about social order, was The Great Disruption: once more the notion was not even his, since he was paraphrasing Nietzsche’s description of the ‘great disengagement’ – the assault on ancient verities that begot the modern world.Now, still professing to play the oracle, Fukuyama has undertaken a crash course on biotechnology (helped, I assume, by the platoon of research assistants and the extra ‘all-round assistant’ he thanks in the preface), which gives him something else to be eschatological about.He introduces his essay by claiming a share in the sublime intellectual fury of Nietzsche: ‘There is,’ he says, ‘a method in this madness.’ Hesitating as if on the edge of a precipice, perhaps recalling Nietzsche’s injunction to vault across, he admits that the change of subject is ‘quite a leap’ for him. He might have spared us the hyperventilation. If only his book had been a little more deranged; in fact it’s merely trite and dull. And as for the leap, well, I’d rather call it a plunge, plummeting straight to ground like a dropped, stolid, clunking brick.The arguments, wearily derivative, are easy to summarise. Neuropharmacology has allowed us to change our behaviour, and through genetic engineering we can design our offspring or even clone ourselves. One chapter is headlined ‘Why We Should Worry’. Lo and behold, the next section helpfully lists the reasons why we should worry, grouped under the heading ‘Being Human’.That existential condition consists, we learn, of three parts: Human Rights, Human Nature and Human Dignity. You can almost hear the squeak of Professor Fukuyama’s chalk as he scratches his bullet points on the blackboard. Don’t you just hate the smell of chalk dust? But never mind about that. Fukuyama is convinced that we have rendered our own species obsolete, and brought about ‘the demolition of man’. There should be copyright in these slogans: this one belongs to CS Lewis, who must have been gifted with rare foresight if he intuited the invention of Prozac and the sequencing of the human genome.Since Fukuyama put a stop to history in 1989, he has dispensed himself from knowing anything about what transpired before that year. If he had thought about it, he might have realised that humanism and not the human race has ended.Humanism, which flattered man by likening him (in Hamlet’s words) to an angel, was an ideology invented by the Renaissance, and it persisted until Darwin tactlessly pointed out that we were closer kin to the apes. During the past century, the humanistic standards for which Fukuyama has such reverence became hopelessly relativistic: GK Chesterton once remarked that when a man is treated like a beast he’s likely to say ‘After all, I am human!’ whereas when he behaves like a beast he will whine ‘After all, I’m only human!’ Surely by now we should have learnt not to have such a high opinion of our uppity, unstable species.Fukuyama defers to the Pope, who has grudgingly conceded that we probably did evolve from monkeys but insists that somewhere in the course of our upward struggle we developed a soul, which is proof positive of our inalienable dignity. Having been a bureaucrat, Fukuyama is impressed by a Council of Europe declaration that cloning is ‘contrary to human dignity’.Such pious prating spits into the wind. If it can be done scientifically, it will be. As for the offence against our innate dignity, I wonder if we look so noble and angelic when we’re moving our bowels or begetting babies or doing any number of other things that come naturally. Forgive me if I have not followed Fukuyama’s counter-argument in a section headlined ‘Why The Naturalistic Fallacy is Fallacious’. That phrase, incidentally, can stand as a choice specimen of his dopily tautologous style.The fuss he makes about the chemically-modified brains of people on Prozac is even sillier. Living in the puritanical US, he may not know that people have smoked, drunk alcohol and taken drugs for centuries, using whatever potions were available to tinker with their moods. It’s bad for some, and not for others; our species is tough, but it’s pompous nonsense to decry those who are weaker as less than human.Worse than that, it may be viciously prejudicial. The Nazis categorised those they disapproved of as subhuman, just as Fuyukama stigmatises certain groups as posthuman: in an ugly jest, he warns that ‘computer geeks in AI labs who think of themselves as nothing more than complex programs and want to download themselves into a computer should worry, since no one would care if they were turned off for good’.There’s his pseudo-scary motif again. Just why, I wonder, does he want to make us worry? I managed to preserve my equanimity until the end of his book. But now, to be honest, I do feel a certain dread. What worries me is that Fukuyama, who at best can proficiently fillet someone else’s ideas, has been widely mistaken for a thinker.