Posthuman Future? from the end of history to the end of human
By Munira Mirzae
June 01, 2002
The vista of possibilities
opened up by recent genetic technological advances has broadly
provoked two responses in the scientific community: caution
and optimism. Whilst many regard the new potential to modify
human physiology as a slippery slope to 'designer babies',
others have embraced the medical possibilities of this new
technology and defended scientists' rights to research this
Currently expressing both
sides of the debate in the public domain, are Francis Fukuyama,
author of the recently published Our Posthuman Future,
and Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans. The
views of both US based authors have been gained prominence
in the UK media lately, and at an event organized by the Institute
of Ideas, they debated their views in the packed auditorium
of 1000 people at the Institute of Education, an indication
of the high level of public interest in this topic.
Fukuyama began by outlining
the frightening possibilities of new genetic advances, asserting
that the capability to 'improve' physical and mental capacities
in humans could create a 'superhuman' race. Such changes,
he asserted, would challenge our existing conception of what
it means to be human and cast uncertainty over cherished principles
such as human equality and rights. In order to avoid such
difficult questions and protect us, he argued, 'the answer's
pretty simple, you just regulate it'.
Stock, on the other hand,
enthused about the positive contribution that genetic testing
and cloning could bring to the fight against diseases such
as Alzheimer's or even the capacity to prolong life. For him,
current regulation of research is sufficient and to increase
it would be to jeopardize progress in this area. He does not
believe it is justifiable to regulate science in abstract,
only to cope with the real problems as and when they might
Stock's optimism about genetic
technology reveals a key difference between him and Fukuyama.
As he admitted, 'Fukuyama and I have very different visions
of the future.' Whilst Stock regards the uncertainty and unpredictable
fruits of science as exciting and something for human beings
to respond to with confidence, Fukuyama prefers to limit change
because he fears society and our political institutions will
not be able to cope with the uncertainty. Whilst Fukuyama
presents himself as a moderate and pro-science, Stock pointed
out how the logical conclusions of Fukuyama's views led him
to recently sign a petition to ban the use of nuclear transfer
technology, a technique that can potentially aid stem cell
research into serious diseases.
One respondent to the two
main speakers, scientist Robin Lovell-Badge, pointed out that
scientific advances in this area were still limited and that
techniques such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis remained
crude in their ability to fight disease or create 'improvements'
in human beings. However Stock pointed out that such possibilities
may arise and that the questions they will inevitably raise
need to be discussed now. Another respondent, Raanan Gillon,
Emeritus professor of Medical Ethics at Imperial College London,
argued that the cry for greater regulation in this field reflects
an increasing risk-aversion in society. The tendency to view
genetic science with alarm prevents us from seeing real creative
possibilities. Furthermore, he argued, individuals should
be accorded greater trust to make the right decision for themselves,
rather than seek regulatory authority from governments.
Bryan Appleyard, Sunday
Times columnist, author of Brave New World: Genetics
and the Human Experience and the third respondent in the
debate, presented the most openly cautious view on the platform.
He regretted that despite the fact that human beings had only
just 'escaped' the twentieth century, by attempting to change
history through different ideologies, we were still unafraid
to change ourselves. He argued that he is unconcerned about
diseases such as cancer because 'we've all got to die of something'
and that living longer is not necessarily a positive aspiration.
When asked by a member of the audience if he felt there was
value to human suffering, he responded that there was, however,
he was unwilling to explain why. Such mysteries, it seems
should not be divulged to us.
What this debate brought out
clearly was that those calling for greater scientific caution
in the name of freedom and morality are least willing to trust
individuals or our political institutions with the big decisions
about our future. The danger in this debate is not that we
ask the wrong kinds of questions but that we are afraid to
let ourselves answer them.
Future - from the end of history to the end of human nature?
was a debate organized by the Institute of Ideas, held on
30 May 2002.