The storm on the horizon
Devon Chenelle | Monday, April 18, 2016
Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel “A Brave New World” is increasingly found to track more closely to 21st century life’s worst features than does the other great dystopian vision, “1984,” as Huxley’s portrayal of social control by consent supersedes in contemporary relevance Orwell’s depiction of steel-booted totalitarian dictatorship. Though the portions of Huxley’s nightmarish landscape most often compared with modern life are its shallow media enhanced by sense titillation and its rampant consumerism, the most terrifying potential parallel with our world is first hinted at in its educational system. The system uses hypnopaedic indoctrination and Pavlovian conditioning to produce individuals perfectly suited for their all-determining social caste, aided in this effort by fetal chemical manipulation. Of course, such engineered hierarchical division of human society seems so foreign as to be unimaginable in our world.
Yet not so long ago, maintenance and production of the social order through bio-chemical manipulation was wildly popular, endorsed by such potentates as Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Classical sources considered artificial selection’s potential to reshape mankind, with Plato advocating the notion in “The Republic.” Two thousand years later, eugenics became one of the 19th and 20th centuries’ cause célèbres, with parts of America and Europe passing sweeping eugenics legislation that sometimes included provisions for forced sterilization. Eugenicists, awestruck at artificial selection’s power and inspired by evolutionary theory, salivated at the potential of, in the words of Francis Galston, a “20th part … spent on the improvement of the breed of horses” directed towards selective breeding of mankind. Racism was a powerful force behind eugenics’ propagation, as certain races’ alleged biological inferiority was cited in attempts to justify slavery and wild interpretations of Darwinism argued inferior individuals’ and races’ destruction was just and inevitable. The Nazis’ fever dream of a blond-haired, blue-eyed society forged through undesirables’ extermination and the coupling of ideal Aryans filled the world with moral horror so profound eugenics was banished from acceptable discussion. However, eugenics still excites the imaginations of many who, emboldened by genetic discoveries that E.O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology” argues indicates “virtually every behavioral trait possesses sufficient heritability to respond rapidly to selection” question whether the past’s follies ought forever foreclose study of artificial selection in humans.
Would-be modern eugenicists still find themselves stymied by popular disapproval of the practice. However, the debate might be rendered irrelevant by new advances in genomics, a field recently seeming to progress daily. Thus far, the science’s advances have been a splendid boon, adding to the physicians’ arsenal against a host of genetic diseases, heritable disorders and cancers. Yet genomics’ progress brings dangers. Therapeutic cloning has made it possible to use human bodies as sources of interchangeable parts, and pro-life activists are already agonizing over genetic engineering’s potential to heighten the frequency of abortions, fearing a future where imperfect fetuses are discarded when, in the words of Notre Dame Professor of History Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s “So You Think You’re Human,” “a woman can pick and choose the most perfect specimens.”
Yet the rabbit hole extends much further than the abortion debate. The CRISPR (Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats) interference technique offers stunning abilities to modify humans’ genomes, with scientists in China already using the technology to modify embryos. In one triumph, scientists at Guangzhou Medical University used CRISPR to create HIV-resistant embryos. This new technology raises concerns about stark possible consequences. As man seizes control of his own evolution, would-be social planners may marvel at genetic engineering’s potential to eliminate a society’s instances of social and physical unfitness. How far, however, is this from a Huxleyan world where people can be bred like domesticated animals, with anatomical and mental features specific to their predesignated social role? The possibility of a society determined, from unbending top to immobile bottom, by radical genetic engineering of people for a preordained purpose, must chill the most optimistic geneticist’s spine. Where do human agency, responsibility and personal autonomy go when men are created ready-made for long-decided purpose? Could our societies become so hierarchical and anatomized that they come to resemble those of the insects, where Wilson describes “soldier castes of some ant and termite species,” castes “so specialized that they function as scarcely more than organs in the body of the colony”?
Genomics’ steady march forward in power and ubiquity seems to augur exotic possibilities and appallingly repulsive potential applications. Genomics’ progress perhaps leads to a future that defies evolution similarly to eugenicists’ hopes and their opponents’ fears, personhood surrendered to a central planning committee of human lives. Yet in gaining control over our evolution, we run the terrible risk of losing sight of what it means to be human. Indeed, a brave new world approaches; are we possibly ready for it?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.