Brave New World used to be one of the most terrifying stories about a false utopia. It gave us the concept of “test tube babies,” and its name became synonymous with technological progress run wild. But many of the things Aldous Huxley predicted are coming true, and it turns out they’re not so scary.
Ranked fifth by the American Modern Library among its 100 best novels, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World remains an enduring classic of speculative fiction. Set 600 years in the future, the novel anticipates a number of key advancements, including powerful reproductive technologies (such as in vitro fertilization, human engineering, and cloning), classical conditioning, neuropharmaceuticals, and psychological manipulation. Horrifyingly, these technological and scientific advancements are used by a quasi-totalitarian regime to keep its population subservient and under control.
Some 80 years after this novel’s debut, it’s clear that our world has not unfolded precisely as Huxley imagined it would—but many of the things he talks about in his book are now reality, or they soon will be. What’s more, a number of advancements portrayed in the book, whether they be technological or social, aren’t as scary as they seemed back then. And in fact, they’re increasingly being seen in a positive light.
Brave New World was very much a product of its time—a reflection of the many fears and concerns emerging in the early part of the 20th Century. As the grandson of the biologist T. H. Huxley (who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his vociferous defense of evolutionary theories) and the brother of Julian Huxley (the evolutionary biologist and eugenicist), Aldous Huxley was firmly rooted in the zeitgeist of the time.
It was through his brother that Aldous was introduced to the work of the controversial British biologist J. B. S. Haldane, who in his seminal 1923 work Daedalus; or, Science and the Future, presented his vision of a future world in which scientists would use biotechnology to reshape humanity. It was Haldane, and not Huxley, who first speculated about biologically engineered humans, clones, in vitro fertilization, and artificial wombs.
Left: J.B.S. Haldane (Credit: EB/PD)
Indeed, like many of his contemporaries, Huxley was horrified by these predictions, and he would use many of Haldane’s ideas to give the frightening society depicted in Brave New World its shape.
But the novel was far more than just a biotech nightmare. Huxley was also railing against the totalitarian threat.
Vladimir Lenin giving a speech in Moscow (Credit: G. Goldshtein/PD)
The Soviet Union was only 14 years old when Brave New World was written, a time when Marxist idealism was flourishing. Huxley, like many others, was concerned about the loss of human individualism and autonomy—a concern reinforced not just by the threat of communism, but by the rise of Big Bureaucracy and the proliferation of Henry Ford’s “Fordist” industrial ideal.
A central theme of Brave New World—which takes place in 632 A.F (“After Ford”)—is the deliberate homogenization of the human species by the state in a manner reminiscent of a factory assembly line. What’s more, as an admirer of Thomas Malthus, Huxley was also concerned about human overpopulation, a problem he feared would be dealt with in a draconian manner by an authoritarian power.
Lastly, Huxley was also reacting to changing social norms. With the 19th Century fixed firmly in the rearview mirror, Huxley’s society was witness to unprecedented change. As Victorian and Christian values weakened, new and modern ideas were on the rise, including secularism, feminism, and a greater sense of sexual liberation.
This was the context in which Brave New World was written. And while many of Huxley’s concerns still resonate, the advantage of time has shown us how many of his fears were not just overstated, but also out of tune with the general direction of history.
Humans in Huxley’s fictional society no longer produce live offspring. As the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning explains, surgically removed ovaries produce ova that are fertilized in artificial receptacles, and then incubated in specially designed bottles.
Fetuses are engineered to conform to their ultimate station in life, and are classified under a caste system: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon. Gammas and Deltas are subject to the Bokanovsky Process, which allows scientists to induce eggs to produce up to 96 identical embryos, which go on to form 96 identical humans, or clones. These Gamma and Delta clones go on to spend their lives performing identical tasks at identical machines. (Notably, this is a future that doesn’t include advanced robotics, which would eliminate a lot of the need for these Gammas and Deltas.) It’s all in the service of the state’s motto: “Community, Identity, Stability.”
There’s something unquestioningly disquieting about these technological advancements. Innovations, particularly those in biotechnology, often elicit a sense of repugnance, or the feeling that the natural world has been violated in some way. As Haldane himself admitted in Daedalus:
The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which had not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural.
As we’ve seen time and time again, however, advances in biotechnology are often met with repulsion, only to be supplanted by acceptance once they’re proven safe and effective. As bioethicist James Hughes wrote in “Back to the Future: Contemporary biopolitics in 1920’s British Futurism”:
The response to Brave New World reflected the polarization between techno-pessimists and -optimists. [British philosopher Bertrand] Russell welcomed it, because the novel highlighted the deep-seated suspicion of engineered health and happiness, and of a well-ordered world. Russell acknowledged, however—as the defenders of the “wisdom of repugnance” do today—that this “yuck factor” is basically irrational: a desperate, although necessary, clinging to illusions. Although we object to the brainwashing techniques in Brave New World, all parenting and education are efforts to mould children: “we do not object to molding a human being, provided it is done badly; we only object when it is done well”
As Hughes correctly notes, the objections raised in Brave New World are illustrative of the long-standing tensions within the Enlightenment tradition as it pertains to optimism and pessimism about technology.
The introduction of in vitro fertilization in 1978 provides a good example. This powerful assisted reproductive technique was was initially met with great trepidation, giving rise to the derisive term “test tube babies.” Today, it is a widely accepted process that produces millions of new lives each year.
Today’s biotech bugbears include three-parent IVF, the advent of cheap and powerful genetic cut-and-paste tools, such as CRISPR, and the world’s first genetically altered human embryo. While potentially alarming, these biotechnologies and others currently in development hold great promise. Advances in genetics will serve to eliminate a host of genetic diseases, while offering humans the opportunity to forgo the haphazard genetic roll of the dice when it comes to determining the traits of offspring. A strong case can be made that it’s both our duty and right to develop these technologies.
IVF (Credit: Eugene Ermolovich (CRMI) | CC BY-SA 3.0)
Today, we no longer fear that in vitro fertilization will lead to the rise of genetically engineered brainwashed working class clones. And we’re starting to get over our fears of the next generation of tools, such as IVF and CRISPR.
Very importantly, Huxley’s totalitarian fears proved unwarranted—though it didn’t appear that way until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 (not to mention the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945). In fact, the relative success and infamy of the Soviets and Nazis in the decades following the publication of Brave New World helped to endow Huxley’s book with a false sense of urgency.
Fall of the Berlin Wall (Credit: Daniel Antal/CC)
In today’s democracies we’re poised to use advances in biotechnology and medical science in ways that serve their own personal and family interests.
Eugenics, as a top-down imposition, is dead. So it’s unfortunate that Huxley’s book has perpetuated the fear that governments will use such advances to keep its populace subservient and productive for its own ends. The reality, however, is that these technologies are—and increasingly will be—tools made by the people, for the people.
Citizens in Huxley’s New World are infantilized and rendered harmless through the regular intake of “soma,” a readily available pharmaceutical that alleviates depression and keeps people in a perpetual state of calm.
Soma is described as being “euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant,” while having all “the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” A “gramme is better than a damn,” say the New World’s citizens, adding that there can be “no social stability without individual stability.” New Worlders attend “solidarity services,” a mock religious activity that more closely resembles a modern drug-infused rave.
Dystopian? (Credit: Pixabay/CC0 PD)
Some commentators today complain that antidepressants are akin to Huxley’s soma, but it’s an accusation that’s not entirely fair. Millions of people benefit from medicines like Paxil and Lexapro, which allows them to resume normal lives without losing any of their personality.
Even the burgeoning use and acceptance of marijuana can be seen as a Huxleyesque development—but again, the hysteria against this recreational drug is starting to wane. If anything, cannabis has been proving its value as an effective means to reduce physical pain, while also serving as an acceptable substitute for alcohol—a socially accepted drug that Huxley’s contemporaries would have been all too familiar with.
In the same way we no longer fear a government that uses drugs to control us, we no longer fear drugs as a way to control and alter our emotional and conscious states.
Huxley’s future dystopia also features mandated sexual promiscuity, which is yet another state-driven initiative to keep everyone happy. Women wear birth control pills on their belts as a fashion item, and abortion is readily available. With human reproduction relegated to the lab, sex has become more than just a recreational activity—it’s something Huxley’s state has learned to use as a psychological control system.
Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire by Russell Patterson (Credit: Library of Congress/Public Domain)
New Worlders also enjoy date nights at the “feelies”—what’s known today as pornography. A typical date night ends with a dose of soma and a meaningless hook-up (sounds suspiciously like Tinder). Writing in the Toronto Star, columnist Nancy Wigston puts it well by referring to the indulged New Worlders as the “great-grandparents of today’s texters and sexters.”
All this dulling of the human experience serves a very important purpose, of course. As Huxley writes, “most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.”
Huxley’s prescience here is remarkable, even if these social trends and political developments haven’t unfolded exactly the way he described. People, particularly those in Western cultures, have most certainly become more sexually liberated since the 1930s, the result of declining Victorian and Christian values. Not to mention the rise of feminism, and the sense that people shouldn’t be shamed for their sexual behavior.
Families are different as well, though not exactly in the way that Huxley imagined. Relationships and family dynamics have changed in ways that aren’t frightening to us anymore. We no longer speak of “broken homes,” for example, nor do we fret as much about the demise of the “nuclear family.” At the same time, we don’t worry that the state will outlaw the family, as portrayed in Brave New World.
In fact, Huxley’s vision of a false utopia seems grossly old-fashioned and moralizing to our modern eyes. Eight decades later, many of his concerns about sex and reproduction can be interpreted as a conservative reaction to changing social mores and the ongoing effort to control women’s bodies.
As already noted, Huxley shared the concerns of Thomas Malthus, a 19th century sociologist who warned about the perils of human overpopulation. It’s a concern that’s still relevant today, though many experts say it’s grossly overstated.
A population bomb? (Credit: Ngo Trung/CC BY 3.0)
The government in Huxley’s New World addressed this problem by imposing a population measure in which people are euthanized once they reach the age of 60 and are no longer considered economically useful. Aging still exists in this world, but only at the cosmetic level. Elderly folks are “youthful and taut-skinned, slim and upright,” but once they reach the age of 60, “then crack! the end.” After death, people are cremated, where “a kilo and a half of phosphorus per adult corpse” gets harvested for use as fertilizer.
Today, the idea of a government killing off its elderly seems far-fetched. Rather, scientists, technologists, governments, and institutions are working to decrease our individual carbon footprints, while increasing access to birth control. And a huge turning point in our discussions of population control has come from the recognition that the best way to produce fewer children is by raising standards of living and giving women more access to education, not through coercive mechanisms. The answer to a growing human population is not an authoritarian boot to the face, but sensible humanitarian measures.