Lecture Series: The Biotechnology Revolution: Political Implications and Governance

Thu. June 21st, 2001
About the speaker: Francis Fukuyama is Bernard Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he was Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Professor of Public Policy at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. He has also held positions at the State Department and the RAND Corporation. Dr. Fukuyama’s recent publications include The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order (Free Press, 1999); Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (Free Press, 1995); and The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992), which has won several awards and appeared in over twenty foreign editions. He is currently working on a book on the political consequences of biotechnology. Dr. Fukuyama is a member of advisory boards for The National Interest, Journal of Democracy, The New America Foundation, the Internet Policy Institute, and GeoTrust, Inc.

Rapporteur's Report

On June 21, 2001, the Project on the Information Revolution and World Politics hosted a lecture by Francis Fukuyama, entitled "The Biotechnology Revolution: Political Implications and Governance." In his introductory remarks, project director William Drake noted that the information revolution is closely linked to the biotechnology revolution, and it is useful to think about the two in comparative perspective because they have a number of catalytic synergies. The information revolution has made possible a number of breakthroughs in biotechnology, and biotechnology itself can be thought of as a form of information processing. Furthermore, changes in both areas have profound effects for social, economic, and political structures at both the domestic and international level, and a number of interesting questions arise at the intersection of the two fields.

"You can have an end of history only if you have an end of technology, and we are clearly on the cusp of a very major set of changes in the life sciences that have implications that might not be so benign."

Francis Fukuyama explained that his concern with the political implications of biotechnology began with a rethinking of his 1989 "End of History" thesis, the argument that technological development was pushing the world toward near-universal acceptance of the ideologies of liberal democracy and free-market economics. Recently, Fukuyama has revised his earlier assessment. "You can have an end of history only if you have an end of technology," he stated, "and we are clearly on the cusp of a very major set of changes in the life sciences that have implications that might not be so benign." While the information revolution has played a major role in the triumph of democracy and free markets, Fukuyama argued that the revolution in biotechnology may have even greater, and quite distinct, effects on society. "As big a thing as the information technology revolution is, I think that the coming biotech revolution is going to be more consequential…and I think that they have very different implications for governance."

"No one has ever decisively proven that there are not significant genetic differences between races, between ethnic groups—all sorts of things that believers in liberal equality don’t want to address or talk about."

In his presentation, Fukuyama described a number of likely developments in four areas of biotechnology, speculating as to how they might play out in politics and what we as a society should do about them. The first area is the cognitive revolution in our understanding of the linkage between genes and behavior. Presently, scientists are engaged in research to map out the pathways linking specific genes to such attributes as intelligence or a predilection for criminality or alcoholism. Fukuyama argued that advances of this sort may result in some politically and socially uncomfortable findings. For instance, current thinking attributes differences in IQ among ethnic groups to environment rather than genes. This assumption is likely true, noted Fukuyama, but it is possible that future scientific research could prove otherwise. "No one has ever decisively proven that there are not significant genetic differences between races, between ethnic groups—all sorts of things that believers in liberal equality don’t want to address or talk about." But if we find that we can use genetic differences to address public policy issues, Fukuyama argued, the temptation to do so will be hard to resist. This will create a number of serious moral dilemmas for our society.

The second area of innovation with notable consequences for the future is the field of neuropharmacology. "Everything that we expect to happen through genetic engineering will take place first and will happen much faster as a result of neuropharmacology," said Fukuyama. Already, drugs such as Ritalin are widely prescribed to control behavior that in the past was considered part of normal childhood development. Drug treatments have become more convenient for society than dealing with undesirable behavior in other ways, such as better parenting, education, etc. We have already developed drugs to improve intelligence, memory, physical ability, and the ability to handle stress, and while many of these drugs carry unpleasant side effects, it is only a matter if time before comparable drugs are developed with fewer obvious drawbacks. What will happen when scientists develop a happiness pill, asked Fukuyama? How will this affect the moral categories upon which our politics and society are based?

The third politically relevant area of biotech development has to do with the prolongation of life. In the Western world, Fukuyama noted, the median age has risen during the past century from around 20 years to between 35 and 40; this trend is projected to continue even without any major advances if medical technology. If fully pursued, many of today’s biotechnology initiatives (such as stem cell research) will raise life expectancies even further. This demographic shift will have massive political and societal implications, argued Fukuyama. As the population of advanced industrial countries ages dramatically, "we are going to have to have a huge adjustment in social institutions to take account of longer life spans." All sorts of age-graded social hierarchies, from academic tenure to corporate boards of directors, will have to be re-thought in countries with significantly older populations. In democracies, political effects will be significant: women over sixty will form the largest voting block, and they will lend less support to military spending and traditional foreign policy goals, for example.

Similarly, technologies of sex selection have led to significantly more male children in parts of the developing world, and as this generation reaches marriage age, the surfeit of males will cause social problems. "If there’s ever a formula for instability in a society," Fukuyama argued, "it’s to have a large number of young men who do not have any prospects for…being attached to families."

"Human rights have to be based on some kind of concept of human nature. If you don’t understand substantively what a human being is you cannot assign that creature rights."

The final area of biotechnological development that Fukuyama described was the field of genetic engineering. We are still quite far away from direct gene manipulation, but when we do reach this frontier, it could potentially have massive social consequences. Fukuyama noted that alterations at the genetic level are heritable—capable of replicating themselves in future generations. What this means is the ability to manufacture ourselves, inducing changes into the very essence of human nature. Such a development will have implications for all of our moral categories, including our understanding of human rights. "Human rights have to be based on some kind of concept of human nature," argued Fukuyama. "If you don’t understand substantively what a human being is you cannot assign that creature rights."

Traditional notions of human equality have depended upon the fact that people of all races, genders, etc. differ genetically only in insubstantial ways. But "if there is no essence, or if that essence is changeable, or if that essence can be self-modified, then it seems to me that the basis for universal equality goes out the window," said Fukuyama. "You can have…different classes of people that are…assigned rights ultimately based on what they can do genetically." Elites could create children with not only social but also genetic advantages, he suggested, and social engineers could breed a class of manual laborers with the minds of ten-year-olds.

"The IT and the biotech revolutions have had this odd kind of interaction which ultimately is not healthy for the way we think about biotech."

Developments in biotechnology will pose important questions for policy makers in the future. In seeking a model of governance for the biotechnology revolution, Fukuyama argued, the information revolution may provide a particularly inappropriate model. "The IT and the biotech revolutions have had this odd kind of interaction which ultimately…is not healthy for the way we think about biotech." The traditional way of determining how much regulation is needed for a particular technology is to assess its positive and negative externalities. The information revolution has few negative externalities, Fukuyama argued, and the two that have gotten the most recent attention—privacy and the digital divide—pale in comparison to the potential negative consequences of biotechnology. For this reason, the information revolution, which has required minimal national and international regulation, may lead us to adopt a similar laissez-faire approach to biotech governance. A sense that technological advance is inevitable and cannot be stopped has filtered into the biotechnology arena, he noted. But in reality, we have plenty of examples of governing technological advances, such as those that produced nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. All forms of regulation have loopholes, but this has never been a reason to forego regulation in the past, nor should it be in the case of biotechnology.

"It is the democratically constituted political community that is sovereign over the pace and scope of technological progress and development."

In proscribing an approach for the regulation of biotechnology, Fukuyama acknowledged that a lot of positive benefits will come from the biotechnology revolution; this is why we should pursue a regulatory approach rather than seeking to ban specific technologies. But he also stressed that "it is extremely important for the political community to lay down a marker that the people who determine the pace and scope of technological progress and development [are] not the scientific community, not the pharmaceutical industry, not the community of research scientists. It is the democratically constituted political community that is sovereign over these issues." Some people argue that globalization will make it impossible to control development in the field of biotechnology. But international regulatory regimes begin with national regulations, Fukuyama argued, and the first step is to focus on the national institutions that should oversee advances in biotech. In some cases existing regulatory institutions, such as the Food and Drug Administration, may be able to deal with changing technologies, but in many other cases we will have to create new bodies that are prepared to take novel regulatory approaches.

Following Fukuyama’s presentation, members of the audience posed several questions about the political implications of the biotechnology revolution. Project director William Drake began by asking about the international distributional effects of biotechnology. Compared to other technologies, he noted, the Internet has spread relatively quickly around the world thanks to an open, non-proprietary technological environment. By contrast, advances in biotechnology are often protected by intellectual property laws. As a result, he asked, will the biotechnology revolution create new disparities within and between states, and are there possibilities of new conflicts based on the skewed distribution of biotech advances? In response, Fukuyama noted that technologies like the sonogram have fallen dramatically in price and have spread around the developing world, with notable impact on sex selection in places like India. This may happen with other technologies, he proposed, and the impacts (good and bad) of the biotechnology revolution may not be as limited to rich countries as we think.

Several attendees asked questions that focused on the potential to regulate advances in biotechnology. One person asked if we have current regulatory models that might work in the biotech field. Fukuyama responded that of the models currently in practice, formal regulation, not self-regulation, is the answer. He noted that in areas such as banking, those in industry can be left to agree upon standards among themselves, but the biotechnology industry will have no adequate incentives to regulate itself in ways that protect the public interest. Another audience member asked what kinds of institutions would be needed to regulate biotechnology in the United States, and what institutions and initiatives would be needed internationally. Fukuyama said that the question at the national level is whether current institutional structures will be sufficient. In the area of agriculture, for instance, a decision was made to keep the original institutional structure, and the production of genetically-modified crops has been regulated under the Food and Drug Act. The Food and Drug Administration has also asserted a right to regulate human cloning, but Fukuyama expressed skepticism that this body could deal with the moral (as opposed to safety) issues involved. At the international level, Fukuyama argued, regulatory regimes will reflect national structures; countries might begin by harmonizing laws bilaterally, and move to create an international regulatory body from there. Finally, one attendee asked about the likelihood of large, economically powerful nations disregarding international norms in the biotechnology field. Fukuyama admitted that countries such as China are likely to pursue stem cell research, genetic engineering, and other advances with fewer qualms. Still, he noted that this sort of activity occurs as well in areas such as software piracy. We may not like the deviation from international norms, he said, but we have developed ways to deal with it.

One member of the audience noted that the most inevitable of the trends Fukuyama highlighted is that of increasing life expectancy. The ramifications of genetic engineering may be controllable through government policy, he noted, but how can one regulate life extension? Fukuyama noted that this issue is a particularly touchy subject, and he admitted that he wasn’t aware how one could make a politically viable argument against medical innovation to extend life. Still, he argued that, contrary to assumptions in the medical community, extension of life is not always a good thing. The nightmare scenario is that we find a way to extend life but not to reduce the prevalence of diseases like Alzheimer’s, thus condemning our rapidly aging population to a prolonged state of dependency where they impose burdens on loved ones and on society at large.

Another attendee noted the common practice of adding fluoride to drinking water to improve dental health, and he asked if this type of delivery mechanism might ever be extended to other drugs in pursuit of massive social engineering. Fukuyama responded that in his opinion, the threat of state-sponsored eugenics is quite low. The only exception, he argued, is the possibility of societal elites trying to engineer their offspring with genetic advantages.

Finally, one audience member asked how the biotechnology revolution might impact the role of religion in society. In response, Fukuyama noted that the Republican Party is based upon an uneasy compromise between libertarians and religiously-oriented social conservatives. As we move forward with advances in biotechnology, he predicted, this coalition will be increasingly strained, and the division between those with and without religion will be dramatically sharpened.

Report prepared by Taylor Boas