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  • The Modern Synthesis: Genetics and Dystopia in the Huxley Circle
  • Jay Clayton (bio)

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) has influenced public debates over genetics more profoundly than any other work of literature, with the possible exception of Frankenstein. Both works have been misremembered, misunderstood, and misused in polemical contexts more often than not. In Huxley’s case, the problem arises from readers failing to admit that his satire cuts in more than one direction. The novelist was witness to the birth of the modern synthesis in biology, and he was a strong advocate of the biological sciences. But he was a moral relativist and a satirist too, and he was always ready to satirize the people he loved and the ideas he embraced. He had the curse of being able to see through everything. To grasp the real meaning of Brave New World for society today, we need to understand Huxley’s relationship to both the modern synthesis and the art of satire.

To scientists, “the modern synthesis” names the shift in biology that occurred in the years between the two world wars when scientists brought together Darwin’s theory of evolution with the new science of genetics. One of the pioneers of the modern synthesis was J. B. S. Haldane, a longtime friend of Aldous Huxley; another proponent was the novelist’s older brother, Julian Huxley. Haldane (along with R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright) demonstrated with compelling mathematical analyses that Darwin was correct to assert that natural selection was the primary cause of evolution. Adding genetics to the theory of evolution supplied one of the key elements missing from Darwin’s concept, namely an understanding of how the inheritance of traits actually took [End Page 875] place. The result was a powerful consensus, which prevails even today, that the evidence of genetics largely confirms Darwin’s original insights.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Darwinism was in decline.1 Long under assault by religious opponents, Darwin’s theory of natural selection came under renewed criticism by scientists too in the 1880s, and this trend only intensified with the rediscovery of Mendel’s work in 1900. Early Mendelians doubted that natural selection alone could account for the clear-cut differences among Mendelian factors that their model described. Additionally, some Mendelians like William Bateson were saltationists, who believed that large mutations, not the small continuous variations Darwin postulated, better explained species change. Evolution was seen as an account of inheritance—of how characteristics were transmitted across time. Genetics, by contrast, was a science of difference: it explained how individuals varied from one another. So pervasive was the impression that Darwin’s ideas had been superseded that Haldane twice used the ironic epigraph “Darwinism is dead” for publications that showed Darwin’s continuing relevance to modern biology.2

Brave New World represents a modern synthesis of a different sort. Dystopian fiction arises from the fusion of two radically opposed literary genres, naturalism and utopia. In an excellent treatment of contemporary dystopian films, Phillip Wegner proposes that in the early twentieth century dystopia emerges when naturalism’s “thoroughgoing pessimism about the present moment is suddenly transported into the otherworldly space of the utopian fiction.”3 Wegner, like Fredric Jameson before him, notes the historical conjuncture of late-nineteenth-century utopias such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) with the naturalism of George Gissing and others.4 Both Bellamy and Morris explicitly acknowledged that their novels were counterblasts to the pessimism of writers like Gissing. Dystopia, which dates as a genre from the first decade of the next century, counters utopia’s rebuke to naturalism with its own dark reply. Dystopia constructs a model society by extrapolating from the worst, not the best, features of the contemporary world. Its status as a generic synthesis is endorsed by a later giant of the tradition, George Orwell, who told the British publisher of 1984 that his book was a futuristic “fantasy, but in the form of a naturalistic novel” (quoted in Wegner, Life between Two Deaths, 122).

There is little to link these two episodes in cultural history—little, that is...


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