Brave New World

I’ve held the mistaken belief for decades that I read Aldous Huxley’s masterful dystopian novel as a teenager. I’ve often glanced at the copy on my bookshelf over the years , especially during this last eighteen months. I’m writing this post because I’m glad I finally got round to reading this thought-provoking work and I recommend it to others.  The truth is, I felt so familiar with it as a result of the frequent references to and quotes from it because of its massive cultural significance and relevance that has only increased with the passage of time.

The authorial note at the end of my 1946 edition, published fourteen years after the first edition states that Huxley made no changes to this subsequent edition as he considered it would not be morally tenable to do so. He wrote that he was a different person and author and that the world and times had changed immeasurably. In any case, he continued to stand by the central message and theme of his ‘Brave New World’, i.e. that of science’s effect upon humanity and its development. To quote directly:

“The theme of Brave New World is not the advancement of science as such; it is the advancement of science as it affects human individuals. The triumphs of physics, chemistry and engineering are tacitly taken for granted. The only scientific advances to be specifically described are those involving the application to human beings of the results of future research in biology, physiology and psychology. It is only by means of the sciences of life that the quality of life can be radically changed.”

Apposite, prescient and disturbing, this is a novel about a world in which physical frailties, illness, mental ill health, celibacy, monogamy, economic and material shortage, war and conflict, ageing and even bad weather are eliminated in exchange for total renunciation of free will, individuality, emotional connection and selective personal relationships, including the family.  

I’ve no wish to spoil others’ enjoyment so I won’t write about the central characters’ dilemmas, challenges and resolutions but suffice to say, the happy ending isn’t where you would expect it to be.  As for Huxley’s perspective on science and humanity; well let’s just say, he has many more questions than answers, very much like the best science and research.  

I wonder if this holding to account of science and its effect upon humanity and human life in general would be possible in our present time? The forces of rationality, the drive to know, to measure and to attach numbers via dense algorithms, mathematical modelling and the like, seem unstoppable.  When I learnt about scientific method and methodology the cornerstone concept for all scientific research was that of the null hypothesis. In plain language, the onus lay upon the scientist/researcher to challenge the core assumption that something was not true in order to find what might be true and possibly generalisable. The latter imperative is especially advantageous to politicians and to those who are driven entirely by the objective of financial gain because if the complex and many-facetted issues and problems that face humanity can be reduced to such a dualism and can then be applied to whole populations there are obvious substantial gains to be made.

Many scientists/researchers consider that funding for and access to science are very much controlled by political and corporate interests and so the following, written by Huxley, nearly ninety years ago, seems to have become dangerously close to reality:

“all our science is just a cookery book, with an orthodox theory of cooking that nobody’s allowed to question, and a list of recipes that mustn’t be added to except by special permission from the head cook”….”but I was an inquisitive young scullion once. I started doing a bit of cooking on my own. Unorthodox cooking, illicit cooking. A bit of real science, in fact.

I am sure there are brilliant and creative scientists at work who, if they can secure financial backing and navigate the citadels of academia along with government and its attendants in the corporate and professional world will shape the future of science and in turn, human life. I just hope they are, above all, good people who will only do as they would want themselves and their own to be done by.

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