Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On "Our Posthuman Future"

A thorough review of Francis Fukuyama's take on transhumanism...that's only a decade or so late

According to recent research, stuff is often blue and/or orange.
Well, it only took me a full 10 years, but I finally got around to reading Francis Fukuyama’s “Our Posthuman Future.” Now, I’m a pretty big fan of the Fuk-meister’s conservative-tinged agitprop (he’s probably the only author to appear on the  New York Times Bestsellers List within the last 25 years to cite both Nietzsche AND C.S. Lewis as his primary writing inspirations), but I have to say I’m a bit disappointed with this 2002 offering.

Now, with something like “The End of History and the Last Man” (his most famous work, about the apparent “triumph” of capitalistically-driven democracy following the fall of the Berlin Wall), you pretty much expect an ass-load of political philosophizing. In fact, that’s pretty much inescapable considering the territory he was mowing there, but with “Our Posthuman Future” - which is supposed to be about the social dangers of transhumanism - there’s just an overabundance of it. In the 220 or so pages of “Our Posthuman Future,” Fukuyama spends at least 180 of them going on and on about “natural rights” and political rabblerousing regarding everything from “The Bell Curve” to Ritalin prescriptions. It seems as if Fukuyama nails just about every topic under the sun in “Our Posthuman Future” - everything, that is, except what our posthuman future is supposed to entail.

Fukuyama has always been sort of an aberration when it comes to conservative analysts. Whereas most of his more famous political brethren are all about hellfire and brimstone and super-duper-mega sensationalism, Fukuyama seems to temper his work with way too much damn “rationality” to fit neatly under the “Republican Firebrand” label. He often states that his theories are anything but infallible, he isn’t opposed to voting across-the-aisle, and one of the anchor points of “Our Posthuman Future” is a call for more government regulation. Fukuyama, obviously, is just about as liberal as they’ll let conservatives get.

Now, when we’re discussing “transhumanism,” I personally expect an exclamation-loaded, hyper-fatalistic call-to-arms to follow suit. Basically, I want to hear anti-transhumanism pundits go off the deep end, and start saying shit that sounds like it would’ve come out of Will Smith’s mouth in “I, Robot.” Fukuyama’s problem - outside of the fact that he never really addresses the topic he named his book over - is that he’s just too lukewarm considering the issue. Fukuyama spends about 9/10ths of the book explaining what recombinant DNA and bt-corn is, but outside of giving us a few scant examples of how genetic engineering is currently being used to foul up the whole of humanity - as with the Geron Corporation, who actually patented a designer genome for telomerase - Fukuyama leaves the deep research up to us. In the last ten years, there’s obviously been a lot of breakthroughs with molecular engineering, specifically in regards to genetically modified organisms - for a good introduction to such, I’d highly advise checking out the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., which I assure you will forever change the way you look at chicken sandwiches and corn on the cob.

That’s not to say that Fukuyama doesn’t bring a couple of interesting talking points to the table, however. His anecdotes about Joe Tsien’s experiments to give mice “super-memories” are pretty damn provocative, as is his predictions about the U.S. population circa 2050 (Fukuyama says that if current trends continue, the two biggest voting blocs in the USA then will be elderly women and super pissed-off immigrants from the Third World.)

The fundamental flaw with the work, however, is that it never gets into the nitty-gritty, Sci-Fi sounding bullshit that you sort of expect from a book on the subject. The entire book, for all intents and purposes, is just a variation of the refrain “genetic engineering is probably a bad idea,” totally ignoring all of the out-there, pants-pissing experiments going on in the world as we computer-speak. Did you hear about the person that was infected with a computer virus a couple of years back, or Monsanto’s bid to economically crush farmers that didn’t use their patented mycogen seeds? Yeah, you won’t be hearing anything that awesome/terrifying in this book, I am afraid.

As you can see here, the future of molecular engineering is very, very spirally.

Hell, if you look up transhumanism on Wikipedia, you’ll come across an artist’s conception of a hybrid human/cow thing that’s quite possibly the most horrifying image I’ve ever seen of anything ever. Even if Creative Commons would let me publish it here, I wouldn’t, just because it’s so damned creepy looking. That, I suppose, is what I was looking for in “Our Posthuman Future” - bizarre and conjectural nightmare fodder that’s just feasible enough to give me a case of the goose pimples that lasts a full afternoon.

But instead, all I just got was just another lecture about the same-old John Locke / John Money bull stuff, with only occasional dropped morsels about the absurdity and outrageousness of human bioengineering.

You let me down here, Frankie. You really, really did.

SCORE: D+

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