The Abolition of Man (and Woman)

In 1943, C.S. Lewis published his masterful The Abolition of Man, a book that is far more profound than its short length (130 pages) might suggest. Lewis’ central concern is the use of technology to control, manipulate and reconstruct human nature. The book was written in the shadow of the Nazi war machine, one of whose aims was to create a master race through eugenic breeding and the elimination of “unfit” races and individuals.

But Lewis’ warnings were directed at a deeper evil, of which Nazism was only a morbid and significant sign.

“The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself,” he wrote. “Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. … The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?”

This victory will come about through politics, for “the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: We shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.”

We are not surprised to find Lewis’ dark prophecies now being fulfilled through the fantasies of genetic manipulation — a small number of scientists funded by a small number of heads of corporations attempting to determine the future shape of the new humanity.

But the real evil is not the manipulation itself. That is, rather, the effect. The real evil is the horrifying change in outlook, the insidious transformation of the substance of the will that occurs when we suddenly regard all natural limits as momentary obstacles that technology can remove. That is what gives the devastating sting to moral relativism today — the notion that human nature is not the inviolable beginning point of our moral reasoning but merely presents us with one more set of obstacles for technology to overcome.

To cite one example: What could be more natural than the distinction between male and female — a distinction that we share with animals and even, in a real sense, with plants? This distinction is the source of marriage as a natural institution, making it the origin of all moral claims about sexuality, the family and marriage itself. It would be hard to imagine “Thou shalt not commit adultery” if there were no such thing as male and female and human beings somehow produced children through means other than their union.

But what if we suddenly looked at human reproduction as a problem subject to technological solutions? What if we began to look at male and female as concepts to be abolished? We’d soon find that the natural distinctions of male and female, and marriage itself (and all its attendant morality), would become obsolete. Marriage would become meaningless as men became superfluous through the advance of reproductive technology; as women became unessential through cloning technology; and as the mass of humanity became dispensable through genetic manipulation, trait selection (and de-selection) and abortion.

Earlier this fall, scientists announced the creation of one offspring by three parents: sperm from the male, an egg from a female and additional DNA material from a third female. This “advance,” now applied to monkeys, will soon enough be available for human beings. What then is the moral meaning of “adultery” once this becomes as acceptable a practice as in vitro fertilization?

The effect of the abolition of male and female will be, and in fact already is, the unraveling of morality. Once the sexual union of a man and a woman becomes just one way to make a human being, then it is not the way to make a human being. Heterosexuality loses its privileged status in defining what way we are to be sexual. The natural gives way to the artificial, and what was once a natural standard defining sexuality becomes a historical artifact and (at best) a quaint option for sexual antiquarians.

Because human beings live in society, and society makes laws, this great transformation by technical power must find its way into law. If children can be had by a number of other means, then laws designed to limit marriage to one male and one female would be like laws designed to limit transportation to horses.

The abolition of man and woman is part of a larger cultural revolution, a fact seen quite clearly in the active drive to make male and female obsolete in the culture, as well. First, there is a kind of relentless spirit of androgyny pushed in our intellectual culture, where manliness is actively discouraged and disparaged and womanliness is taken to be a kind of servitude from which women must be delivered. The goal seems to be to make men more like women and women more like men, so that, by their eventual blending together, they become indistinguishable. The result, of course, is that male and female become morally insignificant distinctions in our minds.

The insignificance feeds the notion that there is really nothing wrong with endless technical manipulating of our sexuality and reproduction.

But there is another related sense of obsolescence because the spirit of androgyny takes flesh in the actual culture and through real social and educational institutions and policies. If the distinct aims of manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood are removed as the proper and good goal of boys and girls, then what, precisely, do boys and girls aim at? They are each taught to aim at the exact same target: becoming self-supporting, individual moneymakers.

The guiding assumption that a boy becomes a man precisely in becoming a husband and provider for his family has been replaced by an entirely indistinct, androgynous image of a large boy making money by himself, for himself, and for the satisfaction of his own pleasures. The guiding assumption that a girl becomes a woman by becoming a wife and mother has been replaced by the same indistinct, androgynous image of individual moneymaker working by herself, for herself, and for the satisfaction of her own pleasures.

Little wonder, given this image, that when men and women do decide to become a couple, the marriage would have as little moral meaning to them as divorce. Nor are we surprised to find the cultural push for androgynous terms like “partner,” “significant other” and “caregiver” replacing such morally meaty and precise words as husband, wife, father and mother.

Perhaps there is far, far more to those words in Genesis than we imagined. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Here lies the boundary keeping us from all moral chaos. Once it is crossed and then crossed out, all things are “without form and void.”

Benjamin Wiker is online