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A Brave New World Revisited for the 21st Century - John Burchill



Wandering between two worlds, one dead

The other powerless to be born,

With nowhere yet to rest my head

Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.


Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)


By: John Burchill


Three things intertwined for me these last months – the Supreme Court closed their reference appeal on the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act; [1] I watched the 90-minute documentary on Coded Bias: Artificial Intelligence, Surveillance and our Civil Rights, as part of a discussion forum at the Institute for Women's Leadership at Rutgers University; and I revisited my copy of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, a Brave New World.


The reference before the Supreme Court in the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act was not about the substance of the legislation, but whether it was within the federal government’s power to enact in the first place. The substance of the Act, passed by Parliament in 2017, was the prohibition on employers from using genetic information to hire, fire, or promote an employee, or require genetic testing, and health insurers could not require genetic tests, nor use results for purposes such as the prediction of disease or vertical transmission risks, or monitoring, diagnosis or prognosis, to deny coverage. [2]


The documentary Coded Bias examined the potential for programming bias or discrimination of artificial intelligence. The documentary “weaves a history of the small homogeneous group of men who defined artificial intelligence … As humans increasingly outsource decision-making to machines, algorithms already decide who gets hired, who gets health care, and who gets undue police scrutiny … theoretically casting analyses and insights that are free from human prejudice, automated decision making has the unprecedented power to disseminate bias at scale”. [3]


Because artificial intelligence research and development was designed by a small group of homogeneous men, the film cautions, it cannot be decoupled from the social relations that structure our (their) world view. As such these programs may not be neutral or blind to race and ethnicity and can be subject to unintended bias or outright manipulation. One example used in the documentary was Microsoft’s rollout of its chatbot “Tay” on Twitter in 2016 to learn human behaviour by interacting with other Twitter users. Some users began tweeting politically incorrect phrases to Tay, “teaching it” to respond to other Twitter users using racist and sexually-charged messages. After just 16 hours Tay was shut down after its tweets became a stream of sexist, pro-Hitler messages. [4]


As for the novel Brave New World, it was published in 1932 by Aldous Huxley. Although it takes place some 600 years in the future, it is really a satire wrapped around a cautionary tale of the very near future. In fact, considering the social and scientific circles Aldous Huxley moved in, the story foreshadowed the evolution of the Nazi eugenics program culminating in Hitler’s ‘final solution’ of the Jewish problem within a few short years.


To paraphrase Ray Bradbury, a good science fiction story is really a sociological study of the future by the writer of things they believe are going to happen by putting two and two together.


This paper revisits Aldus Huxley’s novel and the Nazi regime, through a lens of today’s concerns with genetic discrimination and artificial intelligence – by putting two and two together.


Aldous Huxley


Aldous Huxley was born in Surrey, England, in1894. He was the third son of Leonard Huxley, a noted scholar and writer (including a biography of Charles Darwin). His half-brother, Andrew, would later go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology / Medicine for his work on nerve impulses. However his older brother, Julian, was a notable evolutionary biologist who promoted the idea of humanism and was the first Director of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). His work included ethology and wildlife conservation, genetics and development, as well as evolution.


For 25 years Julian served as either Vice-President or President of the British Eugenics Society. Other members of the society included Leonard Darwin (son of Charles Darwin), Wheler Galton (nephew of Francis Galton) and Robert Mond, an industrial chemist and director of Brunner, Mond & Co. Julian’s perspective on eugenics is apparent from the following excerpt taken from his book Man Stands Alone:


The upper economic classes are presumably slightly better endowed with ability – at least with ability to succeed in our social system – and yet are not reproducing fast enough to replace themselves, either absolutely or as a percentage of the total population. We may, therefore, try to remedy this state of affairs, by pious exhortation and appeals to patriotism, or by the more tangible methods of family allowances, cheaper education, or income-tax rebates for children. The lowest strata, allegedly less well-endowed genetically, are reproducing relatively too fast. Therefore birth control methods must be taught them; they must not have too easy access to relief or hospital treatment lest the removal of the last check on natural selection should make it too easy for children to be produced or to survive; long unemployment should be a ground for sterilization, or at least relief should be contingent upon no further children being brought into the world; and so on. That is to say, much of our eugenic program will be curative and remedial merely, instead of preventative and constructive. [5]


Julian also wrote a number of books including Evoutionary Humanism and the Science of Life, which he co-authored with the great novelist H.G. (Herbert George) Wells in 1929/30. Readers of science fiction will be familiar with the works of H.G. Wells, particularly The Island of Dr. Moreau, first published in 1896, in which a sadistic doctor who, playing God, had been experimenting on the animal inhabitants of the island, creating bizarre new proto-humans.


Julian himself dabbled in science fiction, writing one story – The Tissue Culture King – in 1927. The story was a cautionary tale about a British scientist who produces cell cultures in the service of a tribal king, with horrible consequences. [6]

One of the people mentioned in the story of the Tissue Culture King is Alexis Carrel, a French surgeon, biologist and eugenicist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912. At the time Carrel had been famous for an experiment started in 1912 where he placed tissue cultured from an embryonic chicken heart in a flask and maintained the living culture for over 20 years with regular supplies of nutrient. Carrel also worked with Charles Lindbergh in the mid-1930s to create the "perfusion pump", which allowed living organs to exist outside of the body during surgery. The two subsequently co-authored a book called The Culture of Organs in 1938. As noted in one book review of the day:


The success of the method, as contrasted with earlier organ perfusion procedures [to which Carrel had largely contributed], depends essentially on the mechanism of the perfusion pump, which causes a pulsating movement of fluid through surviving organs at controlled pressures while these organs are kept under completely aseptic conditions. The development of media adequate to furnish nutrient material and oxygen under conditions simulating normal also has been of greatest importance. [7]


Carrel also wrote a best-selling book titled L'Homme, cet inconnu (Man, The Unknown) in 1935 which advocated, in part, that mankind could better itself by following the guidance of an elite group of intellectuals, including decendants of industrial magnates, and by implementing a regime of enforced eugenics. Specifically Carrel advocated the use of gas chambers to rid humanity of "inferior stock", a notion that predated the Nazi’s use of this technique. In the 1936 German introduction of his book, Carrel added the following praise of the Nazi regime:


The German government has taken energetic measures against the propagation of the defective, the mentally diseased, and the criminal. The ideal solution would be the suppression of each of these individuals as soon as he has proven himself to be dangerous.

The conditioning of petty criminals with the whip, or some more scientific procedure, followed by a short stay in hospital, would probably suffice to insure order. Those who have murdered, robbed while armed with automatic pistol or machine gun, kidnapped children, despoiled the poor of their savings, misled the public in important matters, should be humanely and economically disposed of in small euthanasic institutions supplied with proper gasses. A similar treatment could be advantageously applied to the insane, guilty of criminal acts. [8]


Due to his close proximity with Jacques Doriot, who led the pro-Nazi, fascist Parti Populaire Français (PPF) during the 1930’s and his role in implementing eugenics policies during Vichy France, Carrel was accused of collaborationism and suspended by the Minister of Health after the liberation of Paris, however he died in 1944 before his trial.


Aldus Huxley’s grandfather was T.H. (Thomas Henry) Huxley, one of the most prominent English scientists of the 19th century, a man known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his advocacy of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. He was also a professor of Natural History at the Royal School of Mines; President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and, later, President of the Royal Society. He wrote several books including Man’s Place in Nature, Evolution and Ethics and Science and Morals (1893-94).


Francis Galton was another prominent member of both the British Association for the Advancement of Science as well as the Royal Society at the same time as T.H. Huxley. Besides being Charles Darwin’s cousin, Galton made significant contributions to many fields of science including psychology, criminology and biology. However it was Galton’s interest in hereditary that is of most importance here, starting with his pioneering book – Hereditary Genius – in 1869. It continued with his book English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture in 1874 (which examined the the nature versus nurture question), and the massive Inquiries in Human Faculty and its Development published in 1883. It was in this book that Dalton coined the term “eugenics”:


That is, with questions bearing on what is termed in Greek, eugenes namely, good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities. This, and the allied words, eugeneia, etc., are equally applicable to men, brutes, and plants. We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognizance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had. The word eugenics would sufficiently express the idea; it is at least a neater word and a more generalized one than viriculture which I once ventured to use. [9]


From these underpinnings Galton placed the British society into groups. These groupings (as seen below) indicated the proportion of society falling into each group and their perceived genetic worth. Galton suggested that negative eugenics (i.e. an attempt to prevent people from reproducing) should be applied only to those in the lowest social group (or those of little genetic worth), while positive eugenics or incentives to reproduce applied to the higher classes. As noted by Galton in his memoirs:


Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings; he has also the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective.


This is precisely the aim of Eugenics. Its first object is to check the birth-rate of the Unfit, instead of allowing them to come into being, though doomed in large numbers to perish prematurely. The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children. Natural Selection rests upon excessive production and wholesale destruction; Eugenics on bringing no more individuals into the world than can be properly cared for, and those only of the best stock. [10]


Such sentiments were adopted by the legislatures in both the United States and Canada, which passed laws authorizing the sterilization of the ‘socially inadequate’ The laws captured anyone from the feeble-minded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, diseased, deaf, blind, deformed, homeless, paupers, tramps, orphans and the like.


The first such law was passed in Indiana in 1907. Fifteen states had passed similar legislation by 1917 and thirty-one by 1937. In Canada, only Alberta and British Columbia enacted sterilization legislation. However by the time legislation was repealed in the 1970’s more than 70,000 American and Canadian citizens were sterilized, a disproportionate number being youths, minorities and women. [11]


Perhaps the most famous case involving the eugenic sexual sterilization laws was the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927), upholding the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck under the laws for Virginia on the grounds of feeble-mindedness, incorrigible behaviour and promiscuity (basically an unwed teenage mother). Speaking for an 8:1 majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated:


It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 [1905]. Three generations of imbeciles are enough. [12]


In 1933 Nazi Germany passed the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, which allowed the compulsory sterilization of any citizen who in the opinion of a “Genetic Health Court” suffered from a list of alleged genetic disorders. The law was based, in part, on the laws and programs already in place in the Untied States. This is highlighted by Nazi propaganda posters of the day stating Wir stehen nicht allein (“We do not stand alone”), depicting the flags of nations that had already enacted similar legislation.


By 1937 the Nazi government had sterilized 225,000 people and almost 400,000 by the end of World War II along with the murder of millions more “defectives” (i.e. Jews, Pols, Gypsies, homosexuals, etc). This cleansing of the unfit was again foretold by Nazi propaganda posters of the day that called for the mandatory euthanasia of defectives due to their cost on the system. However the road to death in some cases was not all the pleasant as the Nazis performed extensive experimentation on some to test their genetic theories