by Joseph Needham

In May 1932 Scrutiny, a new quarterly review based in Cambridge, England, published its first issue. Its contents included a “Manifesto” in which the editors lamented the dissolution of standards for critical reviewers, and pledged to pay attention to both “the drift of civilization” and “the plight of the arts.” The following essay met both criteria, as Joseph Needham, one of the leading biologists of his day, strongly proclaims that Huxley (who also came from a family of scientists) has gotten the science—biology and psychology as well as philosophy—exactly right. Brave New World, writes Needham, clearly shows what lies ahead, and it should be required reading especially for those who trust in science to save the world.

‘Utopias’ writes Prof. Berdiaev, in a passage which Mr. Huxley chooses for his motto ‘appear to be much more realisable than we used to think. We are finding ourselves face to face with a far more awful question, how can we avoid their actualisation? For they can be made actual. Life is marching towards them. And perhaps a new period is beginning, a period when intelligent men will be wondering how they can avoid these utopias, and return to a society non-utopian, less perfect, but more free.’ Mr. Huxley’s book is indeed a brilliant commentary on this dismally true remark. It is as if a number of passages from Mr. Bertrand Russell’s recent book The Scientific Outlook had burst into flower, and had rearranged themselves in patches of shining colour like man-eating orchids in a tropical forest. Paul planted, Apollos watered, but who gave the increase in this case, we may well ask, for a more diabolical picture of society (as some would say) can never have been painted.

A DUAL THEME

Mr. Huxley’s theme, embellished though it is by every artifice of that ingenuity of which he is master, is primarily dual, one of its aspects being the power of autocratic dictatorship, and the other, the possibilities of this power when given the resources of a really advanced biological engineering. The book opens with a long description of a human embryo factory, where the eggs emitted by carefully tended ovaries, are brought up in the way they should go by mass production methods on an endless conveyor belt moving very slowly until at last the infants are ‘decanted’ one by one into a highly civilised world. The methods of education by continual suggestion and all the possibilities of conditional reflexes are brilliantly described, and we are shown a world where art and religion no longer exist, but in which an absolutely stable form of society has been achieved, firstly, by sorting out the eggs into groups of known inherited characteristics and then setting each group, when adult, to do the work for which it is fitted, and secondly by allowing ‘unlimited copulation’ (sterile, of course) and unlimited sexual gratification of every kind. Here Mr. Huxley, whether consciously or not, has incorporated the views of many psychologists, e.g. Dr. Money Kyrle. In an extremely interesting paper1 Dr. Kyrle has suggested that social discontent, which has always been the driving force in social change, is a manifestation of the Oedipus complexes of the members of society, and cannot be removed by economic means. With decrease of sexual taboos, these psychologists suggest, there would be a decrease of frustration and hence of that aggression which finds its outlet in religion, socialism, or more violent forms of demand for social change. This doctrine is indeed an extremely plausible one, and provides an answer to the question of what the ‘born’ reformer is to do when the ideal communist state, for instance, has been brought into being. Supposing that we have what we regard as an ideal state, how shall we ensure its continuance? Only, says Dr. Kyrle, by removing the sexual taboos which make the ‘born’ reformer. Accordingly, Mr. Huxley shows us the state of affairs when the attack on post- and pre-marital, and prepubertal taboos has long succeeded. The erotic play of children is encouraged, universal sexual relations are the rule, and indeed any sign of the beginning of a more deep and lasting affection is rebuked and stamped out, as being antisocial.

But Mr. Huxley, of course, sees so clearly what the psychologists do not see, that such a world must give up not only war, but also spiritual conflicts of any kind, not only superstition, but also religion, not only literary criticism but also great creative art of whatever kind, not only economic chaos, but also all the beauty of the old traditional things, not only the hard and ugly parts of ethics, but the tender and beautiful parts too. And it may well be that only biologists and philosophers will really appreciate the full force of Mr. Huxley’s remarkable book. For of course in the world at large, those persons, and there will be many, who do not approve of his ‘utopia,’ will say, we can’t believe all this, the biology is all wrong, it couldn’t happen. Unfortunately, what gives the biologist a sardonic smile as he reads it, is the fact that the biology is perfectly right, and Mr. Huxley has included nothing in his book but what might be regarded as legitimate extrapolations from knowledge and power that we already have. Successful experiments are even now being made in the cultivation of embryos of small mammals in vitro, and one of the most horrible of Mr. Huxley’s predictions, the production of numerous low-grade workers of precisely identical genetic constitution from one egg, is perfectly possible. Armadillos, parasitic insects, and even sea-urchins, if treated in the right way, do it now, and it is only a matter of time before it will be done with mammalian eggs. Many of us admit that as we walk along the street we dislike nine faces out of ten, but suppose that one of the nine were repeated sixty times. Of course, the inhabitants of Mr. Huxley’s utopia were used to it.

TENDENCIES LEADING TO THE BRAVE NEW WORLD

And it is just the same in the philosophical realm. We see already among us the tendencies which only require reasonable extrapolation to lead to Brave New World. Publicism, represented in its academic form by Mr. Wittgenstein and Prof. Schlick, and in its more popular form by Prof. Hogben and Mr. Sewell, urges that the concept of reality must be replaced by the concept of communicability. Now it is only in science that perfect communicability is attainable, and in other words, all that we can profitably say is, in the last resort, scientific propositions clarified by mathematical logic. To the realm of the Unspeakable, therefore, belong Ethics, Religion, Art, Artistic Criticism, and many other things. This point of view has a certain attraction and possesses, or can be made to possess, considerable plausibility, but in the end it has the effect of driving out Reason from the private incommunicable worlds of non-scientific experience. We are left with science as the only substratum for Reason, but what is worse, Philosophy or Metaphysics too is relegated to the realm of the Unspeakable, so that Science, which began as a special form of Philosophy, and which only retains its intellectually beneficial character if it retains its status as a special form of Philosophy, becomes nothing more nor less than the Mythology accompanying a Technique. And what will happen to the world in consequence is seen with perfect clearness both by Mr. Aldous Huxley and by Mr. Bertrand Russell. ‘The scientific society in its pure form’ says Mr. Russell ‘is incompatible with the pursuit of truth, with love, with art, with spontaneous delight, with every ideal that men have hitherto cherished, save only possibly ascetic renunciation. It is not knowledge that is the source of these dangers. Knowledge is good and ignorance is evil; to this principle the lover of the world can admit no exception. Nor is it power in and for itself that is the source of danger. What is dangerous is power wielded for the sake of power, not power wielded for the sake of genuine good.’

Such considerations, of course, do not solve the problem, they only convince us that a problem exists. But Mr. Huxley’s orchid-garden is itself an exemplification of the contention that knowledge is always good, for had it not been for his imaginative power, we should not have seen so clearly what lies at the far end of certain inviting paths. To his convincing searchlight, humanity (it is not too much to say) will always owe great debt, and it must be our part to get his book read by any of our friends who suppose that science alone can be the saviour of the world.

NOTES

1. R.M. Kyrle A Psychologist’s Utopia (Psyche, 1931. p. 48).

Source: Joseph Needham, “Biology and Mr. Huxley,” Scrutiny, May 1932, by permission of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, England.


Biology and Love Will Prevent the Brave New World Huxley Pictured

While it suddenly seems the techniques needed to clone humans may be developed any day now, Lee M. Silver doubts that the ability will lead to the government control visualized in Brave New World. Paul Raeburn, in his review of Silver’s book Remaking Eden, suggests that love is a more powerful force than Huxley reckoned with.

Lee M. Silver, the author of Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World . . . argues that most ethical debates over genetic enhancement and reproduction will become moot, because parents will demand these new techniques and government will be powerless to intervene. According to Silver, that’s where Aldous Huxley got it wrong. In Brave New World, Huxley describes state-run human hatcheries where embryos are produced according to government specifications. But that’s not the way it will happen, Silver says. “What Huxley failed to understand, or refused to accept, was the driving force behind babymaking. It is individuals and couples who want to reproduce themselves in their own images.”

Indeed, he continues, when the right of parents “to control every other aspect of their children’s lives” is widely accepted, it is hard to argue against allowing them to shape their children’s genetics. For example, it might, in fact, be unethical to deny parents the opportunity to eliminate disease genes in their children. In one of Silver’s Princeton classes, 90 percent of the students said they were opposed to the use of genetic engineering on their children for any reason. When asked about a hypothetical gene enhancement that could prevent AIDS infection, half of them changed their minds. . . .

Silver offers one simple suggestion as a guideline for the use of these new technologies. There are “many paths that can be followed to reach the goal of having a child,” he writes. And the validity of any of these paths should be judged “not by their intrinsic nature, but by the love that a parent gives to the child after she or he is born.” Whether or not we can produce humans without heads, Silver seems to be saying, we ought be sure they have hearts.

Paul Raeburn, “The Copy Shop,” New York Times, January 11, 1998.