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Messing with Mother Nature

Dan Brock

Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Francis Fukuyama. xiv + 256 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002. $25.

Francis Fukuyama is best known for his argument more than a decade ago that, because the alternatives to liberal democracy had exhausted themselves, history as we knew it was at an end. In his new book, Our Posthuman Future, he reconsiders that claim in light of the ongoing revolution in biotechnology.

That revolution is already bearing fruit in the form of pharmaceuticals that can be used not only to treat disease but also to enhance normal functions. For example, Prozac is used by people who are not depressed to increase confidence and reduce shyness; Ritalin is used by adults who do not have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder to increase their capacity to focus attention for sustained periods; and the antinarcoleptic Modafil is used by long-distance truck drivers who do not have narcolepsy to reduce their need for sleep.

In the future, it is possible that genetic modifications may make possible more profound alterations in important human traits. Here again, some genetic selection of future offspring is already possible: In vitro fertilization together with preimplantation genetic diagnosis now makes it possible to avoid the implantation of embryos with genes for serious disease or to select for sex. Reproductive cloning of humans is also likely to take place in the near future, despite widespread opposition to it. Many commentators have expressed a wide variety of concerns about these advances, such as their very worrisome potential to increase inequalities between those who can afford genetic enhancements for their children and those who cannot.

Fukuyama sees these advances in biotechnology as carrying an immense threat. If he is indeed correct that the biological revolution endangers the equal moral worth of human beings—what he calls their human dignity and human rights—then the menace truly is profound.

It is unquestionable that our equal moral status, or worth, rests on certain properties we share, or as Fukuyama puts it, on our common human nature. Few argue that it is morally wrong to kill bacteria; presumably this is because the bacteria lack these properties.

Fukuyama defines human nature as "the sum of the behavior and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors." It's worth noting that by this definition, human nature is an empty concept, because no human behavior or characteristic arises only from genetic rather than environmental factors—all are the result of complex interplay of those factors. But setting this difficulty aside, what is the common nature that could ground our human dignity and rights?

Fukuyama argues that it is the way language, reason, moral choice and emotions combine in humans that gives us human dignity. Our dignity rests on what he calls Factor X, "some essential human quality underneath [contingent and accidental characteristics] that is worthy of a certain minimal level of respect." This "human essence" is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts:

If what gives us dignity and a moral status higher than that of other living creatures is related to the fact that we are complex wholes rather than the sum of simple parts, then it is clear that there is no simple answer to the question, What is Factor X? That is, Factor X cannot be reduced to the possession of moral choice, or reason, or language, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forth as a ground for human dignity. It is all of these qualities coming together in a human whole that make up Factor X. Every member of the human species possesses a genetic endowment that allows him or her to become a whole human being, an endowment that distinguishes a human in essence from other types of creatures.

Now, the claim of this last sentence is false—some humans have been left so impaired by their genetic endowment that they lack capacities for language or reason or emotion necessary to become a "whole human being" in this sense. Thinking along these lines raises serious problems about whether such people possess human dignity. Admittedly, though, determining the moral status of this group presents difficulties for any secular view, not just Fukuyama's.

Fukuyama is concerned that any future advances in biotechnology that allow self-modification of "our complex evolved natures" could "disrupt either the unity or the continuity of human nature, and thereby the human rights that are based on it." I believe that this concern is misplaced. Our species, like other species, is continually evolving, and it is unnecessary to freeze it in place to protect human dignity and human rights. Obviously, we shouldn't modify humans in ways that would destroy or seriously impair important human capacities. Recognizing the limitations of our understanding of genetic complexity, we should approach any possible genetic modifications the same way we approach new medical interventions or pharmaceuticals—with appropriate caution and prior research.

Enhancements, like treatments, will have risks and uncertainties that need to be adequately minimized before they are employed, and the risk-benefit ratio will often be less favorable than for treatments of serious disease. But suppose that a trait such as memory could be genetically enhanced so that everyone could have a "photographic" memory, or that everyone could be brought up to what is now the high end of the normal range of intelligence. What reason would there be to think that such enhancements would interfere with human nature in a way that threatens human dignity? If anything, wouldn't they increase human dignity?

I believe that modifying what Fukuyama calls the "unity and continuity" of human nature need not threaten human dignity and human rights if the safety and efficacy of the modification have been adequately established and if enhancement of a desirable trait is the result. Our Posthuman Future is a well-written and accessible discussion of advances in biotechnology and their social, ethical, legal and regulatory implications. But the book's central argument against employing this new biotechnology is seriously flawed.-Dan W. Brock, Clinical Bioethics, Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland

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