Reproductive technology and the abolition of man

Andrew Sandlin’s website recently featured a column by Scott Masson relating reproductive “innovations” like the ones in this column (which he referred to; here’s another recent example) to the reflections of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. A key excerpt:

Although the relation of power and responsibility is a perennial theme in literature, science fiction breaks ranks with the entire humanities tradition precisely because of its object and its understanding of the human. The ethical teaching of the sages of the ancient world had equipped us to relate to our fellow man as individuals. They were not naïve. It was a Roman proverb that warned that homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man). There was no nobility to our savagery in their eyes. But they assumed that man, as a creature living in his own world, would continue to propagate himself, his kin and his nation naturally, not turn his power upon himself. Regardless of the blight of war, pestilence and famine, he would never consider eradicating his own existence or the natural world around him as it had been created. The sages of old never considered that we would adopt what the philosopher Thomas Nagel has called the view from nowhere, or conceive that, as Hannah Arendt has observed of our scientific contemporaries’ perspective, the human condition was a prison to be escaped. To such a radical perspective, only Divine revelation can speak persuasively.

I believe that is why it is those who have imbibed the wisdom of the Scriptures are so profoundly needed in our day. This is where the third of the men who died on that inauspicious fall day, C.S. Lewis, comes in. Unlike Huxley, he remains unread in most schools. Yet it was he who prophetically warned where unbridled technology and an amoral science bent on reimagining the human might lead.

In his wartime Durham lectures, later collected under the title The Abolition of Man, Lewis observed that a ruling class of technocrats and well-meaning experts had arisen who were seeking to conquer nature and its ills, only to end up conquering man. What they were doing in the name of humanity had a decidedly ironic and inhumane end. In his memorable words, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” He continued, “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. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

Speaking in 1945, Lewis was doubtless reflecting on the eugenics movement of his day and the totalizing power of the state, particularly evident in Nazi Germany; yet he was explicitly ruminating upon the educational and cultural establishment of his own country (and the Western world) that had given rise to it. It is this fact, which also characterizes the third installment of his own science fiction trilogy, which makes his insights as relevant as ever. The “humanitarian” impulse of the scientific and political elite has not left us, in fact, the social “conditioners” in education who have “abolished man” have gathered strength; biotechnology has become a huge element of our economy; and the power of technology has steadily grown and expanded into our very homes.

In the third essay of The Abolition of Man, which shares the title of the whole work, Lewis specifically addresses contraceptives as one of his examples of the things that are trumpeted as examples of Man’s control of Nature (probably more explicitly in his day — I think that the language of rights and liberation has more currency in our day). Here is his reference:

What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. (pp. 66-67 in 1996 Touchstone edition)


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