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Engineering the Brave New World: Reality Ain't What It Used To Be

Literature is not mere fiction, it provides crucial sources of information about society. Most notably, perhaps, Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle (1906) informed the public about both the filth of the meat industry and the miserable lives of the working class. As clear by this example, literature offers concrete explorations into everyday experience sociological analysis cannot. Moreover, literature often dispenses profound warnings and anticipations of things to come. In the words of media theorist Marshall Mcluhan, artists are the "antennae of the future" who see and feel changes before the scientists and philosophers.

From 18th century on, with novels like Frankenstein (1818), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and 1984 (1949), writers have advanced important warnings about the kind of world we may someday live in. But perhaps the most profound literary mapping of social transformation was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Written in 1931, it is an excellent example of how science fiction has become, simply, science fact, and how fast our technological world changes. Huxley's major mistake was not in predicting what would happen, but when, failing to appreciate that scientific and technological knowledge double every five years. When Huxley penned Brave New World, he believed that cloning was centuries away. In 1997, however, only 66 years after the publication of his masterpiece, the first adult mammal cell was cloned and the world said hello to Dolly.

In Brave New World, "Ford is Lord," because it was Henry Ford who championed mass production, mass consumption, and the engineering paradigm inaugurated by industrial capitalism. In Huxley's dystopian vision, both biological and social reality are engineered: individuals are conceived on assembly lines, customized according to predestined classes, then cloned in huge batches. Biological reproduction gives way to genetic replication; babies emerge not from a womb but a petri dish, as parents are replaced by technicians. This "brave new world," as the "savage" from the novel first imagines it, is one of complete dehumanization. There is no love, families, marriages, long-lasting bonds, religion, or spirituality; the only allegiance individuals have is to Ford, the State, and the pleasure drug, Soma.

Unlike Orwell's 1984, Huxley depicts a people who are controlled by rewards, not punishment, by non- violent manipulation, not coercion, and by indulgence in pleasure, rather than puritan asceticism. Huxley realizes that the most powerful form of control is when individuals don't feel determined, when power is conflated with pleasure, when people have nothing to resist and feel comfortable with their alienation. Freedom does not exist in 1984 or Brave New World, only in Brave New World no one cares. Hence, the politics of pleasure -- the frenzied pursuit of pleasure distracts individuals from the task of citizenship and social involvement. Immersed in a society of spectacles, where everything from TV news to education to politics is determined by the codes of entertainment, individuals are safely marginalized, having a nice day while the ruling elite consolidate power. Huxley is warning us that people are sacrificing freedom for pleasure; the masses are becoming what sociologist C. Wright Mills called "happy robots," only the savage put it better: the hedonists of Brave New World aren't happy, they're just numb.

With trivial qualifications, our world is Huxley's Brave New World, shaped by a few "world controllers," artificial birth technologies, genetic engineering, and cloning. We can't biologically clone people yet, but it doesn't really matter because we already know how to clone them socially, through religion, schools, mass media, and advertising, conditioning individuals to take their stations at the machines of production and consumption. With virtual game environments, multisensorial spectacles like Terminator 2 at Disney World, and gadgets such as the "intensor chair" that encloses one in a moving, simulated world of images and sounds, we have good approximations of what Huxley called the "feelies." From prozac and valium to xanax and librium, we also have our own versions of Soma that make people affectless and help them adjust to the deadening performance principle of capitalism. (As Huxley said: "Any good intoxicant reconciles you to the world.") In the society of the spectacle, nearly everything is culture dope. Today, Marx's dictum would have to be revised: mass culture, not religion, is the opiate of the people.

But, as Huxley predicted, we are now in the process of applying the same mass production paradigm to the control of nature as we have the organization of the economy and society. Literally, we are engineering nature; we are designing, creating, and mass producing new life forms by intervening at the microcosmic level. With genetic engineering, we are embarking on the most radical experiment humankind has ever attempted, creating entirely new species of plants and animals, while cloning ever more animals and recklessly transgressing well-established species boundaries.

Humankind is in the midst of a second genesis governed by the mentalities of profit, scientific reductionism, and the domination of nature. If current dynamics continue, soon a few biotech corporations like Monsanto and Du Pont will own the patent rights to the DNA of all life -- and yet there is no significant public debate, media coverage, or legal regulation of this dangerous revolution that will make reality as we know it obsolete.

Strolling through the new zoo of scientific surreality, one finds a menagerie of bizarre "transgenic" species, including tobacco plants that contain firefly genes (so they glow in the dark), fish and tomatoes altered with antifreeze genes (so they can withstand cold temperatures), potatoes infused with chicken genes (to get your meat and potatoes in one dish?), chickens modified with cattle genes (to create a larger "macro- chicken"), pigs that have human DNA (to increase their growth rate and size), a "geep" (a cross between a goat and a sheep), and a wide variety of genetically altered foods consumed by the public without their knowledge.

The biotech industries assure us there are no dangers to genetic engineering technologies, that they are not different in kind from traditional ways of cultivating and breeding new and improved species of plants and animals. It is true that human beings have always manipulated the natural world with various technologies, and that they have altered plants and animals in myriad ways, but genetic engineering truly is unprecedented in its nature and power, Never before have we been able to cross species boundaries, to directly mix the DNA from different species, and to engineer biological changes as rapidly as we are doing today. Given that we now have the technologies to steer evolution according to human design, the key question becomes: are we wise enough to "play God," to design new life forms and control them and their environment, to understand the full implications of the changes is nature we are already creating?

We need to distinguish among the different aspects of the rapidly unfolding genetic revolution. Applied to plants, genetic engineering is called "biotechnology" and mainly involves attempts to design plants containing pesticide resistant genes. Used on animals, genetic engineering is known as "pharming" and concentrates on transforming animals into pharmaceutical factories (with medicines secreted in their milk or blood) and creating ever larger bodies that will reap maximal profits. Employed on human beings, genetic engineering seeks to control and cure diseases, but it unavoidably veers into eugenics and the portentous project of creating designer babies. In each case, the corporate/science/technology complex decides that nature is not good enough, does not grow fast or large enough, and accordingly seeks a new and improved nature it can control and, in some cases literally, milk for profit.

To be sure, there are many promises of genetic engineering, such as improved agricultural productivity, development of new medicines, and curing disabling diseases. But with the promises also come frightening perils: "biopollution" as genetically altered plants breed out of control; increases in monoculture and antibiotic resistant bacteria; still more exploitation of animals, permanent damage to the human genome; and a new Gattaca-like society organized around genetic discrimination.

Given the history of how scientists and corporations have employed technologies, the pervasive commercialization of science, and what has already happened with the use of GE and cloning technologies, I fear that we will see the dark side of the genetic revolution more than the bright side. The utopias of genetic engineering can never come to pass, because -- quite frankly -- they are rooted in the
wrong conceptual paradigm, in determinism and reductionism, whereas nature is organized in a holistic and self-organizing mode. That is why the new genetic creations from "Flavr-Savr tomatoes to Monsanto's Round Up Ready corn crops to transgenic pigs -- have failed so miserably.

Sorry to bring the bad news, but the Brave New World has arrived.

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