The Sweetest Science

Is it really programmed in our brains that we will reform society, in a triumph for justice, compassion, and stability?

The Great Disruption
Free Press; 366 pages; $26

Francis Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption comes at a peculiar moment. In a season of school shootings, spy scandals, and “collateral damage” from errant cluster bombs, it’s tempting to regard as wishful thinking a book that argues, using graphs and diagrams and lessons from economics and anthropology, that our present state of social turmoil will, in time, be naturally replaced by a new, benevolent moral order. But that is precisely Fukuyama’s prediction, not merely his hope. A resurgence of grass-roots goodness. A spontaneous regeneration of civic-mindedness. The dark days are almost behind us, he asserts. At a time when the average news watcher might mistake America for a rich but failing empire, unable to keep the peace at home, abroad, or in the marbled corridors of government, Fukuyama is bullish on human nature.

That’s right: human nature. We haven’t heard that phrase used seriously lately, but Fukuyama is out to revive it, rescuing from the deconstructionists, multiculturalists, and sundry relativists the notion that we are all in fact the same – rational, system-building social animals who, by virtue of genes and long experience, are programmed to do the right thing in the end, by ourselves, one another, and our children. It’s another sweeping thesis from the man (a professor of public policy and former State Department staff member) who gained fame when he wrote that the end of the Cold War represented “the end of history,” meaning the death of ideological struggle and the rise of near-universal democracy and market capitalism. Whether history has truly ended I’ll leave to the Serbs, Chinese, and NATO to answer, but Fukuyama’s was a bold analysis, highly understandable and discussable. It held special appeal for maturing American baby-boomers, who’ve never met a tribute to the distinctiveness of their own, privileged role in human history that they didn’t like.

The Great Disruption is a home-front version of the earlier book. Its subject is domestic, not foreign, affairs, and its findings are just as broad and optimistic, styled in the sort of bleached-out, bottom-line prose favored by CIA officers and corporate management consultants: “Social order, once disrupted, tends to get remade once again, and there are many indications that this is happening today.” The tone is a major tip-off. This is science, not opinion, we’re reading, founded on facts and comparative analysis, with none of the fashionable European obscurity that has lately crept into cultural commentary. Fukuyama is a throwback here, a time traveler from the age of certainty. His theme – that the past 30 years of social confusion contain in themselves the seeds of a new clarity – is strikingly reflected in his prose, which is almost Victorian in its tidy positivism.

Before he can give the good news, of course, Fukuyama has to give the bad news. He has to outline how It All Went Wrong. Assumption No. 1 is that it did go wrong. Crime rose. Trust fell. Families disintegrated. The social stitches that knit up marriages, neighborhoods, schools, and community organizations decayed in an acid bath of individualism. At fault were a range of overarching trends. As industrialism gave way to the information age and as longevity and wealth increased, people sprinted selfishly from the pack, abandoning commitment and tradition for Pepsi-generation freedom and novelty. Women in particular fell for the Aquarian bait, victimizing themselves in the process. Lapsing into stridency, he writes: “One of the greatest frauds perpetrated during The Great Disruption was the notion that sexual revolution was gender neutral, benefiting women and men equally, and that it somehow had a kinship with the feminist revolution.” Take that, Erica Jong!

It’s hard not to feel that when Fukuyama mentions “The Great Disruption,” he really means the sixties, just as when he wrote of “history,” he really meant the Cold War fifties. What distinguishes him from talk-show-circuit ideologues such as William Bennett, however, is his fondness for complicated graphs plotting everything from fertility rates to crime and divorce statistics. He takes pains to distance himself from social conservatives. Religious values, for Fukuyama, are merely one form among others of “social capital,” a respectably secular, ivory-tower term whose meaning I struggled to get a handle on. Team spirit among league bowlers, affection between parents and children, and the presumption of honest dealings between businesspeople are all examples of social capital. But whatever it is precisely, a lot of it has been lost, apparently, especially down at ground level, where ordinary citizens work and live.

Fukuyama is no alarmist – he’s too cool for that, too academic and wedded to the sociological long view – but now and then he spins a nightmare scenario. His vision of the lives of aging baby-boomers, bereft of family ties and social structures linking them to the wider world, is bleak. It also seems unnecessarily baroque, the voice of a hothead lurking inside the scientist. The typical boomer, “twice or thrice divorced, will pass his or her waning years living alone in a house or apartment, visited occasionally by a son or daughter who are themselves past retirement age and seeking ways to deal with their own deteriorating health. The connection with these relatives will be tenuous, because the long and tumultuous personal lives they led when younger – the different marriages and sexual partners, the separated homes … have left their descendants with a sentimental but slightly detached relationship.”

Fukuyama’s best-selling Theories of Everything have always had a faint ring of manic grandeur, as though they were first scribbled out on dozens of napkins on a park bench. In passages like the one above, he seems to know too much and know it too surely. Is it really programmed in our brains that we will eventually reform society, peacefully and from the bottom up, in a triumph for justice, compassion, and stability? Fukuyama draws on a dozen disciplines, from game theory to genetics, to make his case that stable states arise naturally from chaotic interludes the way Sunday morning follows Saturday night. He seems to confuse stability with goodness, though. Things may indeed get better all on their own, but what is better? Quieter? Faster? Slower? Fukuyama simply puts his chips on human nature, suggesting that however we spin the wheel, we’ll come out winners. It’s a risky bet.

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The Sweetest Science