Thursday, June 07, 2007

Brave New World at 75

Still leaning against the incubators he gave them, while the pencils scurried illegibly across the pages, a brief description of the modern fertilizing process; spoke first, of course, of its surgical introduction; "the operation undergone voluntarily for the good of Society, not to mention the fact that it carries a bonus amounting to six months' salary"; continued with some account of the technique for preserving the excised ovary alive and actively developing; passed on to a consideration of optimum temperature, salinity, viscosity; referred to the liquor in which the detached and ripened eggs were kept; and, leading his charges to the work tables, actually showed them how this liquor was drawn off from the test-tubes; how it was let out drop by drop onto the specially warmed slides of the microscopes; how the eggs which it contained were inspected for abnormalities, counted and transferred to a porous receptacle; how (and he now took them to watch the operation) this receptacle was immersed in a warm bouillon containing free-swimming spermatozoa - at a minimum concentration of one hundred thousand per cubic centimetre, he insisted; and how, after ten minutes, the container was lifted out of the liquor and its contents re-examined; how, if any of the eggs remained unfertilized, it was again immersed, and, if necessary, yet again; how the fertilized ova went back to the incubators; where the Alphas and Betas remained until definitely bottled; while the Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons were brought out again, after only thirty-six hours, to undergo Bokanovsky's Process.

"Bokanovsky's Process," repeated the Director, and the students underlined the words in their little notebooks.

One egg, one embryo, one adult-normality. But a bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before. Progress.
The Spring issue of The New Atlantis takes a look back at Aldous Huxley's utopian novel, Brave New World, first published 75 years ago. The novel is set in a future where reproduction is completely divorced from sex. Embryos are prepared by in vitro fertilization in government-run facilities, and grown in artificial wombs. While the upper castes, the Alphas and Betas, are unique individuals, he lower castes are made up of psychologically conditioned clones.

J. B. S. Haldane’s then-wife Charlotte penned a snide review for Nature, complaining that Huxley’s great-uncle Matthew Arnold, the conservative literary critic, had taken demonic possession of him, and that in any case, “biology is itself too surprising to be really amusing material for fiction.” [. . .]

Not everyone, however, dismissed Huxley's dystopia as nonsense [at the time it was published]. "Only biologists and philosophers will really appreciate the full force of Mr. Huxley's remarkable book," wrote Joseph Needham, a Cambridge biochemist and embryologist. "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."

Huxley came from a famously scientific family. He was the grandson of the biologist T. H. Huxley, nicknamed "Darwin's Bulldog" for his early untiring advocacy for the theory of evolution; half-brother of Andrew Fielding Huxley, the 1963 Nobel laureate in physiology; and brother of Julian Huxley, a prominent geneticist. Aldous Huxley was also sometime friends with J. B. S. Haldane and Bertrand Russell, who debated the future of scientific and technological progress in a 1923 exchange of essays (the subject of a recent exegesis in these pages by Charles T. Rubin ["Daedalus and Icarus Revisited," Spring 2005]).

Go read (or reread) Brave New World online for free, then read the whole New Atlantis article for more about the biology, behavioral psychology, idea of conscience and other issues that arise in the novel. (via SF Signal)

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