Paul Greenberg / March 26, 2009

The First Temptation


O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures

are there here!

How beauteous mankind is!

O brave new world,

That has such people in’t!


‘Tis new to thee.

–The Tempest

How did Dr. Clark know? In my sophomore year at Centenary College, when I still knew everything, I signed up for his course in Modern English Lit, which had Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” on the reading list.

As dystopias go, I thought it a poor choice compared to my favorite, George Orwell’s “1984.” I was already an Orwell cultist by then, which was the 1950s. That decade seems tranquil now only in retrospect, for another totalitarian threat was on the march, The Bomb was always there looming over everything, Jim Crow’s days were numbered, the draft awaited, and things were real, things were earnest.

Why had Dr. Clark, that old fuddy-duddy, chosen some sci-fi fantasy like “Brave New World” – with its embryo farms, genetic predetermination, a drugged populace and all the rest – instead of a book about the real world? So as my first class paper I chose to compare Huxley’s “Brave New World” with Orwell’s “1984,” much to “1984’s” advantage. That would teach Dr. Clark.

Now the Soviet Union has imploded, a consummation devoutly to be wished but once almost impossible to imagine. And we are in the midst of a brave new world after the discovery of the double helix, clones, abortions-a-million at one end of life and euthanasia at the other. We are even offered the promise that research on human embryos will cure everything from cancer to the common cold, and our new president, no fuddy-duddy he, has signed on to that bright, shiny idea.

Never mind that it is the other kind of stem-cell research – on lines derived from adult cells – that has achieved the cures and offers the most promise for the future. Or that recent scientific progress may have made experimenting on embryonic stem cells unnecessary in order to achieve the same or better results.

But all of that was irrelevant as the president, surrounded by suits sporting grins, proudly signed the executive order putting the U.S. government’s seal of approval on experimenting with human life in embryo. I kept looking for Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein himself, among the celebrants pictured at the White House.

Science, or at least Scientism, marched forward, unstoppable, as surely as man reached for the apple in the Garden.

These days it is “1984” that is dated, almost quaint, while “Brave New World” is proving prophetic. How did Dr. Clark know? What moved him to have us read Aldous Huxley’s futurist novel? How could he have foreseen that 1984 would come and go on the calendar while man’s oldest temptation, recorded in the Book of Genesis, would become more relevant than ever: Ye shall be as gods!

Maybe it was all those years the old man had spent teaching Shakespeare and Old Testament to sophomores. Study those old texts line by line, semester after semester, again and again, and there would be nothing in the human gallery new to you. Politics passes, human nature remains the same.

Or does it? Must we always be at the mercy of these unruly passions, these rushes of uncontrolled awe at the beauty and terror of the night sky, this fruitless search for virtue, this confusion between good and evil?

Why not change our nature itself, and usher in a brave new world where only an occasional savage, as in Huxley’s vision of the future, would intrude to remind us of a barbaric past? Let us tear down these artificial barriers and free Science at last – and so free ourselves from the human condition.

As our new president, a true man of the age, put it the other day as he signed his executive order opening the gates to an unbounded future: “Our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values.” Instead we can have both!

This is a favorite formulation of our leader’s. Call it the Obama Dialectic. It consists of presenting both sides of an issue, even an issue of life and death, as offering a false choice that really needn’t be made. Instead there is an utterly reasonable middle ground: his own.

If his choice is a little vague around the edges, or the ethics of it more than a little fuzzy, No Fear. We have experts to decide such things now: the Scientific Community and its special sub-branch, the Ethicists. They’ll figure it all out, devise the appropriate Protocols for life and death, and we the people will never have to bother our pretty little heads thinking about it. The Experts Know.

Strangely enough, in almost the next breath, our pragmatist-in-chief drew a bright ethical line just a little farther down the slippery slope than the one his predecessor in the Oval Office had drawn earlier. His new policy, President Obama assured anybody who might be worried about its ethical ramifications, “never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.” Because that would be “dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society or any society.”

How come? Couldn’t some clones be just fine, indeed perfect? Why not produce them and discard only the imperfect ones? The way the least promising human embryos are discarded in the process of in vitro fertilization? The Experts are trusted to make that choice, too. They know. Isn’t this a false choice President Obama has made between sound science and moral values – the kind of false choice he’d just blamed his predecessor in the White House for making?

Besides, he must know that once he’s opened the door to cloning for, ahem, research purposes, there’s bound to be some scientist somewhere curious enough, and some potential parents narcissistic enough, and some Madoffian investor eager enough to make a bundle, to go into the business of custom-designing our progeny.

Whether for research or reproduction, the cloning process is much the same. Cloning is cloning, parts is parts. Once the door is open, and now it is, those embryo farms out of “Brave New World” await. Full of such goodly creatures!

Why would our sophisticated young president scruple at the inescapable consequences of his own executive order? A masterful politician, he must know that there is something in people – and voters – which understands, instinctively, that a market for designer babies would be wrong, wrong, wrong. Call it the wisdom of repugnance. That kind of thing should have “no place in our society or any society.” In his soothing voice, he assures us that it’ll never come to that.

Is he just doing the politic thing? But that would be too cynical a judgment. Maybe even Mr. Cool still has some primitive reverence for life, for Nature and Nature’s Laws, and knows – in his soul – that some line must be drawn that man dare not cross. Maybe something of the savage in “Brave New World,” with all his archaic Thou Shalt Nots, still lurks in him, too.

For the first time during his presentation, I felt a rush of fellow feeling. I think old Dr. Clark would recognize this president’s dilemma, and consider that last choice of his – to draw the line somewhere – not false at all.


Fellow Savage


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