Friday, November 18, 2005

O Brave New World!

One of the crazy things about the department retreat is that you are basically forced to socialize. This year, I found myself talking to another student about my version of Utopia. In such a world, reproduction would be restricted to those who were properly equipped to support and care for a child. Education would be valued, and our leaders would believe in science. And by that I don't mean the complete eradication of religion, just the clear distinction between faith and fact. But I'm getting ahead of myself. During this conversation, my fellow student recommended that I read Brave New World, because it is about (he said) the world I'd just described.

In this Brave New World, babies are born 100 at a time, each from the same egg and therefore identical. Childhood is a time for conditioning, so that as adults, these people will behave in the manner their creators prescribe. The caste system prescribes several social levels, and conditioning (chemical and behavioral) makes each person fit his position in the hierarchy.

As a result, everyone feels adequately positioned, and everyone is happy. If for some reason, someone isn't happy, they take some soma and feel happy. Everyone is content. But they have no emotions and no relationships. This world has eliminated that for which we live today. So the Savage, given the choice, would rather have his barbaric world with family and aging and pain, than not feel anything. Duh.

In response to this book, I want to make a distinction. Nature, Science, and Technology are not synonyms, nor antonyms. This book seems to assume that with advances in science and technology (that is, if society is "left up to the scientists"), we will eliminate nature. This is wholly untrue.

Science is a way of thinking. It's making observations, collecting evidence, and drawing conclusions based on that evidence. (Science is the opposite of faith, which is drawing conclusions without evidence. With provocation, I could write more on this.)

Nature is the sphere in which our scientific observations are made: the universe, the earth, the body, the cell, the atom. Science is a way to study nature.

Technology is the application of what we learn from science. Sometimes it's a replication of nature (in vitro fertilization is a replication of natural fertilization), sometimes it's a novel creation (the clock or the computer).

The part of the book that offended me is the assumption that scientists prefer technology over nature. In reality, scientists are the most nature-loving people on earth. They're bird-watchers, hikers, campers, and gardeners. Give them a choice between Disney World and a three day hike, they'll choose the hike. Scientists would never choose in vitro fertilization when natural fertilization works just fine. It's much too expensive and way less fun.


  1. E.,

    as someone who has spent a lot of time reading about scientists and what they do (and who has been wholly inspired and in awe of their passion for the natural world), I think you're absolutely right.

    However, I do love Brave New World and I think Huxley has some very pertinent things to say. It was perhaps lazy of him to use the word "scientist" as a shorthand for what he really meant, though. Maybe you can decide to substitute something else for it that makes more sense.

    Think you might enjoy this article -- one of my favorite pieces of writing about nonfiction for children.

  2. I'm not sure whether it was Huxley or my classmate who made the link from scientist to technology. I don't fault Huxley 100%. He does make good points about the pursuit of happiness and perspective. I just started off offended, and didn't recover well enough to enjoy it.

    I completely agree with that article. It makes such a great point that I never thought about, that there are almost no children's science books that don't read like encyclopedias. I never read science books as a kid; they were dry and boring. But now I want to read The case of the mummified pigs.

  3. There are lots more now! Houghton actually publishes a series called "Scientists in the Field" which is wonderful. I'm quite proud, even though I of course had nothing to do with it.