April 23, 2002


Meddling with Human Nature (a review of Our Posthuman Future by Francis Fukuyama) (DANIEL J. KEVLES, Scientific American)
Fukuyama fears that, even without changing human nature as such, human genetic engineering could adversely affect our mutually interactive, and hence our political, lives. In one bizarre extrapolation, he delineates the consequences should genetic engineers manage to double the human life span: elderly women would make up a disproportionately large fraction of society, and, being disinclined to support the use of force in international affairs, they would undermine the ability of democracies to defend their interests militarily. Worse, our society would be burdened with a huge cadre of people beyond reproduction or work, retarding social change while they live out an additional three score and 10 years in nursing homes.

But the quotidian consequences of human genetic engineering worry Fukuyama less than its potential threat to human nature, because human nature is fundamental to our notions of justice, morality and any "meaningful definition" of human rights. He contends, for example, that human rights based on our inclination to protect kin rather than strangers provide "a more solid foundation for political order" than those that--so he seems to imply--obligate us to care for, say, welfare mothers or the impoverished peoples in the Third World.

A stable, democratic order also requires respect for an inviolable human dignity, what Fukuyama dubs an essential "Factor X" that distinguishes us from all other animals. Here he seems to contradict himself. On the one hand, he extrapolates from evolutionary studies of animal behavior to argue for the existence of a human nature. On the other, he insists, drawing on Nietzsche, whom he finds a far better guide than today's legions of bioethicists, that we must not admit "a continuum of gradations between human and nonhuman." Such an admission would imply a comparable continuum within the human species and would constitute a justification of undemocratic social ordering, a "liberation of the strong from the constraints that a belief in either God or Nature had placed on them."

Fukuyama is comparably concerned with the potential impact of biotechnology on ineffable human qualities such as individuality, ambition and genius. He finds disturbing harbingers of the direction human genetic modification might take in the uses now being made of the neuropharmacological drugs Prozac and Ritalin. He says, in a seeming caricature of these uses, that the former is often prescribed for depressed women lacking in self-esteem; the latter, largely for young boys who don't want to sit still in class. In his view, the two drugs together are nudging the two sexes "toward that androgynous median personality, self-satisfied and socially compliant, that is the current politically correct outcome in American society." More such drugs are sure to come, he warns, all of them with profound political implications, because they will make deviant behavior into a pathology meriting chemical restoration to a conformist norm.

Scientists like to portray themselves and their work as totally value neutral. Witness Mr. Kevles's seeming obliviousness to the potential impact that massive demographic changes may have on our politics. Let's try to break it down into scientific terms to make the implications a little easier for him to follow.

Suppose that we call our current society "c", call the cohort of retired people "a", and call everyone else "b". So today's America can be rendered as follows : a + b = c. Mr. Kevles apparently belies that it will also be the case that (a x 2) + b = c. That may be the case, but it certainly seems fair to doubt it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2002 9:34 AM
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