JBS Haldane's Daedalus - Inspiration for Brave New World

I have had this feeling the energy we are up agains is very much like the Minotaur. I thought of it and the maze being like Wall Street (Bloomberg Mithraic) but Haldane’s allusions to bio-technologists is interesting, too.

"And the British biologist J.B.S. Haldane (Daedalus) imagined a future where deliberately modified algae fed the world and had turned the oceans purple, yet the colour had come to seem ‘so
natural’. page 6

“Part of Gilman’s argument for trusting evolution was that doing so had clearly worked for plant and animal breeders who had ‘already done wonders’ in creating new organisms. Their principles could just as easily be applied to humans; ‘we must provide right conditions’, she asserted, then ‘that great pushing life-force of Evolution [will do] the rest’. Plant and animal breeding as a model for improving the whole of nature, including humans, was a recurring theme in Gilman’s work, and one of her inspirations was the work of Luther Burbank.”

"The same process has been applied to the Herlanders themselves; instincts of which the Herlanders approved had been encouraged while antisocial impulses had been weeded out. As the men discover (to varying degrees of consternation), the instinct of ‘sex-feeling’ had atrophied from disuse in Herland; even the most fundamental of human instincts could be modified as readily as the cat’s meow. The abolition of the sex instinct had allowed the Herlanders to escape the Malthusian trap; they had learned to control their parthenogenetic reproduction through sheer willpower, ensuring that their population stayed at a level their country could support. "

“Almost every writer who described Burbank emphasized his ability to control and manipulate plants – that, after all, was the most arresting fact about him. The Scientific American, for example, claimed that he had proved that ‘plants could be made to respond to a dominant will’; every aspect of the plant ‘might be controlled or altered’ to produce new types, ‘never dreamed of or imagined’. Yet, however wonderful and natural it seemed, Burbank’s ability to transcend nature invariably hinted at a kind of assault. For example, when he described how he redeemed a plant ‘from among a race of vile, neglected orphan weeds’, he acknowledged that a plant might need ‘the overpowering shock of re-creation’, and ‘must irrevocably break with the past’. His method was to cross a plant with as many others as possible, so as to ‘break up its life tendencies’. Harwood noted the unpleasant consequences of these shocks and breaks: In the breaking-up it may produce a whole series of monstrosities, the most strange and grotesque plants that ever took root in the soil of the earth. Some of these plants are hideous, and all such are put to death. If imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, Serviss flattered Harwood mightily when he acknowledged that Burbank’s experiments sometimes created ‘strange monstrous forms’, so ‘useless’, ‘repellent’ and ‘horrible even, that instantly he destroys them as things unfit to live’. The faint hint of anxiety conveyed by the reference to Burbank’s plants as ‘queer’ or ‘freaks’ seems a little stronger here, which may explain why Serviss tried to absolve Burbank of blame: the monsters emerged, he explained, ‘from the deep of the past’ and ‘nature’s past, like that of a human life, is not made up entirely of beautiful and desirable elements’. It was nature, not Burbank, who was to blame: ‘She has had her tragedies and her sins’.”

“The image of Burbank as a kind of mother was used by Serviss in a newspaper article about Burbank: in creating a red Californian poppy, Burbank had given the flower ‘the chance that nature denied it’, because – he explained – ‘nature usually frowns upon departure from her customary lines. She stamps out independence’ and ‘has little mercy for the nonconformist among her children’. Burbank had stepped in when mother nature failed, but the implicit feminizing of Burbank added to the discomfort when his work was described in faintly violent terms; for example, another writer explained that Burbank tried to direct each plant’s evolution and to govern any ‘outlaw tendencies’ that appeared. However, ‘the blood of atavism’ would sometimes reassert itself once the plant’s ‘persistent type is ruptured’. Such ‘outlaw’ plants were dealt with harshly. ‘Of the mass which give no definite or hopeful perturbations, there is a massacre’; they were burnt in large numbers. Harwood, too, stressed the violent way in which Burbank treated his failures: ‘the rejected plants, shrubs or trees are gathered in large bonfires and burned … In a single year as many as fourteen of these huge bonfires have been lighted … consuming hundreds of thousands of plants’.”

“Haldane argued that ‘a sentimental interest’ in Prometheus had distracted us from ‘the far more interesting figure of Daedalus’, who helped create the Minotaur, the monstrous hybrid of human and cow that symbolized the ability of humans to remake nature. Titling the book after the monster maker was a celebration of perversion (whereas, as we have seen, Burbank’s supporters generally sought to distance him from any hint of the monstrous or unnatural). Haldane was unafraid to link the mythical monster and the achievements of twentieth-century genetics, arguing that if only ‘the housing and feeding of the Minotaur [had] been less expensive’ Daedalus might ‘have anticipated Mendel’. (Though perhaps, he pondered, an annual sacrifice ‘of 50 youths and 50 virgins [was] excessive as an endowment for research’). The modern biologist was heir to Daedalus, able to pervert nature to serve human needs and so, despite being ‘a poor little scrubby underpaid man’ (a distinctly Wellsian figure), Haldane was convinced that ‘the biologist is the most romantic figure on earth at the present day’.”

“Daedalus forecast drugs that would modify human moods, artificial foods synthesized directly from inorganic chemicals, and coal and oil being replaced by renewable energy. However, it was the biological inventions that took centre stage in the ‘undergraduate essay’ portion of the book. An artificially modified alga had been invented that fixed nitrogen so efficiently that global food gluts resulted. When a strain escaped into the ocean, fish stocks increased so much that they became the world’s main source of protein, finally abolishing hunger. The artificiality of this future world is emphasized in various asides, such as noting that it was after the alga’s escape that ‘the sea assumed the intense purple colour which seems so natural to us, but which so distressed the more aesthetically minded of our great grand-parents [sic] who witnessed the change’ (anything, Haldane implies, can come to seem natural in time, from eating cheese to purple oceans).102 Haldane’s undergraduate narrator described another biological invention, a new lichen that stabilized the drifting sands of deserts, allowing them to support crops. This well-fed world with its newly created plants and cultivated deserts sounds distinctly Burbankian, and the ‘naturalness’ of purple seas, the products of laboratories working to feed the world, are the epitome of biotopia. Yet so is the distress of ‘the more aesthetically minded’ who witnessed its creation; one person’s biotopia is another’s ecocatastrophe – a world without swallows.”

“Indeed, Haldane does not endorse any fixed moral code at all, only the idea that as science changes – and particularly as it changes us – our moral codes will be forced to change too.”

“Experimental evolution – which initially grew out of de Vries’s mutation theory and Mendelism – offered the possibility of speeding up, improving and above all controlling the evolutionary process. Remaking nature meant, of course, that humans could no longer turn to it for guidance, but perhaps they would be able to finally root out that last trace of secularized original sin.”

“Daedalus was a sensation, selling fifteen thousand copies in its first year, and its success prompted other scientists to try their hand at prophecy. Just three years later, Haldane’s fellow Cambridge academic, John Desmond Bernal, produced The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Inquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, which was inspired by (and shared many themes with) Daedalus. Similar ideas emerged in Out of the Night, by the US geneticist Hermann J. Muller, which featured a prominent promotional blurb from Haldane, describing Muller as 'one of the world’s leading biologists’, and adding that ‘his proposals, whether or not they are desirable, are entirely practicable. If they are adopted, the results will be as important as those of the industrial revolution’.”

The secularized version of original sin that motivated various forms of the Malthusian fear reached a crescendo in the decades around the year 1900, as diffuse but pervasive fears of degeneration became increasingly widespread.125 The most common form was the fear that what Thomas Huxley had called ‘the cosmic process’ (natural selection) had been softened by the ‘ethical process’ of civilization, allowing the weaker members of society to survive and breed, indeed to breed more prolifically than their supposed betters, leading to a sharp (perhaps terminal) decline in human intelligence and morals. The most popular response to this fear was, of course, eugenics, the catch-all title for various schemes to selectively breed human beings that was typically divided into negative eugenics (reducing the reproduction of the unfit) and positive schemes to encourage the allegedly superior to breed faster. Eugenics and biotopianism were, to varying degrees, both indebted to recent biological science and their concerns and goals intersected in various ways."

Wayback Machine - Haldane’s Daedalus Daedalus Ed. 1st : Haldane, J. B. S. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

4 Likes

I learned in 2017 that Haldane’s “children’s” book, My Friend Mr. Leakey, was cryptically embedded with many occult concepts (and perhaps even allusions to scientism and AI).

http://arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/mrleaky.pdf (another PDF is provided at the link above)

In re-reading it, admittedly, I am still a bit stumped by the story. However - with fresh eyes - I do notice some aspects that I missed the first time around. Most notably, I see his prevalent use of color or veiled clues about color (lots of green, violet/purple, yellow, red, orange - perhaps even hints of magenta with the reference to “Burgundy”?).

I also cannot help but conjure Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat and Roald Dahl’s inspired Willy Wonka - and Haldane does have this to say (which preceded the societal infusion of Dr. Seuss and Willy Wonka):

The little man was very grateful, but dreadfully frightened, so I gave him my arm across the street, and saw him back to his home, which was quite near. I won’t tell you where it was, because if I did you might go there and bother him, and if he got really grumpy it might be very awkward indeed for you. I mean, he might make one of your ears as big as a cabbage-leaf or turn your hair green, or exchange your right and left feet, or something like that. And then everyone who saw you would burst out laughing, and say, ‘Here comes Wonky Willie, or lopsided Lizzie,’ or whatever your name is. (my emphasis)

And another excerpt - strangely prescient of Willy Wonka:

‘Shut your eyes or you may be giddy when we start’ said Mr Leakey. I did. Then I heard him flap his ears, and felt the carpet rise. I don’t know how we got through the ceiling, but it felt rather nasty. I felt us rising very quickly. Then we seemed to be falling, but I clenched my teeth and hoped for the best. When I was told to open my eyes again the sun was shining brightly, though it had been cloudy in London. I crawled to the edge of the carpet, which had now unrolled, and looked over, but saw nothing but a sea of clouds below me. We were moving over them southeastwards at an enormous rate, but I felt no wind. (my emphasis)

I do think Willy Wonka was intended to imprint the notion of an artificial overlay of society, in which Willy Wonka (the magician archetype), lures children in with fancily wrapped candy (gold bars of chocolate). I see this occurring now with not only the overwhelming presence of the alluring magenta color (paralleling Haldane’s artificially modified purple algae), but additional tricks and treats laid out to coax people inside a new matrix - a Brave New World. Echoing Haldane’s Daedalus, it would initially seem unfamiliar and artificial; but over time, the new colors and life would seem very natural - and eventually, no one would be the wiser that it was a perversion of nature.

P.S. In Haldane’s children’s book, I also see the frequent use of the word “queer” (echoing Burbank?)…

2 Likes

This paper was emailed to me by a friend in 2013 (who perceived Burbank’s cross-breeding efforts as a positive contribution):

1 Like

2. Speculation, science fiction, and twentieth century totalitarianism

In 1923, the noted British biochemist J. B. S. Haldane published the essay Daedalus: Science and the Future, in which he argued that great benefits would come from controlling our own genetics and from science in general. He projected a future society that would be richer, have abundant clean energy, where genetics would be employed to make people taller, healthier, and smarter, and where the use of ectogenesis (gestating fetuses in artificial wombs) would be commonplace. He also commented on what has in more recent years become known as the “yuck factor”:

The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which has not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural.

Haldane’s essay became a bestseller and set off a chain reaction of future-oriented discussions, including The World, the Flesh and the Devil, by J. D. Bernal (1929), which speculated about space colonization and bionic implants as well as mental improvements through advanced social science and psychology; the works of Olaf Stapledon, a philosopher and science fiction author; and the essay “Icarus: the Future of
Science” (1924) by Bertrand Russell. Russell took a more pessimistic view, arguing that without more kindliness in the world, technological power would mainly serve to increase men’s ability to inflict harm on one another. Science fiction authors such as H. G. Wells and Stapledon got many people thinking about the future evolution of the human race.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932, has had an enduring impact on debates about human technological transformation14 matched by few other works of fiction (a possible exception would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 181815). Huxley describes a dystopia where psychological conditioning, promiscuous sexuality, biotechnology, and the opiate drug “soma” are used to keep the population placid and contented in a static, totally conformist caste society that is governed by ten world controllers. Children are manufactured in fertility clinics and artificially gestated. The lower castes are chemically stunted or deprived of oxygen during their maturation process to limit their physical and intellectual development. From birth, members of every caste are indoctrinated during their sleep, by recorded voices repeating the slogans of the official “Fordist” religion, and are conditioned to believe that their own caste is the best one to belong to. The society depicted in Brave New World is often compared and contrasted with that of another influential 20th century dystopia, George Orwell’s 1984. 1984 features a more overt form of oppression, including ubiquitous surveillance by “Big Brother” and brutal police coercion. Huxley’s world controllers, by contrast, rely on more “humane means”, including bio-engineered predestination, soma, and psychological conditioning to prevent people from wanting to think for themselves. Herd-mentality and promiscuity are promoted, while high art, individuality, knowledge of history, and romantic love are discouraged. It should be noted that in neither 1984 nor Brave New World has technology been used to increase human capacities. Rather, society is set up to repress the full development of humanity. Both dystopias curtail scientific and technological exploration for fear of upsetting the social equilibrium. Nevertheless, Brave New World in particular has become an emblem of the dehumanizing potential of the use of technology to promote social conformism and shallow contentment.

1 Like

The story the comes to mind while reading this is The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, who of course ran in these circles.

Regarding the Minotaur theme, there’s an interesting documentary about the theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining called Room 237. Some of the theories seem far fectched but some of them have a lot of substantiation. One is that the character Jack Torrance played by Jack Nicholson represents the Minotaur. The film features a maze and has other possible Minotaur imagery. Here’s a clip. Kubrick also had a company called Minotaur Productions.

Another interesting theory about The Shining is that the Overlook Hotel represents the United States and it was about the repression of our bloody history. There are many other curious things about Kubrick’s films. He wrote the script that eventually became the film A.I., which was about a robot child. Kubrick died before he could direct it. As the story goes he wanted Steven Spielberg to make it but I find this suspicious. Spielberg has such extremely different sensibilities than Kubrick. Spielberg did end up making A.I. and it’s not a very good film. I have always wondered what Kubrick may have intended for it?

I found this quote most poignant in this piece.

1 Like

Side note: I sure do see multiple shades of magenta juxtaposed with multiple shades of green in that clip of The Shining. (Even Jack’s face alone.) Do you see it? Wow.

In this macabre film trailer, do you see the hanging candelabra shining magenta (starting around the 1:17 timestamp)???

Oh, the implications . . .

{Sorry, digression from the topic at hand…}