Ned Rossiter on Fri, 6 Sep 2002 15:36:11 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Fukuyama and biotech



[here's a compelling critique of Fukuyama's recent book Our Posthuman 
Future, which seems to have slipped off the radar for the most part/ 
Ned]

Date: Wed, 04 Sep 2002 16:22:57 +1000
From: simon cooper <simon.cooper@arts.monash.edu.au>
Subject: ::fibreculture:: Fukuyama and biotech
To: fibreculture@lists.myspinach.org


Simon Cooper, "The Small Matter of Our Humanity", Arena Magazine 59 
(June-July, 2002): 34-38.  Also available on the Arena site: 
http://www.arena.org.au/index.htm


The Small Matter of Our Humanity

Cloning, embryonic stem cell research, xenotransplantation, genetic
screening ... the onslaught of new medical and biological technologies are
pushing us towards a posthuman future whose meanings, possibilities and
peril we have barely begun to contemplate.

by Simon Cooper


"The highest form of treason/to do the right thing for the wrong reason"

T.S. Eliot


It is a measure of how the biotech revolution threatens to reconstruct our
taken-for-granted ways of being that nobody really wants to talk about it.
Mention some of the things that have occurred in the past few months - the
[premature] announcement of the 'first human clone', the deliberate
cultivation of deafness in a child born to a deaf couple, the legal wrangle
over IVF access for a lesbian mother, the confirmation that Dolly, the world
first cloned sheep, is ageing prematurely, the decision by the Federal
Government to allow research on embryos for stem-cell development - and you
might get a few scattered observations before the conversation dies. Either
nobody wants to discuss the issue, or the opinions expressed are so strongly
voiced that the possibility of dialogue seems remote. The changes promised
by biotechnology shake up comforting assumptions and tend to put us at
cross-purposes if we try to discuss what it all means. Depending on where
you stand at any particular moment, you can suddenly find yourself being
accused of being a strict Catholic ideologue, homophobic, anti-progress or
alternatively a crass utilitarian, a neo-Nazi eugenicist, a corporate
flunkey, one of the bad guys in Brave New World and so on.

Certainly the implications of biotechnology have generated cultural fears
and anxieties that cannot be simply dismissed as quasi-religious or allayed
by appeals to scientific expertise. The question concerning biotechnology
has split traditional political formations. Those on the Left who feel
uneasy about biotechnology - either from a sense that it alters our
fundamental humanness, or that it represents the final commodification of
human life - find themselves in the same camp as religious and political
conservatives. Others on the Left who understand biotechnologies through the
notion that greater knowledge leads to the empowerment and liberation of the
oppressed find themselves aligned with venture capitalists, right-wing
libertarians and political leaders desperate to attract the corporate
research dollar. The ongoing split within the Right between moral
conservatives and economic libertarians is only exacerbated by the
contemplation of a biotechnological future.

Often enough we find that attempts to grapple with 'posthuman' -
technologies such as cloning, genetic engineering, personality-altering
drugs - tend to avoid the ethical question altogether. At the moment it is
still possible to remain sceptical about whether science can actually
deliver its promise of human cloning and miracle cures. Alternatively, one
can claim that bio-technologies simply continue the Enlightenment project of
progress through knowledge and are thus inherently ethical. And while the
attempt to patent the human genome project, the DNA of Icelanders, or rice
in India is enough to remind us that the growth of knowledge is not always
beneficial, it is easy enough to make someone else sound less ethical than
you by asking them whether they really want to prevent people overcoming
diseases/living longer/having children and so on.

Another way of avoiding debate is to question the category of the human
itself. What does being 'human' mean? Didn't Nietzsche or Foucault say it
was an outmoded concept? Haven't we always been posthuman anyway, always
relying on technological prostheses - tools or fire, or vaccinations which
rewire the immune system? Why concern yourself with IVF or cloning when the
contraceptive pill has already uncoupled the relation between sex and
reproduction? What about the Tamagochi toy which generated empathetic
responses from its human owners? Yet this argument, while exposing the
difficulty in isolating the human, doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Many an
'always already posthuman' sophist will pause before affirming that human
cloning, organ transplants, or birth in an artificial womb equates with the
use of fire or stone tools in terms of technological prostheses.

Bio-technologies propel us towards the posthuman in a particular way. Such
technologies are part of a constellation that includes scientific curiosity
(as well as hubris), huge amounts of private capital, and age-old desires to
transcend our natural limitations. These forces tend to stack the decks
against any attempt to open a space for a discussion of the long-term
significance of the bio-tech revolution. Indeed within this framework,
biotechnology always offers a way out of any particular ethical dilemma we
might have.

Take embryonic stem-cells. Early research in mice reveals a range of
possible therapeutic applications (a mouse with spinal injuries was able to
move again after eight weeks of stem-cell therapy). All that is needed for
therapeutic cloning is some skin and a human egg. Putting any qualms about
this process aside for a moment, scientists tell us that there are simply
not enough eggs ('spares' from the IVF program) available for research
purposes. What to do? The answer would most likely involve the exploitation
of poor women, probably in the Third World. Such a dilemma touches on many
peoples' concern with bio-tech - the use of some people as resources for the
technological enhancement of others. However, bio-technology may have an
answer to this dilemma. Writing on this subject in the Nation, Ralph Brave
reports that Nobel laureate Paul Berg claims that science soon ought to be
able to isolate the biochemicals in an egg and transfer them directly to the
skin cell, thus creating a new egg from a skin cell. No need to collect eggs
for embryos when you can create new ones from skin cells.

However, as soon as biotechnology 'solves' one problem another is created.
For as soon as you can create embryos from skin cells you move one step
closer to removing humans from the reproduction process altogether. If you
can create embryos from skin, all you need is an artificial womb (not in
itself that difficult to create) and you have isolated human reproduction
from human embodiment. Thus for every problem that biotechnologies create,
they find a solution. However, as Brave notes, it is a solution where 'the
moral quandary has been replaced by an extracorporeal biochemical process,
no longer strictly defined as human'. In theory we can keep solving these
problems until we find ourselves in a world we cannot live in. The question
of the posthuman rises at this point - how many times can we resolve
problems through the technological simulation of embodied processes and
still remain human?

Francis Fukuyama attempts to grapple with this question. Having previously
declared the end of political revolution in his 'end of history' thesis,
Fukuyama now wants to end the biotechnological revolution. His new book, Our
Posthuman Future, is a response to what was regarded as a significant
oversight in the 'end of history' thesis; namely that technoscientific
advances allow history to continue. Fukuyama fears that biotechnologies may
in fact bring the 'end of history' to an end.

Fukuyama's posthuman future

On one level Fukuyama's attempt to run an argument opposing the biotech
industry is a brave one. In the current climate it is difficult to make any
kind of gesture towards limiting scientific research. As ethicist Leon Kass
(one of Fukuyama's mentors) observes, to oppose biotechnology is to fight
'against an enormous amount of money, against the general liberal prejudice
that it is wrong to stop people doing something and, in many cases, against
everybody's quite rational fear of death'. Fukuyama is opposing what have
become common-sense notions of technologically-assisted humanitarianism such
as those of research scientist Gregory Stock, who declares that 'biological
enhancement is the responsibility of every citizen'. Like Fukuyama, I am
concerned about the way in which any debate about biotechnology is all too
easily dismissed. Unlike utilitarians such as Peter Singer, Fukuyama is
prepared to entertain that biotechnology may alter, in some fundamental way,
our sense of ourselves and how we interact as social and cultural beings.
Like Fukuyama, I think it is worth exploring how biotechnological changes
might have broader social ramifications that exceed any particular
individual benefit. Unfortunately, that is where the similarity ends. In
fact Fukuyama's politics cause him to go down some problematic directions in
his defence of the 'human', directions which perhaps ironically even assist
the march towards the posthuman.

Fukuyama identifies three main areas where we are likely to become posthuman
- neuropharmacology, cloning and genetic engineering. biotechnologies will
artificially enhance human subjects through generating longer life-spans and
increasing a subject's intelligence. These changes, along with developments
in neuropharmacology, will alter the very essence of human nature. They will
also profoundly alter the constitution of societies. For example, the
genetic extension of life will change the relationship between generations.
The idea of a generational transfer of knowledge and institutional roles
will become problematic if an older and still functional generation can find
no reason to move over for a younger generation. Beyond this Fukuyama claims
that society will come under the strain of a large number of aged people
without the capacity to work or otherwise support themselves - burdening
society while they stagnate in nursing homes. In addition, the capacity for
genetic engineering to create designer babies will create a new kind of
conflict, a 'class war' Fukuyama calls it, between those able to afford such
procedures and those compelled to remain human, with all the limitations
that this entails. Neuropharmacology will come to produce drugs stronger
than Prozac. These will provide a sense of self-worth without the subject
striving for, or feeling a participant of, liberal democracy.

Fukuyama's answer to the problems which arise within a biotechnological
future is regulation. He hopes that national and international bodies can be
formed to limit biotechnological research, in the same way that nuclear
weapons come under the control of treaties and agreements. Within the US it
is this call for regulation that has attracted more criticism than anything
Fukuyama has to say about the posthuman - the horror of 'big government'
apparently more terrifying than designer babies or cloned relatives.
Nevertheless, it does seem strange for Fukuyama to be arguing for a system
of blanket regulation, given his previous reliance on the capacity of the
free-market to sustain democracies. While I don't want to comment on the
viability of regulation as such, the leap made by Fukuyama from the
political dangers of biotechnology to the need for its regulation indicates
an inability to examine the meanings of biotechnological change from a
cultural perspective, for instance, what does it 'mean' for a culture to
regard live embryos as the raw material for the possible gain of others.

Fukuyama entwines our biotechnological and political futures. Aldous Huxley
is his literary precursor; both speak of a world where technology creates a
totalitarian society through fulfilling social desires. Some of Fukuyama's
extrapolations, however are unconvincing to say the least. For instance, he
claims that the prolongation of life will mean that older women will become
a significantly larger voting-bloc, and that this will be disastrous for
foreign policy, given that women oppose foreign conflict more than men do
(the fact that support for war fluctuates wildly according to the prevailing
context seems to escape him). Fukuyama's book at times has a strongly
puritanical flavour about it. He claims that drugs such as Ritalin and
Prozac nudge us toward that 'androgynous median personality, self-satisfied
and socially compliant, that is the current politically correct outcome in
American society.' Fukuyama tends to see biotechnology as exacerbating
certain social problems - the gap between old and young, commodified birth,
self-satisfaction without struggle - without analysing the conditions which
might generate the desire for those biotechnological outcomes. In other
words, Fukuyama focuses on the posthuman ends that arise through the
adoption of technological means but he fails to interrogate what motivated
the desire for such ends in the first place.

Our current values determine the shape of future societies, such as the
growing emphasis upon individual empowerment over more cooperative ways of
living. One only has to think of the deliberate break-up of the public
sphere by neo-liberal governments to understand how we begin to see the
world differently - from the perspective of an individual consumer who
stands over the social whole. Unfortunately these are precisely the values
encouraged within the market society so valued by Fukuyama. Given that
Fukuyama recognises that many of the precursors to cloning and other forms
of chemical/biological enhancement are already here - animal cloning,
stem-cell research, pre-natal scanning, mood-altering drugs - one would have
hoped that he might examine what social and cultural values underlie the
decision to adopt, even encourage, these present developments.

The human essence

If our future is posthuman what preceded it? Fukuyama attempts to identify
the 'human' through reducing it to a genetic base. Thus, he claims that
'human nature is the sum of the behaviour and characteristics that are
typical of the human species, arising from the genetic rather than
environmental factors'. (Environmental factors he downplays, not
surprisingly as he regards them as largely the province of the Left and thus
ideologically manipulable). This reduction leads him into some rhetorical
contortions, however. For instance, he claims that there are some 'cultural
universals' but in fact 'human behaviour is highly variable outside of these
universals'. Can one defend the 'human' on such a diminutive foundation?
Even before this book, Fukuyama had revealed a tendency to biological
reductionism. Elsewhere he has written that 'having viewed international
relations through the lens of sex and biology  it is very difficult to
watch Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, or militias
from Liberia and Sierra Leone to Georgia and Afghanistan  and not think of
the chimps at Gombe'. To reduce the complex matrix of world conflict to a
kind of animalised hatred (the Gombe incident - where chimpanzees engaged in
violent and antisocial activities - was itself artificially incited by
humans rather than a natural occurrence) ignores completely the role of any
kind of context - the relation between local forces, larger regional
rivalries, colonialism, international capital - and is reductive to say the
least.

Locating a human essence in the genetic makeup of our species leads Fukuyama
into difficulty. For instance, he extrapolates from evolutionary studies of
animals to argue for a hard-wired human nature, yet then argues for an
essential separation from the animal kingdom. More importantly, Fukuyama
tends to choose the kinds of biological characteristics that are compatible
with liberal capitalism, while ignoring or marginalising others, such as
tribalism or other anti-democratic forms of association. Commenting on
Fukuyama's selective reading of human nature Richard Lewontin writes 'if
anything could be thought to characterise human nature it is the famous
instinct for 'self-preservation'. Yet the existence of a surprisingly large
minority willing to blow themselves up  in the interests of changing
history, and their success in doing so makes [this theory] rather dicey'.
Fukuyama adopts a universal nature of human rights based in human nature in
order to advance his argument for resisting the posthuman future that he
outlines. Yet given the selectivity that has gone into this 'universality'
the concept of 'rights' remains highly suspect.

Holding to a notion of a genetically-derived human essence in fact easily
flips over into a justification for adopting biotechnology. If human nature
is hard-wired as Fukuyama claims, and we can isolate certain genes or
chemical pathways in the brain which contribute to characteristics less
desirable for a liberal democracy (Fukuyama's end-goal for society), then
why not modify them?

Fukuyama's over-reliance on a hardwired human essence leads him to avoid
considering the social and cultural contexts which shape human actions. For
instance, he wants to regulate or ban psychotropic drugs on the
understandable premise that they are able to create a false and all too easy
sense of self-worth, without the corresponding labour - in Hegelian terms,
recognition without the struggle. He never asks why there is a need for such
drugs within contemporary society. Instead, he simply claims that Prozac is
consumed primarily by depressed women who lack self-esteem. Prozac works to
raise their serotonin levels so that they resemble those of alpha males. The
fact that any need for a serotonin boost might somehow reside within the
structures of information and capital escapes him. As Steven Johnson points
out '[s]weatshops, urban poverty and stratospheric CEO salaries all alter
serotonin levels as well, arguably more effectively than Prozac does. You
could make the case that these drugs aren't natural. But then again neither
are stock options'.

For evidence that Fukuyama tends to avoid examining the larger environments
which structure human behaviour, (in particular, the neo-liberal market),
one can consider his faith in information, as opposed to biotechnologies.
Elsewhere, Fukuyama has praised IT gurus noting that 'information technology
is the closest thing we have to a sphere of heroic action', and that 'it is
also hard to think of a technology with fewer downsides than the Internet'.
That the internet forms part of a greater cultural framework which
emphasises individual self-creation over more concrete forms of social
recognition - and that this framework might also create the desires for some
of the ends promised by biotechnology - does not occur to him. Both
biotechnologies and information technologies are driven by similar kinds of
ideologies that premise greater freedoms upon the control and transcendance
of material constraints. Within such ideologies, the contemporary subject
understands themselves as a autonomous individual who comes to consider
questions such as cloning or genetic enhancement as purely their own right
to choose.

Do we have to ground a resistance to biotechnologies in a genetically
derived human nature? Given that 'man' has always been a tool-bearing
creature, that humans have always relied on prostheses, it seems that we
cannot simply argue for a genetic essence of the human given that humans
have always relied on something 'outside' of themselves. In other words,
evolution has always been supplemented, whether it be by tools or cultural
systems. Martin Heidegger, whose words open Our Posthuman Future would have
defined humanity in terms very different from Fukuyama. Heidegger would have
argued that what makes us human is how we are situated in our world and
relate to the things that surround us. Life in this sense ought to be deeply
intertwined with its context of being. The social context of capitalist
societies at the 'end of history'- the conjunction of capital with the
information and technological sciences promotes a form of
hyper-individualism - which also lifts out the raw material of 'life' from
any connection with 'being'.

This is where one might begin to develop a different approach to the
posthuman. As we have seen with the earlier example of stem cells, to
consider any biotechnological procedure in isolation will not get us far.
Within a wider framework, we need to ask how the use of these technologies
might impact upon our understanding of life.

There is no doubt that biotechnologies alter our understanding of embodied
life. Think of the way processes like organ transplantation render more
abstract our relation with our own and other bodies, or how IVF delivers an
end result via the abstraction of the body from the process of reproduction.
On an individual basis, one could argue that we can easily accommodate such
changes, but how does the biotechnological reconstitution of embodied
processes affect the cultural meanings we attach to things like childbirth,
human enhancement or the cultural significance of life itself? Because we
have never been challenged at such a fundamental level before, we have never
had to consider the assumptions we hold about the significance of embodied
life. Most people hold a number of competing assumptions together. On the
one hand, we hold the notion of an individual right to obtain a better life
if it is possible. On the other, a sense of unease that biotechnologies
grant us the possibility of achieving our goals through means which either
dismember or abstract our bodies from the process of life, health or death.

This ambivalence currently manifests itself over stem-cell research. Are
embryonic stem cells merely objects or things? If we say no, we are
implicitly recognising that something more is going on than is allowed by
the proponents of the biotech revolution. The question of what it means to
harness embryos as material for commercially driven biological enhancement
needs to be posed. People may not be able to readily express what it means
because they have never had to before. This is a historically new situation
which forces us to confront our taken for granted values and assumptions. No
wonder it is difficult to articulate. This does not mean, however, that
there is nothing to say.

The notion of a shift in the broad assumptions or beliefs a culture holds
about something is often difficult to trace. We all implicitly know,
however, that changes in cultural understanding do occur. We can think how
communications technologies have altered our perceptions of time and space
so that we increasingly imagine ourselves as global subjects. Or how the
notion of property has changed historically and how it differs from culture
to culture - from indigenous relations to land, to feudal relations, to
private property, to the abstract concept of intellectual property. These
shifts and variables profoundly alter the way we come to understand
ourselves and relate to the world. Because biotechnology cuts across many of
assumptions about embodied life and social being it must also change our
relation to the world.

As we move towards some kind of posthuman future, we need to interrogate our
own conditions of possibility. To do this, we need to pose certain questions
about what it means to be human, and take them seriously. Should we
technologically simulate the production of life without at least asking what
it means, what it has meant, to give birth? What do organ transplants mean
for how we relate to those we love in terms of the kinds of sacrifices we
might be suddenly called upon to make? What does it mean for a culture to
objectify the raw material of life, to treat it in Heideggerian terms as
'standing-reserve'. The long-held meanings around embodied life and
sociality have never had to be externalised, because until recently they
have never become 'optional'. The biotechnological revolution creates the
possibility of choice. We need to ask on what grounds the choice is made,
what is gained or lost in giving ourselves over to technological processes.
Birth and death seem inevitably linked in this process. If we grow
comfortable with the idea of harnessing the raw material of life, if we
justify the use of biotechnology around the concept of enhancement, or
dignity, then what will we do with those who are unable to obtain dignity or
remain 'dignified'? Will they fall on the other side of the posthuman to
become disposable raw-material themselves? A decade ago, the idea of using
spare IVF embryos for research was relatively unthinkable. Now a combination
of utopianism and capital has managed to make such an idea socially
acceptable. Is this an isolated case, or do we move towards the posthuman
via gradations of inhuman behaviour?

A central component of our humanity lies in the capacity to act ethically. A
certain kind of posthuman future offers to propel us into a world which
offers some hope in transcending natural and biological limits, but at the
cost of outstripping our ethical reference points, based in embodied
presence, mutuality, and generational responsibility. Whether as a culture
we are able to accommodate this cost remains a question that has to be asked
on broader terms than it is at present - beyond notions of individual
benefit, certainly beyond the profit gained by commodifying scientific
enquiry, but also beyond the reduction of our humanity to a genetic base.
One way to start would be to consider what is inhuman in the present, and
how this drives us towards desiring posthuman, as well as inhuman ends.

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.


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