In 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote the highly regarded The End of History?, in which he argued that global history had culminated in the emergence of liberal democracies as the highest and best form of government. While, arguably, the world may have reached political maturity, Fukuyama allows that critics of that book suggested that history may not be static if science continues to develop. In response, he warns in Our Posthuman Future (2002) that if genetic technologies, life prolongation and neuropharmacology, in particular, continue on their current trajectories, democracy may retreat. I agree.
He points out that scientists today enjoy an aura of respectability and progressivism and have effectively conveyed the incorrect impression that one’s apparent abilities and propensities are determined by one’s environment, not their genes. However, there is no guarantee that genetic sampling will ultimately reveal what progressives like to say, namely that we are all more or less genetically equal. To the contrary, he suggests, genetic screening seems likely to show that we are inherently unequal. And if we are, what happens to society?
In clear, self-assured prose, he suggests that these technologies will erode human dignity. Drawing on Aristotle, Nietzsche, Kant, Hume, Rousseau and Locke, he advances a “natural rights” approach to defining human dignity. In so doing, he directly assails the ever-growing propensity to label as “rights” a wide variety of demands or interests. For example, Fukuyama observes that many assert entitlement to unlimited reproductive rights, despite the absence of Constitutional language to this effect. His natural rights argument rests on the premise that, despite individual and cultural variations, there are basic universal ideals and behavioral codes. These exist because they comport with basic elements of human nature. In turn, he defines human nature as the sum of human behaviors and characteristics, such as reason and emotion, that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic, rather than environmental, factors. This discussion, while tightly written, ultimately requires some willingness to call vexing data “outliers” and intuitive leaps of about the same magnitude as the leaps of faith required by the religious believers to whom natural rights adherents are compared. Moreover, his discussion resembles a Jackson Pollock painting or an Ornette Coleman composition: considerable craft is apparent, but is the message too complicated for the Everyman/woman or legislator making decisions about reprotech?
Those using IVF already screen embryos for traits. Each cell taken from an embryo contains the embryo’s entire gene sequence and, therefore, can reveal as many traits as are known to researchers. Fukuyama approves combining IVF with preimplantation diagnosis toward the “therapeutic” end of preventing the implantation of embryos that may appear to have genetic defects. As therapy is an attempt to cure, it’s not clear how deselection/destruction of substandard embryos is therapeutic. Beyond that, as Fukuyama allows, it is, at best, difficult to draw the line between disease and trait. As genomics advances, the range of traits that can be sampled for will expand. What parents will choose to have an asthmatic or short child, much less one with cerebral palsy? Screening may be too widely demanded, occur behind too many closed doors and be too subtly communicated to be regulable.
Fukuyama argues for a “nuanced” approach to regulating reproductive technologies. But invoking nuance is, connotatively, an effort to claim the intellectual high ground and marginalize those who advocate for the status quo. In practice, nuance often merely means finding a compromise, a midpoint. Yet, when the range of alternatives grows, the midpoint necessarily shifts; what used to be extreme becomes moderate by comparison. In the realm of reproductive technology, the range of possibilities has expanded asymmetrically to allow more choice and intervention. It is now an extreme view to assert that a child should be the outcome of a sexual union between a man and a woman. Thus, practices now considered extreme, like cloning and germline engineering, can, like IVF, evolve into acceptability-- following nuanced analysis, of course.
Fukuyama suggests that concern about genetic enhancement may incite street protests. I’d like to believe this, but given our society’s general complacency on most issues except for those affecting self-interest, plus the sense of entitlement regarding reproductive freedom, well-attended rallies seem unlikely.
These topics are too complex and oblique for most, who prefer to focus instead on this week’s big game or TV starlets’ shoes. For example, Fukuyama asserts that those who object to the destruction of frozen embryos for stem cell research should have objected previously to such freezing in the first place. But most folks have no idea that IVF entails mass production/cold storage of embryos or that the number of frozen embryos has spiked in recent years as more later life prospective parents have used government-mandated medical insurance subsidies for the tens of thousands of dollars these procedures cost. Newspapers, which all advertise fertility clinics, decline to raise consciousness by running op-ed pieces so noting. I’ve tried.
Further, most have already accepted abortion, sperm and egg shopping and embryo selection for sex and other traits. It would be considered retrograde to begin applying limits on the criteria people can use to screen their “own” embryos. Any protests are more likely to oppose, not favor, limits on choice.
It’s also not clear how making more tall, smart people undermines human nature. However, as Fukuyama notes, doing so will ratchet up competition, as former high-end exceptions emerge as new medians. Hence, inequality will widen. Not good.
But the larger problem is not how many tall or smart people we have as much as it is one of process and perception. Using the technologies listed above, life can already be manufactured, designed and quality controlled. Hence, Fukuyama’s concern about the effect of reductionism on perception of oneself and others and the dissipation of moral resources is wise and noble, but untimely: these processes and notions of life as a choice and design are already upon us. Consult your local Yellow Pages.
And the moral and social groundwork is laid for more.