Posted on March 16, by Scott Alexander [Epistemic status: Heritable mostly means genes.
It is astonishing that Aldous Huxley wrote this tale of technological dystopia in The social elements from the story are similar to those in Orwell and Kafka and others, namely a society of obedient sheep run by the state and benevolent dictators through brainwashing and groupthink.
Huxley came from an illustrious scientific family with social connections.
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His brother was Julian Huxley, a famous biologist who among other accomplishments wrote a marvelous tome on everything that was then known about biology with H. Steeped in scientific as well as social discourse, possessing a deep knowledge of medical and other scientific research, Aldous was in an ideal position to write a far-reaching novel.
This he duly did. The basic premise of the novel sounds eerily prescient. Sometime in the near future, society has been regimented into a caste system where people are genetically engineered by the state in large state-run reproductive farms.
The higher castes are strong, intelligent and charismatic. The lower castes are turgid, obedient and physically weak. Most notably, because reproduction is now the responsibility of the state, there is no longer a concept of a family, of a father or mother.
How is this population kept under control? Not shockingly at all, through sex, drugs and rock and roll. Promiscuity is encouraged from childhood onwards and is simply a way of life, and everyone sleeps with everyone else, again without feeling jealousy or resentment it was this depiction of promiscuity that led the book to be banned in India in the 60s.
They are brainwashed into believing the virtues of these and other interventions by the state through subliminal messages played when they are sleeping; such unconscious brainwashing goes all the way back to their birth.
People do die, but out of sight, and when they are still looking young and attractive. Death is little more than a nuisance, a slight distraction from youth, beauty and fun. On a tryst with a particularly attractive member of his caste in an Indian reservation in New Mexico, he comes across a man referred to as the savage.
The savage is the product of an illegitimate encounter back when there were parents between a member of a lower caste and the Director of Hatcheries who oversees all the controlled reproduction.
He has grown up without any of the enlightened instruments of the New World, but his mother has kept a copy of Shakespeare with her so he knows all of Shakespeare by heart and frequently quotes it. Marx brings the savage back to his society.
The vision of technological control in the novel is sweeping and frighteningly prescient. There is the brainwashing and complacent submission to the status quo that everyone undergoes which is similar to the messages provided in modern times by TV, social media and the hour news cycle. There are the chemical and genetic interventions made by the state right in the embryonic stage to make sure that the embryos grow up with desired physical or mental advantages or deficiencies.
These kinds of interventions are the exact kind feared by those wary of CRISPR and other genetic editing technologies. In some sense, Huxley completely anticipates the social problems engendered by the technological takeover of human jobs by robots and AI. Once human beings are left with nothing to do, how does the state ensure that they are prevented from becoming bored and restless and causing all kinds of trouble?
One reason I feel more frightened is because of what he leaves out; the book was published inso it omits any discussion of nuclear weapons which were invented ten years later. The combination of nuclear weapons with limitless societal control through technology makes for a particularly combustible mix.
With their social media alerts and Fitbits and maps, the tech companies are increasingly telling us how to live our lives and distracting us from free thinking. Instead of communist regimes like the Soviet Union forcibly trampling on individual choice and liberty, we are already gently but willingly ceding our choices, privacy and liberties to machines and algorithms developed by these companies.
The only question is, will there be any savages left among us to tell us how foolishly we are behaving?The movie Gattaca explores some important bioethical issues that are currently the focus of much dispute.
The underlying thematic issue presented is the question of the extent to which biologically inherent human potential determines the true potential of a person.
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