The Small Matter of Our Humanity

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.

About the author

Simon Cooper

Simon Cooper teaches in film and literary studies at Federation University. He is an Arena Publications editor.

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