“We have arrived at the Brave New World that seemed so distant in 1932, when Aldous Huxley wrote about human beings being born in what he called a `hatchery.’” So spoke George W. Bush in a televised address to the nation two years ago on the subject of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Our current president almost never name-drops literature in his oratory. We need to take notice here.
In the last several years, growing concerns about rapid advances in biotechnology have made Huxley’s dystopian novel perhaps the most influential book in the Bush administration—at least in the corners of the executive branch that are thinking about issues like stem cells, cloning, and genetic engineering.
Just as the word “Orwellian” entered our lexicon to describe the threat of totalitarianism, a cadre of bioethicists and policymakers on both the left and the right have come to use “Brave New World” as shorthand to describe the “dehumanized hell” of made-to-order children, chemically-endowed bliss, and immortal lives that they fear we’re headed towards. This group of strange bedfellows, united only by their wariness about where science is taking us, includes pro-life conservatives and religious moralists as well as pro-choice feminists and green stalwarts. For lack of a better name, William Kristol and Eric Cohen have collectively labeled this motley group with a clunky title, the “Anti-Brave New Worlders.”
In a New Republic essay titled “Preventing a Brave New World,” published two years ago, Leon Kass, the Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, explained that what he finds particularly important about Huxley’s novel is that it depicts “a dystopia that goes with, rather than against, the human grain.” In this world, every kind of physical and emotional pain has been chemically abolished and everyone is happy to live mind-numbingly contented lives. The very essence of what makes humans human—our frailties, our imperfections, our necessary hardships—has been done away with. As Kass writes, “The people dehumanized à la Brave New World are not miserable, don’t know that they are dehumanized, and worse, would not care if they knew. They are, indeed, happy slaves with a slavish happiness.”
Kass and his colleagues worry that the new biotechnologies that lie just over the horizon in our own non-fictional world, including genetic engineering, will seem so appealing (longer life, bigger muscles, smarter kids: who could say no?) that they will be embraced without any thought of where they will ultimately lead society and the human race at large. Left to our own devices and the devices of the market, they fear that we will enter into a Faustian bargain in which we trade in our human dignity for more perfect bodies and minds. And the tragedy of it all will be that, like a crab slowly boiled to death in a pot of incrementally warming water, we won’t even realize we’ve lost our humanity until it’s already gone.
The Anti-Brave New Worlders have latched onto Huxley’s novel because they say it shows how people can be complicit in this process of dehumanization through technology. They propound the myth that Huxley’s dystopia was willingly chosen by compassionate people out to better both society and their own individual lives. “The road to Brave New World is paved with sentimentality—yes, even with love and charity,” writes Kass.
But that’s a bit of a misreading of the book. The society Huxley depicts is not really what the Anti-Brave New Worlders are most afraid of. Actually, it’s worth remembering that Huxley’s Brave New World is a fascist world state ruled by a group of dictators, called World Controllers, who value “social stability” above all else, including individual freedom. The society is achieved not through charity but only through violent civil war and holocaust. Those who invoke the specter of Huxley’s novel often overlook the fact that it took “the noise of fourteen thousand aeroplanes advancing in open order” and “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” to bring the Brave New World into being.
The Anti-Brave New Worlders aren’t afraid of the government-mandated eugenics of Huxley’s novel; they’re afraid of the laissez-faire eugenics that could occur in the absence of government regulation. It’s libertarianism, not Huxley’s totalitarianism, that scares them. As Kass has pointed out, we won’t need World Controllers to create Huxley’s dystopia. “Just give us the technological imperative, liberal democratic society, compassionate humanitarianism, moral pluralism, and free markets, and we can take ourselves to a Brave New World all by ourselves—and without even deliberately deciding to go.”
And here is where Kass and Huxley differ. Whereas Kass and the Anti-Brave New Worlders believe that unchecked liberalism inevitably leads us down the road to a Brave New World, Huxley seems to suggest the opposite, that a liberal democratic society is fundamentally incompatible with dehumanizing biotechnology. In Huxley’s novel, it’s suggested that the freedom-loving people of the world put up quite a good fight before succumbing to the totalitarian world state. They didn’t roll out of bed one morning and realize that decades of tinkering with human biology had made them into posthumans, as Kass fears will happen to us; rather, they had posthumanism thrust upon them by a fascist government, who first burned books and museums before trying to control its citizens with psychopharmacology. Huxley tells us that before the Nine Years’ War brought the fascists into power, “Sleep teaching was actually prohibited in England. There was something called liberalism.” It was only once free society “was dead of anthrax” that the Brave New World could come into being.
The question over which Huxley and the Anti-Brave New Worlders disagree is: Are liberal democratic societies, with their nonjudgmentalism and laisez-innover scientism, predisposed to embrace dehumanizing technologies, or are they bound to fight them? The “biotech century” is barely underway, and already we can get some sense of an answer by looking around the world. Where ideas about freedom and human rights reign, people across the globe overwhelmingly oppose the new genetic and reproductive technologies. Nearly every major democracy (with the perhaps surprising exception of the United States) has passed legislation prohibiting reproductive cloning. Already, before the first clone has been born and before the first human gene has been engineered, there are international treaties in the works to ban both practices on the grounds that they have the potential to sap “human dignity.” While liberal societies may be inclined to let their citizens do what they want with their bodies, they’re also likely to value human rights and human dignity, and if they view certain technologies as inconsistent with ideas about human dignity—as many societies rightly or wrongly view reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic modification—they will ban or at least regulate them. As Huxley might have predicted, the states where the ethics of the biotechnology revolution appear most up for grabs are those, including China and Singapore, that lean closest to the totalitarianism he described. With regards to the misuses and abuses of biotechnology, we have much more to fear from the countries that don’t place great value on individual liberty and dignity than those that do.
There’s another message in Huxley’s novel that the Anti-Brave New Worlders tend to gloss over in their analyses of the book. In chapter 16, Mustapha Mond, one of the ten World Controllers, explains to John the Savage that to maintain social stability in the Brave New World, art and science had to be “chained and muzzled”:
We don’t want to change. Every change is a menace to stability. That’s another reason why we’re so chary of applying new inventions. Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy. Yes, even science.
The risk, as we move into the age of biotechnology, is that we will become so concerned with preventing one aspect of a Brave New World—the dehumanizing manipulation of life—that we will embrace another aspect—government-mandated scientific stasis in the name of social stability. Already, many scientists would say that the Bush administration has gone too far in that direction by cutting off federal funding for any scientific research that requires the destruction of a human embryo, including research into embryonic stem cells that is not carried out using one of a handful of pre-existing stem-cell lineages. Many experts believe this research holds great promise to cure several debilitating diseases and relieve incalculable amounts of suffering. But President Bush opposes embryonic stem-cell research, and not just because of a belief in the inviolable moral rights of a clump of cells. As we can gather from his reference to Huxley’s novel in his national address on stem cells, he also fears that the research will place us on a slippery slope that ends in cloning, genetic modification, and a Brave New World.
The Anti-Brave New Worlders seem to believe that humans are pretty much living the good life now, and there’s no point in messing with what works. They’re certain that we’ve had just enough of technology and medicine to make our lives comfortable, and any more threatens to dehumanize us. We ought to be just as wary of their position as we are of those who take an unabashedly optimistic view of technological progress.
Two centuries ago, Luddites were certain that the industrial revolution was going to permanently dehumanize mankind. There are probably a few people out there (like Ted Kaczynski) who would say that in retrospect they were right, but I think most of us who are blessed by the comforts of modernity are glad the Luddites’ ideas have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Or have they been?
Maybe the Anti-Brave New Worlders–today’s neo-Luddites–will be proved right in their bleak predictions about the biotechnology revolution. Indeed the vigilance with which liberal societies have approached issues like cloning and genetic engineering seems more than justified. But there’s also a risk, as Huxley warned us in 1932, of going too far in the opposite direction and halting progress in the name of preserving the status quo.