Is a Biotech BRAVE NEW WORLD the Next Phase of Totalitarianism?

That's the conclusion of Flagg Taylor—one of the leading experts on totalitarian communism:

I’ve spent and continue to spend a great deal of time thinking about totalitarianism.  In what guise will it appear next?  What if we don’t need some dramatic revolutionary change in government, some new political ideology, but only an ever-gradual, barely noticeable change in our sense of ourselves?  In other words, don’t worry so much about Orwell’s 1984 but about Huxley’sBrave New World.  The great dissidents knew that they were struggling against more than a deeply unjust political order—they struggled against (in the phrase of Chantal Delsol) the “systematic destruction of man’s reality.”  As Václav Havel put it, “The natural world, in virtue of its very being, bears within it the presupposition of the absolute which grounds, delimits, animates, and directs it, without which it would be unthinkable, absurd, and superfluous, and which we can only quietly respect.  Any attempt to spurn it, master it, or replace it with something else, appears . . . as an expression of hubris for which humans must pay a heavy price.”  Aristotle famously argued we are strange in-between beings—higher than beasts but lower than the gods.  When we play God, do we not become even lower than the beasts?    

Totalitarianism, from Flagg's view, means that we're free from natural limitations and moral restraints.  So we're free to impose our personal wills upon reality as we please.  He mentions the example of the woman who took advantage of the techno-ability to abort one of her twins. It's her preference as a consumer to have just one kid, and so she can alter freely the intention of nature to give her two.

From this view, Marxist communism was the effort to free ourselves definitively from natural imitations.  At the end of History, scarcity, due to capitalist technology, will have disappeared, and we'll be free to do whatever we want whenever we want.  We'll be free like gods to live unalienated and unobsessive lives.  So religion and the state will wither away, because we will be perfectly satisfied in this world without God and government.  And of course we won't have to work unless we feel like it.

Because communism was based on an unrealistic view of who we are, Communist tyrants (such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc.) attempted to will the end of History into being by extinguishing with all means necessary—including or especially terror—all manifestations of "bourgeois" or alienated human individuality.  That futile effort to end real human freedom, as the dissident Havel said, was defeated by real human nature.

Does that mean totalitarianism has been forever defeated?  Well, for one thing, natural scarcity wasn't really conquered by capitalism, at least in way that wouldn't require more individual productivity in an alienated division-of-labor system.  People, it turns out, still have to work.  And there's no "Historical" or merely political or ideological solution to that problem.

As Marx himself would have predicted, people, as long as they're alienated, would remain obsessed and even often religious.

But biotechnology promises to really change our NATURES to achieve the result Marx has in mind.  Will biotechnology lead to new and improved means of social control in the name of human happiness or contentment, such as those we see described in Huxley's classic BRAVE NEW WORLD?  Will we surrender our freedom in the name of happiness?  The new tyrants will be much more responsible and humane, thinking about what's best for us and not just their own lust for power.

We remember that the philosopher Nietzsche said that modern liberalism aimed to produce the "last man," a being without the risky and potentially self-destructive deep longings characteristic of human beings so far.  And we have to ask whether our real goal isn't to flatten out who we are in the name of security and a shallow form of self-indulgence.  So we willingly surrender our personal sovereignty to experts, bureaucrats, and various forms of immersion into virtual reality. Certainly we've embraced mood enhancers that allow us to live more easily with who we are, that make us less miserable and more agreeable and productive.

I don't think that the BRAVE NEW WORLD future is all that likely.

First of all, we can see that our individualism—having produced a world with too many old people and not enough young ones—has undermined productivity to the extent that our entitlement programs seem to be imploding.  The "soft despotism" Tocqueville predicted—the omnicompetent nanny state—doesn't seem to be in our future now.

And if you think about the impulse to biotechnological eugenics at this point, it seems to be driven by people determined to take charge of their own futures, to not be replaced, to live for an indefinitely long time.  In this respect, it's easy to see that particular persons are more discontented than ever with their present merely natural situation, and they're willing to work hard to escape from it.  They do want to be gods, but they think in terms of personal survival more than controlling the lives of others.  Their goal may be much less noble—but perhaps it's also much less dangerous—than the goal of the communist idealists of the past.

The easy criticism of Marxist communism was that people will remain self-conscious and mortal, and so aware of the fundamental human scarcity, scarcity of time.  That Marxist error produced existentialism—people more morbid or death-obsessed than ever. And the most perverse and evil thinkers of the 20th century might be thought of as Marxist existentialists.

The biotechnological promise, in its extreme or transhumanist forms, is to free us from the necessity of dying altogether.  Only then will we really be free from nature, and beings that free, the thought is, wouldn't have the obsessions that produce tyrants, including Marxist tyrants.

But still:  There's always tyranny—fueled by hatred of who we really are—in the thought that we can simply be whatever we happen to desire to be.

And it's worth noting that the communist fantasy of Marx really seems to have been a libertarian fantasy.  It's hard to know why he called it communism, given that it seems to be a world free from personal love and the other impulses that produce real communities.    

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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