What is Brave New World Really About?

I’m a huge science fiction fan, and I particularly like works of speculative and dystopian fiction. Some of my favorite, relatively recent books include Oryx and Crake, Snow Crash, and Anathem. Perhaps the most significant dystopian work, however, is Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World. Indeed, I sometimes use the phrase “Brave New World” as a pointer toward the harms caused by the less-than-thoughtful use of new biotechnologies (e.g., reproductive technologies), which at times are combined with attitudes, often implicit rather than explicit, that the desires of some trump the needs of others.

Futurist George Dvorsky argues, however, that the notion of a “Brave New World” is “no longer the terrifying dystopia it used to be.” His position hinges on the idea that in many ways Huxley’s Brave New World is really about totalitarian government more than it’s about medicine and technology. The implication is that the dystopia — the nightmarish harm — comes when things are imposed rather than chosen.

On his view, as long as they’re chosen, they’re fine.

I’m beginning to see the same line of thought applied to the term eugenics as well. A program of eugenics is bad if someone else makes you do it, but if you choose to do the exact same kinds of things all on your own, well, that’s okay. Embryo screening through Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) today, gene editing through CRISPR tomorrow. Don’t make me, but don’t forbid me either.

Two things are at work here. On the one hand, there is a false yet all too common idea of autonomy. This false view of autonomy says that each of us is an isolated individual and that our choices, our decisions, and our actions have little to no effect on others. Of course, this is clearly and demonstrably untrue, particularly in the realm of biomedical technologies. As but one example, our film Anonymous Father’s Day shows that the choice to use a sperm donor has enormous effects on the children born from it, as well as on their families.

Second, a number of mistaken ideas about what counts as progress are floating around these days. Is the recently reported “eradication” of Down syndrome in Iceland progress? Or is a growing inclusion of people with Down syndrome in society progress? Is a homogenization of the human race progress? A recent article in the journal Human Reproduction points out that current reproductive technologies are slowly and subtly reshaping the human race. The authors admit, “To point out that IVF may favour disease-prone individuals or lead to reduced fitness over generations could surely be provocative, but is nevertheless worth considering.”

It is worth considering indeed.

This is the Brave New World. There is at least — at least — a subtle and implicit eugenics at work in our development and use of reproductive technologies, including third-party reproduction.

None of this has come to us through totalitarian government. Rather, it has come to us through our own choices, through subtle (an perhaps at times not so subtle) reshaping of societal norms and expectations, and through the natural desire to parent, to have children who are healthy, and to provide them with the advantages we can.

But is it possible that in some of this we have become so focused on creating, on shaping, on fixing that we have lost sight of the larger picture? Children are gifts to be received, not projects to be undertaken or products to be manufactured. Our own lives, indeed, are gifts to be received.

We do not care for one another by working to eliminate suffering in ways that eliminate those who suffer. Rather, we best care for one another as we realize and admit our own weaknesses, our own frailties, and our own dependencies on others. Then we are able to give the care that we have received or will someday need to receive.

Yes, totalitarian government figures heavily in Brave New World, a book that is definitely a product of the times in which it was written. But we cannot so easily dismiss the harms created by the ways in which some of these technologies have come to be used. They remain very real. Brave New World is about all of these harms. I will continue to point to it as a prescient predictor.

Image by John Shepherd via flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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