29 August 2005

Let Them Eat Soma

Image: Embryo Farms.In the 19th century, the eminent biologist Thomas Huxley, F.R.S., was known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his defense of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. He was the founder of a distinguished family tree, including grandsons Aldous Huxley (the writer), Sir Julian Huxley (the first Director General of UNESCO and founder of the World Wildlife Fund), and Sir Andrew Huxley (physiologist and Nobel laureate). You can find out more about the Huxley family at Wikipedia. Consequently, Aldous Huxley, the writer, was in a position to realistically assess future bio-technology scenarios when he wrote "Brave New World" in 1932. The novel describes a dystopian world in which happiness is dispensed in the form of government-issued pills called "Soma" (Prozac?) and human embryos are artificially cultivated according to the needs of the ruling elite. The novel was intended as a warning of what could happen if bio-technology became a tool for social control. His vision is not far removed from what could actually be achieved with present day bio-technology.

Aldous Huxley wrote a follow-up in 1958 — Brave New World Revisited — in which he reflected on how many of his original predictions had come true. Chapter 8 considered the advances in mood-changing drugs. Already, 50 years ago, research was underway into the role of Serotonin in the brain. You can read the whole chapter here: Chemical Persuasion.