Eugene Thacker on Wed, 5 Jun 2002 08:53:47 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> State Biophilosophy, Fukuyama, Stock

State Biophilosophy

Or, Why are State bureaucrats conducting the "public" debate on biotechnolo

As readers may be aware, two recently-published books on biotechnology have
 caught the eye of the media: Francis Fukuyama's _Our Posthuman Future_, an
d Gregory Stock's _Redesigning Humans_. Each book has been promoted as bein
g "controversial" in its claims about the present meaning and future direct
ion of biotechnology, and Fukuyama and Stock are often pitted against each 
other in a debate over the social and political meanings of emerging biotec
hnologies. A recent event in London served to formalize this controversy an
d this debate ( Sponsored 
by pharmaceutical giant Novartis, the Wellcome Trust, the Discovery Channel
, and Profile Books, the event proved to be more an occasion for PR than pu
blic debate. Titled "A Posthuman Future?" it presented talks by both Fukuya
ma and Stock, as well as panel of respondents (an ethicist, a scientist, an
d a health care administrator).

You will save yourself a lot of time by not reading these two books. Their 
arguments, if they can be called arguments, do not require entire hardcover
 books, book tours and signings, and staged debates. If you want to get a s
ense of each writer's position, there are a number of interviews and shor
t articles online which encapsulate the respective positions much more effi
ciently. Fukuyama's book wastes most of its time broadly describing techn
ologies that are old-hat and have been covered previously in similar books 
(such as Jeremy Rifkin's equally problematic The Biotech Century or Matt 
Ridley's Genome). In Stock's case it is exceedingly difficult to get past
 his gee-whiz rhetoric to glean any relevant information about biotech rese
arch; its main message is the empowering capacity of biotechnologies and th
e optimism of the unbounded potential it holds.

In a nutshell: Fukuyama's argument is that biotechnology poses a potentia
l threat to our human nature, and that we should proceed with extreme cauti
on, which, in his case, means government regulation. Stock's argument is 
that biotechnology poses as much promise as it does threats to human nature
, and that we should entrust the difficult decisions of biotechnology to in
dividuals. Fukuyama and Stock both believe in an essential human nature, an
d yes, they use those exact words repeatedly. However, in their different a
ssertions for an essence to human nature, they are unable to definitively p
rovide a definition of what it is. For Fukuyama human nature is encapsulate
d in "Factor X," his name for our innate (genetic) ability to reason morall
y; for Stock, human nature is encapsulated in our boldness in facing the un
known, and by doing that, "changing ourselves" for the better. Fukuyama and
 Stock both believe in scientific-technological progress. For Fukuyama this
 carries a great deal of risk and thus necessitates State intervention; for
 Stock there is also risk, but every investment has risk.

To paraphrase them even more bluntly:
Fukuyama: Biotechnologies are scary, if used improperly they could transfor
m our very biological makeup, forever altering what is most essential to us
 as human beings, especially the rational-moral grounds of our rights as ci
tizens which is grounded in our genetic heritage.
Stock: These are scary times, but they're also exciting times, filled with 
possibility; we've lived through other similar challenges before and we sho
uld meet this one with all the bravado and humanitarianism which we've met 
with previous challenges.

Several things should be noted about both authors. Fukuyama is also known f
or his book The End of History, published just after the fall of the Berlin
 wall, which argued that liberal-democracy has in fact prevailed over other
 governmental forms, in effect realizing Hegel's notion of a universal hist
ory. More significant is that Fukuyama is a member of President Bush's Bioe
thics Commission, a committee that has been known for its conservatism rega
rding virtually all matters pertaining to biotechnology (excepting of cours
e research into biowarfare). Fukuyama is a professor at Johns Hopkins Unive
rsity, and has in the past been associated with the RAND corporation and th
e State Department. Stock is the director of UCLA's program in Medicine, Te
chnology, and Society, and has served in an advisory capacity on bioethics 
committees which favor a more liberal stance; he is a former advisor to Pre
sident Clinton on bioethics and biotechnology.

At times this debate was embarrasing more than confusing. Consider their de
bate over genetic sex selection. Fukuyama argues for government regulation 
because, if left to their own devices, individual couples might make choice
s determined more by self-interest than by the good of the State. His examp
le? The "less developed" countries such as China, where there are no laws a
gainst sex selection. He noted a statistical increase in the number of male
s vs. females due to abortions and access to inexpensive sonograms. His con
cern? That, when these children grow up, they will not be able to find a "m
ate" because there are not equal numbers of boys and girls.

Stock's counter-argument fares no better. His rationale for sex selection i
s predictably against government intrusion, and leaving the choice to indiv
iduals. His counterexample? In the "far East" many couples have "perfectly 
good" reasons to want a boy instead of a girl, since, once the girls are ma
rried, they are absorbed into the boys' family. Implication?: Sex selection
 is ok for reasonable needs, such as continuing one's lineage in the name o
f "family." As Stock states, "we are on the cusp of profound biological cha
nge, poised to transcend our current form and character on a journey to des
tinations of new imagination." Baconian science if I've ever heard it.

Both are rudimentary examples of sociobiology: social problems, medical sol
utions. Consider the following definition of human nature from Fukuyama: "H
uman nature is the sum of the behavior and characteristics that are typical
 of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental facto
rs." Which leads him to make the following assessment: "We do not want to d
isrupt either the unity or the continuity of human nature, and thereby the 
human rights that are based on it."

Why is this event worth noting? It is worth noting because it is exemplary 
of the way in which the public discourse surrounding biotechnology is incre
asingly becoming formalized. Many issues are distilled in this event, such 
as the complex alliances between government and the corporate sector, the g
eneral confusion regarding the "philosophical" issues of human nature, and 
the politics of who can or cannot "legitimately" speak on the subject of bi

The public discourse on biotechnology is taking the form of a two-party sys
tem and in this it follows the political climate of U.S. politics. Fukuyama
, a member of President Bush's bioethics commission, echoes the Bush admi
nistration's conservatism regarding medical biotech. Stock, a former advi
sor to President Clinton, is a prototypical liberal-democratic scientist, i
n favor of individualism and suspicious of "too much government."

There is no "debate." We all agree: people are people and biotech is good f
or people, right? The differences do not amount to a debate or a controvers
y, but to problems of micromanagement. On one side, we can't trust human 
nature, we need the State to be the caretaker of individual citizens to ens
ure safe, good use of biotech (Hobbes as bioethicist). On the other side, w
e can't trust governments and institutions, we need to inspire ourselves,
 see the wonder in the fact of existence, and bravely make our decisions ou
rselves as free, independent consumers (Mill as bioentrepreneur). In politi
cal language this is conservatism vs. liberalism, but one suspects the diff
erences are only linguistic.

There is no direct opposition between public and private interest in biotec
hnology; rather, there is an implied consonance between government and corp
orate investments and the centrality of biotechnology as the future of medi
cine and health care.

According to the Fukuyama-Stock public debate, an individual's choices wi
th regard to biotechnology, medicine, and health, are: either subjecting on
eself to governmental regulation (Fukuyama's State-form), or participatin
g in the consumer health care market (Stock's consumer-form).

"The human" is defined in explicitly contradictory terms for instrumental p
urposes. The human is ontologically distinct from the machine, for this all
ows us to view biotechnology as a tool for human use (even if what is being
 used is human biology). The human is also identical to the machine, since 
human biology, like nature, provides for a resource for medical technologie
s and therapies (even though question of "life" are not entertained). The h
uman-as-human pole enables consumer health care, technology transfer, medic
al application and diagnostics. The human-as-machine pole enables broad pat
ent claims, bio-IPRs, and the exercise of new forms  of medical normativity.

The intersection between science and politics in biotechnology is taking th
e form of a new sociobiology, in which human nature and social dynamics are
 explained and resolved through biotechnical means.

The shape of the current discourse is a perfect example of Foucauldian "bio
politics." Shared government-corporate interests set the terms of the disco
urse, impel new forms of institutional and individual health management, an
d govern over the administration of life technologies. Recall that Foucault
 described biopolitics as a positive dynamic; in contrast to the power of t
he sovereign and the right to condemn to death, biopolitics involves the cu
ltivation of life, health, and the body through a range of institutionally-
based practices (which often take the form of individualized practices). De
mographics, statistics, health records, and the notion of the "population" 
were all modes which aimed for a more thoroughly managerial relationship to
 the bodies of individual subjects and groups. The "biomedical subject" is 
a particular formation of contingent bodies, economic interests, shifting s
tandards of medical normativity, and universalist notions of "the human." I
t is above all a product of biopolitics, not its cause.

The current State biophilosophy - exemplified by the two-party discourse of
 Fukuyama and Stock - is a textbook instance of biopolitics. One audience m
ember - a medical student - offered the following scenario: will advanced m
edical-genetic diagnostics become a requirement for health insurance, or wi
ll it be offered as a choice to patients/consumers? Suppose that current ge
netic diagnostic technology (such as genetic scanning and disease profiling
) were to become integrated into routine medical practice. Would health car
e be prohibited to those who choose not to have genetic diagnostics for unb
orn children? Would health insurance with withheld from those who choose no
t to comply with state medical standards such as genetic disease profiling?
 Would such technologies be options to medical consumers, or would they bec
ome a required aspect of medical checkups? Would it make a difference eithe
r way?

- Eugene Thacker

  Eugene Thacker, PhD
  School of Literature, Communication & Culture
  Georgia Institute of Technology

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