A review of Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World. By Wesley J. Smith.

Encounter Books, 2004.

In 1932 Aldous Huxley wrote his prophetic and chilling novel, Brave New World. In it he mapped out a future in which science, instead of being a great help to mankind, becomes the undoing of human nature and personhood.

Seventy years on one has to ask where we now stand. Smith thinks the picture does not look good. While we can all be grateful for advances in science and technology which have extended life, healed diseases, and made us all much more comfortable, there is also a dark side to this progress. It is this negative side, and its potential, that this volume addresses.

Smith looks at many of the recent and controversial issues in biotechnology, chief among them, genetic engineering, human cloning and stem cell research. He does a good job of explaining where we are with these developments, and the various possible shortcomings they may raise.

But of real value in this book is the author’s concern to not just focus on the biotechnologies alone, but to look at the bigger picture. Where are these developments taking us as human beings? How are these new advances impacting on our understanding of humanity and human worth? Are moral and ethical concerns being swept under the carpet as we race ahead with scientific breakthroughs?

Indeed, two overriding concerns emerge: one, the dehumanising forces at work in the new technologies, and the rise of scientism, the sort of scenario that Huxley sought to warn us about.

As to the first issue, Smith reminds us that there are a number of motivations involved in biotechnology that need to be accounted for. Many scientists and those working in the world of biotech have only good motivations: to reduce human suffering and to create a better world. Nothing wrong with that as such. But other motivations are at play. For example, financial interests cannot be overlooked.

While there is nothing wrong with prospering from one’s work, there is a temptation to let financial gain cloud one’s outlook and skew one’s judgments. There is big money to be made in many of these areas, and not everyone wearing a white lab coat is beyond corruption.

It is all too easy for prudence and ethical interests to be sidelined in the chase for fame and fortune: be it pecuniary interest, notoriety, the desire to succeed, the fear of failure, and so on. Careful, objective science can easily be compromised and marginalised when so much is at stake.

Smith notes that we now see the rise of a new scientific-industrial complex, every bit as worrying as past alliances with the private sector. Both academia and the scientific community are becoming increasingly cozy with the profit-making community. While that may not be bad in itself, an unduly cozy relationship may well mean trouble ahead.

Thus the reality of Big Biotech is now a genuine concern as much as is Big Oil or Big Tobacco. As but one indication, in the past quarter century US$100 billion has been poured into the biotech sector. As a result biotechnology companies today are largely research and fund-raising machines. And the old adage of ‘those who pay the piper call the tune’ is very much a real concern.

And the money trail flows in all directions. Not only does Big Business drive much of the biotech agenda, but the latter in turn spends billions each year in public relations and political campaigns. The industry has many staff working full-time as paid-lobbyists and PR wizards, actively seeking to influence not only public opinion but the flow of tax-dollars.

Of course many of these biotech companies have ethical advisors who are meant to act as a safeguard against any untoward influences. The real fear is that this is just a case of ethics for sale. Many of these bioethicists are simply putting the company spin on things. Few are genuinely objective, neutral and independent. Most are in the pay of their masters and will happily do their masters’ bidding. After all, if the main concern is to get a good return on investment to stockholders, what company will hire an ethicist to work against that concern?

Smith documents numerous cases of such questionable ethical advice, and how financial concerns very clearly determine much of the direction of the biotech industry.

Another major concern highlighted in this book is the transformation of objective science into scientism. Scientism is the idea that science alone, unclouded by any moral and other input, can decide what is best for us. Science is seen as saviour and the sole source of truth. The humility and objectivity needed for good science is jettisoned for an ideology that eschews other considerations.

This of course is a real concern, since much of the new bioscience is dealing with issues that have profound consequences for humanity and society. With so much at stake, other influences need to be brought to bear. Philosophical, theological and ethical input is crucially needed, but is often rejected altogether.

Indeed, science itself becomes more and more politicised, with scientists using any means to push their case, including skewing the data, pushing ideology and attacking the person instead of debating the evidence. Smith provides of number of unpleasant examples of this very thing, where some in the scientific community resort to questionable tactics to push their questionable agendas.

Science begins to be seen as an end in itself, instead of a means to an end. The push for results, and financial reward, lead many to put out false hopes of miracle cures. This can especially be seen in many of the fanciful panaceas being offered from embryonic stem cell research. Never mind that no actual human cure by this means has yet transpired. We hear on a regular basis that miracle cures are just around the corner. Yet wiser heads know that it may be decades, if at all, for such results to come from this avenue.

And when science becomes politicised, and an official orthodoxy takes hold, dissenters find themselves marginalised and vilified. The stem cell debate again serves as an example. All the runs on the board thus far in terms of human cures are coming from adult stem cell usage. Yet those advocating ASCs are often ignored by the media, seen as outcasts by the scientific community, and denied research funding. Smith documents a number of these cases.

Thus science itself is becoming tainted in this process, and any concerns about how humanity may suffer as a result are seldom discussed. But Smith certainly raises the issues. He knows that the political and financial pressures brought to bear on the biosciences are having a very real negative effect.

One clear negative effect is the return of eugenics. This can especially be seen in the rise of Transhumanism. This philosophy states that any means available could and should be used to enhance individuals and their progeny. A very well funded and organised Transhumanist movement is quite clear about its goals: the transformation of human evolution by means of bioengineering and other emerging techniques. The aim is to create a “posthuman” species, free of the defects and limitations of mere humanity.

But the pursuit of human perfection always comes at a price. We should have learned our lessons about the push for a perfect, master race years ago. But we are ignoring those lessons and repeating those mistakes. All the warnings of Huxley and others are falling on deaf ears.

Thus this book serves as a wake-up call. There are tremendous goods and benefits to come from the new technologies, and Smith is quick to point those out, but there are very real fears as well. The developments in biotechnology are taking humanity to a moral crossroads. If handled correctly, these developments can do much good for individuals and societies. But if left unchecked, with no ethical compass with which to steer these movements, we may well face the sorts of horrors that Huxley so brilliantly described.

The future is very much in our hands, and Smith reminds us that it is not enough to have science alone or the marketplace alone determine how we proceed. The advances of science and technology need to be counterbalanced by advances in ethical and social reflection. And this volume very nicely serves that purpose.

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