Capitalism, Francis Fukuyama announced more than a decade ago, is the promised land at the end of history. The collapse of the Soviet Union confirmed that there was neither an alternative to the market-driven liberal democracies of the west nor a possibility of transcending capitalism. Not even the events of 11 September, which led many critics to mock the "end of history" thesis, have given Fukuyama cause to change his mind. The end of history, he argues, means not the termination of conflict, but simply the recognition that nothing can improve on capitalist liberal democracy under the rule of law. Why? Because, as he puts it in Our Posthuman Future, capitalist institutions "are grounded in assumptions about human nature that are far more realistic than those of their competitors".
Yet even Fukuyama has come to worry that the reports of the death of history may have been a mite exaggerated. Capitalism, he fears, is undermining its own foundations: not, as Marx thought, through the agency of the working class, but as a result of the unrestricted advance of science and technology. Science, and in particular biotechnology, has the potential to change the kinds of beings that we are, and in so doing to "recommence history", propelling us from a human to a posthuman world - from the end of history to the end of human nature as we know it.
To Fukuyama, human values are rooted in nature. Human nature is rooted in our biological being, and in particular in our genes. Messing around with human biology could alter our nature, transform our values and undermine capitalism. "What is ultimately at stake with biotechnology," he writes, "is . . . the very grounding of the human moral sense." We therefore require international regulation to obstruct any technological advance that might "disrupt either the unity or the continuity of human nature, and thereby the human rights that are based upon it".
He is most worried about genetic engineering, but other technologies also concern him. Cloning is an "unnatural form" of reproduction that might create "unnatural urges" in a parent whose spouse has been cloned. Prozac is giving women "more of the alpha-male feeling that comes with high serotonin levels", and Ritalin is making young boys "sit still", even though "nature never designed them to behave that way".
Even attempts to slow down the ageing process are fraught with danger. The world, Fukuyama believes, may soon be divided "between a north whose political tone is set by elderly women" (because women tend to live longer than men) and "a south driven by . . . super-empowered angry young men". The consequence will not simply be more days like 11 September, but a disinclination on the part of the west to use force in response, because women are apparently less aggressive than men by nature. Such fears may seem to carry all the scholarly weight of a Hollywood dystopian fantasy - Gattaca meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
If capitalism is as natural as Fukuyama claims, how is it that, for virtually the whole of human history, people abided by entirely different sets of values and beliefs? And what exactly worries Fukuyama about genetic engineering? That we will be turned into a race of beings who believe that the market may not be the best way to promote the flourishing of humanity? Or that we will lose our attachment to the sanctity of property? As for the dangers of longevity, life expectancy has doubled in the past two centuries - yet society has not collapsed. Nor is there any evidence that the extension of the franchise to women in the early 20th century made that century any less violent than the one before.
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. For Fukuyama, human beings as a species possess an inner essence or nature, which he defines as "the sum total of the behaviour and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors". From this perspective, humans seem little more than sophisticated animals. "Many of the attributes that were once held to be unique to human beings - including language, culture, reason, consciousness and the like - are characteristic," Fukuyama believes, "of a wide variety of nonhuman animals."
At the same time, he presents humans as exceptional beings. Although all animals have a nature, only humans possess "dignity". Dignity gives humans a "superior . . . moral status that raises us all above the rest of animal creation and yet makes us equals of one another qua human beings". Such dignity resides in a mysterious Factor X, the "essential human quality" that remains after "all of a person's contingent and accidental characteristics" have been stripped away. It is Factor X that Fukuyama wants to preserve from the clutches of biotechnologists.
Therein lies the problem. Factor X appears to be both the same as human nature - the "essence" of our humanity - and also what makes the human animal distinct from the rest of nature. Fukuyama suggests that, somewhere along the human evolutionary journey, there occurred "a very important qualitative, if not ontological, leap" which came to separate man from beast.
Fukuyama is right, I think, to assert the "dual character" of human existence, of humans as both animal and yet more than animal. However, he seems not to recognise what this means for the concept of human nature. If humans are qualitatively distinct from the rest of the natural world, the human "essence" cannot simply be rooted in nature.
What sets humans apart is not some mysterious Factor X, hidden somewhere in our biology, but rather our ability to act as conscious agents. Uniquely among organisms, human beings are both objects of nature and subjects that can, to some extent at least, shape our own fate. We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, the possession of which allows us to design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws.
It is only because humans are conscious agents that we possess moral values. As Fukuyama himself observes: "Only human beings can formulate, debate and modify abstract rules of justice." This is why we should not "confuse human politics with the social behaviour of any other species". Human values, in other words, are not fixed in our nature, but emerge from our capacity to transcend that nature. To a certain degree, Fukuyama recognises this. Violence, he suggests, "may be natural to human beings", but so, too, is "the propensity to control and channel violence". Humans are capable of "reasoning about their situation" and of "understanding the need to create rules and institutions that constrain violence". Humans, therefore, possess the capacity to rise above their natural inclinations and, by using reason, to shape their values.
But if this is so, no amount of biotechnological intervention will transform our fundamental values. What may transform them, however, is the kind of pessimism that Fukuyama expresses in his thesis about the end of human nature.
Fukuyama rightly worries about the "medicalisation of society" - the inclination to view personal, social and political problems in biological or medical terms. In part, at least, this arises from the tendency of our age to view humans as weak-willed, sick or damaged, as victims lacking the capacity to transcend their situation, either individually or collectively. Biotechnology, Fukuyama believes, can only entrench such perceptions, making it easier for individuals who "would like to absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions".
But Fukuyama's own belief that values are embedded in our biology, and should be ring-fenced for protection, can only exacerbate this problem. If our values were simply evolved adaptations, the notion of moral responsibility would appear to be fragile indeed. And then what would be wrong with popping a pill or performing a bit of genetic surgery to improve our moral condition?
The real debate is not about whether biotechnology will undermine our values, but about the kind of values to which we aspire. Do we want a human-centred morality, rooted in concrete human needs - for solutions to brain disorders and genetic illnesses such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and cystic fibrosis? Or are we happy with a moral code that undermines the promise of medical advance in the name of a mythical human nature?
"There are good prudential reasons to defer to the natural order of things and not to think that human beings can easily improve upon it through casual intervention," Fukuyama writes. But why should the "natural order of things" be better than human creation? After all, we only need medicine because nature has left us with bodies that break down, with headaches and backaches, cancers and coronaries, schizophrenia and depression.
"If the artificial is not better than the natural," John Stuart Mill once asked, "to what end are all the arts of life?" "It's unnatural" has always been the cry of those who seek to obstruct progress and restrain "the arts of life". This argument is no more valid in response to biotechnology than it was in response to vaccination, heart transplants or in vitro fertilisation treatment. The "duty of man", as Mill put it, "is the same in respect to his own nature as in respect to the nature of other things: namely, not to follow, but to amend it".
Kenan Malik is the author of Man, Beast and Zombie (Phoenix)