Ridley Scott has had a successful relationship with Science Fiction, notably through the 'Alien' series and his adaptation of Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' into the cult-classic 'Bladerunner'. He has recently toyed with the idea of a film adaptation of Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' and Leonardo DiCaprio has been linked to one of the lead roles. As an avid fan of Huxley's dystopia, I'm very excited about seeing a modern screen adaptation. However, Scott has noted the problems with adapting the novel, adding that 'it's tough', so I won't be holding my breath. The most recent adaptation of 'Brave New World', starring Leonard Nimoy as Mustapha Mond, was released in 1998. This was just two years after the cloning of Dolly the Sheep, an event that may have been inspiration for the adaptation, as 'Brave New World' features fictionally cloning and biochemistry techniques. In light of developments in biology after Dolly, I'd be interested to see how a new adaptation chooses to deal with the topic. However, cloning is just one of many methods of social control employed in the novel, and many of them are worth reflecting on in this modern digital age.
The novel opens on the year 2540 AD, apparently depicting our own world's future. The population in this dystopia is never allowed to exceed 2 million people. This results in plentiful goods and resources and a content population. The happiness of the population, and their ability to protest and question the state, is reinforced through mind manipulation, biological engineering, and freely available sex and drugs. The State encourages mass consumption and hedonism, resulting in a population too content to rebel. Each class is also conditioned prenatally, and throughout life, to accept the state in which they exist. In comparison with George Orwell's dystopia in '1984', it seems Huxley's society is oppressed by their own contentment, whereas Orwell's is oppressed by fear. Huxley believed the methods of social control in 'Brave New World' to be very effective, commenting that
the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.
-- Huxley, 21st Oct, 1949
In 'Brave New World Revisited', written almost thirty years after the publication of the original novel, Huxley concludes that the modern world was becoming like that he envisaged in 'Brave New World' quicker than he originally imagined. It seems that this generation may be closer still. In addition to the techniques that enforce social control, which were considered science fiction at the time of publication, our society may be closer to operating the values that encourage us to consume and be happy: 'Community, Identity, Stability'.
Natural human reproduction is a thing of the past, replaced with the tightly-controlled development of human embryos in hatcheries and conditioning centres. This allows processes to be employed which dictate a person's social class, intelligence, attractiveness and other qualities before they are even born. Their position in life is set before birth and is dictated through their biology.
Huxley is likely to have drawn inspiration from contemporary developments in cell biology. In 1928, just four years before the publication of 'Brave New World', German embryologist Hans Spemann and his student, Hilde Mangold performed the first somatic-cell nuclear transfer using amphibian embryos. This technique creates a viable embryo, by taking the nucleus from a body cell with the desired genes and fusing it with an oocyte (egg cell) that has had its nucleus removed. The embryo can then be fertilised in vitro. In Huxley's dystopia, this process replaces natural human reproduction.
Cultivation of embryonic stem cells.
Following this stage in 'Brave New World', Alpha and Beta embryos are removed and those remaining are subjected to Bokanovsky's process. Bokanovsky's Process is a fictional technique of human cloning, applied only to the lower classes of society, where fertilised human eggs are split in vitro to produce identical copies. The bokanovskied egg is made to divide repeatedly, by arresting its normal development through exposure to x-rays, extreme heat and alcohol. The egg responds to these pressures with budding. This is done repeatedly, with Huxley citing the maximum number of viable embryos possible as 96. The Bokanovsky process is vital to the social stability in Huxley's dystopia, as it results in large groups of genetically-identical people. Individuality and competition are suppressed.
However, Bokanovsky's Process would not work as Huxley suggests. His suggestion to use selection pressures, such as extreme heat, x-rays and alcohol, to increase the rate of cell division, would not work - such pressures would simply arrest the cells' development into a state of quiescence and inactivity. In real world cloning processes, the egg is given an electric shock to stimulate division of the cells, forming what is called a blastocyst. The cells will continue dividing to form an embryo. The early cycle cell mass can be divided, in a process known as 'replating', so that each cell retains its identity as a stem cell, before beginning to differentiate into embryonic tissue. This process of 'replating' can allow the formation of multiple embryos.
Somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) has more recently proved to be a successful technique in artificial cloning, as Dolly the Sheep, famous for being the first cloned animal in 1996, was created using this process. However, it is unlikely to be as successful as Huxley envisages it to be. SCNT places stresses on both the egg and the inserted nucleus, so only a small percentage of cells are successfully reprogrammed. Only 29 viable embryos were formed out of 277 eggs originally used in the process to create Dolly. Only three of these survived until birth, only one until adulthood. The current process is very time-consuming and resource-intensive, as it must be performed underneath a microscope, and so is far from the efficient and automated process described in Huxley's 'Brave New World'.
Dolly and her first lamb, Bonny, born and raised in Edinburgh.
Credit: The Roslin Institute
Everyone in Huxley's dystopia is subject to biological engineering before birth, predestined to join a particular social class. The embryos are grouped according to the class of their DNA's donor - Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon - into a class hierarchy.
The Alpha and Beta classes are regarded as intellectually and physically superior and are destined for managerial and office work, whereas the lower classes are prepared for manual labour. The amount of oxygen given to the developing embryos is controlled. Those who are predestined for a lower class are given a reduced amount of oxygen to keep them 'below par'.
“But why do you want to keep the embryo below par?” asked an ingenuous student.
“Ass!” said the Director, breaking a long silence. “Hasn’t it occurred to you that an Epsilon embryo must have an Epsilon environment as well as an Epsilon heredity?”
It evidently hadn’t occurred to him. He was covered with confusion. “The lower the caste,” said Mr. Foster, “the shorter the oxygen.” The first organ affected was the brain. After that the skeleton. At seventy per cent of normal oxygen you got dwarfs. At less than seventy eyeless monsters.
“We also predestine and condition. We decant our babies as socialized human beings, as Alphas or Epsilons, as future sewage workers or future .” He was going to say “future World controllers,” but correcting himself, said “future Directors of Hatcheries,” instead.
-- Huxley, 'Brave New World'
Classes are divided even more specifically into their Bokanovsky groups. Every member of each group shares the same DNA and so can be selected to perform a role that is well-suited to their genetics. Each group particular jobs and duties assigned to them, which embryos are prepared for pre-natally using various techniques. Those destined to work in the tropics are subjected to heat treatment while still embryos, and inoculated against diseases prominent in the areas they are likely to work. The embryos of future chemical workers are made to develop a tolerance to lead, caustic soda, chlorine and tar. The containers of the embryos of rocket-plane engineers are subjected to constant rotation, to improve their sense of balance. Bokanovsky groups work together on a single task, because they have all been conditioned the same way and are perfectly suited to purpose.
In early stages of life, members of Huxley's dystopia are conditioned to enjoy particular activities, those that involve the consumption of goods and participation with other people, and to dislike solitary pursuits. Infants are presented with books full of pictures of flowers and allowed to look at them for a few minutes. They are then exposed to sirens and loud noises, and even electric shocks. This is intended to help them build an association between flowers and the unpleasant sounds and sensations.
Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning suggests a new application for the type of learning that was identified by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and is referred to as Classical Conditioning. Pavlov discovered that he could teach his dogs to associate certain stimuli, such as ringing a bell, with receiving food and so cause them to salivate every time they heard the bell. This is a reflexive response and so occurs automatically without conscience thought. It is also difficult to remove the association once it has been made without undergoing further classical conditioning to counteract what has been learned. Therefore the intensive Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning inflicted upon the population in 'Brave New World' is likely to have a powerful effect on people's activities, especially since the ideas will be reinforced by collective agreement. There is a strong economic motive to this mass Conditioning.
“We condition the masses to hate the country,” concluded the Director. “But simultaneously we condition them to love all country sports. At the same time, we see to it that all country sports shall entail the use of elaborate apparatus. So that they consume manufactured articles as well as transport. Hence those electric shocks.”
-- Huxley, 'Brave New World'
The State encourages a consumerist culture, so that people are constantly spending time with other people and consuming goods and services, whenever they're not producing and providing the goods and services themselves. To spend time along is considered as abnormal and unhealthy. This means that people have little time to themselves to develop individual personalities and interests, no opportunity to feel alone or to feel discontented.
'When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'
The moral education of the population is also developed early in life, not by family and friends, but imposed by the State. Tapes are played to children while they take naps from their classes. While they sleep, they are repeatedly played phrases that aim to instill values and 'suggestions' about how they should view their position in life. The messages are specific to their class, subconsciously reinforcing the child's sense of belonging and helping them understand how their personal qualities fit them into a category and a class. A typical Hypnopaedia message:
Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfuly glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse.
-- Huxley, 'Brave New World'
Huxley may have been reacting to a recent invention by Alois Benjamin Saliger, who in 1927 introduced the 'Psycho-Phone'. The advert for this machine claimed to allow for learning during sleep.
This automatic suggestion machine enables you to direct the vast powers of your unconscious mind during your sleep.
-- The New Yorker, 1933.
At the time of the publication of 'Brave New World', many believed that such sleep-learning was possible. More recent research has discredited the efficacy of this technique. However, it has been shown that sleep-learning can be used to reinforce previously acquired memories, though it's still not clear whether humans can acquire entirely new information in their sleep.
Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science have successfully taught sleeping participants to associate tones with pleasant or unpleasant odours and give an appropriate olfactory sniff response. The participants' responses continued into wakefulness. The results indicated that the participants were processing the link between tone and smell even while asleep. So if new associations can be formed while humans sleep, then hypnopaedia could be used in 'Brave New World' to enforce social control, but perhaps the verbal messages that Huxley suggests are too complex. Such interruptions are only likely to disturb sleep and are unlikely to be fully understood by the sleeping individual. Perhaps exposing the sleeping Bokanovsky groups to coloured light, corresponding to other classes of society (for example, Gammas were Green and Deltas where khaki), alongside either pleasant and unpleasant smells, could condition appropriate feelings towards each class group. However, the relationships such processes could condition would only be as simple as to stimulate peasant or ill feeling towards another group and would not be complex enough to convey the kind of messages Huxley had in mind for hypnopaedia in his dystopia.
At the rare times of discomfort in Brave New World, members of society use a drug called Soma. Huxley based this hypothetical drug on an
unknown plant (possibly Asclepias aeida) used by the ancient Aryan invaders of India
-- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, VIII : Chemical Persuasion, pp 69-78.
which provides a blissful and enlightening experience and is involved in some of their religious rites. However, unlike its non-fictional counterpart, the soma of Brave New World had no uncomfortable drawbacks and no consequences for these indulgent actions. This drug allows the society to foster a sense of complete security, and develop a belief that there are no adverse consequences to their actions. Huxley himself, in Brave New World Revisited, identifies how these endless pleasures can provide a distraction from the reality:
(the feelies, orgy-porgy, centrifugal bumble-puppy) are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation.
-- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, Chapter IV: Propaganda in a Democratic Society, pp 29-36.
They can participate in the consumerist culture that the State provides, without fearing that they should run out, or that they are neglecting their duties. It is in the interests of the government that the population should keep themselves occupied with simple games and entertainments, when they are not working to produce more goods for the population to consume.
Credit: CorporalSpyCrab / DeviantArt
Every aspect of Huxley's fictional dystopia is designed to maintain the stability of this consumerist culture. Biological adaptation gives them a sense of belonging in the community, as each person has a role and an identity that is well-suited to both their genetics and the environmental influences on their physical and mental being. This sense of belonging is reinforced through conditioning methods as the children grow up. None think to question the status quo, because they are provided will all they need to feel content. Even Bernard, whose sense of belonging is affected by being slightly shorter than others of his social class, doesn't harbour revolutionary thoughts, just bitterness for his perceived flaws. When things are occasionally less than blissful, Soma allows the population to relax, which no consequences, and eliminate their dissent.
Social control in 'Brave New World' is made effective by techniques that were science fiction at the time of the novel's publication. If our world is becoming more like that of Huxley's dystopia, it could either be as a result of developing technologies, or it could be that we are fostering the same values of mass consumption and hedonism. Our modern consumerist culture seems not unlike the encouraged lifestyle in 'Brave New World', though we're not currently subject to the same biological engineering to define our identity. However, though it seems some of Huxley's ideas will remain the product of science fiction, Hypnopaedia for example, some of the other methods of social control are not so different from what is currently possible. His novel should perhaps be heeded as a warning of what technology can achieve when combined with a particular set of values.
All we are is entertainment, caught up in our own derangement.
-- Rise Against, 'Entertainment'
References & Further Reading
- Huxley, 'Brave New World', Chatto & Windus, 1932.
- Huxley, 'Brave New World Revisited', New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
- Arzi et al., 'Humans Can Learn New Information During Sleep', Nature Neuroscience 2012 Oct;15(10):1460-5.
- Camobell et al., 'Sheep Cloned By Nuclear Transfer From A Cultured Cell Line', Nature, 1996.
- Jianyuan Li et al., 'Human Embryos Derived By Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer Using An Alternative Enucleation Approach', Cloning And Stem Cells, 2009.
- 'Isolation And Maintenance Of Stem Cells', Bio-rad Laboratories, 2014.
- The New Yorker Vol. 9, F-R Publishing Corporation, 1933,.
- The Roslin Institute, The University Of Edinburgh.