Conditioning and Eugenics: Technology in “Brave New World”

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: GREAT UTOPIAN AND DYSTOPIAN WORKS OF LITERATURE

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

In the first few chapters of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley lays out all the features of the society he describes. Instead of the features of the future society slowly being revealed, we get an information dump before we even meet the main characters. One of the main ideas is the way the technology is used in this future world. What are these technologies, and how does Huxley see the impact of technology on life?

Human fetus against the scientific background.
The society described in the Brave New World is one in which all babies are born in a laboratory. (Image: hywards/Shutterstock)

From Alpha to Epsilon

The first thing we learn, from a character who is the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, about the world in the novel is that it is the year A.F. 632—After Ford, roughly the 26th century A.D.—and everyone is born out of a test tube in the ‘Hatchery’. In Brave New World, everyone is genetically engineered, and not just to perform specific functions in society, although that’s certainly part of it, but to be happy while performing whatever function goes with your engineering. This means that there is also a rigid caste system from Alphas at the top, to Epsilons at the bottom.

It’s a neat system. Humans carefully manufactured with just the right number in each caste, because you don’t need that many Alphas to run the community as a whole compared to how many Deltas and Epsilons you need to run its very busy factories. And they are very busy factories indeed, since everyone knows—has been conditioned to know—that ending is better than mending.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of LiteratureWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Behavioral Conditioning

The natural tendencies built into the genotype are enhanced by a well-developed program of operant—or behavioral—conditioning that was reflected in a work by Edward Thorndike, and that would anticipate B. F. Skinner’s groundbreaking book The Behavior of Organisms, published in 1938. In Brave New World, behavioral conditioning includes negative stimulus like the use of electric shock to create a negative association with behaviors that are undesirable to the society.

These are not undesirable behaviors like violence or vandalism. The first negative reinforcement we see is for babies. They are shown books and flowers, allowed to touch them and look at them, and then suddenly treated with a mild electric shock.

What is the purpose of this? It is to ensure that the children of the lower castes—Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons—have “an instinctive hatred of books and flowers.” It seems that having the lower castes reading would waste the Community’s time, and besides, they might read something that would challenge their conditioning.

The Conditioning of the Lower Castes

Old suitcase with sports equipment.
In Brave New World, the lower castes are encouraged to play sports, but hate nature. (Image: Stokkete/ Shutterstock)

So what about the flowers? It turns out to be an economic argument. The lower castes were once conditioned to like flowers, which would encourage them to go out to the country, therefore consuming transport.

But once there, they wouldn’t consume anything else, since enjoying the beauties of nature is free, contributing nothing to the economics of the World State. So now, the Director explains proudly, they’re conditioned to dislike the country but to love country sports, thus consuming both transport and the elaborate apparatus needed for such leisure activities.

Learn more about utopian science fiction.

Sleep Training for Mind Control

In this society, hypnopedia, or sleep training is used to achieve mind control. This is an example of Beta children being sleep conditioned:

All wear green…and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read and write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.

We are told that Alphas have to work too hard, therefore showing that kids are conditioned to respect but not envy those in higher castes, while looking down—instinctively, unquestioningly—on those of lower castes.

The Satire of Development

Little girl wearing the headphones and sleeping.
Sleep teaching is one of the methods of mind control that is used by the World State. (Image: Ira Lichi/Shutterstock)

From the opening pages, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning sets up the satire by earnestly pronouncing each element of the society as a clear improvement over former generations, as pure utopia. And as the setting is being developed in the novel, there’s lots of reinforcement—always tongue-in-cheek—for this view.

One of the Alphas comments, during a tour of the Hatchery:

Sleep teaching was actually prohibited in England. There was something called liberalism. Parliament, if you know what that was, passed a law against it. The records survive. Speeches about liberty of the subject. Liberty to be inefficient and miserable. Freedom to be a round peg in a square hole.

Learn more about dystopian pleasure.

The Impact of Technology

Brave New World is deeply concerned with the impact of advances like genetic engineering, operant conditioning, operations management, and advertising on our social structures and our individual identities.

As Huxley states elsewhere, his concern with all these technologies, these new ways of thinking, is that they will rob us not only of our freedom, but of our desire for freedom. And that’s how, through several fascinating characters—always sort of cut-out characters, but nonetheless memorable ones—he suggests that the cost of a eugenic system that is fully integrated with behavioral science is borne as much by those at the top of the planned hierarchy as by those at the bottom. In fact, the cost at the top may be higher.

Common Questions about Technology in Brave New World

Q: How does genetic engineering operate in Brave New World?

In Brave New World, everyone is genetically engineered, and not just to perform specific functions in society, but also to be happy while doing so. This means that there is also a rigid caste system from Alphas at the top, to Epsilons at the bottom.

Q: How is negative reinforcement established for the lower castes in Brave New World?

In Brave New World, babies of the lower castes—Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons—are shown books and flowers. They are allowed to touch them and look at them, and then suddenly treated with a mild electric shock. The purpose is to ensure that they have “an instinctive hatred of books and flowers.”

Q: How is mental conditioning employed in the world in Brave New World?

Hypnopedia, or sleep teaching, is employed to condition children in the Hatchery. In this, children are made to listen to recordings that condition them to know their place in the rigid hierarchy, respecting those above, and despising those below their levels.

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