Never Let Me Go
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Alfred A. Knopf, April, 2005
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, has been called a “Brave New World for the Biotech Age,” and perhaps Huxley’s 1932 novel does need some updating. After all, the prospect of a drug that induces perpetual happiness is no longer the stuff of dystopian fantasy, and the moral dilemmas contained therein have been mostly relegated to the abstruse handwringing of professional bioethicists. If we are to regard Brave New World not as science fiction but as science foresight, then we can predict that the premise of Ishiguro’s novel (in which human clones are bred to serve as organ donors for the rest of us) might be a real possibility in 60 or 70 years. And assuming the rate of technological progress in molecular biology over the last few decades is an indicator of what’s to come, that timeframe is likely an overestimation. In addition to being a deeply affecting novel, Never Let Me Go offers a fresh perspective on the rapid evolution of biotechnology and the somewhat slower ethical debate following the Human Genome Project.
In addition to its scientific and (potential) medical discoveries, the biotechnology revolution produced a large cohort of people who make their living worrying about the type of scenario imagined in Never Let Me Go. The establishment of the National Human Genome Research Institute within the N.I.H. stipulated that five percent of its publicly funded research had to focus on the predicted ethical fallout that would result from advancing biotechnologies. With a total budget of roughly $3 billion over 13 years, this makes the Human Genome Project the largest state-sponsored ethics venture in human history. Much of the resulting ethical discussion has focused on addressing a claim made by Francis Fukuyama, a professor at Johns Hopkins, that new biotechnologies are inherently dangerous to human rights, human dignity, and human nature, and we should regulate their use.
Fukuyama became something of an academic superstar in 1992 when he published The End of History and the Last Man, which argued that since all the major challenges to liberal democracy had failed, we had reached the end of history-as-we-know-it, and the free market would take care of things from now on. In early 2002, he revised this thesis in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, saying that history had not in fact reached its end (oops!) because science had not yet ended. Because of the unprecedented potential for abuse in rapidly developing life science and biotechnology fields, the free market could not be trusted blindly to assure that these fields would serve the public good, hence, Fukuyama reasoned, government had to step in. Between publication of the two books biological science did indeed grow by leaps and bounds, but perhaps more importantly, that decade saw much greater emergence of private industry into basic research than ever before; most notably, Celera Genomics, the private company that beat the Federal Government in the race to sequence the entire human genome. One wonders if it was a realization of the full reach of the free market that shook Fukuyama’s faith. Nevertheless, his ten-year tardiness in noticing science seems to have been mostly overlooked; he was duly appointed to the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2002, where he has had the honor, along with his fellow councilmembers, of trying to come up with justifications for the Bush Administration’s sometimes testy relationship to biomedical research.
It’s not that Fukuyama has no reason to worry. After all, James Watson, the discoverer of the structure of DNA and head of the Human Genome Project in its early years, has referred to the idea of human rights as “quasi-mystical,” “for Steven Spielberg,” and “crap.” But it’s worth questioning whether biotechnology is really the major challenge to liberal democracy today. Our Posthuman Future mentions terrorism only once, in the preface, dismissing it as “a desperate rearguard action that will in time be overwhelmed by the broader tide of modernization” (if you inferred that for Fukuyama, the war on terror represents anything but a threat to liberal democracy, you would be right). Further, as the presumed perennial relevance of Brave New World suggests, the “danger of technology” has coexisted with democratic society for quite some time, and indeed in the case of information technology, has served to reinforce its institutions, liberal and authoritarian alike. Technology constantly seems poised either to destroy Western civilization or engulf everything else in it, depending on whom you ask. Biotechnology does not represent a special threat to Western civilization; the danger lies more in what we will do about it.
Ishiguro illustrates this danger in Never Let Me Go. The narrator, a 30-year-old woman named Kathy H., identifies herself as a “carer,” nursing organ donors after operations. When two friends from her past come under her care, she begins to recount her youth at an exclusive private boarding school in the English countryside. We discover later that the students at this special school are clones, created and raised to become carers and then donate their organs until they “complete,” or as we normals say, “die.” It’s a chilling premise, but Kathy’s memories are less of a freakish biotechnological nightmare than an unremarkable childhood of privilege. She mostly recalls the rigidities of boarding school life and the mundane conflicts and ensuing gossip among her classmates. These are some petty clones, but not unlike “normal” kids in the throes of puberty. Their lives are heavily regimented, and information about where they came from is shrouded in mystery by their teachers in an effort to shelter them (a post-human equivalent of abstinence-only education?). They understand that the altruistic purpose of their existence is noble, but they know nothing of the world outside this narrow trajectory. Still, their lives aren’t wretched and they get pleasure and meaning from familiar places — art, nature, love and friendship.
As they grow up and approach their donations, Kathy and her friends learn more about their origin and the future that has been planned for them. They also learn of a debate raging around them over whether clones have souls. They regard this kind of bioethical discussion as a silly waste of everyone’s time. Fundamentally, they are no different from anyone else. Ishiguro makes this point — that the technology itself has altered little — throughout, beginning the final chapter with Kathy’s oft-repeated remark, “Nothing seemed to change much….” Kathy’s artificiality has not deprived her of a happy or meaningful life. Rather, efforts to regulate cloning to insure its medical benefit have determined completely her role in society. A common worry among bioethicists is that biotechnology will be used for non-medical, perhaps even cosmetic, purposes, as the philosopher Carl Elliot has said, “that we will ignore important human needs at the expense of frivolous human desires.” He and Fukuyama may be right that cloning left up to personal choice could result in horrific misuses. But Ishiguro points out that government regulation isn’t where the story ends. Never Let Me Go assumes that cloning techniques will be regulated so that they could be used only for medical ends. At the same time, it takes seriously the prospect that persons created through cloning will be people; that they will have hopes, ambitions, frustrations and grievances — they will want to make mistakes. It isn’t the unchecked use of cloning technology that has trampled their human rights. Instead, it is the over-regulation of their lives for the greater good. It is subsuming their human desires to general human needs.
Kathy ends her story describing getting into her car and driving to “wherever it was I was supposed to be.” Her entire life from the lab forward has been strictly ordered. She has always known where she was going. The understated tragedy of Never Let Me Go is drawn from this suffocation of uncertainty. Ishiguro is not worried, like Fukuyama, that biotechnology will change everything. Rather, he points out, our fear that it will change everything might justify imposing disproportionate restrictions and eroding fundamental freedoms for those deemed posthuman. Never Let Me Go is not a cautionary tale about new technology, but about what we tend to do in the face of it. It recalls with quiet force the maxim of the environmentalist-cartoonist Walt Kelly, “Yep son, we have met the enemy, and he is us.