Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies

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Oskar Gruenwald
Institute for Interdisciplinary Research

This essay seeks to explore the nature and effects of the new Post-Industrial Revolution as epitomized by the digital universe, the fusion of synthetic biology and cybernetics, and the promise of genetics, engendering new hopes of a techno-utopian future of material abundance, new virtual worlds, human-like robots, and the ultimate conquest of nature. Central to this project is the quest for transcending human limitations by changing human nature itself, consciously directing evolution toward a posthuman or transhuman stage. Less well understood is the utopia-dystopia syndrome illuminated by the dystopian imagination refracted in science-fiction literature in such famous twentieth-century dystopias as Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984, cautioning that utopias may lead to their opposite: dystopia, totalitarianism, dictatorship. The thrall of techno-utopia based on technology as a prosthetic god may lead to universal tyranny by those who wield political power. The essay concludes that what humanity needs is not some unattainable utopia but rather to cherish and nurture its God-given gifts of reason, free will, conscience, moral responsibility, an immortal soul, and the remarkable capacity of compassion to become fully human.

                                                                       THE NEW POST-INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

    We live in exciting times at the dawn of the Third Millennium where a new Post-Industrial Revolution promises unprecedented new powers to humanity to control its destiny. Spectacular advances in science and technology are indeed ushering in a new era where the choices between alternative uses of science and technology have far-reaching implications, more so than in all the previous eras. This is so because we are witnessing two distinct revolutions–digital and biological–which are now merging into a single phenomenon yet uncharted. The fusion of artificial intelligence and biotechnology or genetic engineering promises unprecedented new powers to humanity to control both nature and human nature.

    The thesis of this essay is that at the juncture where AI and gentech meet, there is the moment of man–the moment of decision: re-affirming human nature and its creaturely limitations or opting for the seductive call of a posthuman or transhuman utopia. This is also a teachable moment since what is at stake is no less than the future of humanity. And we can only begin to understand the available options, including the benefits and pitfalls of science and technique, via an interdisciplinary exploration of the human condition. In 24 thematic volumes published thus far, the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies has sought to explore important dimensions of this human quest for self-understanding. Science and technology came to dominate all aspects of life in the twentieth century. In contrast, the social sciences and humanities lost much of their credibility as “soft sciences,” allegedly dealing with the personal, subjective aspects of the human world (Gruenwald 2005).

    Our thesis is that life-enhancing choices between alternative technologies in the Third Millennium will require the combined knowledge and insights of all the arts and sciences, social sciences and humanities. In brief, the liberal arts are likely to emerge once more as the “necessary arts” to chart a more humane future. This is so because genetic engineering poses a challenge equal to AI’s transhumanism in its implications for human dignity and the very notion of what it means to be human. Indeed, there seems to be a confluence of gentech and AI, since they are closely related. While gentech promises fantastic new powers for humans to redesign God’s creation, AI seems to provide the necessary technology for manipulating such a Brave New World. Gentech’s enormous potential benefits include altered plants that can withstand diseases and vicissitudes of climate and thus yield more abundant crops to possibly end hunger in the world. New discoveries in the biosciences, such as the ability to grow skin tissue from DNA to repair damaged or burnt skin of fire or accident victims, may extend to growing entire organs or limbs which could revolutionize medicine, replacing organ transplants and prosthetics. Just like in nature, where amphibians can re-grow missing limbs, humans might be able to do the same. As with many successful human inventions, from the submarine to the airplane, nature has the secret key to regeneration processes which gentech might discover. But gentech’s social, psychological, and spiritual implications pose even greater challenges to human self-understanding (Anderson & Melnik 2013; Clough 2013). As in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), the central question concerns not only science or technique, but their impact on human self-identity and free choice. Gentech and AI may appear to replace God and elevate man in His place, since the new powers promise to fulfill humanity’s quest for self-sufficiency and immortality. As stewards of God’s creation, we face the challenge, then: how can science and technology benefit, rather than enslave all humanity?

    Curiously, it is also increasingly evident that science fiction is becoming fact. What popular science fiction writers like Jules Verne or H. G. Wells conceived via a lively literary imagination–such as the Nautilus submarine, space travel (journey to the moon), or human-animal hybrids–have become reality or loom as menacing potential of mixing human and animal DNA. There is, indeed, a strong utopian undercurrent in the digital and biotech revolutions which offer potentially drastic re-ordering of both nature and human nature.

    It is our thesis that to appreciate the risks of utopian endeavors, one may well turn to the genre of anti-utopian literature, such as the famous twentieth-century dystopias of Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell. Utopian literature such as Plato’s Republic (380 BC) and Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) sketch a legendary landscape of a perfect society in which human beings can find perfect happiness. But that utopia is unrealizable may be discerned already from the etymology of the term itself, u-topos (Greek for no-place). What is less clear is that the effort to usher in a utopian society or social order by force necessarily ends in its opposite–dystopia, totalitarianism, and dictatorship (Gruenwald 1983). Thus, Orwell’s novel reflects the bitter experience with fascist and communist dictatorships in the twentieth century, and warns of the concentration of power in a central authority or a Party whose sole purpose is to perpetuate its monopoly of power and total control over men. The scientific-technological means for such total control were visionary in 1949–the year of publication of 1984–but the ubiquitous surveillance by Big Brother in the fictional country of Oceania via the telescreen is no longer fiction, for the technology has advanced even further via various electronic devices, wireless, voice and eye recognition, DNA, and PC “stealth” surveillance, which can be used for commercial or military purposes, as well as infringement of personal privacy. As Marc Parry reports: “Increasingly, networked technologies track everything about us, creating records of where we go, what we buy, what we read, what we like, and who our friends are” (2013: A12). Huxley’s Brave New World, written two decades before the discovery of DNA’s double helix, is an even more visionary nightmare of a totally planned and controlled society, based on eugenics, where humans are bred in “hatcheries,” with highly specific markers (via chemical rather than biological means), which distinguish between different classes of humans who are bred to fit perfectly into their assigned roles in society. Huxley relates that he placed his dystopia 600 years into the future, but by 1958 indicated that the scientific-technological advances could make it a reality within a generation (Huxley 1964: 4).

    The outstanding warning in all three anti-utopias is the danger of unlimited power by self-appointed elites, and the horrendous abuse of science and technology in the service of total political control over the bodies and minds of men and women, seeking to enslave the human soul, whether for purely selfish or allegedly utilitarian reasons. The question posed in these twentieth-century dystopias may, then, be put in a nutshell: Is humanity heading toward an Orwellian Brave New World where men and women are but numbers, and where the human quest for independence, free choice, and self-transcendence is forfeited, mortgaged to utopia?

                                                                                   THE DIGITAL (DIS-) CONNECTION

    The invention of the first computer marked the beginning of the New Post-Industrial Revolution. Actually, before the first computer became reality, it was just an idea, confirming the notion that what the human imagination can conceive in theory, it can become so in reality, for better or worse. An engaging account of the origins of the digital universe is George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral (2012). Dyson credits Alan Turing’s Universal Machine, a theoretical construct invented in 1936, as the inspiration for the “stored-program computer,” which “broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things,” concluding that: “Our universe would never be the same” (2012: ix). It was John von Neumann and his team of researchers who took on the challenge of translating Turing’s idea into reality in mid-twentieth century. Dyson observes another revealing detail that the hydrogen bomb and the computer, “the most destructive and the most constructive human inventions,” appeared “at exactly the same time,” in 1945 (2012: x). Moreover, the two discoveries were the result of a race between military and civilian technologies.

    Few would deny the benefits of the new digital technology, which by now is known as “ubiquitous computing,” or “the third wave” in computing. In their study contextualizing ubiquitous computing, Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell note the all-pervasiveness of digital technology:

Computational technologies are embedded in social structures and cultural scripts of may sorts; ubicomp technologies prove also to be sites of social engagement, generational conflict, domestic regulation, religious practice, state surveillance, civic protest, romantic encounters, office politics, artistic expression, and more (2011: 41-42).

    The fact is that we are surrounded by, and immersed in, digital technologies. The most obvious areas impacted by digital technologies are the modern economy and communications, now inextricably linked via information processing and feedback. Digitization and automation have unleashed hitherto unknown capacities for increasing the production of goods and delivery of services, which dwarf the increases in productivity achieved a century earlier via Taylor’s managerial revolution emphasizing specialization and rationalization of labor. By the Third Millennium, knowledge production is widely recognized as more important than the production of physical goods and services. We are now said to be enjoying the benefits of a digital marketplace and a limitless information super-highway.

    A novel dilemma looms over the horizon: what to do with all the free time once computers and machines take over the drudgery of work? As Jeffrey Young wonders: “A coming wave of robots could redefine our jobs. Will that redefine us?” (2013: B7). The answer is: it already has! Just look at the typical human in the Western world, who already resembles a cyborg, hooked up to various electronic devices–PC, laptop, cell phone, iPhone, iPad, tablet, earplugs for receiving instant calls or messaging or listening to downloaded music, with a compulsive attachment to e-mail, texting, and messaging. Not to mention all the spam, telemarketing, cyber-bullying, identity theft, misrepresentation, and misunderstandings in the all-too–fluid forum of various social media (facebook, twitter, blogs, chat rooms, etc). All indicators of life in a digital universe or global village seem to point in the same direction: information overload. And, while the Internet is a limitless source of information, educators know that information cannot be equated with knowledge, which requires critical thinking, or wisdom, which entails ethical and spiritual discernment.

    As Elaine Showalter admits, ours is an Age of Anxiety, though much of it may be due to “stressism” (2013: B8). She credits Jeffrey P. Kahn’s Angst (2013) as a “genial guide to American angst,” because Kahn treats “depression and anxiety as the contemporary forms of primeval instincts of self- and social preservation” (2013: B7). Someone might remind millions of Americans on anti-depressants of this seemingly plausible observation. Meanwhile, on the nation’s campuses, counseling centers report a significant increase in the number of college students seeking help for severe psychological problems, ranging from anxiety to depression, especially concerning relationship issues (Sander 2013: A18).

    While techno-utopians like Ray Kurzweil celebrate the advent of “spiritual machines,” and a transhuman future where humans will be able to indulge every whim and fancy, other observers are more cautious. In fact, some, especially the youth, can become so dependent on social media and public approbation that it can affect their identity and concept of self-worth. Teenage suicides are on the rise on the nation’s campuses. Is there a connection between overexposure, being shamed, criticized, disparaged in social media, Internet chat rooms, and ubiquitous text messaging, tweeting, etc., and anxiety and depression? Common sense would suggest that there is, while the resulting emotional disturbance or deficit could lead to a range of (self-)destructive responses, ranging from anxiety and an inferiority complex to depression, personality disorders, violence, and suicide.

    In her study, Alone Together (2012), Sherry Turkle cautions regarding the negative effects of “sociable robots,” information overload, social networks, and other mainstream technologies. Turkle concludes that: “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, and yet we have allowed them to diminish us” (Young 2011: B9). In her view, we have become “a little too cozy” with our machines, whether smart phones, laptops, etc., which we turn to for comfort and distraction, even at the expense of real human relationships. This dilemma is likely to intensify with the development of “sociable robots,” machines that can be programmed to mimic human behavior. To the surprise of her team of researchers, Turkle found that a child exposed to (“befriended”) an interactive robot, became withdrawn and sullen, loading up on snacks, when the robot, Kismet, malfunctioned, which the 12-year old perceived not only as a lack of interest but a withdrawal of affection and emotional support (Young 2011: B10).

    Are we, then, at the threshold of exchanging the complexity of genuine relationships with other human beings for the artificial relationships with machines that can be programmed to feign human emotions? This would, indeed, be a Pyrrhic victory for humanity. Techno-utopians like David Levy in Love and Sex With Robots (2007) propose that, by the year 2050, some people may even choose to marry a robot. Already in 1982, the science fiction film, Blade Runner, offered a Hollywood-style happy ending, with the protagonist, Rick Deckard, and his android bride, Rachael, riding off into the sunset (Martin 2005). If such a utopian scenario ever became reality, humanity indeed would be compromised, allowing our creations to enslave us by becoming an appendage to the machine, cut off from real human beings, family, and community, desperately imitating self-transcendence in search of paradise.

    The outstanding question, then, is: How can the virtual world of cybernetics alleviate the human condition without adding to humanity’s emotional deficit in a postmodern era lacking universally valid ethical norms rooted in a transcendent vision of human nature, purposes, and goals (Gruenwald 2007)? Robert Anderson and Yevgeniya Melnik point out that, even in the near term, psychotherapists will have their hands full helping their clients cope with the new realities. For one, the dividing line between machines and humans will become blurred as robots become more like human beings while humans become more like robots. And, if robots ever develop self-awareness or consciousness, they will need therapists as well (2013: 48). Genetic engineering, especially the fusion of biotechnology and cybernetics, will heighten this conundrum, challenging our understanding of what it means to be a human being.

                                                                           SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY AND CYBERNETICS

    A strange thing happened to humanity on the way to the Third Millennium: For the first time in history, we are at the threshold of possibly seizing control of our evolutionary development. Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz note that humans have always used technology to enhance their capabilities, but those tools and technologies were external (2011: 2-3). Given our techno-human condition, then, human history can be understood as a long “transhuman trip” (2011: 1). However, Braden and Sarewitz point out that what is novel is that now, we have the potential of transforming ourselves from the inside out:

with powerful new genetic technologies on the horizon, with the increasing fusion of human and machine intelligence, and with neuropharmaceuticals, artificial body parts, and stem cell therapies, we are beginning the business of transforming ourselves from the inside out, of exerting explicit and conscious control over our existing selves and our evolving selves in ways that create new opportunities, new challenges, and new ways of thinking about who we are and where we are going. The very notion of what it means to be human seems to be in play (2011: 3).

    We are indeed at the threshold of a new era in biomedicine thanks to the sequencing of DNA in 2000. Advances in the science of genomics promise new therapies and technologies for the treatment of many illnesses, as well as prevention. Personalized medicine that uses one’s own stem cells and blood is in the experimental stage. One of the most felicitous scientific discoveries concerns adult stem cells that can produce embryonic cells, which renders the destruction of human embryos quite unnecessary. This, in itself, may resolve one of the most contentious issues facing the American public, regardless of political affiliation or religious persuasion. As to prevention, there are equally far-reaching techniques that can identify certain genes which cause disease, including cancer. Some express concern that advanced medical technologies may be available only to the rich, while the access to such treatments may be further limited by restrictive monopolistic practices. One such case was adjudicated in June 2013, where the U.S. Supreme Court found that Myriad Genetics, a diagnostic testing company, could not patent the two genes–BRCA1 and BRCA2–for merely discovering their exact chromosomal location and sequencing, since the two genes were not created in a lab, but occur in nature. As Justice Clarence Thomas concluded for the Court: “The location and order of the nucleotides existed in nature before Myriad found them” (Wapner 2013: A22). The Court decision thus prevented a company from patenting God’s creation, and opened a life-saving medical field to market competition, while encouraging scientific research, thus reducing cost for the test.

    In sum, synthetic biology appears to be coming into its own. Synthetic biology–the application of engineering to genetics–holds the promise of creating new materials, cheap and abundant biofuels, customized medicine, perhaps even self-growing houses. It is an exhilarating vision of potentially mastering life, promising to “reinvent life from the inside out,” with scientists drawing inspiration from electrical circuits and computing to “create standardized biological parts” (Voosen 2013: B10). However, as Jim Collins, one of the fathers of synthetic biology, admits, progress in this interdisciplinary field has been much slower than anticipated due to the “almost irrational complexity of life” (Voosen 2013: B11). Thus, to their surprise, researchers found that “the functions of many genes in even the simplest forms of life, like bacteria and yeast, stubbornly hold on to their secrets. Genetic networks interact in complex, mysterious ways. Engineered parts take wild, unexpected turns when inserted into genomes. And then evolution, a system that would drive any electrical engineer mad, tiptoes in” (Voosen 2013: B11).

    Life is messy, complex, interactive, unpredictable, and, yes–interdisciplinary! Scientists like Collins realize that: “Genome models are not where they need to be to do predictable design at the detailed level comfortable for engineers. And this jumble of components often produces unpredictable exchanges–everything interacting” (Voosen 2013: B13). Nonetheless, research in this interdisciplinary field continues, with more modest goals such as building “simple genetic switches” (Voosen 2013: B13).

    Even more daunting is the challenge of mapping the human brain, known as connectomics, a new branch of neuroscience, where connectome is a complete map of a brain’s neural circuitry. By 2010, a federally-funded Human Connectome Project was launched under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, a $40-million, multi-institution effort to study the field’s medical potential (Goldstein 2012). Proponents of this new field of research in connectomics, like Sebastian Seung, are enthusiastic regarding its potential to reveal the juncture of nature and nurture, confident that the brain’s wiring “makes us who we are,” yet admitting that the brain “remains an enigma” (2012: xi). Seung is optimistic concerning possibilities to renew our potential via the four types of connectome change–weighting, reconnection, rewiring, and regeneration (2012: 131). Yet, even the terminology of connectomics verges on science fiction. Seung is convinced that the flow of neural activity through connectomes underlies our experiences of the present as well as memories of the past. This leads him to conclude that:

Connectomics marks a turning point in human history. As we evolved from apelike ancestors on the African savannah, what distinguished us was our larger brains. We have used our brains to fashion technologies that have given us ever more amazing capabilities. Eventually, these technologies will become so powerful that we will use them to know ourselves–and to change ourselves for the better (2012: 276).

    Other neuroscientists are more skeptical concerning connectomics. Thus, Olaf Sporns notes that the basic assumption of connectomics that, “I am my connectome,” is not a testable hypothesis. Despite the putative “relationship between aspects of connectivity and personality and behavior,” states Sporns, “ I am not my connectome” (Goldstein 2012: B10). J. Anthony Movshon concurs that advances in this field have been slow, and that sensory neurons stimulated by various chemicals evoke opposite responses, yet the same circuit carries both signals, a phenomenon the connectome has yet to explain (Goldstein 2012: B10). The fact remains that mapping the human brain poses a challenge perhaps equal to mapping the entire universe. As David Eagleman intimates: “Neuroscience is obsessed with neurons because our best technology allows us to measure them . . . . But each individual neuron is in fact as complicated as a city, with millions of proteins inside of it, trafficking and interacting in extraordinarily complex biochemical cascades” (Goldstein 2012: B10).

    Our technologies may not–yet–be up to the task of deciphering the riddle of life. Yet, we are fast approaching a twilight zone between what is real and what is potential, fact and fiction. Just over the horizon may be the key to the closely guarded secrets of the universe concerning nature and human nature. The fusion of the new sciences of genomics, biochemical engineering, biotechnology, nanotechnology, cognitive science, and cybernetics open new vistas and possibilities for mastering nature and even redesigning God’s creation, for better or worse. A strong millenarian orientation characterizes such hopes for scientific-technological mastery of nature and human nature. This is evident in the premise of the transhumanist project, as articulated by Seung:

First, it’s the destiny of humankind to transcend the human condition. This is not merely what will happen, but what should happen. Second, it can be a personal goal to sign up for Alcor, dream about uploading, or use technology to otherwise improve oneself. In both of these ways, transhumanism lends meaning to lives that were robbed of it by science (2012: 273).

    What about human limitations such as mortality? Seung admits that immortality is the only “truly interesting problem in science and technology” (Goldstein 2012: B10). Seung is aware that: “The Bible said that God made man in his own image,” while the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach held that “man made God in his own image” (2012: 273). Seung omits to mention that Marxists-Leninists adopted Feuerbach’s notion as interpreted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as a basic ideological tenet justifying any and all means in the pursuit of a classless society, leading straight to the Gulag, the system of prisons and forced labor camps, the suppression of basic human rights and freedoms, and millions of hapless victims (Gruenwald 2000). Notwithstanding the disastrous consequences of the pursuit of atheistic utopias by fascists and communists in the twentieth century, Seung sums up transhumanist hopes for self-deification in the proposition: “The transhumanists say that humanity will make itself into God” (2012: 273).

                                                                                  THE THRALL OF TECHNO-UTOPIA

    It is characteristic of humans to dream. Since time immemorial, humans have dreamt of achieving a perfect society in which man could find perfect happiness. The wonderful world of the human imagination has filled such utopian visions with narratives of transcending the limitations of earthly existence. Such utopian scenarios have a strong religious undercurrent, which reflects humanity’s spiritual yearning for self-transcendence (Gruenwald 1997). The result has been a fascinating genre of utopian literature. By the Third Millennium, we are witnessing a revival of this ancient literary genre as techno-utopian literature. In contrast to classical utopias penned by poets and men of letters, techno-utopian literature is produced by philosophically-minded scientists. This makes the narratives in the techno-utopian genre more convincing, especially in an era in which humanity has achieved great technological advances, and hence grants science and technique preeminence as the most reliable criteria for knowledge of the world that allows humanity to fashion the creature comforts for a more dignified life in civilization. The thrall of techno-utopia is thus re-enforced by a culture that places a high value on science and technology, adumbrated by a commercial ethos fed by the practical applications and marketability of high-tech products that seem to create their own demand. Just ask kids what they want for a present: a doll, a train, or an iPhone?

    But, why should techno-utopian literature be taken seriously? After all, much of it verges on science-fiction. The problem or promise–depending on one’s perspective–is that: (1) techno-utopian literature’s science fiction may become fact; and (2) the pursuit of techno-utopian goals may lead to their opposite: dystopia, totalitarianism, and dictatorship. The dilemma is compounded by the fact that, by now, elements of the techno-utopian vision are embedded increasingly in people’s everyday lives, reflected in the commercialization of a self-centered culture. Humanity seems to be embarked on an odyssey whose outcome is uncertain. What, then, is the thrall, or Siren Song, of techno-utopia?

    Prominent among techno-utopians are such scientific luminaries and inventors as Ray Kurzweil, George Church, Sebastian Seung, Kenneth Hayworth, et al. Perhaps the best known, if not most accomplished, is Kurzweil, with a long list of scientific-technological inventions and patents, honors (including eighteen honorary doctorates), awards, prizes, inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002, who received the National Medal of Technology in 1999 for computer-based technologies that help the disabled. Kurzweil’s books like The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) and The Singularity Is Near (2005) are best-sellers. Even before his employment by Google since 2012, Kurzweil turned his inventions into commercial successes, launched and sold high-tech start-ups, created a Singularity University (with Google and NASA Ames Research Center) to train corporate executives and government officials, joined advisory boards of organizations like Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Lifeboat Foundation, courted even by the U.S. Army Science Advisory Board concerned with defenses against possible abuses of biotechnology.

    At first glance, Kurzweil’s impeccable scientific credentials, technological mastery, inventions, patents, publications, successful business ventures, consultancies, awards, prizes, and world-wide recognition and fame as a scientific guru cum inventor, would appear to place him beyond the pale of criticism. Moreover, his contributions to human welfare are undeniable. Kurzweil’s inventions, benefitting many, include such technical gadgets as the CCD flatbed scanner, omni-font optical character recognition, print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, commercial text-to-speech synthesizer, a music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and an entire orchestra, and large-vocabulary speech recognition. To top it off, Kurzweil boasts an enviable record of near-prophetic predictions regarding future technological developments that came about, though not necessarily according to his timetable. Thus, Kurzweil predicted the phenomenal growth in world-wide use of the Internet and communication technologies, with preference for wireless systems, and cell phones that would shrink in size. In the field of Artificial Intelligence, Kurzweil predicted that computers would beat the best human chess players by the year 2000 due to advanced chess software. In fact, by 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer defeated Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, in a stunning televised match that impressed millions. Kurzweil further predicts that the next generation of computers using advances in biotechnology, with biological cells to store and carry information, will outpace by far the computational capacity of non-biological computers. This leads Kurzweil to hypothesize that within 20-25 years, nanobots, blood-cell sized devices inside human bodies, could ward off disease, and improve memory and cognition.
    At this point, almost imperceptibly, Kurzweil crosses the terrain between fact and fiction, while remaining in the twilight zone. Where, then, is Kurzweil’s techno-utopia? It may be found in Kurzweil’s quest for the legendary fountain of youth, life-extension technologies, “spiritual machines,” nanotechnology, robotics, man-machine symbiosis, cryonics, uploading of the brain to a computer and, especially, his notion of a Singularity as the result of exponential growth of scientific-technological know-how, enabling a radical life expansion and even transcending human biology, escaping from death. These are also the aims of the transhumanist movement that considers evolution in need of conscious direction to achieve the next stage of evolutionary progress by transforming the human into a posthuman or transhuman race. This, then, is a postmodern version of the age-old quest for transcending human limitations and achieving immortality. Kurzweil adds his own twist to the utopian scenario with his idea of a Singularity: that by 2045, humanity will be left behind, outpaced by enormous technological changes, which will require that humans enhance their intelligence by merging with their creations–intelligent machines. At last, the Cup of Life, the Holy Grail (Gruenwald 1997).

    But, would pursuing such a techno-utopian vision lead to the end of humanity as we know it, with the option of uploading one‘s brain to a computer, where it could be imprisoned in a labyrinth of infinite loops, searching for its soul–a postmodern rendition of Dante’s Inferno? Furthermore, could such a dubious quest for a substitute immortality drive a scientist to madness? Kenneth Hayworth admits that much, while placing his hopes in a better understanding of how the brain works, which may invalidate our most cherished beliefs regarding the self, mortality, and the very meaning of existence. In a rare admission for a scientist, Hayworth avers that we may lose “part of our humanity because we know too much” (Goldstein 2012: B10). As an afterthought, Hayworth confides that: “I try not to go too far down that road . . . because I feel that I would go mad” (Goldstein 2012: B10).

    Apocalypse Now? A daunting sign of these times of “future shock” is the prospect of a college president who teaches “the practical ethics of immortality.” It is not a soap opera or a made-for-TV movie. Dubbed a “president for the cyborg generation,” Rollins College’s Lewis Duncan encourages youth to consider the ethical implications of technological advances merging machines and humans, and bringing immortality arguably within reach of today’s college students (Stripling 2012: A14). Recalling that in science-fiction films cyborgs typically battle humans, Joon-mo T. Ku, one of Duncan’s bright students, objects that: “We are messing with Mother Nature and playing God. That’s what really scares me” (Stripling 2012: A14).
Some, like Allenby and Sarewitz, appear comfortable with the notion of humanity’s progress to “the next evolutionary phase of humanness” (2011:2). They insist that the techno-human condition is nothing new, though “a different game–transhumanism–is now afoot” (2011: 2). To Allenby and Sarewitz, humans may already be enhanced in the near future:

To mention just a few of the standard features of your enhanced brain and body, you now come equipped with a fully re-engineered immune system, an up-to-date capacity to distinguish fact from fiction, a completely revised set of cultural assumptions about gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, and, for those of you under thirty, or addicted to i-Phones, a special condensed-language module for instant messaging–all in your own brain and body (2011: 1).

    Allenby and Sarewitz note wistfully that some might add “customized enhancements,” such as “ceramic alloy joints, neurochemical mood modulators, hormone performance boosters, and psychopharma,” to enhance “concentration and cognitive function” (2011: 2). But, what about the unfair advantage that artificial enhancements such as steroids, blood transfusions, drugs, etc., lend to athletes, skewing the results of sports contests from cycling and swimming to baseball and football? While banned, such practices appear more widespread than initially assumed. This is definitely not good news for sports, or for youth who look at sports figures as role models, and demeaning to all practitioners who play by the rules: no artificial performance boosters. In sports, the line between therapy and enhancement is currently drawn in favor of Oscar Pistorius’ artificial legs which enable him not only to walk but even compete in track-and-field. Some have reservations that prosthetic limbs, though not bionic, may still confer an unfair advantage to the South African athlete known as the “Blade Runner.”

    Yet, the thrall of techno-utopia is especially powerful when it comes to prospects for enhancing human capabilities, which is the other side of the coin of eliminating human limitations. There is something irresistible in the bi-line of the famous TV show, “Six Million Dollar Man” (1974-78), in which a former astronaut, who suffers near-fatal injuries in a crash, is literally put back together again using bionic implants, with the express promise: “We’ll make him stronger, faster, better.” Predictably, the episodes feature the lead character, Lee Majors, in Superman-type roles. For gender equality, there is the superlative “Wonder Woman” (1975-79), starring Lynda Carter, wrapped (scantily) in the national flag (red-white-and-blue), and subsequent incarnations as “Xena: Warrior Princess” (1995-2001), aka Lucy Lawless, with mystical powers appealing to postmodern sensibilities, etc. And, who can forget the “Jetsons” (1962-87), a whimsical portrayal of family life in a high-tech sci-fi universe? Popular with both children and adults, the animated TV comedy series created by Hanna-Barbera, featuring cartoon characters in a futuristic setting, tickled one’s imagination with such high-tech gadgets as a fully-automated household, a sociable maid-butler-nanny robot, and flying saucers. In brief, pure science-fiction. In the meantime, George Lucas’ (of Star Trek fame) model computerized home compares favorably with the Jetsons’. Sociable robots are coming soon, while flying contraptions are not far behind, to realize Icarus’ evocative dream. Culturally, then, the American public seems receptive to the notion that science and technology can radically enhance human capabilities.

    With the advent of DNA and genetic engineering, re-kindling prospects of re-inventing humanity, techno-utopia appears within reach. Nathaniel Comfort (2012a), a historian of medicine, observes that genes have become the heart of American medicine. Comfort relates that despite discredited attempts to biologically engineer society in the Progressive era, and the notorious Nazi experiments, there remains a “eugenic impulse" that:

drives us to eliminate disease, to live longer and healthier, with greater intelligence and a better adjustment to the conditions of society. It arises whenever the humanitarian desire for happiness and social betterment combines with an emphasis on heredity as the essence of human nature. It is the aim of control, the denial of fatalism, the rejection of chance. The dream of engineering ourselves, of reducing suffering now and forever” (2012b: B5).

    Comfort’s perceptive elucidation of the “eugenic impulse” helps to explain the psychological dynamic that suffuses the techno-utopian quest for a posthuman or transhuman world. The scientific-technological means for such a transformation of humanity from inside out are advancing rapidly. Enthusiasts like George Church and Ed Regis claim that: “Genomic technologies can actually allow us to raise the dead” (2012b: B4). Church and Regis cite the famous case of Dolly, the first cloned sheep, and the even more astonishing revival of an extinct species–the Pyrenean ibex, a subspecies of wild mountain goat, brought to life (briefly) via interspecies nuclear transfer cloning (2012b: B4).

    In their mind-bending Regenesis (2012a), Church and Regis sketch a techno-utopian scenario where both nature and human nature are “reinvented” thanks to advances in synthetic biology, in particular the ability to read and write DNA. They cite examples of genetically modified food, and the prospect of new chemicals, plastics, fuels, drugs, and vaccines that are within reach by manipulating genomes. The authors are convinced that the genome’s potential can be applied to the human species as well to increase intelligence, gain full immunity to pathogens, and extend dramatically the human life span (if not abolish mortality). Capping these predictions, Church and Regis reveal their underlying neo-Darwinian faith in evolutionary progress:
We stand at the door of manipulating genomes in a way that reflects the progress of evolutionary history: starting with the simplest organisms and ending, most portentiously, by being able to alter our own genetic makeup. Synthetic genomics has the potential to recapitulate the course of natural genomic evolution, with the difference that the course of synthetic genomics will be under our own conscious deliberation and control instead of being directed by the blind and opportunistic processes of natural selection. We are already remaking ourselves and our world, redesigning, recoding, and reinventing nature itself in the process (2012b: B5).

    Welcome to a Brave New World! But, at what cost? What about the human psychological, social, economic, political, philosophical, and spiritual ramifications of such a Brave New World? To begin with, one should note the more modest expectations regarding the potential of genetic engineering and synthetic biology in the near term. Jim Collins, a leading scientist in synthetic biology, admits that all the hype has actually hurt his field in which progress, while real, has been much slower than anticipated. Yet, given the historical record of past scientific-technological advances, one is inclined to agree with Kurzweil that the pace of change may be accelerating, whether or not it amounts to a “law of accelerating returns.” Notable scientists who agree with Kurzweil on this point include Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. However, Joy (April 2000) cautions that the exponential advances in such technologies as AI, nanotechnology, and biotechnology may lead to a dystopian world.

    The Achilles’ heel of techno-utopia concerns not merely the science-fiction aspect of science or technique, but their impact on human self-understanding and free choice. Critics point out that attempts to “re-invent” humans are fraught with negative consequences. While there is near-universal agreement approving the use of genetic engineering to cure or ward off diseases, gentech used for enhancement, such as “designer babies,” is more problematic. The issue is compounded further by the blurry line between therapy, medical remedy or prevention and enhancements. Comfort expresses the concern regarding gentech that: “In the end, no logical friction can slow the slide from prevention to enhancement” (2012b: B5). The most obvious dilemma is that gentech enhancements will be available only to the rich, thus further disenfranchising the poor. Indeed, gentech could create a “genetic divide,” augmenting the already discriminatory “digital divide,” where most of the world’s population cannot afford the benefits of new technologies. A “genetic divide” is even more damaging because of its permanence, freezing class divisions between rich and poor, thus undermining the American Promise of equal opportunity and upward social mobility that encourages the aspiration for professional and business success by climbing the social ladder from a day laborer or messenger boy to a doctor, lawyer, business owner, corporate executive, or even president of the United States.

    One of the most insightful critiques of techno-utopia is undoubtedly Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future (2002). Fukuyama’s thesis is that advanced technologies, such as gentech, could change human nature, and deracinate our conceptions of both human dignity and human rights, cut off from a moral order built on natural rights, undermining the human capacity for moral choice, free will, and faith, and thus the very possibility of politics necessary for a liberal democracy. At the heart of Fukuyama’s argument is the concern that our very self-concept as a human species is at stake. Fukuyama cites Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis in support of his thesis that “nature itself, and in particular human nature, has a special role in defining for us what is right and wrong, just and unjust, important and unimportant” (2002: 7). Fukuyama bemoans that the notion of natural rights has fallen in disrepute, and with the earlier abandonment of divine rights, only one possible source of rights remains: positivistic rights (2002: 11). This is troubling since “there are no positive rights that are also universal” (Fukuyama 2002: 113). A positivistic approach to rights robs humanity of a moral compass or fixed norms to adjudicate values, ethics, and moral dilemmas. This is so, concludes Fukuyama, because a positivistic approach to rights lacks “transcendent standards for determining right and wrong beyond whatever the culture declares to be a right” (2002: 113).

    Fukuyama’s proposed solution to the challenge posed by science and technology to possibly change human nature is not to abandon the scientific quest, but rather “greater political control over the uses of science and technology” (2002: xiii). This is necessary, according to Fukuyama, as a countervailing measure to the prevailing reductionist, materialistic philosophy underpinning science and technology that recognizes no inherent human essence, and hence no moral limits to experimentation. As Fukuyama puts it: “Since Darwinism maintains that there is no cosmic teleology guiding the process of evolution, what seems to be the essence of a species is just an accidental by-product of a random evolutionary process” (2002: 152). In brief, Fukuyama is skeptical whether science or scientists, who acknowledge only material causes while disregarding moral/ethical, mental, and spiritual aspects of human nature, can be trusted as infallible guides to “progress,” especially involving changing human nature via genetic engineering. In sum, Fukuyama’s concern is that biotechnology may indeed succeed in altering human nature, and lead to a “posthuman future.” Crucial for Fukuyama, then, is that we guard human nature, both as a reality and a meaningful concept, because it:

has provided a stable continuity to our experience as a species. It is, conjointly with religion, what defines our most basic values. Human nature shapes and constrains the possible kinds of political regimes, so a technology powerful enough to reshape what we are will have possibly malign consequence for liberal democracy and the nature of politics itself (2002: 7).

    Unlike those who believe that science and technology may be approaching their limits, Fukuyama is more realistic, approving the benefits of research and innovation, and acknowledging that humanity may, in fact, “be poised at the cusp of one of the most momentous periods of technological advance in history” (2002: 15). But, it is the dark side of this prospect of phenomenal advances, especially in the field of biotechnology, that worries Fukuyama. In promising a Brave New World, Fukuyama notes: “The ultimate question raised by biotechnology is, What will happen to political rights once we are able to, in effect, breed some people with saddles on their backs, and others with boots and spurs?” (2002: 9-10). It is at this juncture that one might consult the genre of dystopian literature, which highlights both some possibilities and limits of the techno-utopian quest to transform nature and human nature, culture, society, and politics.

                                                                                 THE UTOPIA - DYSTOPIA SYNDROME

    Dystopian literature is a peculiar genre that combines elements of science-fiction with a critique of contemporary socio-political and cultural trends embedded in narratives exploring the limits of the human imagination and the inherent complexity of human nature. Dystopian visions may also be read as the opposite of utopia. Less well understood is the relationship between the two–what one might call the utopia-dystopia syndrome (Gruenwald 1983). While there are divergent interpretations of the motivations and intentions of their authors as well as the rich symbolism characteristic of the genre, there is a consensus that dystopian literature may be read and comprehended on many levels. Thus, science-fiction enthusiasts can find many aspects to flatter their imagination. Futurists may find particular satisfaction in the almost uncanny accuracy of many scientific-technological predictions. All are likely to be captivated by the love stories, especially of love’s labors lost or frustrated, typical of dystopian narratives. This constitutes perhaps the major strength and timeless relevance of dystopian literature. It reflects the human condition–its vast range of emotions and passions, intellect and the imagination, and the quest for self-realization and self-transcendence in the face of social pressures for conformity and the prospect of losing one’s freedom of choice and selfhood usurped by those intent on pursuing utilitarian or utopian goals or simply following the all-too-human lust for power.

    Three famous twentieth-century dystopias–Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s 1984–were all influenced by H. G. Wells. As a utopian socialist, Zamyatin was perhaps closest to Wells ideologically. Unlike Wells, Zamyatin would see his dream of a classless utopia turn into its opposite–dystopia, totalitarianism, and dictatorship--during his lifetime. Arguably, Zamyatin’s We is the most satirical, drawing on the rich Russian pre-revolutionary literary heritage, especially Fyodor Dostoevsky. Apart from Wells, the inspiration for We came from Zamyatin’s soujourn in England as a naval engineer, impressed by Western technology birthed by the Industrial Revolution, specifically the American school of Taylorism that introduced modern techniques of organization, division of labor, and scientific management.

    Zamyatin weaves these elements skillfully together in his novel We about a futuristic One State organized to promote maximum efficiency, where men and women are known merely as numbers. Life in the One State is also organized “by the numbers,” following a specific Table. The One State has conquered the world, and is building a spaceship, the Integral, to invade and conquer the planets. The project’s chief engineer, D-503, who supports the aims of the One State, writes a journal to be carried on the Integral. To insure conformity, the secret police or Bureau of Guardians keep watch over all the citizens. Transparency has a whole new meaning in this society under total state control as people live in glass apartments, and all deviations from strict rules are reported to the authorities. Perhaps influenced by Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), outside the Green Wall which surrounds the city-state are strange inhabitants, the Mephi, humans whose bodies are covered with animal fur.

    What disrupts this perfectly organized ant hill is human passion. In the totally organized society, the State assigns a lover, O-90, on certain nights, to D-503. But, O-90 is unhappy with her lot in life, considered too short to bear children, which leads her to persuade D-503 to impregnate her, later to escape beyond the Green Wall with the help of I-330. In the meantime, D-503 lusts for I-330 who defies the laws of the One State by smoking, drinking alcohol, and flirting with D-503. The denoument is that they are all found out: D-503, along with all citizens, is subjected to the “Great Operation,” akin to a lobotomy, that removes the imagination to prevent potential rebellion, while I-330 is executed. Nonetheless, the Mephi rebellion spreads beyond the breached Green Wall, leaving the State’s authority in doubt, underlining Zamyatin’s notion that there is no final revolution.

    The tragedy of Zamyatin as a gifted writer is that he foresaw that the Soviet system would result in conformism (socialist realism) and stifle independent thought and creativity. Zamyatin, an idealist, was imprisoned both in Tsarist Russia for joining the Bolsheviks as a student and in Soviet Russia for not following the Party line. Zamyatin’s works, including We, were banned in the U.S.S.R. During the 1920s, Party watchdogs were increasingly critical of Zamyatin who had to give up his leadership of the All-Russian Writers’ Union. Unable to publish at home, Zamyatin wrote a personal letter to Joseph Stalin by 1931, asking to be allowed to emigrate with his wife, which was granted (perhaps due to Maxim Gorky’s influence). But Zamyatin, who settled in Paris, felt isolated, and died impoverished in 1937, ignored or despised by the polarized Russian émigré community, since he considered himself a Soviet writer till the end, and longed to return to his homeland.

    Many consider Zamyatin one of the greatest writers of the Soviet era. Less appreciated is the fact that Zamyatin became a stranger in his own country, a pre-revolutionary Bolshevik whom Party hacks denounced as an “enemy of the working class.” In retrospect, it is clear that Zamyatin’s literary imagination outran his political comprehension of the new Soviet realities which would dash his youthful hopes for a classless society. Yet he anticipated and cautioned against the prospect of the Revolution being betrayed by pressures for conformism, suppressing free thought, a systematic devaluation of the imagination constraining the writer’s creativity and making true literature impossible. In his essay, “I Fear” (1921), Zamyatin warned that unless it cured itself of this illness, Russia would have no real literature, and that its only future would be–its past.

    The ban on Zamyatin’s writings and plays was only the first sign of the subsequent transformation of his utopian aspirations into their dystopian opposite under Stalin’s dictatorship, herding the masses toward an ever-receding “paradise on earth,” a failed Gnostic project of immanentizing the eschaton. Sired by force, the quest for a classless society would require draconian means, the suppression of all dissent and basic human rights and freedoms, total organization and control of all spheres of life–culture, economy, politics, society–dismantling civil society, banning religion, enforcing a one Party monopoly on truth, hoisting an ideological straightjacket on culture, education, personal and social relationships. The rule by men, unconstrained by morality or law, led straight to the Gulag, and millions of victims, recounted in Russian underground literature made famous by such writers as Boris Pasternak, Roy Medvedev, and Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn (Gruenwald 1980).

    Zamyatin was spared the bitter truth, recognized decades later by French intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Lévy that there is: “No socialism without camps, no classless society without its terrorist truth” (1979: 158). We was published in Russia only in 1988, along with Orwell’s 1984, while Huxley’s Brave New World appeared in 1989, following Mikhail Gorbachov’s perestroika and glasnost. Providentially, the year 1988 marked the Millennium of Christianity in Rus, a turning point in Russia’s spiritual renaissance. At last, Russia found its soul. But, the recovery of Russia’s literary, cultural, and religious heritage would take time. It would need to overcome the heavy burden of the past: 70 years of totalitarian atheist dictatorship which banned God from the public square and tried, unsuccessfully, to extirpate the sense of universal morals and a Creator-Redeemer God from the Russian consciousness preserved in the venerable Russian religious art of iconography–a reminder of the role of symbols unique to humanity (Gruenwald 1990).

    In contrast to Zamyatin’s nearly forgotten We, Orwell’s 1984 is one of the best-known twentieth-century works widely acknowledged as a classic in the dystopian genre. Orwell’s earlier novel, Animal Farm (1945), is a model political satire of Stalin’s U.S.S.R., where some animals are “more equal than others.” Orwell’s 1984 uses a much larger canvass, drawing on motifs, experiences, and influences from both East and West, in particular Britain’s wartime and immediate postwar challenges fused with all-too-real socio-psychological, economic, political, and cultural conditions in the Soviet Union under Stalin. The consensus among those familiar with life in a communist system is that Orwell’s 1984 is but a thinly disguised, fictionalized account of life in Stalin’s U.S.S.R., minus the telescreen. But, 1984 may also be read as a cautionary tale of universal tyranny which could afflict the West as well, including Britain and America.

    Central to 1984 is totalitarian control of society by a Party elite which suppresses all individualism and free choice. The inner Party, symbolized by Big Brother, controls the population via ubiquitous surveillance (2-way telescreen), an official ideology (Ingsoc), based on double-think (dialectical materialism), a shifting Party line that requires a continuous re-writing of history, and skillful manipulation of public opinion via Newspeak and “Two Minutes Hate,” fabricated by the Party for propaganda purposes. The plot itself is strangely familiar, sketching a scenario following a global atomic war, where the three remaining super-states, with constantly changing alliances, vie for domination of the rest of the world. The three super-states are described as Oceania (Western hemisphere, Britain, Australasia, S. Africa), Eurasia (Continental Europe, Russia, Eurasia), and Eastasia (China, Japan, Korea, Indochina).

    The plot revolves around Winston Smith and Julia, a classic love story. Smith, a member of the outer Party, employed by the Ministry of Truth, is endlessly re-writing history to conform to the current Party line, yet secretly rebelling against the stifling conformism and philistinism of the inner Party, and yearning to learn the truth about real history. It is Julia who slips Winston a note, stating, “I love you.” Initially, Winston loathes Julia, a member of the fanatical Junior Anti-Sex League (akin to Soviet komsomol). But, he finds out that she also hates the Party, which makes her a thought criminal like Winston. Soon, Julia and Winston are involved in a romantic relationship, with attempts at secrecy, eluding the telescreen. However, as in the U.S.S.R., human spies report the lovers to the Thought Police (aka NKVD) who arrest the pair in their bedroom, and subject them to torture, brainwashing, and re-education (typical of communist practices in U.S.S,R., P.R. China, Vietnam, N. Korea, Cuba), breaking them down, destroying their lovers’ bond, and forcing each to betray the other.

    Winston struggles in vain to find some justification for the Party’s methods. O’Brien, a member of the Thought Police, befriends Winston at first by handing him a copy of the forbidden book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by Emmanuel Goldstein, the leader of the Brotherhood, considered an “enemy of the state.” Later, the same O’Brien becomes Winston’s interrogator. At Winston’s query whether Party methods, which include torture and total power, may be justified by the pursuit of a greater common good, O’Brien retorts that the purpose of torture is torture, and the object of power is power, pure and simple. To a stunned Winston, O’Brien explains that:

The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwittingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish a dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power (Orwell 1964: 217).

    This revelation only serves to further demoralize Winston, and demolish possible defenses and rationalizations. The novel ends with Winston pledging undying love and allegiance to Big Brother, completing his re-integration in Oceania society.

    Is it not surprising that 1984 was banned in communist systems, including Tito’s Yugoslavia. As the Czech dissident writer, Milan Simecka, reminisced upon first reading a clandestine copy of Orwell, smuggled into Czechoslovakia by his wife: “The ‘similarity of our everyday life’ with life in Nineteen Eighty-Four comes as a physical shock, neither pleasant nor amusing” (McInnis 1987: 350). Another dissident, Tomas Venclova, a Lithuanian who left the U.S.S.R. in 1977 for the U.S. (sponsored by Czeslaw Milosz and other Western writers), admits that he read 1984 in Moscow in 1962 or 1963, and that the book “made perhaps the greatest impact on my life” (McInnis 1987: 349). Milosz notes that in the Stalin era, 1984 was “known only to the Inner Party,” but that even those “who knew Orwell only by hearsay” were “amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have such a keen perception into its life” (McInnis 1987: 349).

    It is, therefore, all the more surprising that some Western observers claim that the experts are wrong, and that Orwell’s 1984 is not about the Soviet Union at all. In a fascinating, well-argued essay, entitled “The 60th Anniversary of Orwell’s 1984,” David A. Goldman asserts that 1984 is a “satire of the highest order written against Fabian socialists” (2009: 1). Goldman refers to a letter to Sidney Sheldon in which Orwell intimates that 1984 tries to “imagine what communism would be like if it were firmly rooted in the English speaking countries, and was no longer a mere extension of the Russian Foreign Office” (2009: 1). Ironically, all authors from Wells to Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell were socialists! Goldman readily acknowledges that 1984 is not a critique of democratic socialism, but a warning that postwar Fabian socialists might further concentrate government power via collectivist policies, continued crises, central economic planning, manipulation of public opinion, and that: “No revolution could ever overthrow them” (2009: 3). Goldman suggests that Orwell was “less a prophet than the satirist who established benchmarks for arrival of a totalitarian society” (2009: 4). After noting many such benchmarks, including police surveillance, the 2012 DSM-V manual’s diagnostic creep re what constitutes mental illness, lower educational standards, grade inflation, a culture that lowers attention spans, the accumulation of political power, and government intrusion into “all areas of public welfare,” Goldman remains optimistic that:

Fortunately, America today still falls far short of the Josef Stalin monstrosity. We still do not gag all the critics to shut them up, as our right to free speech still largely prevails. Stalin’s state religion of leader worship falls short of adoption today. Purges and show trials remain in the future, it they occur at all. Visas to travel within the country are unnecessary. Truth as yet cannot be routinely falsified so long as we savor the fruits of free science. Firearms still hang on pegs in our safes. Murder of rich farmers to trigger famine in the United States appears extremely unlikely. And certainly tens of millions have yet to be exiled to the gulags (2009: 6).

    Still, given humanity’s checkered history, a question remains: Could the social democratic welfare state, a model of Western affluence, morph into Fabian socialism on the road back to serfdom as postulated by Friedrich Hayek (Woods 2011), thus fulfilling Dostoevsky’s prophecy in The Grand Inquisitor (1880)? Some might object that America is not Europe; therefore, it cannot happen here. But, Samuel Gregg (2013) cautions that America is becoming more like Europe, with low growth, lower birth rates, exploding debt, and the beguiling promise of cradle-to-grave benefits conferred by government bureaucracies, while elites continue to concentrate their political power. If true, this would appear to reverse the postwar phenomenon when Europe, and much of the world, admired America as a land of freedom and unlimited opportunities, reflected in a coveted high standard of living. Gregg concludes that if America pursues a European trajectory, it could become what Alexis de Tocqueville called a “soft despotism.”

    Could such a “soft despotism” be facilitated by scientific-technological advances underpinning the quest for a techno-utopian future? Long before the discovery of DNA, or even the first computer, Huxley’s sci-fi thriller, Brave New World, sketched a futuristic scenario of a world where scientific-technological advances afford elites total control over a population. In Huxley’s hair-raising scenario, such total control is largely internalized by breeding people to fit perfectly into pre-determined roles maximizing economic efficiency and collective happiness. People are bred via chemical (rather than genetic) engineering into 5 castes: Alpha (the rulers), and the lower castes: Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon. While Alpha are the most intelligent, decanted individually, members of the lower castes are not unique, but created via the “Bokanovsky Process,” where a single egg can spawn up to 96 children, and one ovary can produce thousands of children. In addition, chemical interference causes arrested development in intelligence and physical growth for the lower castes. Nonetheless, members of each caste are perfectly happy with their lot, their self-worth and self-satisfaction re-enforced externally via subliminal sleep-teaching (hypnopaedia), indoctrination, material affluence, and a hedonistic lifestyle unencumbered by marriage or children, replaced by recreational sex and state-sanctioned “drug-holidays” (soma).

    The plot is more complex in Brave New World, due, in part, to a contrast between characters conditioned for this utopia and the protagonist who is simply human (born naturally, not “enhanced”). There are conflicts also among the conditioned arising from imperfections in the chemical process. Thus, Bernard Marx, while an Alpha Plus, is shorter in stature, which gives him an inferiority complex. His only friend is Helmholtz Watson, an Alpha Plus lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering, whose job is to teach writing propaganda. Helmholtz’s sense of social isolation is due to his being too intelligent, too handsome, and too strong, and his individualistic desire to write poetry.

    The protagonist, John the Savage, was born outside of the World State, on a reservation, while his mother, Linda, became pregnant accidentally during a visit to an Indian village, and ashamed of her pregnancy, decided to stay on the reservation. But, she longs for city life in London and the enjoyable soma. Bernard arranges for Linda and John to leave the reservation and return to civilization. The plot now thickens, since Helmholtz befriends John, while Bernard feels rejected. It is John, however, whose perceptions of the idyllic life in the World State become an ongoing struggle that contrasts his humanness with the robot-like behavior of the conditioned denizens of Brave New World.

    John discovers to his horror the emptiness of the utopian society that lacks the one crucial ingredient which makes us human: individuality and its attributes of self-consciousness, free will, and emotions, which are indispensable for interpersonal relationships. Thus, when John is introduced to his father, Thomas, for the first time (thanks to the scheming Bernard), and calls him “father,” there is embarrassing laughter, upon which Thomas resigns in shame as Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. Later, when Linda, John’s mother, passes away, the crowds treat it as a spectacle, upon which John tosses their soma rations out the window, causing an uproar. To insure collective happiness and a care-free existence, people in this Brave New World are hatched, not born, pregnancies are considered shameful, there are no family ties, and hence no one to love or mourn, and people die in perfect health at age 60. This insane asylum, where no genuine emotional ties are allowed, finally drives John to isolate himself in an abandoned lighthouse, while Bernard and Helmholtz are exiled to remote islands.

    There is a strange love story in Brave New World between Lenina Crowne, a hatchery worker, who fits well into her society, and John. Lenina tries to seduce John, but fails, because of her conditioning. When Lenina, who is conditioned for love-less, mechanical sex, offers her favors to John, he rejects her advances in disgust though he secretly desires her. The episode highlights the chief weakness of utopian attempts to abolish or re-design human nature itself.

    Sexuality is a common theme in all three novels–We, 1984, and Brave New World. At first glance, sexuality (eros) appears as a subversive force in these novels, lending credence to the notion that sexual liberation may still lead to rebellion against political subjugation. This may be a popular reading, but in all three novels, romantic liaison is not only or even primarily about sex, tout court, but rather reflects the more basic human longing for intimacy and private lives which escapes Party control. In fact, in Huxley, sex is completely commodified and divorced from love, family, and genuine relationships. There is something fundamentally wrong with this counterfeit paradise: individual freedom, free will, choice between good and evil, moral responsibility, the soul, spiritual growth, independent thought and creativity are all eliminated and even mocked because people are bred like animals to fit pre-designed niches and conditioned to behave like automatons.

    What sort of philosophy could possibly justify such a counterfeit paradise, where even human love is subverted? It is the philosophy of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor which emerges in conversations between Mustapha Mond, Resident Controller for Western Europe, and John. Mond defends the ethos of the World State: “Community, Identity, Stability.” Emphasizing what some call “the banality of evil,” Mond appears as an urbane, intelligent, and even well-meaning political leader, aware of the cost of social stability and happiness which entail a manipulative caste system, behavioral conditioning, and lack of individual freedom. Mond even keeps a library of forbidden books. John objects to the lack of virtue, such as self-denial and spiritual striving, in the World State, and reminds Mond that God is “the reason for everything noble and fine and heroic” (1962: 161). To which Mond replies that: “God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness” (1962: 159).

    There is a saying: Give men bread, and then ask of them virtue. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Christ returns to earth only to be arrested again by the Grand Inquisitor who faults Christ for allowing men free choice between good and evil. In a long monologue, while the imprisoned Christ remains silent, the Grand Inquisitor points out that men would rather be happy than free, and hence that men will gladly surrender their freedom in exchange for bread, mystery, and miracle. Like Mond, the Grand Inquisitor is well aware of the stakes, and offers a justification for absolute political power: “There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil” (Dostoevsky 1956: 17). According to C. S. Lewis, the chief failing of the world’s Grand Inquisitors, Controllers, and Conditioners is a rejection of the Tao, natural law, traditional morality or first principles of practical reason (1996a: 55). Lewis cautions that: “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men” (1996a: 69). As to the Conditioners, Lewis concludes that: “It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man” (1996a: 74).

                                                                                       BECOMING HUMAN

    This essay has sought to explore the nature and effects of the new Post-Industrial Revolution as epitomized by the digital (dis-) connection, the fusion of synthetic biology and cybernetics, engendering new hopes for a techno-utopian future of material abundance, new virtual worlds, human-like robots, and the ultimate conquest of nature. Central to this project of a techno-utopian future is the quest for transcending human limitations by changing human nature itself, consciously directing evolution toward a posthuman or transhuman stage.

    Robert Song notes that the Human Genome Project is soteriological in inspiration, reflecting the Baconian project that sought not merely a “healing of particular infirmities, but a more radical freedom from the burdens of finitude” (2012: 1000). Song’s insight sums up the thrall of techno-utopia explored in this essay. What is less well understood is the utopia-dystopia syndrome illuminated by the dystopian imagination refracted in science-fiction literature in such famous twentieth-century dystopias as Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s 1984. The central concern of dystopian literature is the abolition of the phenomenon of man in pursuit of utopia–whether a classless society (We), an all-encompassing tyranny (1984), or a seemingly benevolent “soft despotism” (Brave New World).

    Song argues that the soteriological nature of techno-utopian strivings remains obscured to many of its proponents who share a secular worldview. One might conclude that techno-utopianism is based on secular optimism usually wedded to Darwinian evolutionary assumptions. However, there are also theologians like Ted Peters and Philip Hefner, who offer religious justifications for the pursuit of techno-utopian goals of a posthuman or transhuman future. Thus, Hefner views technology as “a medium of divine action,” since it is allegedly

about the freedom of imagination that constitutes our self-transcendence. Technology is one of the major places today where religion happens . . . . When we participate in this drive for new possibilities, we participate also in God. This is the dimension of holiness in technology . . . . Is the fire of our lives . . . part of a larger flame that underlies all reality and has eternal meaning? This is, at its heart, the religious question, and it points to the religious dimension of technology (2003: 5-6).

    Hefner proposes new parameters and criteria for understanding the nature of the human being and the nature of God. Alas, Hefner’s New Age spirituality, techno-utopianism, (post)modern Gnosticism, and process theology offer no ethical guides for discerning and choosing between alternative uses of technology. Instead, Hefner uses technology as a prosthetic god that launches humanity on an evolutionary journey toward transhumanism, which will imputedly fulfil human destiny, thus divinizing man and reducing the Creator-God of the Bible to but a human-like demiurge reminiscent of the Greek pantheon of gods who are but men writ large. Such an approach compromises both science and religion (Gruenwald 1994: 19). Notably, techno-theologian assumptions spiritualizing matter reflect an ancient Gnostic error of immanentizing the escaton–the utopian project of paradise on earth, with men becoming gods. Thomas Molnar maintains that utopia’s project relying on the natural man, this side of Paradise, is alien to Christianity:

Christianity is both a transcendent and a human-historical religion. It places redemption outside history, after its end, and it rejects the notion that human beings are destined to, and capable of, going beyond their creational limitations. It also refuses the project of collective salvation, since salvation is an intimate matter between the soul and God (1994: 78).
    According to Jacques Maritain, the crisis of modern civilization is due to an “anthropocentric conception of man and of culture,” rooted in the principle that “man alone, and through himself alone, works out his salvation” (2011: 3).

    The blind spot in the utopian narratives of techno-theologians is a failure to address the Judeo-Christian conception of human nature as flawed, imperfect, burdened by sin, and the ever-present temptation of power by secular or religious authorities to enslave humanity in the name of a utopian future transhuman state. Even Allenby and Sarewitz admit that, with genetics, we are now able to internalize technology, in contrast to previous eras when technology was an external tool. What should be the limits of genetic engineering? Hefner offers no ethical criteria for reasoned choice among technologies which humans have employed since time immemorial to make their existence more enjoyable, practical, and comfortable, alleviate pain and suffering, and heal the sick, but also to inflict pain, torture, and kill. Contra Hefner, human nature has not changed in millennia, nor are technology or science capable of providing ethical criteria of how they are to be used for good or ill. Crucially, technology lacks ethical standards to ascertain proper use. Such standards need to be provided by philosophy, theology, and ethical deliberation by homo sapiens. Nor does technology have religious or spiritual qualities, since science and technology are tools, not persons with a soul, free will, and moral responsibility. Finally, technology as a prosthetic god can lead to universal tyranny by those who wield political power, as sketched in famous dystopias.

    This is not to denigrate the creative, aesthetic, and artistic aspects of science and technology, which can embellish their practical uses. And, who can deny the awe-inspiring architectural splendor of a Gothic cathedral that can inspire religious devotion? But here, again, discernment is needed: If one worships the physical cathedral (or a golden calf), that is idolatry; if one prays to God inside or outside a cathedral, that is true religious worship.

    Humanity can indeed boast a divine capacity of reason, bestowed by a Superlative Intelligence or Creator-God, not a what, but a Who. This is attested to by scientific contributions of such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Ray Kurzweil. While Einstein revolutionized physics and cosmology via his theory of relativity, reaching for the stars, Kurzweil’s technological prowess may accomplish comparable feats in cybernetics and informatics. Still, scientists tend to underestimate the complexities of human nature. In contrast, Albert Schweizer came close to a fuller, in essence religious, understanding of nature and human nature, advocating a deep reverence for all life, drawing on his insight concerning the preciousness and precariousness of all life. Furthermore, Schweizer not only taught but lived his philosophy of life as the compassionate physician of Lambarene. What motivated this redoubtable jungle doctor for the poorest of the poor was not utopia but human kindness, a truly divine gift and calling. Schweitzer’s life and work, adumbrated by his philosophy of civilization, testifies to the Christian persuasion articulated by Blaise Pascal in Pensées (1669) that the heart has its reasons which reason does not understand.

    What distinguishes humans from both machines/robots and the animal kingdom is not only intelligence, mind, and emotion, but also free will, a soul, and conscience with its remarkable capacity for compassion. It is axiomatic, despite anthropomorphic imputations to the contrary, that robots–no matter how advanced or “intelligent”--can never develop consciousness, let alone self-consciousness, the “I,” conscience, a mind or a heart, since they lack a soul which only God can create, but no human. According to Scripture, men and women are embodied or living souls (Gen 1-2). Despite nay-sayers, the Bible has a high view of man, affirming the physical body, mental faculties such as reason and intelligence, psychological predispositions for communication and relationships, the heart which reflects a con-joining of physical, intellectual, and spiritual faculties enabling a vast range of emotions that depend for their guidance and ordering on conscience, mind, and soul.

    One may even agree with Kurzweil that machine intelligence may surpass human intelligence in certain areas, like chess, governed by fixed rules. But life, especially human life, is infinitely more complex than a game of chess. Humans may follow rules, but can also re-write them and create new ones, with myriad of interpretations. Quintessentially, humans possess the unique faculty of agency and free choice. Further, the human faculty of agency is not mechanical or procedural, but moral. And, human choices are wide open, not foreseeable or programmable. As Philip Lieberman sums it up in the title of his book, humans are The Unpredictable Species (2013). Hence, when comparing AI with humans, there is one crucial caveat: machines will always be limited to “artificial” intelligence, in essence information, which is inferior to human critical thinking, let alone moral and spiritual discernment. Machines (robots) are basically accomplished calculators capable of storing and manipulating large amounts of information. Yet, computers will never be smarter than their human programmers. Robots as machines may become more human-like, capable even of feigning human characteristics like speech recognition. But, no robot will ever shed a tear for humans. Whereas humans will shed a tear for loved ones, and given a finely-tuned conscience, will feel compassion for one’s neighbor, indeed all humanity, and all of creation.

    Humanity’s chief aspiration, then, should not be a will-o’-the wisp quest for a posthuman or transhuman techno-utopia, but rather to cherish and nurture its God-given gifts to become fully human as men and women created in the image and likeness of God. This is also the reason for cultivating all the arts and sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Literature in particular can mirror the human soul and teach life’s lessons. What does it mean to be fully human? Some answers may be gleaned even from science-fiction.

    One of the most fascinating aspects of science-fiction is the portrayal of non-human characters such as robots who display human-like traits, behavior or emotions. Thus, in Blade Runner, the amazing leader of the androids, Roy, with the strength and good looks of a Nordic demi-god, kills his human scientist-creator in rage upon learning that he will run down and expire, and there is no antidote. Yet, as Michael Martin observes, we are led to sympathize and even identify with Roy, a gifted poet who waxes philosophical, and who epitomizes human wrestling with self and conscience. Martin recalls the rich symbolism of androids as “fallen angels”:

Roy and his fellow replicants ambushed a ship in the Off-World colonies (Mars in the book) and have returned to earth, effectively “falling from heaven.” In this scene, then again as he taunts Deckard during the climax of the film, and finally in his death scene, Roy speaks like a poet. Roy is easily the most cultured character in Blade Runner. None of the allegedly human characters recite any poetry; none employ language as beautiful as Roy’s (2005: 108).

    Despite being aware of his impending doom, Roy saves Deckard, his human challenger, by lifting him with superhuman strength over the rooftop, preventing the human from falling to his certain death. In brief, the android (“replicant”) displays the precious human capacity for compassion.

    Love is a redeeming human passion, a reflection of the infinite love of God (agape). In the dystopias, love is typically suppressed, undermined or distorted. But, even in totalitarian systems, love flickers as a ray of hope for humanity. On a superficial level, sex is a common theme in all three novels: We, 1984, and Brave New World. In We, the protagonist, D-503, lusts after the flirtatious I-330. Lust (eros), of course, is not yet love (philia). But, a closer reading of We reveals the development of a personal relationship between D-503 and I-330. That D-503 actually cares for I-330 as a person, and not only as a sex object, is attested to by his inability or unwillingness to report I-330 to the authorities for breaking the laws of the One State. The tragic love story of Julia and Winston in 1984, of love’s labors lost, where each betrays the other under torture, is still an affirmation of the indispensability of true love, and a singular indictment of a socio-political system of total control intent on destroying what makes us fully human. In Brave New World, genuine love is mocked by its techno-utopian reduction to the mere satisfaction of instinctual drives. Yet, the divine spark of love emerges toward the end of the novel when Lenina experiences a strange, not pre-conditioned, feeling or emotion of sadness, empathy, and care at the sight of John’s suffering in his self-imposed exile.

    Can we hope, then, that humanness cannot be bred out of the human race? Yet, those who would re-engineer humanity might remember the wolf-dog. In nature, a wolf and a dog would never interbreed. But, humans are able to bend nature. Cross-breeding a wolf with a dog resulted in an animal bigger and much stronger than a dog. Albeit, as the breeder admits, the wolf-dog is not suitable as a pet because it can turn on humans, the wolf’s wild nature re-asserting itself. This seems to confirm the proposition that nature–the wilderness–cannot be bred out of the wolf-dog. However, the wolf-dog appears as a conflicted creature, with a split personality: on the one hand, nature’s most-feared predator (wolf); on the other hand, man’s alleged “best friend” (dog). The wolf-dog experiment should, thus, serve as a warning to those intent on changing human nature in the quest for a posthuman or transhuman techno-utopia.

    The outstanding question remains, as forewarned in anti-utopias: Would the prospect of human-engineered perfection and substitute for “eternal” life come only by bartering away the human soul? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s classic, Faust (1828), contains an ominous warning re the consequences of a wrong choice: “At your first step, free; at the second, a slave.” To paraphrase Fukuyama, are we ready for a posthuman future in which biotechnology might indeed make it possible to change human nature? And, what would such a change in human nature entail in the socio-political realm once technology enables us, in effect, to breed some people as masters and others as slaves? Our present dilemma is that the triumph of science and technology in a commercialized, self-centered culture “flattened humanity’s moral and spiritual cosmological horizon” (Gruenwald 2011: 8).

    On the eve of World War II, Jacques Maritain pointed out that the crisis of civilization could be traced to a “peculiar vice of classical humanism,” which substituted rationalism for reason and an anthropocentric humanism for integral or Christian humanism (2011: 2). It resulted in forfeiting a God-centered transcendent vision for man. In Maritain’s formulation: “Having given up God so as to be self-sufficient, man has lost track of his soul. He looks in vain for himself, he turns the universe upside-down trying to find himself; he finds masks and, behind the masks, death” (2011: 4). How, then, can humanity escape from the techno-utopian labyrinth? In his philosophy of civilization, Schweitzer points the way to a more humane future:

Only through the revival of ethical and religious thinking can the spirit arise that will give to mankind the knowledge and the strength to lead it out of darkness and conflict to light and peace. Free Christianity has the great responsibility of bringing to men and maintaining in them the conviction that thought and religion are not incompatible but belong together. All deep religious feeling becomes thoughtful, all truly profound thinking becomes religious (Joy 1962: 306).
Schweitzer understood the riddle of humanity, our true nature, purposes, telos, fulfilment, and happiness.

    Created in the image and likeness of God, humans are the relational species whose telos is to nurture and develop all its God-given faculties oriented by what Solzhenitsyn called a moral compass. C. S. Lewis likened it to a project of becoming like “little Christs” (1996b: 154), following the two great commandments of the New Testament: love of God and love of neighbor. In contrast to techno-utopianism, which tends to boost human self-conceit, Lewis proposed a radically different approach, yet one that affirms human exceptionalism. To an Age enamored by machines and technique, Lewis declared that: “God designed the human machine to run on Himself” (1996b: 54). And, to utopians of all ages, Lewis’ counsel was that: “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing” (1996b: 54).

    Lewis’ intuitive approach posited a law of human nature or moral law “peculiar” to man that “he does not share with animals or vegetables or inorganic things,” a law, furthermore, that man “can disobey if he chooses” (1996b: 18). Paradoxically, Lewis believed that no man could possibly fulfil the moral law without first surrendering one’s ego to Christ Who “is the origin and centre and life of all the new men” (1996b: 187). Ultimately, then, Christians place their hopes for humanity’s self-transcendence, promised redemption, and eternal life in a transcendent Creator-God Who knows all, loves all, and is the only Being Who can redeem all.


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Oskar Gruenwald, IIR-ICSA Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies.

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