martes, 28 de mayo de 2013

Stories of Our Century: Genetic Engineering and BRAVE NEW WORLD (A. Huxley)


[All the relevant information (relating to the source, and also the location of the passages in the Penguin edition and my own comments) will be found in the previous entry (my translation of this transcription of a radio program broadcast by Radio Netherlands).]


In this program, Brave New World [I will both underline and italicize book titles in order to distinguish them from the words emphasized by those who speak], British writer Aldous Huxley's vision of a false utopia created by science.


[First reading of a passage:]  Standard men and women, in uniform batches, the whole of a small factory staffed with the products of a single bokanofskified egg./"Ninety-six identical twins working ninety-six identical machines!"/(…)  The principle of mass production at last applied to biology.

Our guest speaker is Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation On Economic Trends in Washington and author of  The Biotech Century.   

[J.R.:]  "(…) what are engineering principles, quality control, quantifiable standards of measurement, predictable outcomes, utility and efficiency, and now we're talking about taking those engineering assumptions that we applied during the Industrial Age to inert materials and applying them to our own babies at conception and to the rest of life's creation."

Aldous Huxley wrote his famous novel, Brave New World, in 1931.  He could not have known then that in the 20th Century dreams of utopia would end in "gulags", gas chambers and killing fields, yet Huxley's chilling scenario clearly foresees the dangers inherent in any attempt to re-engineer humanity on a mass scale.  Huxley himself kept a close watch on science, and with uncanny accuracy for a book written over half a century ago, Brave New World describes such things as "virtual reality", the Pill, Prozac, global television and genetic engineering.

A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys.  Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State's motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY./"And this," said the Director (…), "is the Fertilizing Room."/(…)  And opening an insulated door he showed them racks upon racks of numbered test-tubes.

Brave New World is set in a future hundreds of years from now.  A new society has been created in which human beings are no longer born to a mother and father, but hatched from test tubes on an assembly line.  The new era has been named after the 20th-Century High Priest of mass production and consumption, Henry Ford, and this is the year of Our Ford 632.  Science and corporate efficiency have linked up with each other to create the present World State.

Heredity, date of fertilization, membership of Bokanovsky Group --details were transferred from test-tube to bottle.  No longer anonymous, but named, identified, the procession marched slowly on, on through an opening in the wall, slowly on into the Social Predestination Room./"Eighty-eight cubic metres of card-index," said Mr. Foster with relish, as they entered.  "Containing all the relevant information," added the Director.

[J.R.:]  "In the last 20 years two technologies have been emerging on parallel tracks all over the world: computers and genetic technology.  Now what's becoming transparent only in the last several years is that these great technology revolutions are beginning to fuse together to create a single, seamless web and a new technological foundation for a new era in history.  While the computer has many roles, its primary economic mission in the coming century is that it will be the language to decipher genes, to exploit genes.  We're really making a shift out of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, the raw resource of the Industrial Revolution, to genes and genetic commerce, the raw resource of the Biotech Century,"

Jeremy Rifkin is President of the Foundation On Economic Trends in Washington and the author of several thought-provoking books on the social and political impact of scientific and technological change.  In his recent book, The Biotech Century, Rifkin warns of the formidable implications of present-day gene technology, which, like Brave New World's Central Hatchery, possesses godlike powers of procreation.

[J.R.:]  "Now, today we can take living materials --DNA-- we can take the genetic information in a species and divide it down to its bare components, and then, using recombinant technologies we can stitch, edit, sequence and recombine these genetic components, creating living utilities, with hybrids of living creatures that have never existed, and it's not only complex from an environmental point of view, but it's also complex from a social and ethical and cultural point of view."

From the Social Predestination Room the escalators went rumbling down into the basement, and there, into the crimson darkness, stewingly warm on the cushion of peritoneum and gorged with blood-surrogates and hormones, the foetuses grew and grew or, poisoned, languished into a stunted Epsilonhood.  With a faint hum and rattle the moving racks crawled imperceptibly through the weeks and the recapitulated aeons to where, in the Decanting Room, the newly-unbottled babes uttered their first yell of horror and amazement.

Huxley's World State has perfected the practice of eugenics, breeding in order to create the ideal combination of human physical traits.  The bottled babies of Brave New World may seem far away off from our present world but even Huxley could not have imagined that by the end of his own century scientists would be able to clone animals, freeze embryos and decode human DNA.

[J.R.:]  "There are children now who are…uh…uuh…four or five years old.  When they're 25 they're gonna be able to go to a medical clinic and prospective parents will be able to get a total genetic readout on themselves.  It's happening year by year, but by twenty years from now you can go into a medical clinic and know your genetic readout, and you can actually know what will happen if your genes met…meet…in conception…with your spouse's.  You can actually have a sort of a crystal ball of what the genetic make-up, statistically, will be of that child, before conception itself."

"One fertile ovary in twelve-hundred --that would really be quite sufficient for our purposes.  But we want to have a good choice.  (…)  So we allow as many as thirty percent of the female embryos to develop normally.  (…)   Which brings us at last (…) out of the realm of mere slavish imitation of nature into the much more interesting world of human invention."

[J.R.:]  "Now, when we think of eugenics in the 20th Century we think of Nazi Germany, Hitler's grand dream of creating the perfect…Aryan race that would rule the world, and of course we all know what tragedy that led to.  Is there a new eugenics afoot as we move into the age of biology and genetic commerce?  Absolutely.  Does it bear any resemblance to Nazi Germany?  No.  What's really happening is, the new eugenics has come in [through] the back door, it's [incomprehensible phrase (he tends to speak at full speed)], it's already here, it's in a friendly form, we didn't recognize it, it's commercial, it's final.  Life-size [?] companies are saying to consumers, 'Don't you want to help the baby?' " 

In Brave New World the supreme good is happiness, not truth, and social stability, not personal fulfillment or social justice, and so the World State Controllers and Predestinators have devised factory methods to produce different subdivisions of human beings according to society's need for labor, from the intelligent Alpha-Pluses to those who are bred to do the most menial work, the Epsilon-Minus Semi-Morons.

By the time they were decanted the embryos had a horror of cold.  They were predestined to emigrate to the tropics, to be mine and acetate-silk spinners and steel workers.  (…)  "We condition them to thrive on heat," concluded Mr. Foster.  "Our colleagues upstairs will teach them to love it."/"And that (…) is the secret of happiness and virtue --liking what you've got to do.  All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.'

Once they are born, the citizens of Brave New World are kept in line through all sorts of conditioning and indoctrination.  They're permanently entertained through pep rallies, virtual reality films called "feelies" and commercialized physical games full of techical gimmicks, like Centrifugal Bumble-puppy, but these distractions are not fool-proof.  The intelligent Alphas, especially, are prone to dangerously independent thinking. 

Bernard Marx, for example.  He's not as tall or as good-looking as an Alpha is supposed to be.  It seems it's rumored a mistake was made in the lab at his conception.  Worst of all, he has an inexcusable tendency to be sad sometimes.

"He does look glum," said the assistant Predestinator, pointing at Bernard Marx.


(…)  "What you need is a gramme of soma."

 "All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol, none of their defects."


"Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology."

[J.R.:]  "Aldous Huxley in Brave New World talked about soma.  There was a drug that kept everyone under control, and in line, and people enjoyed it.  They didn't know there was an alternative to it.  Well, now we're developing those drugs.  The brave new world's here: the Ridlin [?], the Prozac, the Zoloc [?].  Some of it's useful in context, but to put a whole society on…these drugs…is wrong, and it prepares them for the next stage, and that is to engineered changes in gene complexes before conception that affect mood and behavior."

 "(…)  soma, delicious soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon (…)."

 [J.R.:]  "We have millions of youngsters on pharmacological intervention every day at lunchtime.  Today millions and millions of American boys…are on Ridlin, because they have been diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder.  It's easier to give that child Ridlin at lunchtime and say it's genetically linked, because it works, it actually performs, but in the long run it sends a wrong message.  It's saying to these children, 'You are your genes.  The environment plays little or no role in your mood and behavior.'  It takes the child, and the parent, and the community, off the hook."

(…)  Lenina and Henry were yet dancing in another world --the warm, the richly coloured, the infinitely friendly world of soma-holiday.  How kind, how good-looking, how delightfully amusing everyone was!

One reason for Bernard's bad moods is that he has failed to attract Lenina Crowne, a popular and very attractive Beta female working at the  Central Hatchery in London.  Bernard is an Alpha-Plus, psychologist, and this entitles him to the rare privilege of visiting the Savage Reservations in New Mexico.  He hopes to get Lenina to go out with him by inviting her to travel with him to one of the reservations, and she readily accepts.  It is one of the only places on Earth where people are still born to parents and grow old the natural way, without genetic manipulation or conditioning.  Like modern-day Western tourists in a Third World country, Lenina and Bernard react very differently to what they see.

The spectacle of two young women giving breast to their babies made her blush and turn away her face.  She had never seen anything so indecent in her life.  And what made it worse was that, instead of tactfully ignoring it, Bernard proceeded to make open comments on this revoltingly viviparous scene.  (…)/"What a wonderfully intimate scene,"he said (…).  "And what an intensity of feeling it must generate!  I often think one may have missed something in not having had a mother. (…)."

Huxley does not idealize the Indians as noble naturalists.  In fact, he believed that sanity was a very rare phenomenon and that civilization represented insanity, while primitive cultures represented lunacy.  The two worlds meet at the reservation when Bernard and Lenina encounter the white Savage John.  The handsome young man is the son of a white mother, Linda, a Beta from London, who was accidentally stranded at the reservation 20 years before.

Bernard invites John and his mother Linda to return to London with him.  John has heard marvelous stories all his life about civilization and is so thrilled about going there that he spontaneously bursts into a quote from a strange forbidden book he has been reading --the works of William Shakespeare-- and Miranda's famous lines from "The Tempest".    

"O wonder!" he was saying, and his eyes shone, his face was brightly flushed.  "How many goodly creatures are there here!  How beauteous mankind is!"  (…)  "O brave new world," he began (…)./(…)  "O brave new world that has such people in it.  Let's start at once."/"You have a most peculiar way of talking sometimes," said Bernard, staring at the young man in perplexed astonishment.  "And, anyhow, hadn't you better wait till you actually see the new world?"  

Lenina and John are attracted to each other, and back in London the naturally handsome and fit Savage unwittingly becomes a mass sensation, but his mother, Linda, who has the natural appearance of an overweight woman in her mid-forties is viewed with disgust by the perfectly beautiful Alphas and Betas.

There was a gasp, a murmur of astonishment and horror; a young girl screamed; standing on a chair to get a better view someone upset two test-tubes full of spermatozoa.  Bloated, sagging, and among those firm youthful bodies, those undistorted faces, a strange and terrifying monster of middle-agedness, Linda advanced into the room, coquettishly smiling her broken and discoloured smile, and rolling as she walked, with what was meant to be a voluptuous undulation, her enormous haunches.

[J.R.:]  "You know, the biggest casualty…in commercial eugenics is one that our auspices don't talk about, and that is: we may lose forever the notion of empathy…empathy, that thin, emotional strand that keeps us attached to each other in a social way.  I empathize with you, not because you're perfect, but because of your frailties and your attempt to overcome all the odds and become a human being because I can see all that in myself, but once we begin to see our children…as perfectible…aa-…as design principles, it's likely we may lose that notion of empathy.  Then we have lost more than we've gained, when we move down that road."

…and just as the Alphas and Betas in Brave New World are disgusted by Linda's appearance, her son John, who had been filled with such excited anticipation, now feels a growing abhorrence of the human monsters created by the dictates of efficiency and utility.

(…) eighty-three almost noseless black brachycephalic Deltas were cold-pressing.  The fifty-six four-spindle chucking and turning machines were being manipulated by fifty-six aquiline and ginger Gammas.  One hundred and seven heat-conditioned Epsilon Senegalese were working in the foundry.  (…)  In the assembling room, the dynamos were being put together by two sets of Gamma-Plus dwarfs.  (…)  The completed mechanisms were inspected by eighteen identical curly auburn girls in Gamma green, packed in crates by thirty-four short-legged, left-handed male Delta-Minuses (…)./"O brave new world…."  By some malice of his memory the Savage found himself repeating Miranda's words.  "O brave new world that has such people in it."

[J.R.:]  "Genetic discrimination is going to loom, and significantly, in the next generation, as discrimination on race, gender, religion, ethnicity has for thousands of years, and increasingly we're gonna begin to sort out people by their genetic make-up.  Let me quote Lee Silver, who is a distinguished molecular biologist in Princeton [University].  He envisions the wealthy members of society being able to afford superior genes in their children…before conception, in the sperm and egg, first, to eliminate diseases, and then to deal with mood and behavior problems, and then cosmetics.  He says over eons of time this…the wealthier people will continue to program their children.  The 'gen-poor', who won't be able to afford this technology, and will produce the natural way, will end up being the menial workers.  They will have the…the worst jobs in society.  The 'gen-rich' will control society.  Eventually, he said, these two groups, the 'gen-rich', who are genetically engineered, and the 'gen-poor', who are not, will be so different biologically that they will end up splitting the human line into two new subspecies."

When his mother Linda dies of an overdose of soma John leads a number of Alphas in a revolt against the authorities.  The World State represses the revolt with ease --nonviolently, in fact.  Lenina and several others are sent on soma vacations, while John and Bernard are sent into exile.  They are even allowed to choose which island and climate they would like to be banished to.  The World State has no need to use force, for it is in full control. 

In one of the key closing scenes of the novel the Savage John has a philosophical discussion with the resident World Controller of the Western European zone, His Fordship Mustapha Mond, a former scientist.

"The Inventions Office is stuffed with plans for labour-saving processes.  Thousands of them."  Mustapha Mond made a lavish gesture.  "And why don't we put them into execution?  For the sake of the labourers; it would be sheer cruelty to afflict them with excessive leisure.  (…)  Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy.  Yes, even science."

[J.R.:]  "Science is not value-free and technology is not neutral.  Modern science is based on detachment, power from a distance, isolation, control, reductionism…from context, and these are all approaches to sc-…reality, but they're not the only reality.  The same with technology: tools are not neutral because they're imbued with power, so whenever we exercise a tool w-…there is power inherent to the tool.  The issue should not be: 'How can this tool be used…and regulated in an appropriate way?'  The issue for the next generation ought to be: 'How much power is appropriate in our tools?  Are there tools where the power inherent to the tool is so extraordinary and out of scale that we're best off not using it?' "

"I'm interested in truth.  I like science.  But truth's a menace, science is a public danger.  As dangerous as it's been beneficient.  (…)  (…) we can't allow science to undo its own good works.  That's why we so carefully limit the scope of its researches (…).  (…)  It's curious," he [Mustapha Mond] went on after a little pause, "to read what people in the time of Our Ford used to write about scientific progress.  They seem to have imagined that it could be allowed to go on indefinitely, regardless of everything else."

[J.R.:]  "I'm hoping that this be the first, great revolution in history…that will be fully debated, scrutinized, looked at, examinedcarefully, before it runs its course, that we…all of us become involved in a…intelligent, and passionate, and informed debate, because this science, and this technology…is the most radical intervention into Nature and human nature in all of history."

At the end of their discussion the Savage John tries to persuade Mustapha Mond that suffering can have meaning, but his own fate contradicts this, and the story ends in madness and tragedy.

More than ten years after Brave New World was first published Aldous Huxley wrote a new foreword for the novel in which he said that he would now give the Savage the possibility of sanity [in other words, if he would've rewritten the novel he'd have given him a third option, beyond the dilemma of having to choose between a false utopia and an elementary existence at the reservation], and in 1948 Huxley wrote Island, a novel in which Western science, and Eastern philosophy, and humanism come together to create a true utopia.

[J.R.:]  "You know,  ultimately the most important contribution of this new science…is going to be that it's gonna force all of us to ask the great questions about the why of existence.  These may be more important…than the proteins these genes code for, and now that we have…aa…in our power the ability to…understand some of the dynamics of life, how do we use it?  Well, it wou-…it will depend on how we define ourselves.  What does it mean to be a human being?  What are our responsibilities to future generations?  Should we be the architects of a second Genesis?  What are our obligations to the other creatures, who are powerless to speak for themselves?  Are our primary values intrinsic values or utility values?  How we decide these great Socratic questions…will determine how we will use this new biology: whether we will use it to be an engineer and and an architect, and move into a 'brave new world', or whether we will use it to be a partner and a steward, and to better embed ourselves into this…experiment we call 'evolution'."

'A New Theory of Biology' was the title of the paper which Mustapha Mond had just finished reading.  He sat for some time, meditatively frowning, then picked up his pen and wrote across the title-page.  '(…)  Not to be published.'  (…)  A pity, he thought, as he signed his name.  It was a masterly piece of work.  But (…).  It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes --make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and make them [this second "make them" does not appear in the novel] take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge.  Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true.  [They omitted the next sentence here: "But not, in the present circumstances, admissible."]                 


You've been listening to "Stories of Our Century".  In this program you've heard excerpts from Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley.  The novel is published by Penguin in the Commonwealth [maybe not also by Granada Publishing Limited anymore, and whose 1980 pocketbook edition I have, along with the Penguin 1972 edition] and by Harper and Collins in North America.  The readings were by Neville Powers.  Sound balance was by Pagett [?] Boss.  Our guest speaker was Jeremy Rifkin, author of  The Biotech Century.  The program was produced and presented by Marijke van der Meer for Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service.      



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