Mere Humanity

A critical review of Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans – choosing our children’s genes v’s Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future – Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
(Profile Books, 2002)

Peter S. Williams

In 1910 G.K. Chesterton warned:

when once one begins to think of man as a shifting and alterable thing, it is always easy for the strong and crafty to twist him into new shapes for all kinds of unnatural purposes.  The popular instinct sees in such developments the possibility of. . . limbs twisted for their task.  It is a very well-grounded guess that whatever is done swiftly and systematically will mostly be done by a successful class and almost solely in their interests.  It has therefore a vision of inhuman hybrids and half-human experiments much in the style of Mr. Wells’s ‘Island of Dr. Moreau.’ . . .  Whatever wild image one employs it cannot keep pace with the panic of the human fancy, when once it supposes that the fixed type called man could be changed. . .  That is the nightmare with which the mere notion of adaption threatens us.  This is the nightmare that is not so very far from the reality.

It will be said that not the wildest evolutionist really asks that we should become in any way unhuman. . .  Pardon me, but this is exactly what not merely the wildest evolutionists urge, but some of the tamest evolutionists, too. [1]

Gregory Stock is a tame evolutionist, the Director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at the School of medicine at UCLA.   His latest book, Redesigning Humans – choosing our children’s genes, is a significant contribution to the contemporary bioethical debate because it advocates ‘choosing our children’s genes’ in order to design future generations.  He argues that this practice is inevitable and that we should embrace it with optimism and minimal regulation.

Stock quotes a ‘letter to Mother Nature’ from The Extropians: ‘a group studded with bright, iconoclastic figures and a board of directors that includes Marvin Minsky, Ray Kurzweil, and Roy Walford’ (Redesigning Humans, p158):

Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us.  No doubt you did the best you could.  However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. . .  We have decided it is time to amend the human constitution. . .  Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution. . .  We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death. . .  We will expand our perceptual range. . . improve out neural organization and capacity. . . reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses. . . take charge over our genetic programming and achieve mastery over our biological and neurological processes. (Redesigning Humans, p158-159)

My reaction to The Extropians is that they sound uncomfortably like the N.I.C.E of C.S.Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. [2] Stock’s reaction to The Extropians is to write that: ‘This image of the human journey towards a superior ‘posthuman’ may be difficult for many to take seriously, but the determination to use whatever new technologies emerge from today’s explorations of human biology aligns well with prevailing attitudes.’ (Redesigning Humans, p158)

Opposing Stock (and The Extropians), is Francis Fukuyama, another tame evolutionist, with his book from the same publisher: Our Posthuman Future – Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution.  Fukuyama is Professor of International Political Economy at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University, and author of The End of History, among other works.  Fukuyama argues that human genetic engineering is not inevitable, and that we should take steps to prevent the possible ‘abolition of man’ heralded by Stock.

I will analyse the debate between Stock and Fukuyama in terms of three theses they variously affirm and deny, and one very important assumption they both share.  Stock’s first thesis, shared by Fukuyama, is that our ‘genes matter and are responsible for important aspects of who we are’ (Redesigning Humans, p42), and that we can now choose who, and ultimately what we are by choosing our genes.  Stock’s second thesis, opposed by Fukuyama, is that the widespread use of this ability to choose our children’s genes (especially in ways that will pass this choice on to future generations), is inevitable.  Stock’s third thesis, also opposed by Fukuyama, is that this inevitable step should be embraced.  Stock and Fukuyama’s very important shared assumption is that human nature is not created by God in the image of God, but by ‘the blind watchmaker’ of nature in the image of nothing and no-one at all.

Fukuyama is much more sympathetic towards theism (and even Christianity) than Stock (perhaps this has something to do with the fact that his father was a Congregationalist minister).  He appears to be an agnostic, while Stock is clearly an atheist.  Nevertheless, in practice both authors share a lack of belief in God and argue within the constraints of a non-theistic worldview.  This shared negative assumption renders the arguments of both Stock and Fukuyama self-contradictory.

Stock takes his atheistic assumption to its logical consequence, and denies that human nature as in any way ‘sacred’, or that ‘playing God’ with human nature is a problem.  As fellow atheist James Watson says: ‘We are the products of evolution, not of some grand design which says this is what we are and that’s it. . .  People say we are playing God.  My answer is: ‘If we don’t play God, who will?’’ [3] Fukuyama, on the other hand, thinks that choosing our children’s genes is a bad thing because it means the possible eradication of human nature, and he sees having a human nature as the sole grounds for common human rights.

Although Fukuyama recognizes that objecting to genetic engineering on the grounds that human nature is created in the image of God is a coherent argument, like Gregory Stock, he views this is a false hypothesis.  Unlike Stock, Fukuyama thinks one can do without God in making a sound objection to choosing our children’s genes.  They are both wrong.

First Thesis (shared by Stock and Fukuyama): Genes are important to who and what we are, and we can now choose who, and ultimately what we are by choosing our genes.

Stock argues that science has given us (or will soon give us) the ability to ‘choose our children’s genes’, inaugurating a new era of self-directed ‘conscious human evolution’ (Redesigning Humans, p184) that may result in the eradication of humanity through its own deliberately chosen biological diversification.  Fukuyama basically agrees with Stock, noting that germline engineering (making alterations in the genetic code that will be passed down through the generations).  : ‘is what is done routinely in agricultural biotechnology and has been successfully carried out in a wide variety of animals.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p76-77)

Fukuyama is wary of genetic determinism, and affirms that: ‘Apart from a few single-gene disorders like Huntington’s chorea, genes are never 100 percent determinative of an individual’s eventual condition. . .’ (Our Posthuman Future, p38)  He points out that: ‘any parent who has raised siblings knows from experience that there are many individual differences that simply cannot be explained in terms of upbringing and environment’ (Our Posthuman Future, p21); but to automatically chalk these differences up to differing genes would be to ignore the reality of free will.

Fukuyama discusses studies of twins raised apart, saying that: ‘We know that identical twins have the same genotype – that is, the same DNA – and assume that the differences that subsequently emerge in the behaviour of twins reflect the different environments in which they are raised rather than heredity.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p21-22, my italics)  Once again we appear to have a reduction of human behaviour to nature and nurture that assumes a naturalistic view of humanity.

Fukuyama does note that: ‘In many cases, twins reared apart will nonetheless share many of the same environmental circumstances, making it impossible to disaggregate natural from cultural influences.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p22)  He also warns that: ‘Twin studies often fail to detect subtle aspects of shared environment, fail to control for nongenetic factors that might be influencing correlations, or rely on surveys with small sample sizes.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p33)

Of these two approaches to the study of genetic influences on personhood (taking either genotype or environment as given) Fukuyama says: ‘Neither approach can ever fully prove its case to the satisfaction of critics, since both are based on a statistical inference, with what are often large margins of error, and do not purport to describe the actual causal connections between genes and behaviour.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p24)  Nevertheless, Fukuyama reckons: ‘that we will know much more about genetic causation even if we never fully understand how behaviour is formed.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p24)  This knowledge will be gained analogically through experiments on animals: ‘It is obviously not possible to perform knock out gene experiments on human beings, but given the similarities between human and animal genotypes, it will become possible to make much stronger inferences about genetic causation than is currently feasible.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p25)  Of course, this suggestion makes the naturalistic assumption that there is no important essential difference between animals and humans.

Gregory Stock agrees that our genes make an important contribution to who and what we are.  For example, he claims that ‘IQ is anywhere from 45 to 75 percent heritable.’ (Redesigning Humans, p101)  Indeed:

Genetic factors generally account for between 35 and 75 percent of the variation among people in traits we think of as significant.  Environmental influences and random factors that are unique to each individual [Stock here seems to concede that nature and nurture are not omnipotent] account for most of the rest, whereas environmental influences shared by an entire family matter little, at least within the range of environments encountered by a typical child growing up in the developed world. (Redesigning Humans, p100)

According to Stock:

our genes account for anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the variation in personality among us.  This includes our level of extroversion and self-involvement, our emotional stability and reaction to stress, our conformity and dependability, our friendliness and likableness, and our general openness and curiosity.  Even whether a person says that religion is important in his or her life [a very vague category] is about 50 percent heritable. (Redesigning Humans, p104)

However, Stock asks us to remember:

that heritability is not absolute; it refers only to relative genetic influences within a particular range of environments.  Alter the environment beyond those bounds and a trait hitherto unresponsive to environmental change might shift significantly. . .  Encourage a very shy child in just the right way, and he or she may become more outgoing [the same would presumably apply to the importance of ‘religion’ in a person’s life]. (Redesigning Humans, p104)

So, while Stock does not defend the wilder claims of genetic determinism, he argues that: ‘our genetics circumscribes our potentials, our vulnerabilities, and even our potentialities.’ (Redesigning Humans, p167), and affirms that: ‘Genes tell us much about ourselves, but they only channel our fates, they do not engrave them indelibly.’ (Redesigning Humans, p103) 

Our authors are surely right to claim that genetically engineered humans are a distinct possibility; the real question marks are over how far such change can go, and how far it has to go before the end product is ‘post-human’, as Stock envisages and Fukuyama fears.

Second Thesis (Defended by Stock and Opposed by Fukuyama): Conscious Human Evolution through genetic engineering is inevitable.

Stock argues that the development of genetic knowledge and technology that will permit ‘conscious human evolution’ is inevitable: ‘Not everything that can or be done should or will be done, of course, but once a relatively inexpensive technology becomes feasible in thousands of laboratories around the world and a sizeable fraction of the population sees it as beneficial, it will be used.’ (Redesigning Humans, p5).  Stock argues that the technology that will make choosing our children’s genes possible will arrive whether or not it is pursued for its own sake: ‘The fundamental discoveries that spawn the coming capabilities will flow from research deeply embedded in the mainstream, research that is highly beneficial, enjoys widespread support, and certainly is not directed toward a goal like germline engineering.  The possibilities of human redesign will arrive whether or not we actively pursue them.’ (Redesigning Humans, p40)  This is the pessimistic portion of his thesis, a pessimism opposed by Fukuyama:

pessimism about the inevitability of technological advance is wrong, and it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if believed by too many people. . .  There are many dangerous or ethically controversial technologies that have been subject to effective political control, including nuclear weapons and nuclear power, ballistic missiles, biological and chemical warfare agents, replacement human body parts, neuropharmacological drugs, and the like, which cannot be freely developed or traded internationally. (Our Posthuman Future, p188)

This is important to Fukuyama because he wants to urge us to resist the widespread use of this technology:

We do not have to accept any of these future worlds under a false banner of liberty, be it that of unlimited reproductive rights or of unfettered scientific inquiry.  We do not have to regard ourselves as slaves to inevitable technological progress when that progress does not serve human ends.  True freedom means the freedom of political communities to protect the values they hold most dear, and it is that freedom that we need to exercise with regard to the biotechnology revolution today. (Our Posthuman Future, p218)

According to Fukuyama, we should at least try to stem the tide of human biotechnology by creating national and then international agreements and statutory bodies to enforce them:

no regulatory regime is ever fully leak proof, and if one selects a sufficiently long time frame, most technologies end up being developed eventually.  But this misses the point of social regulation: no law is ever fully enforced.  Every country makes murder a crime and attaches severe penalties to homicide, and yet murders nonetheless occur.  The fact that they do has never been a reason for giving up on the law or on attempts to enforce it. (Our Posthuman Future, p189)

To me, this appears to be a strong argument by analogy.  If we disagree with Stock’s third thesis, we should join with Fukuyama in calling for the regulation of biotechnology to outlaw germline engineering.  However, imposing legal restraints is no substitute for winning the battle of ideas so that people don’t want to do the thing you want to outlaw.

Third Thesis (defended by Stock and Opposed by Fukuyama): We should embrace conscious human evolution.

‘progress ought to be based on principle, while our modern progress is mostly based on precedent.  We go, not by what may be affirmed in theory, but by what has been already admitted in practice.’ – G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World, (Ignatius, 1994), p. 167.

Stock takes his pessimism with regards to such regulation to justify the claim that we should embrace germline engineering within ‘a free-market environment with real individual choice, modest oversight, and robust mechanisms to learn quickly from mistakes’ (Redesigning Humans, p201).  This is the optimistic portion of Stock’s thesis: ‘At the heart of the coming possibilities of human enhancement’ says Stock, ‘lies the fundamental question of whether we are willing to trust in the future.’ (Redesigning Humans, p172), whatever that means.  Stock seems to embody the attitude summed up by Chesterton as: ‘Yesterday, I know I was a human fool, but to-morrow I can easily be the Superman.’ [4]   Because of his optimism, Stock is willing to embrace genetic engineering despite his belief that: ‘We cannot know where self-directed evolution will take us, nor hope to control the process for very long.’ (Redesigning Humans, p173)  He displays the optimistic faith in human nature typical of secular humanism: ‘Those who are happy to let GCT lead us where it may are trusting that our children, our children’s children and the many to be born after them will have the wisdom and clarity not to use this powerful knowledge in destructive ways.’ (Redesigning Humans, p173)

Fukuyama’s doesn’t share Stock’s faith in the future.  He begins his book with an examination of Aldous Huxley’s prophetic Brave New World, arguing that the distopian nature of the world depicted by Huxley lies in the fact that ‘the people in Brave New World may be healthy and happy, but they have ceased to be human beings.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p6)  However, Fukuyama goes on to ask, in the mode of ‘devil’s advocate’:

What is so important about being a human being in the traditional way. . ?  After all, what the human race is today is the product of an evolutionary process that has been going on for millions of years. . .   There are no fixed human characteristics, except for a general capability to choose what we want to be, to modify ourselves in accordance with our desires.  So who is to tell us that being human and having dignity means sticking with a set of emotional responses that are the accidental byproduct [note the atheistic assumption] of our evolutionary history?  There is. . . no such thing as human nature or a ‘normal’ human being, and even if there were, why should that be a guide for what is right and just?. . .  Instead of taking these characteristics and saying that they are the basis for ‘human dignity,’ why don’t we simply accept our destiny as creatures who modify themselves? (Our Posthuman Future, p6)

Fukuyama valiantly proceeds to take up arms ‘on the side of the angels’, but he is fighting an atheistic argument that cannot be vanquished on its home turf.

Fukuyama devotes a great deal of effort to countering the claim that there is no such thing as a human nature, but even if he wins that battle, he fails to make the case that we should take that nature as ‘a guide for what is right and just’ because ‘having dignity means sticking with a set of emotional responses that are the accidental byproduct of our evolutionary history’.  As Geoff Mulgan writes in his review of Fukuyama’s thesis:

Behavioural genetics and cross-cultural anthropology have, indeed, together done much to paint a picture of a human race that shares many more common traits than earlier generations of relativists allowed. . .  The problems arise however when [Fukuyama] tries to load a moral weight onto this picture.  The ability to speak, the tendency to bring children up in families, and even belief in God, may all be typical of the human species and not explicable solely in cultural terms, but that does not make them in any strong sense constitutive of human nature.  Nor is it clear why we should want to preserve all of these behaviours. [5]

Stock’s quasi-spiritual rhetoric (which puts me in mind of a certain biblical incident involving the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil) calls for a stronger response than can be made without God: ‘To turn away from germline selection and modification. . . would be to deny our essential nature and perhaps our destiny.  Ultimately, such a retreat might deaden the human spirit of exploration, taming and diminishing us.’ (Redesigning Humans, p170.)  According to Stock:

As we follow the path that germline choice offers, we are likely to find that being human has little to do with the particular physical and mental characteristics we now use to define ourselves, and even less to do with the methods of conception and birth that are now so familiar. . .  As we move into the centuries ahead, our strongest bond with one another may be that we share a common biological origin and are part of a common process of self-directed emergence into an unknowable future. (Redesigning Humans, p196)

Fukuyama’s objection to the path of choosing our children’s genes is precisely that it means the possible eradication of human nature that Stock embraces: ‘the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a ‘posthuman’ stage of history.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p7.)  Our authors simply take different moral views on the possibility of ‘the abolition of man’, moral views that I see as inadequately grounded in both cases.

Fukuyama argues that there is an essential human nature (something that Stock seems to accept, if only in a truncated sense) which grounds the appropriateness of ‘human rights’, and urges that human nature therefore ought not to be meddled with (readers should ponder what missing premise Fukuyama requires to make a valid syllogism here).  Fukuyama explains the basis of his concern:

This is important. . . because human nature exists, is a meaningful concept, and has provided a stable continuity to our experience as a species.  It is, conjointly with religion, what defines our most basic values.  Human nature shapes and constrains the possible kinds of political regimes, so a technology powerful enough to reshape what we are will have possibly malign consequences for liberal democracy ad the nature of politics itself. (Our Posthuman Future, p7)

Fukuyama argues that the demand for equality implies: ‘that when we strip all of a person’s contingent and accidental characteristics away, there remains some essential human quality underneath that is worthy of a certain minimal level of respect – call it Factor X.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p149.)  So what is Factor X?

For Christians, the answer is fairly easy: it comes from God.  Man is created in God’s image, and therefore shares in some of God’s sanctity, which entitles human beings to a higher level of respect than the rest of natural creation.  In the words of Pope John Paul II. . . ‘It is buy virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such dignity even in his body. (Our Posthuman Future, p150)

But of course, Fukuyama doesn’t want to take the obvious path here.

For Fukuyama, ‘Factor X’: ‘cannot be reduced to the possession of moral choice, or reason, or language, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forward as a ground for human dignity.  It is all of these qualities coming together in a human whole. . .’ (Our Posthuman Future, p171)  Hence, ‘human nature is the sum of the behaviour and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors [where] typicality is a statistical artefact [that] refers to something close to the median of a distribution of behaviour or characteristics.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p130)

This account of ‘Factor X’ as a holistic conglomerate of properties is nowhere near robust enough to do the ethical work Fukuyama requires of it.  As Fukuyama admits: ‘the big ethical controversies raised by biotechnology will not be threats to the dignity of normal adult human beings, but rather to those who possess something less than the full complement of capabilities that we have defined as characterizing human specificity. The largest group of beings in this category are the unborn. . .’ (Our Posthuman Future, p174)  In which case, what is the supposed problem with genetically engineering the unborn?  Fukuyama notes that this question: ‘has already come up with regard to stem cell research and cloning’, which ‘requires the deliberate destruction of embryo’s, while so-called therapeutic cloning requires not just their destruction but their deliberate creation for research purposes prior to destruction.  (As bioethecist Leon Kass notes, therapeutic cloning is not therapeutic for the embryo.)’ (Our Posthuman Future, p174)  Fukuyama’s response to this problem?  ‘I do not want to rehearse the whole history of the abortion debate and the hotly contested question of when life begins.  I personally do not begin with religious convictions on this issue and admit to considerable confusion in trying to think through its rights and wrongs.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p174)  Unfortunately for Fukuyama, this is a confusion that seeps into the heart of his anti-germline-engineering argument and stops it dead in its tracks.

What Fukuyama needs is a dualist anthropology wherein: ‘The functions characteristic of a person are grounded in the essence of the person, not the other way around, where functions determine personhood.’ [6] As J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae explain: ‘Advocates of a functional view of a human person have the metaphysical cart before the horse in placing the priority on function in assigning personhood.’ [7]   Consider the person in a reversible coma, under general anaesthetic, or in a deep and dreamless sleep – such a person has none of the fundamental aspects of personhood listed by Fukuyama.  According to a functionalist definition of personhood, he or she does not have the moral status of a person; an absurd conclusion.  The standard functionalist counterargument here is that these states are only temporary  and that the essential human defining functional abilities will be restored when the person wakes up, the anaesthetic wares off, or they come out of the coma.  However, to say that the person is ‘only temporarily dysfunctional’, ‘one needs to be able to appeal to some other higher-order capacities as determinants of personhood.’ [8] Who is temporarily dysfunctional?!  ‘Appealing to such capacities cannot be done without acknowledging that personhood cannot be dependent on lower-order expressed capacities.  For the functionalist those capacities are not available to them. . .’ [9] Hence:

Defending the personhood of the person under anaesthetics or in a reversible coma is dependent upon unexpressed higher-order capacities that are currently latent. . .  To suggest that this person remains a person while in the dysfunctional state because he at one time expressed those capacities simply begs the question by asserting the functionalist premise as a defence against this objection.  This person has the same capability to express these capacities as does the developing fetus.  The only difference is that it may take the fetus more time to express those capacities. . .  Attempts to assign personhood according to one or more functional criteria fail because. . .  personhood is a matter of essence, not of function. [10]

In other words, only if essential human nature is conceived in terms of the soul, the existence of a spiritual thing that grounds the capacities listed by Fukuyama, rather than in terms of the existence of those capacities, can one count the patient under anaesthesia as a human being with attendant human rights.  And if one does that, then one ought to acknowledge that the fetus in the womb is no less a human being: ‘the mind is a faculty (a natural grouping of capacities) of the soul that may require certain physical states of affairs to obtain in the brain and central nervous system before it can function.  But. . . the soul itself does not require these states of affairs to obtain before it is present. . .’ [11]

Then again, so what if human nature ‘exists’, ‘is a meaningful concept’, ‘has provided a stable continuity to our experience as a species’, helps define ‘our most basic values’ or ‘shapes and constrains the possible kinds of political regimes’, if none of this is an objectively good state if affairs that we morally ought not to abolish?  While the existence of an essential common human nature may be a necessary condition of there being human rights, one can question whether this is a sufficient condition of human rights.  Fukuyama’s argument only to covers half the front (and that, inadequately).  What becomes of his argument against genetic engineering if he wants to preserve a robust moral ought while rejecting the ‘religion’ he mentions (and he primarily means Christianity) as at least partially constitutive of the value defining process?  Doesn’t it collapse into self-contradiction?  What sense does it make to ground equal human rights in an essential human nature if one can only value essential human nature because it grounds equal human rights?  Isn’t there a vacuous moral circle here?

Fukuyama attempts to defend his objection against the rebuttal that it commits what philosophers call ‘the naturalistic fallacy’, the fallacy of deriving a moral ought from an amoral is.  I do not think he succeeds.  His crucial counter example to the naturalistic fallacy, his suggestion for how to get to a moral ought from an amoral is, is drawn from Alisdair MacIntyre: ‘If I stick a knife in Smith, they will send me to jail; but I do not want to go to jail; so I ought not (had better not) stick a knife in him.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p115-116)  However, the ‘ought’ in McIntyre’s syllogism is quite obviously not a genuinely moral ought, but a purely pragmatic ‘ought’ (a ‘had better not’, as McIntyre says) derived from a self-interested and emotive premise.  Fukuyama’s meta-ethical theory is a mixture of pragmatism and emotivism:

the process of value derivation is not fundamentally a rational one, because its sources are the ‘is’ of the emotions. . .  Virtually every pre-kantian philosopher has an implicit or explicit theory of human nature that set certain wants, needs, emotions, and feelings above others as more fundamental to our humanness.  I may want my two week vacation, but your desire to escape slavery is based on a more universal and more deeply felt longing for freedom, and it therefore trumps my want. . .  Values are not arbitrary constructs but serve an important purpose in making collective action possible. (Our Posthuman Future, p117 & 125)

The strange thing about Fukuyama’s discussion of ethics is that it consistently avoids explicitly mentioning the concept of goodness, while all the time goodness is implicitly assumed to attach to such concepts as the satisfaction of ‘fundamental’, ‘more universal’, or ‘more deeply felt’ needs and wants, and to ‘values’ that are pragmatically useful because they serve the ‘important’ purpose of making ‘collective action’ possible.  Of course, it would be hard to suggest that collective action and the satisfaction of fundamental human needs were not good things; but Fukuyama is asking us to agree with him that these things can define and ground what goodness is.  This amounts to the adoption of a subjective meta-ethic that illegitimately derives a moral ought from an amoral is.

The nontheist’s problem, as Philosopher Winfried Corduan explains: ‘is committing the fallacy of trying to get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’  He or she is trying to justify prescriptive moral laws on the basis of descriptive data.  The atheist is after an obligatory moral code without anything that makes it obligatory.  To have commandments, they must be commanded in some way, but the atheist’s system does not allow for such a possibility.’ [12] Only a theistic worldview allows for such a possibility.  Hence Fukuyama’s non-theistic worldview pulls the rug from underneath his objection to genetic engineering.

We need to be able to say that humans have equal dignity and worth because there is an essential human nature that is an objectively good thing which ought not to be abolished.  Given that the moral argument for God is a sound piece of reasoning, as I take it to be, this is just what we are not able to say if we reject the existence of God. [13] As Gregory Stock asks: ‘where does this ‘right’ [to an unaltered genetic constitution] come from?  The assertion is spiritual, and virtually identical to the declaration that we should not play God.  One cannot rebut this as a religious belief, but it is unconvincing in secular garb.’ (Redesigning Humans, p129)  Hence I agree with Christian ethicist Norman L. Geisler when he writes that:

The humanists’ approval of certain biomedical procedures for the supposed benefit of the individual or the race flows from their presuppositions.  If there is no God and man is simply a higher animal, then there seems to be no logical reason to deny many of their conclusions.  There are, however, some good rational grounds for challenging their presuppositions. [14]

Stock considers the objection to gene-line manipulation, ‘that we should not play God’ (Redesigning Humans, p173).  He notes that: ‘The special significance of humanity seemed clear to Western thinkers in the Middle Ages; Earth was at the centre of the universe, and we were fashioned in God’s image’ (Redesigning Humans, p174), but argues against our special significance: ‘The Copernican revolution shattered that notion, wrenching humanity from its exalted station and leaving it stranded on a peripheral planet circling one of many stars.’ (Redesigning Humans, p175), while ‘The Darwinian revolution finished the job, leaving us fashioned not by divine consciousness but by random natural forces.’ (Redesigning Humans, p175).

Frankly speaking, this is nothing but the poorest sort of ‘shallow scientistic triumphalism’. [15]   The importance of a thing has nothing to do with its spatial position, and scientific descriptions of the universe, such as Darwin’s (rather shaky) theory of evolution, are in principle incapable of ruling out the notions of intention and purpose.  As this year’s Templeton Prize Winner, Sir John Polkinghorne FRS, says: ‘Nor do the insights of evolutionary biology into our kinship with other animals actually sustain the view, so often proclaimed by biologists, that there is nothing very special about being human.’ [16]

Fukuyama’s discussion of religious objections to genetic engineering is more sympathetic than Stock’s.  He at least makes it crystal clear that there is a distinction between evolution as a scientific theory and Darwinism as an atheistic philosophy: ‘Since Darwinism maintains that there is no cosmic teleology guiding the process of evolution, what seems to be the essence of a species is just an accidental byproduct of a random evolutionary process.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p152.)  It is, of course, impossible to know that humans are nothing but ‘an accidental byproduct of a random evolutionary process’ unless one knows that ‘there is no cosmic teleology guiding the process of evolution’; and one cannot possibly know that unless one knows that God does not exist.  Therefore, one cannot disprove God’s existence simply by positing evolution. [17]   Such an argument begs the question.

Fukuyama recognizes that objecting to genetic engineering on the grounds that human nature is created in the image of God is a coherent argument:

The Christian tradition maintains that man is created in God’s image, which is the source of human dignity.  To use biotechnology to engage in what. . . C.S.Lewis called the ‘abolition of man’ is thus a violation of Gods will. (Our Posthuman Future, p7)

Religion provides the clearest grounds for objecting to the genetic engineering of human beings. . .  In a tradition shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, man is created in God’s image.  For Christians in particular, this has important implications for human dignity.  There is a sharp distinction between human and nonhuman creation. . .   (Our Posthuman Future, p88)

However, Fukuyama’s assumption is that this is a hypothesis he must do without: ‘While religion provides the most clear-cut grounds for opposing certain types of biotechnology, religious arguments will not be persuasive to many who do not accept religion’s starting premises.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p91)  It is this assumption that leads to the collapse of his case against Stock.

The Problem of Consciousness and Free Will

There is a second self-contradiction within Fukuyama’s argument, for while he calls upon his readers to exercise their freedom to stem the tide of genetic engineering, he ultimately fails to escape from the dilemma that a naturalistic worldview leaves no room for free will.  Fukuyama acknowledges:

It would be very difficult for any believer in a materialistic account of the universe – which includes the vast majority of natural scientists – to accept the Kantian account of human dignity [an account based on the hypothesis of free will].  The reason is that it forces them to accept a form of dualism – that there is a realm of human freedom parallel to the realm of nature that is not determined by the latter. (Our Posthuman Future, p151)

He notes how the Pope has said that: ‘theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living nature, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p161)  Although he admits that ‘the pope has pointed to a real weakness in the current state of evolutionary theory, which scientists would do well to ponder’ (Our Posthuman Future, p161), Fukuyama falls short of embracing dualism, accepting instead the theory that mind (including emotion), while ultimately ‘mysterious’ (Our Posthuman Future, p170), does indeed emerge from the forces of living nature:

one does not have to agree with the pope that God directly inserted a human soul in the course of evolutionary history to acknowledge with him that there was a very important qualitative, if not ontological, leap that occurred at some point in this process. . .  The problem of how consciousness arose does not require recourse to the direct intervention of God. (Our Posthuman Future, p170-171) [18]

(Nor, presumably for Fukuyama, does it track back to an indirect divine intention.)

Fukuyama tries to evade substance dualism, and its religious implications, by distinguishing between parts and wholes and appealing to chaos theory to show that the behaviour of physical wholes cannot always be deduced from the behaviour of their physical parts: ‘It is the leap from parts to a whole that ultimately has to constitute the basis for human dignity, a concept one can believe in even if one does not begin with the pope’s religious premises.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p170)  However, he admits:

What this whole is and how it came to be remain, in Searle’s word, ‘mysterious’. . .  It is common now for many AI researchers to say that consciousness is an ‘emergent property’ of a certain kind of complex computer.  But this is no more than an unproven hypothesis based on analogy with other complex systems [like the weather].  No one has ever seen consciousness emerge under experimental conditions, or even posited a theory as to how this might come about. (Our Posthuman Future, p170-171)

Fukuyama resorts to what has been called ‘promissory naturalism’:

The fact of the matter is that we are nowhere close to a break through; consciousness remains as stubbornly mysterious as it ever was. . .  Subjective mental states. . . appear to be of a very different, nonmaterial order from other phenomena.  The fear of dualism – that is, the doctrine that there are two essential types of being, material and mental – is so strong among researchers in this field that it has led them to palpably ridiculous conclusions. . .

This is not to say that the demystification by science will never happen.  Searle himself believes that consciousness is a biological property of the brain much like the firing of neurons or the production of neurotransmitters and that biology will someday be able to explain how organic tissue can produce it.  He argues that our present problems in understanding consciousness o not require us to adopt a dualistic ontology or abandon the scientific framework of material causation. (Our Posthuman Future, p166 & 171)

When the ‘framework of material causation’ is elevated from its status as an initial prejudice in favour of material explanations (methodological naturalism) to a metaphysical principle that outlaws non-material explanations, even if they are the best explanation of the data, one has moved from science to scientism.

For all his studied but naturalistic agnosticism, Fukuyama manages to shoot himself in the foot when he writes that ‘the behaviour of complex wholes. . . may be extremely sensitive to small differences in starting conditions and thus may appear chaotic even when their behaviour is completely deterministic.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p163, my italics.)  Like Kant, Fukuyama never provides an argument for thinking that human consciousness is not ‘completely deterministic’.  I seriously doubt he can do so unless he embraces some form of dualism and its attendant theistic implications. [19] Naturalism denies free will and thus objective ethics, and objective ethics proves free will and disproves naturalism: ‘if moral norms exist, then materialism as a worldview is false, because moral norms are nonmaterial things.’ [20] In the words of C.E.M. Joad: ‘the conviction that some things. . . are positively evil carries with it the consciousness that the things ought not to be done. . . and the consciousness of ought carries with it in its turn. . . the consciousness of freedom.  Is it not, indeed, meaningless to say that something ought not to happen. . . if, in fact, it could not have happened or could not have been otherwise?’ [21]

Stock’s Self-Abolition

Stock repeatedly notes that the development of genetic engineering should force us to wrestle with the question of what it means to be a human being.  His own answer to this question is that humans are the outcome of an unintended naturalistic evolutionary process who, possessed of a scientific turn of mind, have developed the (inevitably deployed) power to take over their own evolution where Nature left off and to direct it towards ‘the goals we value’ (Redesigning Humans, p201).  So, while Stock admits that ‘In essence [gene-line manipulation] would replace the hand of an all-knowing and almighty Creator with our own clumsy fingers and instruments.’, and thereby to ‘trade the cautious pace of natural evolutionary change for the careless speed of high technology. . . flying forward with no idea where we were going and no safety net to catch us’ (Redesigning Humans, p175), for him there is no Creator to worry about or to replace.  We must simply do our best to channel an inevitable technological process: ‘If. . . we admit that we don’t know where we are headed, maybe we will work harder to ensure that the process itself serves us, and in the end that is what we must count on.’ (Redesigning Humans, p175).  Ironically, it is Stock who begins one of his chapters with the following quotation from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: ‘‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began. . . ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’  ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.  ‘I don’t much care where-’ said Alice.  ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.’

Stock thus envisages a process of self-directed human evolution that ‘serves us’ (Redesigning Humans, p175).  The questions of what goals we ought to value, and what metaphysical worldview is implied by the existence of a moral ought, doesn’t seem to occur to Stock.  Indeed, Stock equivocates over who, or what, is ultimately in charge of this ‘self-directed human evolution’: ‘In a sense, germline manipulation is biology’s bid to keep pace with the rapid evolution of computer technology.’ (Redesigning Humans, p33.)  Human choice has here been replaced with an anthropomorphosized Biology – a shift Stock probably doesn’t notice because he thinks that human beings just are human biology (and human biology an accidental part of biology in general).

Stock writes that: ‘To figure out which traits we will want for our children once we have the power to make such choices, we must think long and hard about who we are’ (Redesigning Humans, p117); but this is empty rhetoric, because Stock has a very clear assumption about what human beings are: ‘Our evolutionary past speaks to us through our biology and fashions our underlying desires and drives.  Our urges are those that best enabled our ancestors to produce as many children as possible and ensure that those children go on to do the same.’ (Redesigning Humans, p117.)

One might ask, as Alvin Plantinga has asked with considerable subtlety and power, whether such a view of human nature is compatible with the assumption that the human way of thinking about reality, especially in the abstract realm of scientific theorising, is a reliable one. [22] Then again, such an account of human cognition appears to have a problem in that it appeals to causal, physical explanations at the expense of rational, logical explanations. [23] Be that as it may, Stock’s argument is beginning to sink into a slough of genetic determinism, for:

One thing we can count on. . . is that any combination of personality and temperament that predisposes people to embrace biological selection and enhancement will be highly represented among those who use germline choice.  To the extent that the personality attributes that lead to this are genetic in nature, the technology is likely to reinforce them in successive generations.  Enhanced humans will manifest and reinforce their philosophy in their biology. (Redesigning Humans, p123)

In other words, Stock thinks there will be a genetic snowball effect that could wrest ‘self directed human evolution’ out of human hands. [24]   As C.S. Lewis saw:

At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected. . . to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ – to their irrational impulses. . .  Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.  Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. . .  What looked like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever. . .

We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may conquer them. . .  The price of conquest it to treat a thing a mere Nature. . .  As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss.  But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stulified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same. This is. . . the magician’s bargin: give up the soul, get power in return.  But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us.  We shall in fact be slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls. . .  if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature. . . [25]

Stock admits that since ‘We cannot know where self-directed evolution will take us, nor hope to control the process for very long’ (Redesigning Humans, p173), this process will lead to the dissolution of what the ‘we’ this process is meant to serve actually are: ‘future generations will not want to remain ‘natural’ if that means living at the whim of advanced creatures to whom they would be little more than interesting relics from an abandoned human past.’ (Redesigning Humans, p199, my italics).  According to Stock: ‘In offering ourselves as vessels for potential transformation into we know not what, we are submitting to the shaping hand of a process that dwarfs us individually,’ (Redesigning Humans, p173).  Thus, the process Stock wants us to embrace on the basis of its supposed benefits to us in ‘enhancingour human nature dwarfs the nature of its supposed directors in such a way that they will be swallowed up by the process they inaugurated (or which Nature inaugurated through them); and, in rejecting God, fails to acknowledge any objective basis for thinking that the proposed beneficial enhancements are a good thing in the first place.  On the other hand, if one were to admit the existence of God, then a normative and sacred human nature might thereby be established, a conclusion that should at least dampen our enthusiasm for evolving ourselves off the cosmic scene.

Fukuyama is therefore on the right road when he objects to genetic engineering on the basis that it might lead to the abolition of man, for such an outcome renders Stock’s advocacy of just such a process moot in so far as it is based on an appeal to self-interest.  However, if Stock were to ask Fukuyama, ‘What’s so special about man in this godless universe that we ought to preserve him?’, I don’t see how he could make a sufficient reply without abandoning his assumption that God does not exist.  The existence of an essential human nature may be a necessary condition of human rights, but in the absence of God, it does not seem to be a sufficient condition.  Nor, in the absence of God, can one say that this essential human nature is an objectively good thing that ought to be preserved because it’s existence is part of God’s design for His creation.


‘Denial of the concept of human dignity – that is, of the idea that there is something unique about the human race that entitles every member of the species to a higher moral status than the rest of the natural world – leads us down a very perilous path. . .  Nietzsche is a much better guide to what lies down that road than the legions of bioethicists and casual academic Darwinians that today are prone to give us moral advice on this subject.’ – Francis Fukuyama, (Our Posthuman Future, p160.)

Without acknowledging a Creator it is impossible to justify belief in the special value of human nature that motivates much biomedical research, to define human nature in a normative way, or to judge any proposed ‘enhancement’ to human nature as being objectively good.

Genetically engineered humans seem to be a genuine possibility.  Genetically engineered humans may or may not be an inevitability.  Either way, we can at least try to halt, or at least slow down, the biotechnological tide.  The end product of genetically engineering humans may or may not be genuinely ‘post human’, but even the possibility that choosing our children’s genes could lead to the abolition of man is reason enough to oppose its development for eugenic purposes.

‘To avoid following [the road of human genetic engineering],’ says Francis Fukuyama, ‘we need to take another look at the notion of human dignity, and ask where there is a way to defend the concept against its detractors that is fully compatible with modern natural science but that also does justice to the full meaning of human specificity.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p160)  Fukuyama says, ‘I believe there is.’ (Our Posthuman Future, p160)  But his way contains (at least) two self-contradictions.  I submit that theism provides the only viable foundation for objecting to the posthuman future of Gregory Stock’s Redesigning Humans.

Recommended Resources

The most important Christian work in relation to conscious human evolution, and one mentioned by Fukuyama, is C.S. Lewis’ brief but seminal book: The Abolition of Man, (Fount, 1999).  Of particular relevance is the third and final chapter, ‘The Abolition of Man’.  Lewis fictionalised the heart of his abolition of man thesis in his SF/Fantasy That Hideous Strength (cf., The Cosmic Trilogy, Pan, 1989).  An excellent contemporary examination of Lewis’ themes in The Abolition of Man is Peter Kreeft’s, C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, (Ignatius, 1994).  Readers will also find highly relevant background material in J.P. Moreland & Scotty B. Rae’s, Body & Soul – Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics, (IVP, 2000).

[1] G.K.Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World, (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1910, reprinted Ignatius, 1994), p 180-181.

[2] cf. C.S. Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy, (Pan, 1989).

[3] James Watson, Predictions, (Oxford, 1999), p. 294.

[4] G.K. Chesterton, op cit, p. 58.

[5] Geoff Mulgan, ‘After humanity’, Prospect, June 2002, p. 24.

[6] J.P. Moreland & Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics, (IVP, 2000), p. 250-251.

[7] ibid, p. 151.

[8] ibid, p. 251.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid, p. 251-252 & 260.

[11] ibid, p. 200.

[12] Winfried Corduan, No Doubt about It, (College Press), p. 87.

[13] cf. William Lane Craig, ‘The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality’ @; J.P. Moreland, ‘The Ethical Inadequacy of Naturalism’ @; Peter S. Williams, The Case for God, (Monarch, 1999).

[14] Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics – Options and Issues, (Apollos, 1995), p. 176.

[15] John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of The World, (SPCK, 2002), p. 46.

[16] ibid, p. 45.

[17] This conclusion follows whether or not one accepts that the available physical resources of evolution are able to explain biological reality; but cf: Access Research Network @:; Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski and Stephen C. Meyer, Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, (Ignatius, 2000); William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot be Purchased without Intelligence, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001); J.P. Moreland, (ed), The Creation Hypothesis, (IVP, 1994); and Keith Ward, God, Chance & Necessity, (OneWorld, 1996).  For indications that human evolution, even if by the operation of natural forces, was not unintended, cf. Robin Collins, ‘The Fine-Tuning Design Argument: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God’ @; Michael J. Denton, Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe, (Free Press, 1998).

[18] For arguments that consciousness does require God as its explanation cf. Richard Swinburne, ‘The Justification of Theism’ @; Robert M. Adams, ‘Flavors, Colors, and God’ in Douglas R. Geivett and Brendan Sweetman (ed.'s), Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, (Oxford University Press, 1992); J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, (Baker, 1987).

[19] cf. footnote 18.

[20] Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air, (Baker, 2001), p. 16.

[21] C.E.M. Joad, The Recovery of Belief, p. 77.

[22] cf. Alvin Plantinga, ‘An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism’ @; Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, (Oxford, 1993).

[23] cf. Victor Reppert, ‘The Argument from Reason’ @

[24] Even without this shift away from the reality of human choice, Stock appears unphased by his recognition that ‘Parents will select genetic modules that seem to offer the clearest benefits and the fewest risks to their future children.  This will draw human reproduction under the sway of consumer marketing.’ (Redesigning Humans, p33)  If modern consumer marketing has one overriding purpose it is to constrain human free will so that consumers will spend their money as the advertiser chooses.

[25] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (Fount, 1999), p. 42-45.