Beyond Biology

Review of Brave New Worlds: Staying Human in the Genetic Future by Bryan Appleyard, The New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1998.


During the decades after World War II, two powerfully disturbing novels captured the imagination of those of us who were apprehensive about the human future: George Orwell’s ”Nineteen Eighty-four” and Aldous Huxley’s ”Brave New World.” The former, generalizing from Soviet despotism, depicted human life flattened under the boot of a worldwide tyranny rendered invincible by means of the insights of mass psychology and consummate techniques of surveillance and intimidation. The latter, generalizing from the modern scientific project, depicted human life degraded under the gentle hand of a compassionate humanitarianism that was rendered competent by genetic manipulation, psychopharmacology, hypnopaedia and high-tech amusements.

Now that both 1984 and the Soviet Union have come and gone, everyone can see that Huxley’s dystopian utopia was always the more profound. It goes with, rather than against, the human grain — indeed, is animated by modernity’s most humane and progressive aspirations. And Huxley knew that it is generally harder to recognize and combat those evils that are inextricably linked to successful attainment of partial goods. The much-pursued elimination of disease, aggression, pain, anxiety, suffering, hatred, guilt, envy and grief, Huxley’s novel makes clear, comes unavoidably at the price of homogenization, mediocrity, pacification, drug-induced contentment, trivialized human attachments, debasement of taste and souls without loves or longings — the inevitable result of making the essence of human nature the final object of the ”conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate,” in the words of Francis Bacon. Like Midas, biomedicalized man will be cursed to acquire precisely what he wished for, only to discover — painfully and too late — that what he wished for is not exactly what he wanted. Or, Huxley implies, worse than Midas, he may be so dehumanized he will not even recognize that in aspiring to be perfect and divine he is no longer even truly human.

Huxley’s novel is science fiction. But yesterday’s science fiction is rapidly becoming today’s fact. Prozac is not yet Huxley’s soma; cloning by nuclear transfer or splitting embryos is not exactly Bokanovskification; MTV and virtual-reality parlors are not quite the ”feelies”; and our current safe-and-consequenceless sexual practices are not universally as loveless or as empty as in the novel. But the kinships are disquieting, all the more so since our genetic technology and neuro- and psychotechnology are still in their infancy — yet in ways that make all too clear what they might look like in their full maturity.

New York Times