h1

Brave new reading material

Saturday, 29 November, 2008

I caved, and bought a copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I figure seeing as so many people think that cloning and inheritable genetic modification will lead to a future as portrayed in that novel, then I should read it so that I can better tell them that it won’t.

And, I might even write up an essay on it, like Russell Blackford did in his 2003 piece titled ‘Who’s Afraid of the Brave New World?‘, so that those poor school-children forced to read the book and write about it will have something to say other than how the terrible dystopia Huxley describes may one day come true thanks to the evils of science and biotechnology.

UPDATE: I’ve finished the book now.

I must say, that I don’t get how people can use this book to argue against technology. None of the problems in the novel appear to me to be caused by technology. In fact, I think they can all be attributed to a single idea, one summarised by World Controller Mustapha Mond in chapter 17:

“It would upset the whole social order if men started doing things on their own.”

This is the problem with the dystopia in Brave New World – that social stability is valued more than freedom. It is for this aim that a class divide is turned into a concrete biological reality. It is for this aim that children are mind-controlled as they sleep. It is for this aim that people are coerced into taking soma to forget about hate or anger. If it was a society were men did want they wanted, rather than being conditioned to want what they have to do, then those same biotechnologies would never be a problem.

Because of this repressive regime, using Brave New World as a basis for arguing against the freedom to alter our children or to not, the freedom to choose whether to live forever or to not, or the freedom to live with or without unhappiness, seems to be me to be far too premature. Nobody in the society of Brave New World has those freedoms, and if anyone tried to exercise such freedoms, they’d be deported to an island, so as to not affect the stability of society, or forcibly re-conditioned to make the choices deemed necessary for stable society.

In addition, Huxley seems to have not thought much through in his society (or, has thought it through well enough to add a vicious circle into it). A solution proposed in the novel – for a society to be comprised solely of the finest people: Double Plus Alphas – is rejected on the basis that the menial labour would not be done by people who aspired so strongly for greatness. And yet, people are conditioned to consume more resources in order to keep the economy going, and it is also mentioned that a myriad of time-saving technology is suppressed to provide some menial labour for the lower castes. Huxley describes a world were slaves are needed to do slave labour, and slave labour is required to give the slaves something to do. A society where technology, such as molecular manufacturing or robots, reduces the required labour to that able to be happily performed by unconditioned and free men would not have a need for the repulsive caste system of Brave New World.

All in all, though the novel is indeed brilliant and thought-provoking, it doesn’t much inform me why people are so afraid of biotechnological interventions into human life. I don’t get it.

2 comments

  1. I think the biggest real danger put forth in Huxly’s book is the viewing of human life as a commodity. (It’s been a while, but I recall a servant caste grown in tanks.) Hopefully, the progress being made with iPCs will defuse the (ongoing) ethical arguments.

    Author John Scalzi puts forth some fascinating ideas on human genetic augmentation in his novel Old Man’s War. I highly recommend it (and the other two books in the trilogy) if you haven’t already encountered them. They make for a great, Heinlein-esque read.

    (PS: If you can stomach reading a novel on a computer, the author and publisher have made it a free download.

    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2008/02/09/how-to-get-an-ebook-of-old-mans-war-free/ )

    Edit … apparently the free e-book thing was a time-limited deal, whose time has sadly passed. (It’s worth the money or trip to the library though.)


  2. I think the biggest real danger put forth in Huxly’s book is the viewing of human life as a commodity. (It’s been a while, but I recall a servant caste grown in tanks.)

    The commodification argument is an interesting one. I may have to address it in a blog post in future.

    I’m not convinced that it was the growing of humans in tanks implies that the humans are being treated like commodities (all castes, even the double plus alphas, were grown rather than born of a woman). I also don’t think that modifying one’s children, or one’s own body, is commodifying human life.

    Hopefully, the progress being made with iPCs will defuse the (ongoing) ethical arguments.

    I don’t think that the ability to induce pluripotency will change the need for research using or on embryos, nor will it alleviate the ethical problems with designer babies or clones.

    Author John Scalzi puts forth some fascinating ideas on human genetic augmentation in his novel Old Man’s War.

    Hmm, I might see if I can find a copy. Thanks for the recommendation.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: