Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Hold the Soma, please

The Enlightenment project is based on the idea "conquer nature to relieve man's estate." Unleashing technology will allow man to control nature and live a comfortable, effortless existence. Modern thinkers like Descartes and Francis Bacon believed man would become happier as technological improvements gained steam.

But Peter Lawler, in a recent post on postmodern conservative, reminds his readers there is a venerable line of thinkers, from Rousseau to Patrick Deneen, who would deny the Enlightenment contention. They believe "the emancipation of technology from moral and political control would lead to the dehumanization of man." In other words, we might be unhappier than our classical and medieval ancestors.

The POMO Con response to this debate is to make a distinction between the different kinds of technology. The modern view is man should use his creative powers to harness nature for the betterment of mankind e.g. dams and dishwashers; POMO Cons are on board with that.

But they would oppose the following: contemporary thinkers like Francis Fukayama have taken Descartes' idea of "conquering nature" and extended it to human nature. Thinkers like Fukayama want to redesign human nature a la Brave New World. Cloning, mood management pills, and other devises are seen as mechanisms to make us free and happy. Freedom and happiness, they say, will require us to cease to be human. This has been termed transhumanism.
Front Porch Republicans could respond to all this by pointing that biotechnology is the logical conclusion of the Enlightenment understanding of technology and nature.

Lawler's rejoinder to FP Republicans and Transhumanists would look something like this: human nature is unique from the rest of nature. We are 'Aliens' because we are not at home in this world. We have a yearning, which makes us miserable, but also makes us distinctive; dolphins do not suffer angst. And it is this distinctiveness, this uniqueness, which would be destroyed by the biotechnology revolution. Grace might not destroy our nature, but Soma sure will.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful point. Peter Lawler

  2. Jason - Michael here. I only read half of Fukuyama's book before being called to other things, but from my limited knowledge he was thoroughly against redesigning human nature. It was the primary reason he wanted regulations of biotechnology, in fact. What he does approve of, I believe, is using biotechnology in a limited way as we have used other technology in the past - to improve our lives in accord with our nature rather than redesigning our nature. There's a criticism easily made there, of course - where exactly is the line between 'good' biotechnology and 'bad,' and how do we distinguish?

  3. The drive to total power and control, and hence the conquest of nature and humankind, is the primal drive of the entire Western cultural project, including its dominant religion, namely Christianity.

    These two images sum up the situation in very stark terms.



    The first image is featured in the masterful book The Pentagon of Power by Lewis Mumford. A book which describes the historical developments of this power drive.

    Meanwhile 35 years later the situation described by Mumford has gotten infinitely worse. And all of the negative trends that he warned us about have gotten infinitely worse too.

    Humankind has been quite literally reduced to rubble.

  4. Michael,

    I think we're on the same page. What he means by 'living in accord with nature' would be understood by others as redesigning human nature. For example, he might say removing undesirable personality traits is in accord with human nature, while most people would say it is changing it.

  5. Michael,

    This article from First Principles affirms your read of Fukayama:

    However, in later works like Our Post-Human Future (2002), Fukuyama concludes that nature itself is under the most extreme threat: biotechnology, through neuropharmacology and genetic engineering, now enables the alteration of human nature, as seen already in the widespread availability of mood-altering drugs like Ritalin and Prozac. The former, in Harvey Mansfield’s formulation, tempers the high spirits of boys, while the latter raises the low spirits of women. Both move toward creating new human beings content in the universal homogenous state. Fukuyama now rightly awakens us to the danger of this project and urges us to resist.