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Beach Blanket Bioethics: Myopia in Utopia

On the first day of seventh grade, my math teacher, Mr. McDermott, proposed a wager to my class. We could read a novel called Flatland and write a book report. If we did so before the end of the year, we would get an A, no matter how well or poorly we did on homework and exams. Or, we could slog through pre-algebra and earn a grade in the usual way.

On the last day of seventh grade, Mr. McDermott told us that no student had taken him up on the offer of the easy A. No one in his teaching career ever had. I’m still not sure why I didn’t. Was I afraid I wouldn’t nail percentages if I took the humanities option? (I never made that mistake again.)

I read my husband’s ninth-grade copy of Flatland, and it has stayed with me even as memories of pre-algebra faded. It was worth the wait: a tiny satirical novel, published in 1884, about geometry, morality, enhancement, reproduction, and quite a few other things I might not have grasped at age 12. The author, Edwin Abbott, was headmaster at an English school, a social progressive who was committed to expanding educational opportunities for girls and young women.

In Flatland, he describes a closed society limited to the second dimension. “Regularity” is all. “Irregularity” of dimension or thought is swiftly corrected: the lowest classes (Isosceles Triangles) are executed or eaten; the middle and professional classes (Equilateral Triangles, Squares, Pentagons) imprisoned; the upper classes (Hexagons, Polygons) committed to asylums. The priests (Circles) maintain order. Women – mere “lines” or “needles” – are presumed to be “deficient in Reason but abundant in Emotion,” and it is forbidden to teach them to read. (Occasionally, they run amok and slaughter their husbands. Can you blame them?) “Regular Hospitals” correct irregularities of angles, while “Neo-Therapeutic Gymnasiums” attempt to enhance baby Polygons by breaking and resetting their sides. Successful cases “help the process of the higher Evolution” by creating a more noble shape and promoting desirable heritable traits. The majority of cases wind up in the nearby “Neo-Therapeutic Cemetery.”

Flatland is narrated by “A Square” – a lawyer and geometry enthusiast – who writes this account of his homeland after a series of visions of other dimensions, including a visit to “Spaceland” – our 3D home. This is a charming and chilling little book (and fear not, you’ll be able to do the math).

Two other cautionary tales of utopia are on this summer’s reading list. War with the Newts (1936) is a satire by Karel Capek, a prolific Czech author who, among other accomplishments, gave us the word “robot.” In this novel, the discovery of a species of “extremely clever and nice animals” (picture seals that can walk) pearl diving off an island in the South Pacific leads to species displacement (the London Zoo, the enslavement of newts by the Salamander Syndicate) and a series of surprising further discoveries. It is observed that the newts in the zoo can talk and, like the enhanced Polygons, are evolving rapidly.

The “Newt Problem” becomes a pressing social question: should we treat these sentient beings as if they are human? The Communists, Christians, pacifists, fascists, anarchists, and sundry hobbyists compete to win them over. Tensions erupt between the Young Newts, who aim to catch up with “dry-land culture,” and the Old Newts, whose slogan is “Back to the Miocene!” Eventually, the title of the novel becomes clear: as the narrator laments, his warnings (“don’t give the Newts weapons or high explosives”) had gone unheeded.

A contemporary novel, Ella Minnow Pea (2001), by Mark Dunn, also starts on an island: Nollop, off the coast of South Carolina. We are invited to consider a counterfactual history of the United States, in which Nollop was first home to a mid-19th century utopian community and then, following the Civil War, became an independent nation. The citizens of Nollop live without modern technology – this epistolary novel is shaped by their correspondence with one another – and share an unusual devotion to the alphabet.

A national crisis erupts when the use of one letter, then another, then another, is banned by the High Island Council, whose members have much in common with the Circles of Flatland. Correspondence is read by postal inspectors, and penalties for “illicitabetical activities” include flogging, detention, and expulsion. Scholarship comes to the rescue in the person of the American editor of Nollopiana, a very specialized academic journal. The efforts of the Nollopians to communicate with one another using an ever-shrinking number of letters (prohibitions on vowels are especially challenging) are moving, much as Flatland’s “Square” is as he grapples with both his own totalitarian utopia and with the concept of another world with different rules.

Finally, a lagniappe for those who read online:Transcendental Wild Oats,

Louisa May Alcott’s fictionalized sketch of her own family’s disastrous experience on a utopian farm.

Happy reading.

Nancy Berlinger is a research scholar at The Hastings Center.

Published on: July 28, 2011
Published in: Bioethics

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