Brave, new world is not that far off

  • March 6, 2007
When I first read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1960, this ironic novel from 1932 about the distant future had been around for a little over 25 years. But already its predictions seemed to be coming true, at least in the affluent North American society in which I lived as a young man.
You may recall what Huxley prophesied. He foresaw a world in which all social contradictions had been overcome, in which everyone enjoyed a self-satisfied, healthy, happy existence of endless consumption, pleasure and (when they felt the slightest twinge of anxiety) sedation. But everything was wrong. The family had disappeared, and all fornicated at will, with whomever and whenever they liked. Philosophy and religion, likewise, had vanished, replaced by a simple-minded worship of industrialization. Becoming pregnant was considered primitive and disgusting. Instead, new people in this society were created in hatcheries, where they were custom-made to fit the culture’s current needs. In Huxley’s brave, new world, people may have been infinitely bored, but they did not have to put up with surprises.

The swinging ’60s — what with the Pill, the vogue for sedatives and narcotics such as marijuana, the steep decline in churchgoing and belief, rampant consumerism — looked eerily like Huxley’s future. Viewed from the perspective of our current culture, however, we now see that the ’60s was merely the beginning of an era that’s gradually become altogether too much like Huxley’s brave, new world.

A news dispatch from Rome reminded me, a couple of weeks ago, of just how far along this path our hedonistic consumer society has gone. In a speech at the Vatican to Catholic medical professionals, Pope Benedict XVI denounced the “obsessive quest for the ‛perfect child’ ” through genetic manipulation. The Pope also said the engineering of so-called “designer embryos” represented “an attack on human life.”

We are accustomed to hearing papal pronouncements of this kind, but this one, I think, bears especially close attention.

The Pope is inveighing against a specific abuse of advanced medical technology: the transformation of laboratories into hatcheries for making embryos. The medical scientists who are involved in this research have been lately at pains to reassure the public that the resulting embryos will not be used for the Frankensteinian ends many people fear — the harvesting of replacement organs and tissue, for example. But the genie is out of the bottle, and nobody can ever be entirely sure that fantastic and deeply inhumane experiments will never be attempted in the name of science.

In addition to his specific criticism of such scientific work, the Pope was also addressing one of the most pervasive spiritual maladies of our time.

All of us, including governments and individuals alike, families and corporations, are continually tempted to attempt the control of everything in and around us — from our weight and hair loss, to our jobs, our pleasures and pregnancies, our whole life and even death. This determination to overpower our bodies and destinies and even our children’s character and future is always a bid to frustrate God’s will, and, as such, is at the heart of many contemporary “rights” movements Catholics correctly oppose, including the right to terminate pregnancy at will and to die whenever one pleases. The attempted creation of “perfect children” is yet another expression of the will to power, this time exercised against the human future.

And, like many other sins, this one has several punishments built in. I am thinking particularly of the anguish and anger that will likely be provoked when surprises in the genetic programming occur, as they will always occur. One can easily predict, for example, the profound frustration of designing parents when their adopted embryo, created from the egg and sperm of brilliant musicians to become a prodigy, turns out to be a child with no talent for music. And what will be the consequences for the innocent offspring? Will it then be rejected and abandoned?

But let’s suppose the genetic scientists get it right every time and rule out all surprises. At work will still be the essential human twist or failing Catholics call original sin, insinuating itself into the most perfectly designed embryos — a failing that, given our propensity to frustrate and ruin God’s goodness in our lives, will probably intensify over successive generations of engineered embryos. In the end, we will produce, not paradise on earth, but the hell of boredom and exhaustion, sameness and deadness of spirit that Aldous Huxley so interestingly predicted 75 years ago.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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