When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932, he described a world state several centuries in the future where all human beings were reared from eggs in factories or incubators. Scientists could produce several classes of personality ranging from the highly intelligent, whose sole purpose was to enjoy life, to the feeble-minded who were suited only for manual labor. The novel was set in the distant future because the scientific knowledge needed to bring about this type of society was not available when Huxley wrote it.
In 1953, there occurred a remarkable breakthrough in man’s knowledge. Dr. James Watson and Dr. Francis Crick, working in Cambridge, England, discovered the chemical nature of life itself. Since then, the developments that have occurred in the areas of molecular biology and genetic engineering have been so revolutionary that it is reasonable to predict that in the future we shall be able to produce men with the artistic and intellectual abilities of Michelangelo, Einstein, Bach and Rembrandt and with the physical powers of Charles Atlas.
Disease will become almost extinct. Man should live to be well over a century without any loss of physical or mental capabilities.
Clearly, such power in the hands of man and his bureaucratic machinery imposes enormous responsibilities. Scientists, philosophers, and sociologists are faced with a shattering moral dilemma, unequalled in man's history.
Birth of Genetics
Since the birth of genetics as a science in 1866—when Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, first postulated the laws of heredity—man has been able to use selective breeding to improve his plants and animal stocks. He has reared new strains resistant to bad conditions and offering a higher yield of food. This approach has been useful, but limited in that geneticists have little control over which characteristics are passed down to the new generations. It is almost a trial-and-error technique, as it is uncertain whether or not a new strain will have the desired traits. Hence, in any extensive breeding programs it is a tedious and inefficient process.
The importance of the Watson-and-Crick discovery is that we now understand much more about the genes and how they are passed on from parent to progeny. Each characteristic of every living thing is determined by one or more genes, which are strung together like beads along the chromosomes. Man has 24 pairs of chromosomes, in every cell of his body.
When a baby is born, its individuality is determined by the combination of the genes it receives from its parents. Whether the child is male or female, short or tall, black or white, a musical prodigy or tone deaf cannot be decided by the parents, since they can only pass on the genes that they themselves have.
Genetic engineering offered revolutionary change. Once we understood precisely how the chemical genes control the characteristics of a living organism, we were able to manipulate them at will. For example, if a couple particularly want a son, the woman need only be fertilized with a set of chromosomes carrying the genes for maleness. A male offspring will be a certainty, though there could be room for error. For this sort of choice to be possible, normal sexual intercourse obviously cannot be used. The particular genes that specify each of the desired characteristics must be isolated and then built into the sperm that will fertilize the prospective mother.
A major step in this direction was first achieved at Harvard University in 1970 when a team of research scientists headed by Dr. Jonathan Beckwith isolated a single gene in a purified form from a bacterium. The techniques used by Dr. Beckwith's group lend themselves to adaptation for use with higher organisms, including man.
It is logical to assume that in the future gene banks similar to blood banks will be established, where thousands of different human genes will be stored. From this point, on we will have become the Brave New World. Prospective parents who may want a particular type of child will just feed the specific requirements into a computer. The necessary genes will be built into a sperm sample and the woman then fertilized by artificial insemination.
Great as this achievement seems, undoubtedly it represents only a first step. It is the nature of man to consider something routine once it has been achieved. As soon as man is able to determine the sex and such other basic characteristics as color of skin, eyes, and hair of his child, he will demand further refinements. For example, he might demand that his child be given musical ability, straight hair, a perfect figure, a particular nose shape, etc.
The surest way of producing such intricate genetic variations will be to produce the genes artificially in the laboratory—a process that requires the ability to create life synthetically.
The creation of life from inanimate matter has been the dream of many men from the beginning of history. Sorcerers have spent their lives trying to conjure living spirits out of the air, water, fire and earth to carry out their biddings. The voodoo cult has ceremonies that aim at bringing the dead back to life as zombies and as slaves of their master. There are even cases of men like Frankenstein who tried to create a living person from the parts of dead bodies or to put life into a clay figure, the Golem of medieval Jewish legend.
The definition of life in its biological sense is difficult to state because machines can carry out most of the functions that we call "living." Movement, response to a given stimulus, the uptake of air and food (or fuel) and the excretion of waste gases and solids are associated with "life functions." But they are also all characteristics of a lifeless object, such as an automobile engine, for example. All living things have one characteristic that is uniquely theirs. Only they have genetic content that can duplicate itself and be passed down from generation to generation via the process of reproduction. Thus, the synthesis by man of a set of genes that carry within them all the information needed to reproduce themselves is the creation of life for the first time.
For many years, following the Watson and Crick description of the genetic chemical, scientists all over the world have been searching for the means to synthesize genetic material. One of the teams of scientists in the forefront of this field is experimenting with chemical methods. As yet, we have not succeeded in creating anything as complex as a chromosome but the techniques for building it, piece by piece, are well advanced. Once scientists have mastered this process and can produce complex genetic material with the same exactitude with which they can now produce a computer or a space vehicle, we shall have obtained the means to control human evolution.
Natural evolution is a random process. It is simply a matter of chance that the human species developed from reptiles and that man produces a genius or a mental and physical weakling. If we bypass procreation by the union of male and female as the means of producing further generations and, instead, create human beings from synthetic genes in the laboratory, we could make men and women of greatly increased intelligence and physical development who could then breed to populate the earth with supermen. The problem already facing genetic engineers is one of morality. We would have a race of supermen so superior that they could dominate the world. Yet, paradoxically being man made originally, they would be technically little more than robots. If many people today feel that their lives are dominated by technology, they have seen nothing compared to what could readily happen in the future.
The production of synthetic humans is so complex that our first attempts at creating a living organism will probably center on a simple form, a virus. Viruses are the microscopic germs that cause such diseases as influenza, Smallpox, polio and hepatitis in man, as well as diseases in all animals, plants and even bacteria. They are the smallest living things known. The polio virus, for example, measures only one millionth of an inch in diameter and contains about six genes. Although they are so simple, they have the capacity to infect a living cell and reproduce to give hundreds or thousands of copies of themselves in a few hours, usually causing the cell to die in the process. Ability to make virus like organisms will open up new horizons in the prevention of disease and the curing of hereditary defects. However, if this process should fall into unscrupulous hands, a method of waging war will have been obtained that makes the atomic weapon look like a bow and arrow.
It is safe to assume that all the major governments of the world have, for several years, allocated money for defense against germ warfare. At this stage most, if not all, of the bacteria and viruses that could defeat an enemy are not usable, due to effective antibiotics and widespread vaccination. But supposing man can make an artificial virus that the enemy cannot immunize against in time 2. Such a virus would be designed to be highly virulent, to rapidly spread throughout the enemy population. Yet, it would be harmless to the attacking nation which would have had the necessary time to make vaccines against it before it was used. The germ could even be made so that instead of killing the people it infected it changed their genetic make-up, producing inherited defects that over a few generations would reduce them to physical and mental weaklings incapable of resisting an attack by more conventional warfare. This type of "gene warfare" would act so slowly that an infected nation would not realize it was under attack until it was too late!
Pessimistic as this sounds, countermeasures are already on the drawing board. Research studies have produced an entirely new kind of drug that is active against many different types of virus diseases. If this can be developed successfully it might well reduce the threat of advanced germ and gene warfare to nothing more than a bad dream.
Assuming that we are not destroyed by new types of warfare in the meantime, what can be done to extend the lifespan of the super-race that we can produce? One way is to replace body parts that wear out. We have already reached this stage, with the use of artificial limbs, cornea grafts, kidney and heart transplants and lung transplants. Although some of the newer techniques are still experimental and not totally successful, they could become routine operations. One of the drawbacks at the moment is the availability of donors. Even if the heart transplant operation was one hundred percent successful right now, there probably would not be enough healthy hearts for all the patients that need them. Experiments with mechanical hearts suggest a way of overcoming this shortcoming, but many organs of the body are just too complex to duplicate mechanically. There may just not be sufficient room in the body for all the machinery to perform the functions of a kidney, liver or gland, for example. A better way to deal with this problem would be to grow human organs in the laboratory, starting with small pieces of human tissue, or even with synthetic genetic material. Many years ago during experimentation, scientists using a series of hormone treatments, induced a few plant cells to grow into a fully developed plant that had flowers and bred normally. Similar techniques used with man could produce new organs or for that matter even a new human being.
We know for certain that the dynamics of genetic engineering can produce a Brave New World far in advance of Aldous Huxley's vision of the future. We shall be able to produce a super race with great intellectual and physical characteristics. It will not be vulnerable to the diseases that affect us and will live much longer due to routine "servicing" to replace faulty parts. We shall be able to program it to have all the characteristics we consider desirable, such as creativity, justice, benevolence: we shall produce "beautiful" people. But they would be totally man-made, a race of perfect robots with only as much free will as we had chosen to program into their genes.
Who would decide which genetic characteristics must be passed onto future generations if the human species is to survive? How do we police the necessary international agreements to stop one nation from dominating the world?
If chaos is not to result from our brave new world, we must be aware of these problems now and prepare for them. Aldous Huxley took the title for his novel from a speech in Shakespeare's play The Tempest:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
Let us hope that this can be said of our future.