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Since the pace of technological change has not actually slackened, it might be interesting to ask if there are issues of the present day that may be equivalents of ‘rural depopulation’. Let us see if there are people in the culture business taking some sort of a stand on a major issue, trying to hold the line.

Two such people came forward in the early years of our present century. Both are champions, to my mind, of the global quest for the New Atlantis: that’s certainly true of one of them and I think it’s not unfair to the other. In 2001-2 they produced books trying to hold the line on genetic engineering. They are Jürgen Habermas and Francis Fukuyama.

The Future of Human Nature - Towards a Liberal Eugenics? was published in German in 2001. Habermas argued that human cloning should be banned and that genetic engineering of humans should be permitted only on therapeutic grounds (avoiding some disease or disability) but not for enhancement (conferring some positive advantage). His argument for banning enhancement centred on the sense of moral autonomy of the engineered person. Such a person might feel that he had been determined to such a degree by his parent/planner that he didn’t have meaningful control in his own life. But this would undermine liberal democracy, which can function only if its citizens feel they are free subjects.

Habermas took his argument to the United States and tried it on the liberal academic philosophers (Dworkin, Nagel, McCarthy etc.). But he found that, with their “Lockean” formation, they didn’t know what he was talking about. They couldn’t see why the genetically planned person should feel less free than anyone else. Besides, parents had a right to confer any advantages they saw fit on their children, and that was that.

A year later Fukuyama argued for the same practical proposals, but a lot more forcefully. Our Posthuman Future - Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, London 2003 (PF henceforward) is a thought-provoking book. Fukuyama has nerve. At the moment when the East European regimes collapsed in 1989, he put in what was nothing less than a takeover bid for the European ideology of progress (The End of History and the Last Man). On behalf of Anglo-American liberal capitalism he claimed total victory in the war of systems. Game over, “Americanism” was going to be universal! After this there might still be wars and regime changes, but actual history was over.

Later he said that of all the counterarguments put forward, “it seemed to me that the only one that was not possible to refute was the argument that there could be no end of history unless there was an end of science”. So he decided to check out the historic potential of the dynamic new biotechnology.

Like Habermas, Fukuyama argues for a ban on human cloning and also on human genetic engineering for enhancement purposes, though permitting it on therapeutic grounds. But he finds himself at a serious disadvantage. It is hard to argue that the intimate construction of the human being, inaccessible until now, is something that everyone, parents included, should be wary of and step back from, if you don’t believe that there’s something quite unique about humans, that they have some essential human nature. But this is not at all the opinion of most scientists, or even of most philosophers. It used to be, but it isn’t now.

The great break came with Immanuel Kant, who made morality independent of nature. “A number of observers have pointed out the similarities between Kantian ethics and the view of human nature embodied in Protestantism, which holds that the latter is irredeemably sinful and that moral behaviour requires rising above or suppressing our natural desires in toto. Aristotle and the medieval Thomistic tradition argued that virtue built upon and extended what nature provided us, and that there was no necessary conflict between what was naturally pleasurable and what was right. In Kantian ethics, we see the beginnings of the view that the good is a matter of the will overcoming nature” (PF p. 119)

A good deal of western philosophy has followed Kant’s lead on this. One long-term result is the explosion of “the rights industry” in the USA over the past generation. It’s not hard to manufacture a right if you really want to, or an obliging academic can do it on your behalf. “Ronald Dworkin, for his part, proposes what amounts to a right to genetically engineer people, not so much on the part of parents but of scientists” (p. 107).

Fukuyama thinks that “there is a desperate need for philosophy to return to the pre-Kantian tradition that grounds rights and morality in nature” (p. 112). He says, almost in so many words: the need is desperate because the scientists, who do not believe that there’s any essential human nature, are on the verge of treating human beings as just another product, something you can design and build. And to back them up they have “legions of bioethicists and casual academic Darwinians” (PF p. 160). - The bioethicists are a relatively new service in the culture business. Their function seems to be to find justifications in ethical terms for whatever the scientists are doing or might want to do.

Since no one else (apparently) has been making the case for an essential human nature, Fukuyama makes out his own. Among other things he says: it’s so natural to think of human nature when talking about rights or ethics that even these post-post-Kantians can’t avoid smuggling human nature assumptions into what they’re saying.

An important part of human nature, as Fukuyama sees it, is the capacity to have a whole gamut of emotions in experience. It follows that if someone is programmed to be happy, unstressed, optimistic or whatever irrespective of circumstances, experience will be impoverished and the person’s humanity will be deformed. But aren’t Americans doing that already in large numbers?

“The widespread and rapidly growing use of drugs like Ritalin and Prozac demonstrates just how eager we are to make use of technology to alter ourselves. If one of the key constituents of our nature, something on which we base our notions of dignity, has to do with the gamut of normal emotions shared by human beings, then we are already trying to narrow the range for the utilitarian ends of health and convenience.” (p. 173). And there will be much more of the same. Anything that genetic engineering will be able to do in the long term, neuropharmacology will probably be able to do much sooner - though of course, not as far- reachingly.

As for the social effects of unrestrained biotechnology, Fukuyama thinks Nietzsche is a good guide to what may lie before us if we go down the posthuman road. Hierarchies may reform. There may be a new Superclass which will treat the others more or less as slaves. But equally the result may be a more egalitarian society than ever before. We simply cannot tell.

Coming to the end of this absorbing book, Fukuyama seems to recognise the strength of the forces ranged against him - interests which, in pursuit of progress and improvement, would want to go beyond humanity.

“Despite the poor repute in which concepts like natural rights are held by academic philosophers, much of our political world rests on the existence of a stable human “essence” with which we are endowed by nature, or rather, on the fact that we believe such an essence exists.

"We may be about to enter a posthuman future, in which technology will give us the capacity gradually to alter that essence over time. Many embrace this power, under the banner of human freedom. They want to maximize the freedom of parents to choose the kind of children they have, the freedom of scientists to produce research, and the freedom of entrepreneurs to make use of technology to create wealth.” (PF p. 217)

But this new kind of freedom will be different essentially from all freedoms known before. The older freedoms were in accordance with human nature. This included political freedom, which gave us “the freedom to pursue those ends that our natures had established”. These ends are not tightly determined, but they nonetheless do have limits, limits set by the constant elements of human nature themselves.

“Human nature is very plastic, and we have an enormous range of choices conformable with that nature. But it is not infinitely malleable, and the elements that remain constant - particularly our species-typical gamut of emotional responses - constitute a safe harbour that allows us to connect, potentially, with all other human beings. It may be that we are somehow destined to take up this new kind of freedom, or that the next stage of evolution is one in which, as some have suggested, we will deliberately take charge of our own biological makeup rather than leaving it to the blind forces of natural selection. But if we do, we should do it with eyes open” (PF p. 218). 

We should know that posthuman life might be squalid horror.