Maybe in 2053, when my clone is having coffee with your clone, the arguments in Francis Fukuyama’s cautionary polemic “Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution” will seem as quaint as the early opposition to railroads does today.
But now, with so-called designer babies still as illusory as a reliable cure for male-pattern baldness, Fukuyama’s warning cry about biotechnology is resonant enough to give even the biggest scientific boosters pause. Fukuyama, a professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University, argues that in the near future it won’t be a corrupt state, à la Big Brother, that will use genetic engineering to undermine individual rights. The state won’t have to. Instead, millions of parents earnestly seeking to do what’s best for their own children will make insidious choices in the privacy of doctor’s offices — choices that will undermine democracy and alter nothing less than the nature of what it means to be human.
This is not Fukuyama’s first rhetorical firebomb. He’s best-known for his controversial article “The End of History?” published in 1989 in the National Interest, which made the case that liberal democracy represents the endpoint of humankind’s ideological evolution.
Fukuyama told Salon why he thinks that the right to be cloned and to tinker with our offspring’s genes aren’t liberties that we should all enjoy, and what should be done to restrain the onrush of biotechnology.
A lot of people would argue that parents’ being able to make genetic choices is just an extension of the kind of existing personal autonomy that people enjoy in liberal societies. But I think that there’s a real question about the degree to which you can assume the consent of the child that you are creating.
The best case of this is this recent one where there was a deaf lesbian couple that chose to implant a deaf embryo, and now they’ve got two deaf children, because they wanted to preserve this deaf culture within their family.
Is that really in the best interests of their child?
Isn’t the deaf child an unusual case, in that it’s selecting for something that most people would consider a disability, and that couple obviously didn’t? What about cloning?
I think even being born a clone is not something that you could automatically assume any child would give prior consent to having done to them.
It’s probably true that there are sympathetic instances where you might want to do cloning. A child gets killed and the parents don’t have any possibility for having another one, and they want to clone that one.
So, what you’re balancing are certain kinds of conceivable harms vs. certain kind of conceivable benefits. In my view, I think that overall in reproductive cloning the harms outweigh the benefits.
What’s important in the cloning debate is really the precedents that are being set for other technologies that are further down the road.
Basically, designer babies. You’re going to get preimplantation genetic diagnosis, where you’re going to be able to select not just for therapeutic characteristics but also enhancement ones. And that is really already arriving.
And then further down the line you’ll get human germ-line engineering, in which you’ll be able not just to select for existing characteristics among a group of embryos that a couple may produce, but you’ll actually be able to insert various characteristics that didn’t exist previously.
In the future, you’ll presumably be able to do what they do with agricultural biotechnology: You’ll be able to take a gene from a completely different species and put that into a child. And at that point the sky’s the limit.
What would be an example?
Scientists have already put jellyfish genes into plants and animals to create fluorescence. Now, I don’t know why you’d want to create a fluorescent child, but presumably there are certain characteristics that you might want to increase — the intelligence or height or good looks or athletic ability.
There are a lot of things that are rational from an individual standpoint that have deleterious impacts when scaled up to a social level. Sex selection in Asia is like that. From an individual parent’s standpoint, it makes sense to have a male as opposed to a female child. But it leads to this situation in Korea or India or China where you have a surplus of males of something like 20 percent, which is a good formula for social instability and the like.
With genetically engineered foods, the U.S. has been very laissez-faire. What makes you think that the biomedical industry will have less luck with the regulators?
Human biotechnology raises ethical issues that don’t exist in the realm of food. But if you look at the politics of it, you have an extremely powerful scientific research community and a biotech industry that both are pushing very strongly for this. So I’m not sure how the politics of this will play out.
I think that you can make a good case that you really need to rethink the whole regulatory structure, because there are huge gaps right now in the way that we regulate human biotechnology in the existing structure. The FDA has no authority over cloning. They’ve argued that they can regulate cloning on the grounds that a cloned embryo is a medical product, which I think a lot of lawyers think is a fairly questionable argument.
How does the way the U.S. regulates biotech today compare to what other countries do?
The Germans have probably the most through-going set of laws that prohibit most forms of embryo research and cloning.
The British have what I regard as a possible model for the United States. In 1990, they created this agency called the Human Fertilization and Embryology agency, which regulates their IVF industry, and sets the rules for experimentation on things like therapeutic cloning and the like. And actually, if we had that kind of a system in place that would satisfy most of my concerns, I think, for things like cloning research.
In the U.S. we have just this patchwork of different agencies. Large parts of it — the whole in vitro fertilization industry — is completely unregulated.
You write that this debate is bifurcated between pro-life conservatives who object to gene tinkering on religious grounds and libertarian, free-market, laissez-faire types. What’s wrong with it being couched in those two camps?
There are a lot of issues that have nothing to do with abortion that are very important.
I think down the road when you get into genetic engineering that’s not clearly therapeutic, you will get the emergence of genetically different classes of people that will undermine the basic achievement of American politics, which is an equality of rights based on an underlying biological equality.
You now have this technology that allows you to in effect create different classes of human beings, which opens up huge possibilities for undermining our basic systems of rights.
For people just to proceed down this path, saying, “Oh, yes, it’s just a matter of free individual choice. And we can’t tell people they can’t do this” — I think that’s crazy.
What if it turns out that this is what the American population wants — cloning and genetic engineering? Should it be prevented anyway?
If it turns out that after a lot of debate and people laying out some of these issues fairly clearly, that it’s so popular and there’s this overwhelming movement in that direction, well, of course, nobody is going to stop that.
But I think the likelihood that it’s going to play out that way is fairly small. It’s never going to be proved completely safe and effective. There’ll always be risks, and in fact, when you get into the germ-line engineering, they’re very substantial risks.
That’s when you take an embryo and you snip out certain genes and replace them with other genes that come from another human being or species, in order to produce a child that will then hand down those characteristics. It will then replicate in every cell of that child’s body, and it will be something that will be handed down to that child’s subsequent descendants.
Given the complex nature of genetic causation, it’s going to be very difficult to do that in ways where you can guarantee that there won’t be complex, unanticipated side effects. It could be that you will try to enhance the child’s intelligence, and it will turn out that you’ll increase the susceptibility to certain kinds of cancers — but this won’t show up until the child is 60 years old.
You argue that it’s not the state, but millions of individual choices, that we have to fear. Will eugenics come from all of us?
People who want this stuff say: “Well, what’s wrong with improving your children?” And that all rests on that word “improving.”
If you had a medical procedure that would guarantee that your child didn’t have a biological propensity to be gay, what do you think would happen if you could do this in the privacy of your doctor’s office?
I think that just given the fact that people want grandchildren, they would want a quote-unquote normal child.
And if you think this through, I just don’t think that you can argue that the human race would necessarily be improved, if through the result of millions of parents making this kind of decision, you basically eliminated gays from the population of the next generation.
I think that you can have some pretty unpleasant eugenic choices, and those will come about not as a result of the state coercively forcing people to do this, but simply through individual parents making these choices.
What if you decide you don’t like aggressive children, since aggression is the root of violence and school shootings, and so forth? So, either through drugs or through some sort of genetic intervention, you discover the source of this kind of aggression. Then you no longer have either innovation or people just standing up for principle, because it turns out that in the human psyche it all comes from the same source.
You attack the idea that technology will inevitably snake around regulation, and that if these technologies are outlawed here, people will just go somewhere else to use them. Why do you think that this is such a powerful notion right now?
I think that all came out of the I.T. [information technology] revolution. In earlier generations, when people were confronted with nuclear weapons, or with industrial pollution, they didn’t throw up their hands and say: “Oh, well, there’s absolutely nothing we can do about this — we’ll just have to live with periodic nuclear bombs going off.” They said: “Well, OK. We’ll try to control this as best we can.” And they’ve actually done a fairly good job at it.
It’s really hard to come up with a lot of downsides for I.T., and I just think that people got used to thinking that technology is their friend. I.T., in particular, is very difficult to control or regulate, and I think that people just got used to saying that technology simply could not be stopped or controlled.
Do you think that it’s likely that scientific research will outpace regulation? Or has that already happened with Dolly the sheep?
It always happens with new technologies. This is not a new problem. Industrial pollution created huge environmental problems, and it took a couple of generations until the law caught up with that.
I think the challenges here are particularly great because a lot of the problems that biotechnology may create are all mixed up with some very good things.
When nuclear weapons came along, it didn’t take a genius to say: “Well, this is a dangerous sort of thing, and we better get this under control.” With biotechnology, the potentially bad things tend to be fairly subtle. And so it’s harder to make the case that you need to be careful.
Do you think that we’re likely to see more of these chimeras, like human DNA in a cow’s egg, as one company has already created? Do you think that we’ll see more of that kind of thing before it’s regulated out of existence?
Well, I hope not.
If you look at the past history of biomedical regulation, unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of examples of people foresightedly acting to prevent certain things before they happen. So, it required Thalidomide and the Tuskegee syphilis scandal and things like that to put in place proper regulatory structure. My hope is that you can avoid that. But it may be the case that it’s going to take some kind of botched experiment or something like that for people to see the need for this.
What do you make of the libertarian reaction online to the arguments you’ve been making?
Well, I’ve become their favorite whipping boy in the last few weeks. That’s fine. I tend to think that this all shows weaknesses of the libertarian attitude toward this. They assume that the highest human good is that which an individual decides, and that nobody is in a position of moral authority to tell individuals that they shouldn’t do things that they deem are right. And I just don’t think that works.
A slave owner in the antebellum South thought that blacks were not human beings, and he resented like hell an abolitionist telling him that he had to treat a black like a human being, and it was his principled view that that wasn’t the case. And you had to fight a civil war and basically use the state to enforce the notion that all men are created equal, and that blacks were as fully human beings as whites were. So there are times that that libertarian model just doesn’t work very well.
Like when it comes to parents making choices about their children?
It’s not like picking the color of your shoes or what neighborhood you want to live in. This is something that is going to affect your child in a way that you can’t ever take back, and it’s going to affect all of your child’s subsequent descendants. So it’s not just a personal choice that you’re making. And there are these society-level effects. You could do all sorts of things that would not be good for society as a whole, even though they make sense from your individual standpoint.