Editor’s note: Published on August 16, 1945, C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is a dystopian novel that eerily reflects the realities of 2020, putting into a memorable fictional form ideas expressed in Lewis’s non-fiction work, The Abolition of Man. To mark the former book’s three-quarter century anniversary, Evolution News presents a series of essays, reflections, and videos about its themes and legacy.
James A. Herrick is the Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication at Hope College in Holland, MI. His books include The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition.
This post is adapted from Chapter 10 of The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, edited by John G. West. See also,
- “The Abolition of Man and the Advent of the Posthuman“
- “Why C. S. Lewis Wrote The Abolition of Man“
- “C. S. Lewis, Science, and Science Fiction“
- “C. S. Lewis and Contemporary Transhumanism“
- “C. S. Lewis and Critical Reactions to Transhumanism”
Is there a real threat about which we ought to be concerned in light of The Abolition of Man, a text now seventy years old? As we have seen, C. S. Lewis harbored profound reservations about science operating independently of the Tao and driven by philosophies that claimed scientific support. He believed that human nature itself was at risk, and that the entire subsequent history of the human race could be adversely affected by a small cadre of scientific and bureaucratic planners, his Conditioners.
This essay has argued that Lewis was prophetic as regards the advent of techniques powerful enough to bring about the effects he feared. I also contend that the scientistic mythologies propelling contemporary calls for unhindered biotechnological research — the notions of which Lewis cautions readers in The Abolition of Man — are contributing to conditions that encourage potential misuse of enhancement technologies. The remaining question, then, is whether such technology will be used to bring about the ends Lewis feared.
Toward the end of The Abolition of Man Lewis argues that modern science requires restraint, and that such restraint is unlikely to come from within science. While no one can question Western science’s great accomplishments, “its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price.” As a result, Lewis contends that science must be recalled to a position of submission to deeper and older human truths. In a rebuke that sounds almost naïve in a 21st-century context, Lewis suggests that “reconsideration, and something like repentance may be required.” Only “a regenerate science” would recognize the wisdom in “buy[ing] knowledge at a lower cost than that of life.”1 Lewis considered that the threat of coordinated technology, psychology and ethics to the future of the human race was real, and “if the scientists themselves cannot arrest the process before it reaches the common Reason and kills that too, then someone else must arrest it.”2
A Battle for the Human Race
Will Lewis’s prophecy of biotechnology’s misuse come to pass? It is my view that if the enhancement juggernaut continues to gain speed, financial power and cultural force, as it shows every sign of doing, a clash of two essentially religious worldviews is in the offing: Judeo-Christian theism and Transhumanist techno-futurism. Religious traditionalists will not readily accept a biotechnological project aimed at creating new human beings at the expense of human nature, and human enhancement advocates will not yield their vision of a posthuman future to the obscurantist objections of opponents they dismiss as bio-conservatives. If Lewis is right, this will be a battle for the future of the human race itself. I am convinced he is right. Currently, one side in the contest is preparing itself for a long cultural struggle, developing its resources, crafting its arguments, honing its public case. The other side has yet to realize that a battle is in the offing. For too long people of faith have adored Lewis without hearing him, pursued adulation without reflection, allowed his brilliant imagination to entertain without allowing his piercing intellect to chasten. We read Lewis as a friendly uncle; we need to encounter him as a fiery prophet.
Science and Scientism
C. S. Lewis provides a model for responding in the public sphere to a mistaken understanding of science itself as a source of moral value, a view that moves both science and society dangerously outside the boundaries of the Tao. Differentiating between science per se and the scientism that seeks to control nature itself, Lewis criticized scientists who functioned as prophetic visionaries, social programmers, and agents of human transformation. In The Abolition of Man Lewis reveals the errors in ethical speculation that drove Western science from the is of discovery to the ought of moral prescription. Technology now advances at a rate more rapid than even the most dedicated observer is capable of tracking. Our contemporary moral guides offer us the astonishing speed of progress as assurance of the unquestionable correctness of progress; rate of change now equals rightness of change.
Lewis concludes The Abolition of Man curiously with a discussion of magic and science in the 16th and 17th centuries. Referring to the two enterprises as “twins” born at the same time and under the same circumstances, he notes that magic eventually died while science grew and flourished. Both, nevertheless, were seeking the same end, and by similar means. The following comparison no doubt angered scientists in his day, as Lewis must have known it would: “For magic and applied science the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both in practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious — such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”3 Today we are on the verge of altering the living by manipulating their genetic structure, an activity that would strike Lewis as similarly magical in impulse and similarly wrong in moral intent.
- Lewis, Abolition of Man, 49.
- Ibid., 49-50.
- Ibid., 48.