NS Essay - The unstoppable march of the clones

We have failed to control the spread of nuclear weapons. So how can we hope to control the developme

Fidel Castro has ordered Cuban biotechnologists to clone a new breed of cow. The ageing caudillo sees the cloning project, which attempts to replicate White Udder, a cow that became legendary for its milk output in the 1980s, as a solution to Cuba's chronic shortage of dairy products. The benefits to Castro of resurrecting the animal, which died 17 years ago, extend well beyond its impact on the milk industry. A successful cloning would be a coup for Cuban biotechnology, a pointed reminder to the US that it is not always in the vanguard of scientific development, and a boost to the prestige of a crumbling regime.

The tangle of motives that has led Castro to become a cheerleader for biotechnology is a cautionary tale for anyone who imagines that the industry can be made subject to effective international regulation. In launching a scientific experiment for reasons that are at least partly political, Cuba's leader is doing what other countries have also done, and will surely do in the future. Such experiments are unlikely to be confined to non-human animals. Within the lifetimes of people who are alive today, it will become feasible to alter human nature. If we believe what we are told by scientists, biotechnology offers more than the promise of removing genetic defects that contribute to common diseases. It opens up the possibility of redesigning human beings. The present generation will be able to shape the next in ways that have never before been possible. As scientific knowledge grows, it seems likely that not only the disease profiles, but also the personalities of future human beings will become alterable by human will. At that point, equipped with the new powers conferred by biotechnology, we will be what Lenin could only dream of becoming - engineers of souls.

It is a prospect that evokes both excitement and foreboding. Belatedly acknowledging that history may not have ended, Francis Fukuyama conjures up an intoxicating vision of a post-human future in which science enables us to reshape our very essence. But in his latest book (Our Post-Human Future: consequences of the biotechnology revolution) he warns that, as a result of uneven access to the new technologies, a genetic underclass could come into being, greatly magnifying existing inequalities. Worse, as envisioned in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a new underclass could be bred deliberately, reintroducing something akin to slavery. These are real hazards; but, Fukuyama insists, they can be controlled by a well-constructed regime of regulation.

E O Wilson, on the other hand, while he acknowledges that the new technologies carry risks, argues that they open up a future of indefinite progress. In his books Consilience: the unity of know-ledge and The Future of Life, Wilson declares that genetically modified crops can ease us through the environmental bottleneck created by the expanding numbers of human beings. Beyond that, genetic engineering makes possible what he calls "the conscious control of human evolution": a time when the jerry-built structures of human nature have been reconstructed, and humanity's development is no longer a matter of blind evolutionary drift.

Wilson and Fukuyama thus differ in their assessment of the comparative risks and benefits of the new technologies. Where they are at one is in their belief that humanity can master them. Here, they embody a paradox in contemporary thinking. For both men, humans are best understood in Darwinian terms of natural selection. Wilson, the greatest contemporary Darwinian and a genuinely profound thinker, is an ardent foe of the myth of exemptionalism - the belief that humans belong to a different order of things from the rest of the natural world. In their origins and nature, he argues, they are an animal species like any other. This is a conclusion that Fukuyama, who has made wide-ranging (if at times ill-judged) use of sociobiological theory, also accepts. Yet both thinkers are adamant that humans can control their future development; and that, using scientific knowledge, they can overcome the natural limits that frame the lives of other species. Humanity can use the powers given by new technology to bring about a world better than any that has ever existed.

This is faith, not science. By insisting that we can use our powers of invention to control and direct our future, these thinkers resurrect a religious image of humankind. According to Christians, other animals may be driven along in the natural drift of things, but humans can fashion their lives through autonomous choices. That - and not merely its prodigious inventiveness and awesome powers of destruction - is what marks humanity off from the rest of life. This Christian idea that humans are separated from other animals by an unbridgeable gulf is not found in all, or even most religions. It is absent from Hinduism and Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto. It is explicitly rejected in the primordial religion of mankind - animism - in which other animals figure on terms of equality with humans, if not superiority to them. Exemptionalism is a distinctively Judaeo-Christian doctrine. It is therefore not surprising that it should animate the political religions that have sprung up in the wake of Christianity's decline.

It is a commonplace that Marxism is a secular version of a Judaeo-Christian view of history, but the same is true of the vision of the human future that inspires thinkers such as Fukuyama and Wilson. Fukuyama's idea of the end of history makes sense only if history is a single continuous narrative, a moral drama involving all of humanity that concludes in some kind of universal completion. Once again, this is a peculiarly Judaeo-Christian view. No pagan thinker ever thought of history in this way. For Aristotle and the Roman historians, history is a series of cycles not unlike those found in the lives of plants. It has no purpose or end. Equally, Wilson's idea that humanity can take charge of its evolution makes sense only if you think it is different in kind from every other animal species. In each case, these beliefs are direct inheritances from religion.

In Our Posthuman Future, Fukuyama announces "the recommencement of history" on the grounds that science makes possible the transformation of human nature, and thereby new historical conflicts. The implication is that, were it not for scientific advance, his original pronouncement that history had ended would be vindicated. But this is to turn the role of science in history upside down. It is not science that drives history, but history that drives science. Pure scientists may have developed nuclear physics, but nuclear fission came into the world as a by-product of war. The same is true of many advances in radar technology, medicine and other fields. The urgent necessities of military conflict brought them into being, and economic forces determined their subsequent development. The new biotechnologies will be no different. In future, as in the past, the development of science and technology will be governed by war and profit.

This gives the lie to Fukuyama's repeated claim that, despite the destruction of the World Trade Center, his original pronouncement of the end of history still stands. As he now states it, his view is that liberal democracy is the only legitimate regime anywhere in the world. Unlike his earlier, vaguer formulations, this at least has the intellectual merit of being false. Today, as in all previous times, regimes are legitimate to the extent that they meet vital human needs - needs such as security from violence, economic subsistence and the protection of cherished ways of life. There is nothing to say that the regimes that meet these needs must be democratic. The current regime in China derives its legitimacy from its capacity to guarantee order, promote prosperity and express the growing force of Chinese national identity. If it is challenged, it will be because it is failing to meet these needs, not because it fails to be democratic. To think that democratic values are universally accepted is a basic error.

A similar fallacy infects Fukuyama's prognostications on biotechnology. He believes that an international consensus on the proper uses of genetic engineering can manage its hazards. Yet he says little about how a consensus can be enforced. The world contains nearly 200 sovereign states, many collapsed or heavily corroded by crime or corruption, others ruled by capricious tyrants, still others locked in bitter conflicts. How can we expect to regulate biotechnology when it has proved impossible to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction?

The military uses of biotechnology could pose a threat comparable to nuclear war. Genetically selective weapons may be developed to target particular ethnic groups. Long-acting toxins may be devised that can devastate populations many years after being disseminated. Further ahead, reproductive cloning may be used to mass-manufacture soldiers more immune to emotions of sympathy and self-preservation than even today's suicide bombers. The development and spread of new weapons of mass destruction is a side effect of the growth of knowledge interacting with primordial human needs. That is why, finally, it is unstoppable. The same is true of genetic engineering. If people try, during the coming century, to redesign human beings, they will not do so on the basis of an enlightened international consensus. It will occur haphazardly, as part of competition and conflict among states, business corporations and criminal networks. The new, post-human creatures that may emerge from these murky rivalries will not be ideal types embodying the best human ideals: they will reproduce some of the worst features of unregenerate humanity.

When E O Wilson writes of humanity taking charge of its evolution, he enunciates the core belief of scientific humanism. Like other humanists, however, he has forgotten an important implication of Darwin's teachings: "humanity" does not exist. The upshot of the theory of natural selection is that the human species is an accidental assemblage of genes, continuously mutating under the impact of changes in the environment. It is no more a collective entity capable of taking decisions about its future than any other animal species. Wilson's failure to grasp this truth gives his proposals for dealing with the environmental crisis an unmistakably utopian quality. He presents irrefutable evidence that human activity is wreaking great damage on the planet, and exterminating other living things at a rate unknown since the end of the dinosaurs. By his estimate, half the earth's plant and animal species will be gone by the end of the century. Yet, despite this overwhelming evidence of human fecklessness, Wilson insists that salvation can be found in science. Using new technologies, including genetically modified foods, the swelling human population can be fed. With population control and environmental conservation, the destruction of biodiversity can be arrested.

Wilson's programme is admirable; but it expresses a strangely unscientific, indeed irrational, faith in the human capacity for co- operation. If we look to history, we find no reason to think that science will ever be used to achieve a sustainable balance with the environment. The limits of growth are re-emerging as a major source of geostrategic conflict. As Wilson notes, since 1960, human numbers have doubled to around six billion. Barring catastrophes, they will rise by another two to four billion later this century. In the Gulf - a region entirely dependent on depleting supplies of oil for its income - the population will double in about 20 years. It does not take much insight into human behaviour to see that this is hardly a scenario for global co-operation. The combination of rising human numbers, dwindling natural resources and spreading weapons of mass destruction is more likely to unleash wars of unprecedented savagery. If we can bring ourselves to look clearly at this prospect, we will lay aside utopian fantasies of global co-operation. We will see our task as staving off disaster from day to day.

To account for the Fukuyama/Wilson faith that mankind can achieve conscious mastery of its evolution, we need to look back to an early 19th-century cult - French positivism. Led by thinkers such as Henri Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, the positivists were the inventors of the religion of humanity that has inspired the secular religions of the past two centuries. They had many eccentricities, including a version of the Catholic practice of crossing oneself in which they tapped the parts of the cranium believed by phrenologists to be connected with order and progress, but their religion has been vastly influential. It inspired not only Marx but also, through John Stuart Mill, many liberals, and it stands behind the faith in progress that is shared by all parties today.

Humanists believe their faith in progress is founded on reason, but it is not a result of scientific inquiry. It is the Judaeo-Christian idea of history as a universal narrative of salvation dressed up in secular clothes. Progressives believe that the growth of knowledge leads to the emancipation of humanity. If (to adapt Larkin's view of religion) we peel away the moth-eaten brocade of progressive hope, we find that humans are highly inventive animals, who use their growing knowledge in the service of their most urgent needs - however conflicting, or ultimately destructive, these may prove to be. They will use the new biotechnologies as they have used previous scientific developments. If the advance of reproductive cloning produces a new breed of post-humans, it will come about from the interplay of all-too-human forces and motives - war, profit and the vanity of leaders. The post-human future will not be the moment when humanity takes charge of its future. It will be just another blind turn in human history.

John Gray's next book is Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals, published by Granta in September