Aldous Huxley and the Brave New World of prenatal genetic testing

Brave New WorldIn marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, I also remembered the death on that same day of noted author C.S. Lewis. But, I failed to mention the death of another author whose best-known work is regularly referenced in reports about prenatal genetic testing.

In addition to President Kennedy and C.S. Lewis, on November 22, 1963, author Aldous Huxley passed away. Huxley’s best known work Brave New World is regularly used in writings about the advances in prenatal genetic testing. Just Google “brave new world and prenatal testing” to see what I mean.

Typically, the reference to Brave New World is to urge caution in the application of the ever-advancing technologies for prenatal genetic testing. It is shorthand to suggest that human control over its own reproduction does not necessarily mean a promised better world. To the contrary, as Huxley wrote, it can lead to stripping humanity of what it means to truly live.

In the story, John the Savage, a product of natural reproduction, comes to the city, which is populated by members of the various castes. Unlike John, these humans don’t reproduce “the old-fashioned way.” Instead they’re grown in factories and engineered to fit certain castes, with Alpha pluses being the highest. Humans are encouraged to participate in consumerism, and, to escape the superficiality of such an existence, they indulge in the drug soma. John is disillusioned by this shallow life, but upon participating in it, hangs himself.

While I have used the phrase “Brave New World” in writing about prenatal genetic testing, it turns out the human engineering in the book is not based on genetic technology, but epigenetics. Rather than being selected for particular castes based on their genetic make-up, the lower castes are bathed in alcohol as developing fetuses to diminish their cognitive development.

So, while Huxley’s best-known work is regularly used to caution against the use of genetic technology, Huxley did not apply genetic technology to create his dystopian future in Brave New World.

The more direct lesson from Brave New World, it turns out, is the role disability plays in countering modernity (as covered in the “The Case for Conserving Disability“). In the book, materiality, consumption, and production are the goals sought by the population. Disability stands in contrast to these being the goals to be attained. Instead, disability re-frames the value and goals of life from what that life can produce and consume, to how that life can be experienced.

Certainly the cautionary lesson suggested by the popular use of “Brave New World” retains its merit. We should remain humble about human’s ability to engineer a better world through prenatal genetic technologies. But the lesson that seems to have been forgotten from the book is why that engineered-world may not be much of a life worth living. It degrades the lived experience into one that is engineered, material, a consumer good. By conserving disability, we remind ourselves that life can be a gift and that disability gives us the opportunity to “profoundly love another human being” irrespective of that person’s ability to produce material wealth.

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