TCS Daily


Frankly Disappointing

By Nick Schulz - July 8, 2002 12:00 AM

For those of you who have been following the debates over biotechnology, perhaps the only thing you want to read less than another article by biotech critic Frank Fukuyama is another article about Frank Fukuyama. So, at the risk of alienating all TCS readers, I give you an article ... about an article written by Frank Fukuyama! How's that for two birds with one stone? But bear with me: I only take this risk because when a major (conservative) intellectual leaps far to the left, it is important to examine why.

Frank Fukuyama, now a professor of political economy at John Hopkins University, has influenced debates in the United States over foreign policy, politics, and civil society for the last two decades. In particular, as a professor at George Mason University, he wrote about "The End of History" arriving with the triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism around the globe.

In the last couple of years, this prominent intellectual has turned his attention to the controversies over biotechnology: cloning, stem cell research, germ-line intervention, and others. This year, he published a much-discussed book, "Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution," as well as scores of articles in journals and magazines promoting his book and his views. He has also been the subject of several profiles in newspapers and magazines.

Fukuyama, though, is more than an influential writer and thinker. As a member of President Bush's biotech advisory council, the so-called Kass Commission, he holds a position that can even shape the debate over biotech. And he comes at it, to put it charitably, as a skeptic.

It's In Our Genes

Fukuyama believes that much of our human nature is deeply rooted in biology, specifically in our genes. And he argues that many of our precious individual rights are rooted in our conception of human nature:

"We possess human rights because of that specifically human nature: as Thomas Jefferson said at the end of his life, Americans enjoy equal political rights because nature has not arranged for certain human beings to be born with saddles on their backs." (For a longer treatment on this view, read his provocative piece in The National Interest.)

So monkeying around with our nature might ipso facto, in Fukuyama's view, monkey around with the very foundations of our rights-based liberalism. This prospect worries him, since he doesn't know exactly what such monkeying will necessarily lead to. But whatever it leads to, he fears it probably isn't desirable (e.g., half-man, half-monkey hybrid slaves, "Brave New World" and other apocalyptic visions). So Fukuyama proposes banning certain biotechnological processes such as cloning and heavily regulating others to, in effect, protect our rights. Better safe than sorry is his operating sentiment -- even if it denies scientists their freedom to experiment and means closing off avenues for cures and treatments for diseases and suffering.

Go Left, Young Man

Now, in his effort to regulate biotechnology -- and his ambitions in this regard are global and not just limited to the United States -- Fukuyama has made common cause with an odd bedfellow for him: the most extreme elements of the environmental left.

While his politics until recently had been generally conservative/libertarian in thrust and tenor, Fukuyama now issues a call to arms to radical greens in the recent issue of "World Watch", the flagship publication of the Worldwatch Institute. In it, he makes a case to environmentalists that his fight against biotechnology is of a piece with the fights greens have been waging for years now against, among other things, genetically modified crops and foods, so it's time to join forces.

In so doing, Fukuyama turns his back on science and open-ended inquiry altogether. His arguments are so willfully naïve, if not deliberately dishonest, that he is worth quoting at length to see where he started and where he is going with his thinking.

"If there is one thing the environmental movement has taught us in the last couple of generations," Fukuyama writes, "it is that nature is a complex whole. The different parts of an ecosystem are mutually independent in ways that we often fail to understand; human efforts to manipulate it will produce a host of unintended consequences that will come back to haunt us. [Emphasis added.]

"Watching one of the movies made in the 1930s about the construction of the Hoover Dam or the Tennessee Valley Authority is today a strange experience: the films are at the same time naïve and vaguely Stalinist, celebrating the human conquest of nature and boasting of the replacement of natural spaces with steel, concrete, and electricity. This victory over nature was short-lived: in the past generation, no developed country has undertaken a new large hydroelectric project , precisely because we now understand the devastating ecological and social consequences that such undertakings produce."

Now, this argument amounts to what National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg calls "an intellectual stolen base." For a long time, political libertarians and conservatives have invoked the informal "law of unintended consequences" in making their case against government interference with the private sector. Libertarian-conservatives from Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek have argued that complex human societies and private relationships shouldn't be turned on their head or trifled with due to concerns over unintended consequences (witness the excesses of the French Revolution or the massive disastrous "planning" efforts of the Nazis or Soviet Union). They pointed this out in a sustained critique against massive government-sponsored social engineering efforts and for individual choices, small-scale experimentation and incremental change in the private sphere.

Fukuyama knows this. Only Fukuyama's position on biotech is to advocate government meddling in the private biotechnology industry and to usurp the choices of millions of private individuals! Precisely what the law of unintended consequences suggests you shouldn't do. So how odd, then, that Fukuyama invokes the law of unintended consequences now and cites examples of government engineering from the New Deal era to bolster his support of government intervention. The examples he cites -- while perhaps useful for galvanizing greens -- undermine his very argument.

Making Distinctions

The debate over biotechnology has been an extended exercise in moral and pragmatic line-drawing: Do blastocysts have moral worth that should be respected by the state? Where does the "slippery-slope" of allowing therapeutic cloning end up if not in reproductive cloning? Is it moral to prohibit research that could alleviate the pain and suffering of millions? Are proponents of bans on research cloning morally culpable for the continued suffering of others? Where do we draw lines for ethical research?

By making common cause with Worldwatch and other green groups, Fukuyama draws his moral lines on some dangerous shifting sands. He is now weighing in not just on the genetic manipulation of human beings -- where he has some salient points to make -- but also on gene manipulation of all organisms. Fukuyama's new radicalism has taken him to some unlikely intellectual territory, so it's again worth quoting him at length.

"Anyone who feels strongly about defending non-human nature from technological manipulation should feel equally strongly about defending human nature as well. In Europe, the environmental movement is more firmly opposed to biotechnology than is its counterpart in the United States, and has managed to stop the proliferation of genetically modified foods there dead in its tracks. But genetically modified organisms are ultimately only an opening shot in a longer revolution, and far less consequential than the human biotechnologies now coming on line. Some people believe that, given the depredations of humans on non-human nature, the latter deserves more vigilant protection. But in the end, they are part of the same whole. Altering the genes of plants affects only what we eat and grow; altering our own genes affects who we are. Nature - both the natural environment around us, and our own - deserves an approach based on respect and stewardship, not domination and mastery."

Fukuyama, here, makes claims about moral worth -- about what nature "deserves." The merit of this biocentric moral view (as opposed to the traditional anthropocentric moral view) is a topic for another day. But his goal in taking up arms with greens is clearly political and tactical -- to push back the boundaries of acceptable scientific inquiry and discovery. After all, if you can make genetically modified crops seem morally troubling, then, logically, manipulating human genetics should be morally out of bounds.

It is saddening and distressing to see Fukuyama go down this road. Most of his scholarship during his career has been admirable and some of the attacks on him from the pro-biotech critics have been unfair (for example, that he's part of a "pro-death" anti-biotech movement). Further, the points he raises about the link between human nature and individual rights are helpful. It's where much of the moral debate over biotech should be taking place.

But the implications of his new arguments are that the work of all bioengineers is morally problematic. In short, that the work of pioneers such as Norman Borlaug -- the Nobel Prize winner whose creation of hybrid wheats is widely credited with saving over 1 billion people from starvation -- is morally suspect. But what scholar, academic or intellectual in the green or anti-biotech crowd can claim such a profound human and deeply moral accomplishment as Borlaug?

When you link arms with people who devalue human life -- conflating it with the rest of the natural world -- as the modern environmental movement has, you put political expediency over principle at an extremely high cost. Fukuyama and other biotech critics would be wise to think again about their new green bedfellows.

 

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