Sympathetic Stupid

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Our Posthuman Future: Francis Fukuyama

The subtitle and theme is Consequences Of The Biotechnology Revolution.

Heaps of current issues are harbingers of the coming biotech revolution. Cloning. Genetically modified foods. Antidepressants and theraputic stimulants. Stem cells. The Human Genome Project. Genetic basic for sexuality. Inherited intelligence, propensity to violence, personality. Nature vs Nurture. Aging populations. Cancer.

Fukuyama maintains that progress in this area will cause thorny ethical, moral and social issues. It's likely to lead to us posthuman status, where we're no longer the same species we once were. Maybe we'll split into different species; one specialised for intelligence, one for manual labour, as in The Time Machine. Maybe we'll become dehumanized, a la Brave New World; everyone exactly equally happy but without any unique qualities. Whatever the outcome, it's likely the world will be substantially different.

He covers a lot of territory.

First, there's what the technology may enable. Prozac and Ritalin lead the wave of neuropharmacology; medicating against something you can classify as a 'disorder'. Genetic engineering can be used to remove dangerous genes, maybe that for Tay-Sachs or Downs Syndrome. This paths leads to more disorders being discovered and more genes becoming dangerous. The obvious one is homosexuality. As he argues plausibly, most parents wouldn't choose to have a gay child. So when 'designer babies' are possible, will homosexuality be bred out? Or will we be able to medicate against it?

This leads to the question of human nature, which goes deep into centuries of philosophy. What do we understand as human nature? Where do human rights actually come from? Is it 'natural' for some people to be depressed, and does that mean that we should question the medication of it (possibly like Scientology)? What do we lose in the Brave New World scenario of everyone being identical; are we still human? But as John Rawls argued, 'the unequal distribution of natural talents is inherently unfair'. For us to be human, does that mean there has to be someone at the bottom who gets genetically shafted?

As genetic engineering of humans becomes more feasible, there are two likely scenarios. One is that genetic inequality will grow, that the rich and well-educated will be able to afford, and inclined towards, designer babies, while the poor don't understand the process and can't afford it anyway. In the limit, this is where the species splits. The other scenario is growing genetic equality, because GE becomes subsidised and easy to access so the bottom of the gene pool actually rises.

He makes an interesting statement: '... it is hard to see how growing genetic inequality would fail to become one of the chief controversies of twenty-first-century politics'. But I don't find it hard at all. Why is growing income equality not topical? Because the agenda-setters are the beneficiaries. Surely this is similar with genetic inequality.

He doesn't present a solution to the dilemmas posed, but does see regulation as the enabling mechanism towards the answer. I tend to agree that this technology has to be regulated strongly, in a similar way to nuclear weapons (although biotech is infinitely more affecting in the long term). There's a great deal of detail on current regulatory systems and how they should be improved. I skimmed most of this, I'm sure it's important but it's not especially interesting.

I really enjoyed this. Fukuyama is great at synthesizing information and drawing super-rational conclusions, and explaining in clear terms the issues and possibilities. This revolution is still some distance away, but it could also be too close for comfort.