In his 1932 classic novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley warned against the anti-human consequences of deploying biotechnology to reengineer humanity into more “desirable” genetic recipes. Talk about prophetic! Huxley saw a future in which science is not the savior of humankind so much as our conqueror.
The characters in the novel are no longer born “of women,” to borrow Shakespeare’s famous phrase, they are hatched from artificial wombs. Families no longer exist because people do not have identifiable biological parents. Rather than being born as unique individuals, the “principles of mass production” have been “applied to biology,” as a consequence of which “standard men and women [are created] in uniform batches.”
BNW’s human sameness is more than skin deep. Through the naked power of biological pre-design, humans have long since been stripped of their free will. Each person is genetically engineered, not only to fill predefined societal castes, but to enjoy their biologically-imposed straight-jackets. Indeed, to ensure passivity in the face of genetic tyranny,Brave New World’s denizens are pressured into promiscuity relying on the drug “soma” to ease painful thoughts. The single naturally born and un-engineered character in the novel is driven to suicide by the stultifying anti-humanity in which he is forced to live.
When Huxley first published his immortal novel, the technologies he described seemed unbelievable. Babies gestated in artificial environments rather than in their own mothers’ wombs? It could never happen! Genetic engineering to “predestine and precondition” human life toward possessing pre-selected traits and attributes? What a vivid imagination! A world where applied science has alleviated all human suffering but also destroyed human aspiration and individuality? Puh-leeese.
Fast forward only eighty-three years and many of Brave New World’s technologies are already being developed, its moral attidues already emerging:
- Human cloning has been accomplished via the same process that led to Dolly the sheep. They can’t yet bring a cloned baby to birth, but that outcome is merely a matter of developing the proper techniques.
- IVF now features the eugenic sorting of embryos, including sex selection.
- The artificial womb is being developed, and may be here within a decade.
- Beautiful women at elite colleges are paid $50,000 or more for twenty or so microscopic eggs so that the purchasers can increase their chance of having a beautiful and brilliant baby.
- Transhumanism, a futuristic social movement, aims to create a “post human species,” including through the application of embryo engineering.
The latest technological breakthrough pushing us toward Brave New World was just announced in China, where scientists have for the first time “edited” the genome of human embryos to eradicate a gene responsible for a fatal blood disorder. What’s wrong with that? Plenty. First, there is the question of whether we have the moral right—or indeed, the wisdom—to engineer and refashion a genome that was created by God or evolved over millennia (take your pick), since these alterations would forever alter the “germ line,” meaning they would flow down the generations in perpetuity.
Beyond that, there is the potential for unintended consequences. For example, the gene that leaves Africans vulnerable to contracting sickle cell anemia also helps them resist malaria. Do away with the former genetic detriment and you might also unintentionally destroy the latter benefit. (Surely. there are many other undiscovered such examples in the human genome.) Indeed, human genetics is a field of such overwhelming complexity, that we may never be able to determine ahead of time whether even the most beneficently-intended germ line engineering would do more harm than good.
Even if one believes that eradicating genetic diseases through engineering is morally acceptable, we have to remember that is such biological redesign is a “dual” technology, meaning that if the technique can be done for health reasons, it can also be done for eugenic purposes, such as trying to promote attributes such as intelligence, beauty, strength, and capabilities—or eradicate those human attributes deemed undesirable by the engineers. In other words, genetic engineering would unleash a regime of neo-eugenics, this time with even sharper teeth than the original oppression.
Then there is the safety issue. We just don’t know what would be the long-term health and longevity consequences that would follow from being a genetically engineered person. Indeed, such “human experiments” would have to be followed by doctors and scientists throughout their lives to monitor health and other consequences, and the same would be true for their children and grandchildren.
Some say that these technologies are “inevitable,” that “resistance is futile.” I reject such pessimism. We are not mere flotsam and jetsam floating on a troubled sea. We (still) have free will. We can decide the kind of future we want.
We shouldn’t become Luddites and refuse all progress. But we also shouldn’t supinely await the tsunami of anarchic technological change. Now is the time to construct permanent legal and funding walls round unethical biotechnology. If we wait too long, it will be too late.