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the Complete Review
the complete review - science / history

Our Posthuman Future

Francis Fukuyama

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To purchase Our Posthuman Future

Title: Our Posthuman Future
Author: Francis Fukuyama
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002
Length: 218 pages
Availability: Our Posthuman Future - US
Our Posthuman Future - UK
Our Posthuman Future - Canada
Notre futur posthumain - France
Das Ende des Menschen - Deutschland
  • Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution

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Our Assessment:

B : decent overview of the issues raised by the "biotechnology revolution"

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Prospect . 3/6/2002 George Scialabba
Commentary . 5/2002 Kevin Shapiro
Daily Telegraph . 18/5/2002 Maggie Gee
The Economist . 16/3/2002 .
Evening Standard . 13/5/2002 Nick Hackworth
Foreign Affairs . 9-10/2002 G. John Ikenberry
The Guardian . 1/6/2002 Steven Rose
Logos . Summer/2002 Diana M. Judd
The LA Times . 5/5/2002 Robert Lee Hotz
The Nation . 22/4/2002 Ralph Brave
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 29/8/2002 H.B. Schmid
The New Republic C 6/5/2002 Cass Sunstein
New Statesman . 20/5/2002 Kenan Malik
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/5/2002 Richard Lewontin
The NY Times Book Rev. A 5/5/2002 Colin McGinn
The Observer F 12/5/2002 Peter Conrad
San Francisco Chronicle A+ 21/4/2002 Steve Kettmann
Scientific American . 5/2002 Daniel J. Kevles
The Spectator . 1/6/2002 Robert Macfarlane
Sunday Telegraph . 19/5/2002 Anthony Daniels
TLS . 17/5/2002 Bryan Appleyard
The Washington Post . 14/4/2002 Steven Johnson
Weekly Standard . 29/4/2002 J.Bottum
Die Welt . 25/5/2002 Matthias Kamann
Wired . 15/4/2002 Steve Kettmann
Die Zeit . (22/2002) Thomas Assheuer

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is, rather, a thoroughly reasoned and careful assessment of the biotechnological revolution currently under way (.....) In this exercise there are many what-ifs, and Fukuyama does not evade the nuances of possibility and likelihood; to the contrary, he doggedly tracks down their practical consequences. The result is a sort of philosophical guidebook to the 21st century, posthuman or not." - Kevin Shapiro, Commentary

  • "Despite some of the frightening scenarios that he evokes, he has written a mostly quiet, thoughtful and, in a good sense, old-fashioned book that asks his readers to be brave enough to value what is good in the past and the present rather than throwing up their hands in the face of an inevitable future." - Maggie Gee, Daily Telegraph

  • "Not only does he cover the topic comprehensively. He shows us why it matters. For readers new to a complex subject, this book will be an invaluable guide, even if they do not go away agreeing with all, or any, of Mr Fukuyama's conclusions. Those who already know the area well may still want to remind themselves how its different bits fit together. For all its flaws, this is an important book. Mr Fukuyama has the rare knack of putting forward strong positions undogmatically, without for a minute suggesting that they are the end of the argument." - The Economist

  • "Some have criticised Fukuyama's assessment of biotechnology as alarmist and have castigated him for unnecessarily dragging the question of human nature into the debate. Neither criticism seems particularly justifiable. In any case, the real value of this book lies in its clear explanation of the problem and in the possibility that it may raise the profile of biotechnology in the media and in public awareness." - Nick Hackworth, Evening Standard

  • "In a contentious and fast-moving policy area, Fukuyama provides a remarkably sensible and human vision of what is at stake and what needs to be done." - G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs

  • "For a political economist to derive a conclusion abstracted from either practical politics or economy almost makes one wish for the return of the bioethicists." - Steven Rose, The Guardian

  • "Sounding a note of caution in the face of untested technology is commonsense; but promoting what is little more than propagandistic rhetoric for thepurpose of advancing one's biases is simply unfortunate, especially when theone promoting it is a scholar of Fukuyama's caliber. Both the academic realmand popular culture at large would benefit from a more even-handedapproach to the important issues surrounding biotechnology and geneticengineering; alas, such is lacking in Fukuyama's book." - Diana M. Judd, Logos

  • "For those who would look before they leap, Fukuyama has written an invaluable prescription for government regulation. Rarely has someone entering the policy arena so eloquently and precisely laid out the case for political control of emerging technology." - Robert Lee Hotz, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Fukuyama's entire brief depends upon avoiding the consequences of his own logic. Having identified the human essence with our biological human nature, he must evade any further specification or else the particular tissues, cells or molecules would be subject to further discussion and analysis as to whether or not they represent the human essence. Rather than discussion, we should trade in our autonomy and moral freedom for his protections. By the close of the book, any moral qualms on his part fall entirely by the wayside." - Ralph Brave, The Nation

  • "Fukuyama's new book is not bold, and it lacks a striking thesis. Fortunately, though, it has a rich and important subject. (...) His book is earnest, worried, informative, and responsible, but in key spots it is platitudinous and frustratingly vague. It is also, I think, fundamentally misdirected" - Cass R. Sunstein, The New Republic

  • "At the heart of this book is a discussion not of biotechnology, but of what it means to be human. To understand the author's alarmism about biotechnology, we have to understand his confusions about human nature." - Kenan Malik, New Statesman

  • "The remaking of human history by the technological manipulation of the human nervous system belongs to the literature of science fiction, the Gedanken experiments of social science that may illuminate history but not change it. When it comes to having the power to make history Fukuyama can have the neuropharmacology laboratories. I'll take the madrasas." - Richard Lewontin, The New York Review of Books

  • "(A) timely, thoughtful and well-argued contribution to an important subject. (...) Our Posthuman Future takes on these issues with the kind of philosophical and political scope that they urgently require." - Colin McGinn, The New York Times Book Review

  • "He might have spared us the hyperventilation. If only his book had been a little more deranged; in fact it's merely trite and dull. And as for the leap, well, I'd rather call it a plunge, plummeting straight to ground like a dropped, stolid, clunking brick." - Peter Conrad, The Observer

  • "Reviewers try not to go overboard, but here's a humble prediction: Our Posthuman Future, the latest from the author of The End of History and the Last Man, could be the most important book of the year. Francis Fukuyama has taken a stunning step forward (.....) Books this smart just do not come along very often." - Steve Kettmann, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Our Posthuman Future is repetitious, salted with questionable judgments and made somewhat confusing by several contradictory claims. It nonetheless sweeps the reader along by the provocativeness of its arguments and the originality of its linkages between the biotechnological and political futures." - Daniel J. Kevles, Scientific American

  • "As soon as Fukuyama comes to set out his argument, however, the book fills up with slippages, fudges of argument, contradictions, and dubious extrapolations passed off as self-evidence: the small but noticeable intellectual fidgets of a man who is uncomfortable with his position." - Robert Macfarlane, The Spectator

  • "I suspect that both authors overestimate the likely future impact of biotechnology upon our existence. In his discussion of advances in neuropharmacology, for example, Professor Fukuyama takes the claims of the praise-singers of Prozac at face-value: but contrary to what he believes, the mere fact that millions of people worldwide take the drug does not prove that it represents any fundamental improvement in the way our brain works. It proves rather that the desire for a shortcut to happiness springs eternal." - Anthony Daniels, Sunday Telegraph

  • "But, in detail, his argument suffers from two important and increasingly familiar weaknesses, characteristic of his work ever since the publication of The End of History and the Last Man (1992) made him a global conference star. First, the structural optimism on which his position rests is implausible, and, second, the position as a whole undermines the End of History thesis to which, he insists, he still adheres." - Bryan Appleyard, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The strongest parts of the book come in the opening section, during which Fukuyama gives a fascinating tour of the post-human sciences and their implications, free of the dogma from both sides of the political spectrum that has accumulated around these breakthroughs." - Steven Johnson, The Washington Post

  • "Er neigt zum Raunen, vergisst oft die Soziologie. Wichtige Anregungen, gar einen Anstoß zu einer Wiederbelebung der Gentechnik-Debatte mit nunmehr gesellschaftskritischer Ausrichtung vermag er nicht zu geben. Zudem neigt Fukuyama zur Amateurphilosophie." - Matthias Kamann, Die Welt

  • "Für amerikanische Verhältnisse zeigt Fukuyama eine erstaunliche Skepsis gegenüber den Heilsversprechen der Biotechnologie. (...) Eine Kampfschrift ist dieses nüchtern und sehr lesbar geschriebene Buch nicht, doch in der Sachlichkeit seiner Beschreibungen spürt man das fassungslose Erstaunen darüber, wie viel menschliche Energie für die Genforschung verausgabt wird und wie wenig im Kampf gegen das Elend der Welt." - Thomas Assheuer, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Biotechnology -- cloning, stem cell research, genetic engineering, neuropharmacology, and the like -- is an area in which great strides are being made at this time. It is also an area very directly affecting humans -- individuals and humanity as a whole -- and brings with it many potential benefits and consequences. Our Posthuman Future considers the implications of these advances (and possible future ones), as well as offering some suggestions as to how to address the many issues raised by them.
       Fukuyama divides his book into three sections. The first looks at the science: questions such as what about humans is determined genetically (and what is due to environmental factors) and what science can (and might be able to) do through biotechnology. From screening for defective genes to controlling behaviour with drugs to the genetic manipulation that might be possible in the future Fukuyama looks at all the major areas where such life-altering innovations are possible. Fukuyama carefully goes through this material, considering the different points of view (noting, for example, the different positions on what (and how much of) human behaviour can be attributed solely to genes, or on the question of when human "life" begins). Where there is doubt or uncertainty (pretty much everywhere, to at least some extent) he generally allows for it. He focusses on the current scientific consensus regarding most of these areas, but at least makes mention of most of the competing views and discusses some of their implications as well.
       A great deal already has been done that affects much of human life. Genetic screening already provides useful information for potential parents regarding some debilitating disorders, allowing them to chose to terminate their pregnancies at an early stage. Yet similar procedures -- allowing potential parents to determine the sex of their foetus at a very early stage -- have already had terrible demographic effects in several countries where parents much prefer to have sons than daughters.
       The duration of individuals' lives have also been greatly increased -- average life spans are much greater than even only a century ago -- and this will have profound social and political implications (as will the male-surplus in countries where female foetuses are disproportionally aborted). The implications of these demographic shifts are still unknown, but are potentially devastating. As is too often forgotten (but as Fukuyama fortunately points out) science affects life in much broader ways than merely on the individual level: the focus tends to be on individual benefits, but societies as a whole are affected too. Shifting demographics (altered by new-found longevity, lowered birth rates, and prenatal sex-selection) will certainly have dramatic political and social ramifications, on national and regional levels, and potentially even the global one.
       Regarding ageing there are also other issues, such as quality of life, that are still unclear. The body can perhaps continue to function, and possibly organs will be replaceable nearly at will, but the quality of life (especially regarding mental states) seems much less simple to preserve at acceptable levels.
       Pharmacology is also an area where great (or at least large) strides have been made, and Fukuyama makes a lot out of current fad drugs fluoxetine and methylphenidate (popularly known under their trade names, "Prozac" and "Ritalin"). As he notes, these drugs -- powerful, potentially very effective -- are just the beginning, and the future will certainly see the spread of such neuropharmacological agents. The public loves them -- even when they are not appropriate for the use they are being put to. Indeed, mind enhancing (or altering) drugs have always proved extremely popular, and humans seem to have an insatiable appetite for doping themselves silly. Drugs of the future may offer even more of what humans want (how they want to feel) -- and, as Fukuyama points out, this might not be such a good thing.
       Fukuyama also considers the spectre of future advances: cloning, which has already seen modest successes, and that great bugbear, genetic engineering. Cloning is one of the few areas where Fukuyama sees little debate: there is almost no sensible reason to do it. Almost everything else is more ambiguous, offering potential benefits along with possible dangers.
       Fukuyama's concern is with the potential for biotechnology to "alter human nature" itself (leading to the "'posthuman' stage of history" of the title). In the second part of the book he examines the concept of "human nature" and what it means to be human more closely. In three chapters (on human rights, human nature, and human dignity) he tries to explain what is so special about being human, and why the promise of biotechnology may change that (and not for the better). This is the more philosophical part of the book, and probably the most contentious. Fukuyama does not make any radical or outlandish claims, but these are still fuzzy propositions. There are no clear definitions here, but Fukuyama presents his case fairly well, noting also the objections that can be (and are) made.
       The final section of the book looks at: "What To Do". What Fukuyama wants to do is regulate biotechnology, and he considers the how, why, and what. A bit wary of regulation, he nevertheless argues here that it is both necessary and feasible in this case. As to the details of what the regulation should entail, he offers his suggestions, but acknowledges that these are evolving questions.
       Fukuyama doesn't have much faith in scientists themselves: "data, after all, are data", he writes, and that is pretty much all scientists care about, he believes. Professional bioethicists also aren't to be trusted: all they can be relied on is "to take the most permissive position of anyone in the room". But he does have some faith in popularly elected representatives.
       Democratic will has had some effect on legislation: European concerns about genetically modified foodstuffs has influenced what is grown and sold, while American stem cell research regulation has certainly been influenced by certain political pressure groups. Still, Fukuyama's faith in democratic will (and rationality) might strike some as far too optimistic.
       Fukuyama considers the risk of rogue nations that allow what is elsewhere forbidden, but argues that even with regards to biotechnology regulation can be fairly effectively enforced. He does not believe that biotechnology is an unstoppable juggernaut -- and he emphasizes that we must not let it become one.
       With lots of references to prescient Nietzsche (and a fair number to Hegel), Fukuyama paints a picture of warning, but he also offers hope. There's still time to get it right and save us from the worst, he suggests. Our Posthuman Future is a broad (and, in many respects, shallow) survey -- and certainly a fine overview of these important questions.
       These are issues that must be considered. The general public should be made aware of their potential consequences. But, as Fukuyama himself admits, human nature includes many pretty pathetic aspects -- including the willingness (or even eagerness) to alter self (or offspring) by popping pills and seeking to effect change in any way possible. Fukuyama believes the decisions regarding biotechnological regulation are up to society (through its elected representatives), rather than the individual. Certainly, the individual can't be trusted (self-interest completely dominating thoughts of the good of society) -- but most political representatives (with similar short-term, attention grabbing objectives) seem less than ideally suited to regulate thoughtfully either.
       Fukuyama, newly appointed to the American "President's Council on Bioethics", gets to have his say nearer to the policy-making level now, so he has good reason to believe in the political process. But the potential for bad regulation -- or no regulation, or ineffective regulation -- still seems great, and the nightmare scenarios too numerous.

       Our Posthuman Future will, one hopes, at least lead readers to think about these issues and questions. That would already be a fine start. It is a good, broad introduction -- but far from the final word.

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Our Posthuman Future: Reviews: Francis Fukuyama: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Francis Fukuyama was born in 1952. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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