Happiness or freedom? Brave New World and “anti-science”

Science has never enjoyed complete unequivocal support from the society of which it is part. The cultural meanings of science (especially the cultural meanings of popular science) are by no means fixed. We should not be surprised therefore that the grounds for reaction against it will be as diverse as the meanings attached to it. Over the past 200 years opponents have been able to attack it on grounds of being too religious, not religious enough, too radical, too conservative, pro-socialist, pro-capitalist, and so on.

Even if we were to accept the simple framing of public attitudes of “for” or “against” science, we would still need to ask what is “anti-science” in opposition to? Perhaps even more important is the question of whether we can always be sure that science is the target? Are attacks on science better understood as attacks on the products of science, on applied science and technology, or even – if we accept the diversionary tactics of scientists – on the abuse of science or the abuse of technology? The idea of an “abuse of science” is something which I find is a particularly irritating distraction since it implies that somewhere there must be a form of science that is not abused, that is pure, pristine and uncorrupted by any connection with the real social, cultural, political or economic world. It is much like the idea of “bias” in studying the media – great as something to rant against but completely vacuous if you want to use it as an analytical concept.

Science is a central feature (maybe even a defining feature) of modernity and a history of popular science suggests that particularly in the twentieth century the popularisation of science has often been the popularisation of modernity. To what extent, therefore, might we also (perhaps mistakenly) see opponents of modernity as opponents of science and vice versa? As always it is the circulation of meanings that demands our attention and not simply the totting up of attitudes for and against.

By way of example, look at a novel which is one of the great science fiction dystopias of the twentieth century and as such might be seen as part of the anti-science canon: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The book has become a convenient shorthand for present day fears about cloning and genetic engineering, but what makes it so powerful is not the imagined technology but its social critique. It is the future of humanity that Huxley wants to examine, not the future of science

The primary aim of the New World is to achieve stability through the simple expedient of ensuring that everybody is happy. Biological engineering and psychological conditioning create the foundations for a happy population, state sponsored pleasure (drugs and promiscuous sex) does the rest. This is, perhaps, the most chilling aspect of the novel: the way that Huxley shows how Utopia can be so horrific.

In the New World’s hedonistic technocracy the role of science is reduced to the handmaiden of technology; and the role of technology is reduced to ensuring a constant supply of new products and the (literal and metaphorical) mass production of consumers. For the most part science has been reduced to “just a cookery book, with an orthodox theory of cooking that nobody is allowed to question…’real science’, inquisitive science is unorthodox and illicit” (181). With its potential to introduce an element of change into society, science is seen as a threat to the social stability of the New World. As Mustapha Mond the Resident World Controller for Western Europe explains, “Science is dangerous; we have to keep it most carefully chained and muzzled” (181).

How different are we from Huxley’s New World? Is science a dangerous threat to social stability that has to be carefully muzzled? Or does it help maintain the consumerist status quo? To pick up from an earlier post, can science really disentangle itself from the demands of the military, the state, and the market? I’m not arguing for or against any particular position here, but I would suggest that our answers to these questions might help in our understanding of who means what by the term “anti-science”. Certainly if we we want to look to Huxley’s novel as an example of anti-science we find instead a social critique that arguing from existing trends – mass production, consumerism, self-indulgence, advertising, planning, the search for efficiency – shows how people are the willing victims of capitalism and modernity.

In seminars with students I have often asked: would you choose the happy slavery of Huxley’s New World or the painful freedom beyond that society’s borders? A large number, sometimes even a majority, would choose to live in that Brave New World – maybe they already have.

Brave New World page references are to the Granada edition 1977.

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