Sunday, May 18, 2014

Aldous and Julian Huxley about progress, risks and human values

Many of us worry about the future. We wonder where the combination of technological progress, economic growth and increasing scarcity will lead us. So did two famous British brothers: the writer Aldous Huxley and his brother Julian, evolutionary biologist. First Aldous depicted how the world would derail in Brave New World (1932). Then Julian started building a better world when he became the first Director-General of UNESCO in 1946. What can we still learn from their writings today?

Aldous Huxley: over-rationalized Brave New World
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley offers a frightening vision of the future. He wrote it after the Industrial Revolution and World War I had deeply changed the world, and imagined how far this transformation would take human society. He imagined a future in which mankind, thanks to Science and Reason, had finally managed to take control over the world and itself.

This Brave New World came at the prize of humanity losing its soul. The reader discovers a dehumanized world based on the principles of Henry Ford’s assembly line: mass production, homogeneity, predictability and unlimited consumption of disposable consumer goods to satisfy society’s material needs. The “good” news seems that yesterday’s war torn world had been replaced by a stable global society unified under a “World State”. But the sad news was that in this global rationalized world there was no room for human dignity and desire for diversity. Over-rationalization had taken its toll to a point where Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 would have had nothing left to watch because the human desire for innovation and self-realization had completely dried up. You might think that it is not possible to dehumanize a society to such an extent. In Brave New World however even the best hidden bit of humanity was put to sleep by the official state drug soma, that had been developed to eliminate the need of religion and personal desire for anything outside the World State.

Julian Huxley: scientific humanism to secure human values
Although Aldous’s Brave New World did not come true entirely, dehumanization nevertheless took its terrible toll during World War II which prompted the creation of United Nations. 14 years after his brother published his novel, Julian Huxley became the first Director General of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). His responsibility was to determine how UNESCO could prevent another holocaust by preventing critical thinking from being put to sleep again by propaganda. Julian understood that a peaceful society could not be – like Brave New World – based on purely rational arrangements, but had to be founded “upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind”.

To build this human solidarity, he had to avoid the skylla and charybdis of “exaggerated individualism” and “the philosophy of Facism in which the State is regarded as embodying the highest values”. To reconcile these extremes, he wrote, UNESCO must focus on the progress of humanity with a method he called “scientific evolutionary humanism”. The scientific experimental method of trial and error, he believed, was the best method for “embarking man upon new possibilities”. His reliance on science was so strong that at some point his thoughts strangely echoed the Nazi philosophy: “in the not very remote future the problem of improving the average quality of human beings is likely to become urgent; and this can only be accomplished by applying the findings of a truly scientific eugenics.”

UNESCO’s emphasis on human values
His approach was nevertheless profoundly humanistic. Firstly his desire for human progress was firmly based on the need to use science and “the discussion method” to elaborate and establish human values on a global scale. A good example of this is UNESCO’s report on the philosophical principles of the “rights of man”, which contributed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Secondly, Julian Huxley was aware of the risks of uncontrolled and unquestioned scientific progress. He therefore urged UNESCO to study the ethical considerations of science and technology beyond purely economic considerations, which the organization still does today.

The role of culture and art
Like his brother Aldous, Julian Huxley was afraid that exaggerated economic growth would cut society off from human values. He emphasized the central role of culture and art for controlling this risk when he writes about the consequences of industrialization: “In conjunction with laisser-faire and capitalist economic systems [industrialization] has not only created a great deal of ugliness (much of it preventable), but has turned men away from the consideration of beauty and art, and of their significance and value in life – partly by its insistence on money values, partly by the fascination exerted on the young mind by the products of mechanical invention”. Art, he continues, is “the spearhead of [society’s] perception, the pioneer of new modes of vision and expression. (…) For most people art alone can effectively express the intangibles, and add the driving force of emotion to the cold facts of information”. He was especially concerned by the declining diversity of traditions and traditional knowledge, the pillars of society which he observed “being undermined or wholly destroyed by the impact of Western civilization, with its commercialism and individualism”.

Diversity and emotion as stronghold against dehumanization
What the dystopia Brave New World and the utopia in Julian Huxley’s philosophy for UNESCO both emphasize is the human desire for diversity as stronghold against dehumanization and alienation. Julian’s plea for a global “pool” of traditions, ideas and knowledge must not be seen as a standardization of contents itself, but as the globalization of access to contents like through the internet today. In the same way, his plea for a “world government” was not meant to eliminate nations or communities of interests like in the World State in Brave New World. It was rather meant to encourage cross-pollination at a time where, Julian wrote, “the scaffolding and the mechanisms for world unification have become available”.

Reconnecting with our emotional and moral appreciation
The writings of both brothers leave us a legacy which confronts us with the need to reconnect with our emotional and moral appreciation of the world around us. It’s clear that both philosophy and art are crucial in this endeavor as they stimulate the general process of enlarging the conceptual and emotional capacity of mankind. Of course we all have our experience of the world around us and of the future we are heading for, don’t we? But how well are we equipped to interpret this experience? Are we doing okay? Are the political and social structures we evolve in really fit to ensure our happiness in the next few decades? And what is a good life after all?

To address this complexity we need art, philosophy and social sciences in general. Art is needed because it can “express, as no other medium can do, the spirit of a society, its ideas and purposes, its traditions and its hopes.” Art also requires education: to support art production, but foremost to appreciate art. Because “to expect to be moved and enriched by Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua without some preparatory effort, is like expecting a man with flabby untrained muscles to enjoy and to derive immediate benefit from a twenty-five mile walk in the mountains”.

Conclusion: a balanced understanding, control and enjoyment
Julian Huxley's philosophy for UNESCO was never accepted by UNESCO's Member States. Member States considered that UNESCO's constitution was sufficient as a guideline, probably because they were not ready to accept some sort of Vatican for scientific humanism. As a consequence, Julian limited his term as a Director-General to two years. Nevertheless we can still draw inspiration from his philosophy and the principle on which he based it: “the world is potentially one, and human needs are the same in every part of it – to understand it, to control it and to enjoy it”.

This understanding, control and enjoyment can be improved by sharing it between small and big communities of interest. To prioritize quality over quantity, the challenge is to understand, control and enjoy in a balanced way. This means, as Charles Eisenstein puts it, to stop playing and messing around with earth’s gifts like children do with their toys. I don’t know what Eisenstein exactly means when he says that we need to put earth’s gifts “to their purpose”, but I think we should engage the debate on what this purpose is and start elaborating on its consequences. Maybe gratitude, as a natural response to earth’s gifts, can indeed be a useful guideline.

Based also on Van Helden, Andries (2001) Een halve eeuw UNESCO (Half a century of UNESCO), Dutch National UNESCO Commission


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