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The problem with nature.

Our Posthuman Future is the handiwork of two Francis Fukuyamas. There is Francis Fukuyama, architect of grand theory who declared history finished and liberal democracy eternally triumphant. But there is also Francis Fukuyama, member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, a body tasked with making measured pronouncements on the use of human stem cells, reproductive cloning, and genetic modification. The book's conclusion shows Fukuyama in cautious mode. He defends the by now familiar claim that we should use biotechnology to treat disease but not to enhance human capacities. Fukuyama, man of big ideas, dictates that this conclusion be arrived at by a theoretically mountainous route.

A moral distinction between treating and enhancing is most often defended by pointing to the potential for the misuse of biotechnology to infringe procreative freedoms, violate children's autonomy, or to cause social strife. Although Fukuyama mentions such problems, they are not his immediate concern. The posthuman future of the title is what biotechnology threatens. It must be avoided because, contrary to the apparent message of the tide, biotech's future would not be ours. We can ensure a future with human beings in it only by protecting human nature from the tampering of genetic engineers and neuropharmacologists.

But Fukuyama's account of human nature cannot deliver his sensible conclusion.

Fukuyama fuses two scientific ideas. He says that human nature comprises "the species typical characteristics shared by all human beings qua human beings" (p. 101). "Species typical" is to be understood in the way that biologists do when they say "pair bonding is typical of robins and catbirds but not of gorillas and orangutans" (p. 130). Fukuyama also invokes genes, saying "human nature is the sum of the behavior and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors" (p. 130).

"Species typical characteristic" and "genetic characteristic" are perfectly respectable scientific concepts. But Fukuyama's handling of them transmutes good science into a combination of pseudo science and shallow moral thinking.

No term is more misunderstood in contemporary moral thinking than "gene." Fukuyama is alert to one booby trap--that of genetic determinism. He allows that genes do not fix traits like intelligence or height. Instead they set "limits to the degree of variance possible" (p. 132). Problems begin when he elaborates on this idea. Fukuyama says "the finding that IQ is 40 to 50 percent heritable already contains within it an estimate of the impact of culture on IQ and implies that even taking culture into account, there is a significant component of IQ that is genetically determined" (p. 138). His idea is that the genetically determined region constituting human nature should be immune from biotechnological interference. In this way we make room for biotech treatments of Alzheimer's and diabetes while ruling out enhancement.

But we must be careful when confronted with statements such as "intelligence is 40 to 50 percent genetic," or "male homosexuality is 31 to 76 percent heritable" (p. 37). It is tempting to think of these statistics as measuring how hard genes have worked to make a particular person intelligent or gay. If male homosexuality is 76 percent genetic, we suppose, then a gay man's genes have done most of the work, leaving diet and education to add the finishing touches to his sexuality. But this is mistaken. Statements about the degree of heritability, or the extent to which a trait is genetic, address variation in populations. It is almost certain that the observed variation in intelligence in human populations is explained by both differences in genes and differences in environmental inputs within and without the womb. But variation in one of these factors may contribute more to the observed variation in intelligence than does variation in the other factor. If human intelligence is 40 to 50 percent genetic, then differences in genes account for just under half to around half of the observed variation in intelligence. The remainder is explained by differences in environmental inputs such as education and nutrition.

The population-relative definition of "genetic" ill suits it to guide us in respect of what we should and should not do to individuals. Suppose we want to begin enhancing human intelligence, but are mindful of Fukuyama's directive not to mess with characteristics that are substantially genetic. A consequence of his proposal might be that biotech companies conduct their experiments into the enhancement of human intelligence in the third world where there is wide variation in the availability of dietary inputs required for the development of normal intelligence. In these populations intelligence is more environmental--meaning that a greater part of the variation stems from environmental differences. Alternatively, first world intelligence might be made more environmental and less genetic by increasing lead levels in selected foods. This would grant biotechnologists wider latitude in modifying it.

Subtracting the poorly comprehended gene talk from Fukuyama's moral view of human nature leaves the idea of species typical traits. But this is just the old error of trying to translate statistical norms into moral norms. A practice's being unusual is not sufficient to make it morally wrong. Nor should a person's being unusual make them in- or posthuman in any morally interesting sense.

Consider what Fukuyama is forced to say of individuals that depart from the statistical norm. He explains that "[t]here are doubtless some mutant female kangaroos born without pouches, and some bulls born with three horns on their heads. Facts like these do not render meaningless the assertion that pouches are somehow constitutive of "kangarooness," or that bulls are creatures that typically have two horns on their heads" (pp. 134-35).

It is not hard to think of "humans" who are the statistical analogues of pouchless kangaroos and three-horned bulls. Shaquille O'Neal is seven feet and one inch in height and weighs 335 pounds. This deviation from the human and indeed the basketballer norm has helped him gather a host of trophies. Stephen Hawking's diagnosis in his early twenties of motor neuron disease has not ruled out a distinguished career in astrophysics. Of course, O'Neal and Hawking are not the handiwork of genetic engineers. But Fukuyama's examples are bulls and kangaroos occurring naturally, not just those on the Island of Dr. Moreau.

One might respond that, their abnormal characteristics notwithstanding, O'Neal and Hawking are similar enough to us in most respects to be human. This is a sensible thing to say--but it leaves Fukuyama with no objection to enhancement. Enhancers will seek to bring into existence individuals who resemble the rest of us in most respects; they will merely be smarter or brawnier. It is hard to imagine parents of the future paying genetic engineers to provide them with coelacanths for children.

Clearly something has gone quite seriously wrong here. Fukuyama's chapter headings suggest a diagnosis. Having elaborated his notion of human nature and sketched out how it might ground talk of natural rights and human dignity he leaps immediately to policy recommendations. In doing so, Fukuyama has missed a crucial stage in moral reasoning.

It is easy to come up with appealing-sounding principles. "Neither a lender nor a borrower be," "Never miss a chance to keep your mouth shut," "Do not corrupt human nature." But before we turn these moral homilies into moral foundations we need to test them thoroughly against actual and possible cases. Shaquille O'Neal is not a typical human being. Does this make him inhuman in any morally interesting sense? By existing as he does, does he suffer a harm equivalent to the violation of a right? Fukuyama has forgotten to test his ideas by asking such questions.

Our Posthuman Future:

Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, By Francis Fukuyama, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002. $25.00 (hardcover)

Nicholas Agar teaches philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He researches the ethics of biotechnology and the ethics of the environment. His latest book, Perfect Copy: Unravelling the Cloning Debate, was published by Icon Press in September 2002.
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Author:Agar, Nicholas
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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