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In his novel Erewhon, published in 1872, Samuel Butler describes an imagi­nary country (a “nowhere”) in which all machines are forbidden. The inhabitants had once availed themselves of watches, steam engines, mechanical pumps and hoists, and all the other devices that could be admired in the great exhibitions of Victorian England. ¶ But unlike Butler’s Victorian contemporaries, they had perceived the terrible danger that these things represented. Machines, they realized, were always improving. Never for one moment did they take a step backwards into imperfections that they had surpassed. Always, the next machine was better, more versatile, and more fully adapted to its uses than the last.

Inevitably, therefore, the process of improvement would continue, until machines had no need of humans at all–until they were able to produce and reproduce themselves. At that point, like all creatures obedient to the law of evolution, the machines would be locked in a struggle with their competitors. Their only competitor would be man. Hence, foreseeing that the machines would otherwise destroy them, the inhabitants of ­Erewhon had destroyed the machines.

The fear of the Erewhonians was not irrational; but its premise was unconvincing–at least to Butler’s readers. The idea of a self-reproducing machine seemed, to most of them, a mere literary fantasy. Sixty years later, however, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, the portrait of another imaginary country, in which humans are produced as machines are produced, according to specifications laid down by official policy. Intelligence, interests, pleasures, and pains are all controlled, either genetically or by conditioning, and all those aspects of the human psyche in which eccentricities, commitments, deep emotions, and virtues might take root are deliberately prevented from developing. And if humans can be produced as machines are produced, in factories controlled by humans, why cannot machines be produced as humans are now produced, by self-reproduction?

Scientific advances had made Huxley’s prophecy rather more plausible than Butler’s. But if Huxley’s readers felt a chill of apprehension, it was for another reason than any Erewhonian fear of machine rule. The world described by Huxley is one that has crossed a moral barrier. Even if the Erewhonians were right to fear the machines, and even if they had let the machines develop to the point of danger, they themselves would not have been changed by this. In any future crisis, their sense of solidarity, duty, and heroism could be marshaled in their own defense. Human nature would have remained–a fixed point in their universe, the premise from which all their practical reasoning began. But suppose human beings become a laboratory product, as Huxley envisaged. What then remains of human nature? Where is the fixed point, the thing that cannot be touched, the thing beyond choice, for the sake of which all choice is undertaken?

That is a loaded way of putting it. But it captures, I believe, the growing fear in our society of scientific advance, and in particular the fear of genetic engineering and the possibilities that it opens to us. As science advances, bringing nearer and nearer the day when Jill can be designed by Jack for uses of his own, many people are beginning to share Huxley’s anxiety. Technology, they fear, will imperil human freedom. One generation will be able to assert what the bioethicist Leon Kass has called a “genetic despotism” over the next, and gradually, as human nature is transformed in accordance with our own designs, the point and value of life will slip from our grasp.

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Credit: Sam Weber

Tagged: Communications

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