Huxley's Period Piece
This year marks the 75th birthday of Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World, first published in February 1932. That novel became one of the most discussed works of literature of the 20th century. Its title, which Huxley took from Shakespeare's play The Tempest, has passed into the language — from Huxley, not from Shakespeare — as a descriptor for any development, or any imagined future, based on biotechnological attempts to enhance or transform human nature, or even just nature. In vitro fertilization? Brave new world! Stem-cell research? Brave new world! Genetically modified crops? Brave new world! The title of Huxley's novel has become a scare phrase brandished at any intervention by science in the fundamental processes of life. Is this fair to the book? Does the book have anything useful to tell us, or any warning to give us, as we peer into our own future?
Brave New World takes place in the 26th century. The planet is unified and at peace, its affairs managed by ten regional Controllers. Marriage, childbirth, and family life have been abolished, along with all kinds of suffering — even such minor kinds as disappointment and frustration. Also gone are the nation-state, war, religion, ethnicity, and all profound art and literature. Disease has been banished. Old age too, very nearly: Citizens are healthy, vigorous, and attractive until about age 60, when they decline quickly to death. Everyone lives in a state of contented hedonism, assisted by regular doses of soma, a freely available narcotic with no side- or after-effects. Sex is promiscuous and recreational, with universal free access to contraception and abortion.
The necessary work of society is carried out via a system of castes, with bright and capable Alphas at the top, dimwitted Epsilons at the bottom. Caste is determined in the Hatcheries, where good-quality eggs and sperm are mated to produce Alphas. Inferior zygotes are assigned to the lower castes and cloned, their assembly-line gestation then deliberately retarded to bring them down to the appropriate mental ability for the work of their caste. The production of well-adjusted citizens is completed in the Conditioning Centers via aversion therapy and hypnopedia (that is, sleep-learning). All this is accomplished so successfully that society is well-nigh self-regulating. The Controllers, though in theory possessed of despotic powers, in fact have very little to do.
In remote areas of the world there are a few reservations where life goes on in the old way, with mating and childbirth, sickness and violence. Twenty-odd years before the story opens, a couple from the "civilized" outer world, an Alpha man and a Beta Minus woman he has just impregnated, visit one of these reservations. The woman gets lost. The man, failing to find her, returns to the outer world. The woman settles on the reservation and gives birth to a son. This son, John the Savage, eventually comes to the outer world himself, and the main argument of the book — for Brave New World is as much argument as story — contrasts John's outlook with that of the "normal" citizens.
Brave New World was one of two great visions of the future as imagined by two Englishmen who came to maturity in the early years of the 20th century. Huxley, born in 1894, was the older of the two. George Orwell, younger by nine years, was of course the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which described a future quite different from Huxley's, and much nearer to the author's own time.
In the later 20th century it was common for high-school seniors to be told to read both Huxley's book and Orwell's, then to write an essay comparing the two visions and passing an opinion on which future was more probable. I recall doing this myself. Some dichotomies came easily to mind. Orwell was thinking about the 1940s U.S.S.R.; Huxley, about the 1920s USA. (The novel was perceived by many as anti-American, and was reviewed less favorably here than in England.) In Orwell's dystopia the human spirit had been raped; in Huxley's, it had been seduced … And so on.
The general opinion was that Huxley's imagined future was more probable than Orwell's. This was especially the case after the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the end of the Maoist despotism in China had cast doubt on the idea that a terroristic totalitarianism of the Nineteen Eighty-Four—type could sustain itself indefinitely (a doubt perhaps not shared by the citizens of Cuba or North Korea). The new understanding of genetics brought by Watson and Crick's analysis of DNA, followed by the work of Trivers, Hamilton, and Wilson on the evolutionary underpinnings of behavior, also turned people's thoughts toward a future in which human nature was manipulated, rather than brutalized, into submission.
Now, from our longer perspective, the similarities of the books are more striking than their differences. Both show human beings bereft of liberty. Both show a coarse popular culture triumphant — the propaganda movies, machine-written novels, and vapid pop songs of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the "feelies" and electromagnetic golf of Brave New World. Most telling, both portray static, "end of history" worlds, in which all change has ceased, along with the quest for knowledge.
In a letter dated September 15, 1931, when he must have been finishing up Brave New World, Huxley wrote:
I have been very much preoccupied with a difficult piece of work — a Swiftian novel about the Future, showing the horrors of Utopia and the strange and appalling effects on feeling, "instinct" and general weltanschauung of the application of psychological, physiological and mechanical knowledge to the fundamentals of human life. It is a comic book — but seriously comic.
The word "Utopia" there would have been taken by any literate person of the time to refer to the later works of H. G. Wells, especially the 1923 novel Men Like Gods, in which a party of Englishmen is accidentally transported into a parallel world run on Wellsian principles, a "universal scientific state" actually named Utopia, where all are made happy and well-adjusted via free love, eugenics, and enlightened education.
Wells, born in 1866, was of the generation before Huxley and Orwell, a generation for which unbounded late-Victorian scientific optimism was still possible. The younger writers, speaking from the dissolution and pessimism that followed World War I, understood that there was something wrong with Wells's dream of progress and harmony under benevolent technocratic elites, and were intent on telling us what that something was.
All three of these books — Wells's, Huxley's, and Orwell's — contain a dialectical passage in which the central issues of these imagined worlds are batted back and forth between a skeptical "normal" man of the author's time and a proponent of the new order. In Men Like Gods, one of the Englishmen accuses a Utopian of having thrown out the baby with the bathwater: "Life on earth was, he admitted, insecure, full of pains and anxieties, full indeed of miseries and distresses and anguish, but also, and indeed by reason of these very things, it had moments of intensity, hopes, joyful surprises, escapes, attainments, such as the ordered life of Utopia could not possibly afford." This being Wells, the Utopian easily swats down these antique cavils.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four the equivalent metaphysical exchange is between Winston Smith and O'Brien in the Ministry of Love: "Does Big Brother exist?" "Of course he exists. The Party exists …" Etc.
Huxley's dialectic comes at the end of Chapter 17 in Brave New World. Mustapha Mond, the Controller for Western Europe, is in conversation with John the Savage, who knows his Shakespeare:
"Exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death and danger dare, even for an egg-shell. Isn't there something in that?" [John] asked, looking up at Mustapha Mond. "Quite apart from God — though of course God would be a reason for it. Isn't there something in living dangerously?"
"There's a great deal in it," the Controller replied. "Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time."
"What?" questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.
"It's one of the conditions of perfect health. That's why we've made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory."
"Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenalin. It's the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences."
"But I like the inconveniences."
"We don't," said the Controller. "We prefer to do things comfortably."
It is at about this point that the reader of Brave New World finds himself, at least momentarily, wondering just what, exactly, is wrong with life in the World State. Every citizen is happy, safe, and employed in work suitable to his abilities. Whatever need human beings may have for danger and excitement can be satisfied by a shot of Violent Passion Surrogate. Such minor forms of unhappiness as might arise can be banished with a gram of soma. What's not to like? The philosophical issues here are nontrivial.
A less disturbing question is whether, in fact, this degree of manipulation of human nature is possible. Almost certainly it is not. The notion that by careful breeding and sufficiently intensive conditioning you can get people to behave in any way at all is very mid-20th-century. The modern view of human nature, being gradually uncovered by researches in evolutionary genetics and neuroscience, is more earthily biological. Our brains appear to have been structured by the rigors of natural selection to believe and desire certain things, and not certain other things. The human personality is not infinitely malleable: The Old Adam is hardwired into it, and no amount of conditioning can reliably expel him. Men cannot be like gods.
This suggests that the power structure of the World State, and of its Wellsian and Orwellian equivalents, is unstable. C. S. Lewis made this point in The Abolition of Man: "I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the Conditioned." (Lewis was not writing about Huxley's book, though he must have had it in mind.) He was surely right. The urge to power would likely survive even into a world like Huxley's, in which there is little need for the Controllers to exercise power. They would become corrupted in any case, as the Inner Party of Orwell's nightmare world would, as human beings always will, so long as they are recognizably human.
What, then, are the answers to the questions I started out with? Is it fair to Huxley's book to attach its title to our fears about biotechnology? Does Brave New World have anything to tell us about our own future?
I would answer both questions in the negative. While it is certainly conceivable that a ruthlessly despotic state might turn biotechnology to malign uses, the general trend of biotechnological advance in our time is to expand the sphere of human liberty. Ronald Bailey has spelled this out in his excellent book Liberation Biology. Longer lifespans; the conquest of disease; transplants from limbs and organs grown in vitro; "designer babies" — every one of these developments ought to be welcomed by free citizens in a free society.
Even for those who would dispute Bailey's optimism, the biotechnology of Huxley's world is not very relevant. When the mass-production assembly line was a new thing, the cloning of low-caste embryos might have made some economic sense. In the robotized factories of today, it would not. Even less relevant to present-day concerns is hypnopedic suggestion, the key method of socialization in Brave New World. The problem here is that hypnopedic suggestion does not, and cannot, work. The sleeping brain is simply not receptive to learning.
The only feature of Huxley's World State that resonates today is the widespread use of soma to relieve psychic discomfort. Any pharmacist will tell you that mild anti-depressants are among his best-moving items. This is still some way from Brave New World, though. Soma-strength narcotics can be obtained by any American who wants them badly enough. Few do. The 1960s call to "turn on, tune in, drop out" had little appeal or staying power. Lotus-eating is not actually very popular. Most of us would rather remain engaged with life. (Though Huxley himself answered the 1960s siren call in his last hours. Dying from cancer, he asked for, and was given, LSD, and died under the influence.)
Taking Brave New World to be a cautionary tale about the perils of scientific inquiry is even more wrongheaded. While Huxley's dystopia depends on some minor technological advances, its spirit is essentially anti-scientific. The author, who knew his science — he was the grandson of T. H. Huxley, the great Victorian biologist — makes this plain. "Every change is a menace to stability," the Controller tells the Savage in their dialogue. "Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive." Huxley's imagined world, like Orwell's, is static. We are not being shown the perils of letting science march on indefinitely, so much as the perils of letting science march forward a short distance, then stop forever.
In this respect, the Utopians in H. G. Wells's Men Like Gods are, for all their icy Houyhnhnmish complacency, at least dynamic; they are planning the conquest of outer space, for instance. Huxley and Orwell offered fantasies of stasis — really just sour versions of the ancient millenarian dream: the City of the Sun, the Great Harmony, Developed Socialism, Year Zero, the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
Brave New World is at last a period piece. Huxley could not know what a disaster the command economy, first field-tested in World War I, would turn out to be. He glimpsed the vision of managerial elites indifferent to ideology — the elites described in detail by James Burnham a decade later, and given fictional flesh in Orwell's 1949 masterpiece. In most of the world, however, those elites found that the assumption of total power, far from advancing their interests, was ultimately fatal to them, and they came to a quiet understanding with constitutional democracy or some rough approximation thereof.
Huxley and Orwell were men of their place and time. They both had memories of the old order in England — the era of casual liberty and minimal government that ended with what people of their generation called the Great War. As the golden glow of that memory faded, and the mid-century shadows lengthened, they looked with fear and despair to an age without liberty.
Their fears were misplaced. Somehow we have held on to our old freedoms. If we keep our wits about us, we may carry them forward intact into the future — a future in which, 75 years from now, our current fears of eco-catastrophe, biotech disasters, and nuclear terrorism may seem as quaint as soma, the Hatcheries, and the College of Emotional Engineering.