The theme of Brave New World is not the advancement of science as such,” wrote Aldous Huxley in a 1946 foreword to the republication of his groundbreaking novel. It is “the advancement of science as it affects human individuals.” Huxley worried that science was leading “a really revolutionary revolution” to “be achieved, not in the external world, but in the souls and flesh of human beings.” In other words, human biology—and indeed, human nature itself—could, Huxley feared, become the subject and object of scientific manipulation.
When Huxley first published Brave New World in 1932, the technologies he described—human cloning, artificial wombs, genetically engineered populations—seemed fantastical. Fast-forward a mere eighty-five years, and some have become realities. With surprisingly little fanfare, human cloning—that is, the creation of viable human embryos using the same technique that manufactured Dolly the sheep—has already been accomplished. These cloned humans have not been brought to term, as animals have been. But there is no reason to think—especially as cloning research proceeds with nonhuman primates—that we will not someday witness the birth of cloned babies. Some already advocate that course.
Biotechnological research may soon bring about radical changes in our understanding of the human family. Stem-cell researchers, for instance, are learning how to make sperm from skin cells—and a similar project is being explored for the production of eggs—which will no doubt affect our perspectives on parenthood. Women may, one day, no longer be indispensible to gestation, as scientists develop artificial wombs; animal testing is currently underway. The creation of three-biological-parent embryos has been approved, to the end of preventing mitochondrial disease from being passed by a woman to her daughter—but also with the potential of being used to cement a baby biologically to every member of a polyamorous family.
Of even greater relevance to the themes of Brave New World, embryos created via IVF are routinely tested for “quality” in a process known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), after which they can be eugenically culled for health, appearance, and sex before implantation. Another troubling development is that a potent method of genetic engineering known as the CRISPR interference technique has been invented and is beginning to be tested on human embryos, opening the door to altering the human germline down the generations.
Biotechnology is moving at such breakneck speed that the term “brave new world” has come to symbolize a particular mindset—nay, an ideology—that sees biology as applied through technology (“biotechnology”) in almost mystical terms. A new bio-utopian mentality is emerging. As described by bioethicist Gregory Stock in Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, this mentality is “committed to the process of human enhancement and self-directed evolution,” which could not only embed “cultural distinctions … in our genetics” but ultimately “increase the biological differences among human populations.” Some even foresee a future in which biotechnologists’ manipulations are so radical and widespread that they have blurred the genetic distinctions between some humans and animal species.
With so much humanity-altering power being developed, where are the democratic debates about whether we should permit human beings to be designed, manufactured, and subjected to methods of quality control? They barely exist outside the realm of science symposia, and these issues certainly aren’t on the radar of our current major-party presidential candidates.
Not only that: Attempts to establish parameters for biotechnology are almost always stymied in the legislative process. For example, when efforts are made to impose meaningful regulations on human cloning, they are met with bitter resistance from some in the scientific community. One potential application of such research is the use of cloned fetuses for organ harvest. Meanwhile, CRISPR research is quickly advancing to human trials without any enforceable legal structure to steer it in positive directions. We haven’t even had a transparent national discussion about what constitutes a “positive direction,” or grappled with the essential question of whether the genetic engineering of humans is inherently wrong. But time and biotechnology are not waiting for us. The United Kingdom’s Embryo Authority has given permission for scientists to genetically alter human embryos—as long as they promise to refrain, for now, from trying to bring a genetically altered baby to birth.
In 1946, Huxley fretted that the fictional dystopia he had thought, when he first conjured his novel, would take six hundred years to develop would actually arrive much sooner. “Today,” he wrote, “it seems quite possible that the horror may be upon us within a single century.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. We need not helplessly, passively, watch biotechnology’s power and influence surge. We can shape biotechnological advances to achieve moral ends. But that will require far more consideration of these issues than we have yet given them.