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Comment: The end of history? Well, certainly the end of humans

We are on the brink of developments in science that will, in essence, abolish mankind
THE SUMMER of 1999 marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of my article, "The End of History?" My critics have demanded that I reconsider and, they hope, recant my view that history is over, at regular intervals since the article was originally published. For them, I shall state my bottom line at the outset: nothing that has happened in world politics or the global economy in the past 10 years challenges, in my view, the conclusion that liberal democracy and a market-oriented economic order are the only viable alternatives for modern societies.

The most serious developments in that period have been the economic crisis in Asia, and the apparent stalling of reform in Russia. But while these developments are rich in lessons for policy, they are in the end correctable by policy and do not constitute systematic challenges to the prevailing liberal world order. On the other hand, the argument that I used to demonstrate that history is directional and progressive, and that it culminates in the modern liberal state, is fundamentally flawed. Only one of the hundreds of commentators who discussed "The End of History?" ever identified its true weakness: history cannot come to an end as long as modern natural science has no end; and we are on the brink of developments in science that will abolish mankind as such.

Much of the initial debate over "The End of History?" was a silly matter of semantics, with many readers not understanding that I was using "history" in its Hegelian-Marxist sense of the progressive evolution of human political and economic institutions. History understood in this manner is driven by two basic forces: the unfolding of modern natural science and technology, which lays the basis for economic modernisation, and the struggle for recognition, which demands a political system that recognises universal human rights. Contrary to the Marxists, I argued that this process of historical evolution culminated not in socialism, but in democracy and a market economy.

There is hardly any perspective from which "The End of History?" has not been criticised, so often and so relentlessly has the thesis been attacked. In the early Nineties there was a great deal of speculation about alternative trends in world politics, trends that many observers felt led away from rather than towards liberal democracy. The most persistent worry concerned nationalism and ethnic conflict, a perspective understandable in view of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia and other hot spots. But other types of regime were seen as potential rivals to liberal democracy in the contemporary world, including Islamic theocracy, Asian soft-authoritarianism, and even a return to a neo-Bolshevism.

The developments of the second half of the Nineties, including a series of financial crises leading up to the Asian economic crisis, the apparent stalling of democratic reform in Russia, and the instability that was suddenly revealed in the global financial system, have been in many ways more threatening to the End of History hypothesis than those of the first. I never argued, after all, that all countries would or could become democratic in the short run, only that there was an evolutionary logic to human history that would lead the most advanced countries to liberal democracy and markets. The fact that some countries, such as Serbia and Iran, stood outside this evolutionary process was therefore not a serious counter-argument.

On the other hand, if the motor driving the evolutionary process of historical change were shown to be broken, then the idea that history was progressive would have to be rethought. But, for all the hardship and setbacks suffered by Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea and Russia as a result of their integration into the global economy, there is not, as George Soros contends, a "global crisis of capitalism". First, there remains no viable alternative development model that promises better results than globalisation, even after the crisis of 1997-98. In particular, globalisation's chief competitor, the so-called "Asian development model", has been even more deeply discredited by the events of the past decade.

The second reason why globalisation is not likely to be reversed has to do with technology. Contemporary globalisation is underpinned by the information technology revolution that has spread telephone, fax, radio, television and the Internet to the most remote corners of the globe. These changes empower individuals and are profoundly democratising on a host of levels. Today, no country can ever truly cut itself off from the global media or from external sources of information.

The key defect of "The End of History?" lies in the fact that there can be no end of science, since it is science that drives the historical process; and we are on the cusp of an explosion in technological innovation in the life sciences and biotechnology. The period since the French Revolution has seen the rise of different doctrines that hoped to overcome the limits of human nature through the creation of a new kind of human being, one that would not be subject to the prejudices and limitations of the past. The collapse of these experiments by the end of the 20th century showed us the limits of social constructivism, and endorsed a liberal, market- based order grounded in self-evident truths about "Nature and Nature's God".

The open-ended character of modern natural science suggests that biotechnology will soon give us tools to allow us to accomplish what social engineers of the past failed to do. We shall then have definitively finished human history, because we shall have abolished human beings as such. And then a new, post-human history will begin.

The writer is Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University, Virginia, US