Re-Engineering the Human Reptile, or Notes From a Checkered Career


At the heart of the Leftist project is the idea of social engineering. The Leftist sees society the way Michelangelo saw a large slab of Carrara marble: a formless mass that needs sharp percussive tools to liberate its inner David. Whether it’s “class” structure (Robespierre, Lenin), wealth and income distribution (Obama, Elizabeth Warren), or ethnic makeup (Obama), the Leftist imperative is to chisel and bulldoze the mass into a more aesthetically perfect configuration with respect to the offending criterion. The fact that leftists have been doing this since 1793, with consistently lamentable results, has not dampened their enthusiasm. We are always just a few broken eggs short of the perfect omelet. And as far as the breakage, well, when you’re sculpting a masterpiece, the chips fly.

Leftists understood early on that the human blob resists being re-engineered, and that breaking this resistance is the central problem of their project. What’s more, redesigning institutions and shifting around society’s legal and constitutional furniture only moves the ball so far. Ultimately, the engineer must turn his attention to the human mind itself. The Bolsheviks embraced this explicitly, proclaiming their goal to be not only a new society based on new economic relations, but the creation of New Soviet Man – “a higher social biologic type,” according to Trotsky. Stalin called writers “engineers of the human soul,” and declared that “the production of souls is more important than the production of tanks.” This business about souls explains the left’s endless war against religion: it’s basically a territorial dispute, with both sides making claims to the same real estate in the prefrontal cortex and limbic system.

Until recently, only crude tools were available for re-engineering the human psyche: propaganda, indoctrination, the PC police, censorship, ostracism, exile, the Gulag, torture, and death. But this terror continuum attacked the problem only indirectly. Coaxing, persuasion, coercion, and violence, although sometimes effective at controlling behavior, have no direct access to the inner will. Orwell’s 1984 is all about this problem. The nightmare solution envisioned by Orwell was terror so individually tailored and precisely calibrated that it was capable of actually inducing love of Big Brother.

A more promising solution, foreshadowed in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, lay in pharmacology. In 1967 Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian Jewish refugee from Nazism and author of the 1940 anti-Stalinist classic Darkness at Noon, wrote a book called The Ghost in the Machine in which he advanced a theory of the origins of hatred and genocidal violence based on evolutionary psychology. Koestler’s central claim was that recent brain evolution had left mankind stark raving bonkers. The problem is that the new, rational part of the brain is obstructed by the older, more primitive “reptilian” part. Inadequate coordination between the two causes man’s instinct and intellect to fall out of sync with each other.

One consequence of this “split mind” is that it irrationally heightens differences between individuals, races, and cultures, which become a source of mutual repellence. This leads to a level of genocidal, intra-species warfare unique in the animal world. We are schizophrenic and our brain circuitry badly needs rewiring. Koestler concludes: “We must search for a cure for the schizophysiology inherent in man’s nature, and the resulting split in our minds, which led to the situation in which we find ourselves. […] I believe that if we fail to find this cure, the old paranoid streak in man, combined with his new powers of destruction, must sooner or later lead to genosuicide. But I also believe that the cure is almost within reach of contemporary biology; and that with the proper concentration of efforts it might be produced within the lifetime of the generation which is now entering on the scene.” His solution was mass administration of drugs “…to counteract misplaced devotion and that militant enthusiasm, both murderous and suicidal, which we see reflected in the pages of the daily newspaper.”

Koestler was a great writer, but if anyone had taken him seriously, we would have ended up with a society of alienated Asperger’s sufferers, incapable of devotion or enthusiasm of any kind. Thank God no one did…

Or did they?

At this point it is necessary to recount an episode from my sordid past. Some years ago, when I was still a promising young man living in New York, I found myself down on my luck. First, al-Qaeda tried to kill me as I walked to the World Trade Center subway on a Tuesday morning. After that, things went downhill. My legal career stalled in the post-9/11 slump, my marriage sputtered and died after several years of mounting strife, and I suddenly found myself unemployed and sharing an apartment with a friend of a friend who moonlighted as a high-end male prostitute. What had seemed a few years earlier like a road to a hard-earned — if highly conventional –life of upper-middle-class comfort and respectability had taken a sharp detour into a blind alley.

When all options for getting back on my feet seemed exhausted, and I was feeling beaten and dejected, an old friend of my father’s who had recently retired from what I thought had been an ordinary Wall Street job of some kind, offered to see about introducing me to his former boss, a man I am going to call Dr. Albert Altschuler. I did not know much about Dr. Altschuler, except that he had made a pile of money in finance, owned a jet plane, and used it for flying to his private island in the Caribbean.

The friend said, “Dr. A knows a lot of people in the legal business – he is very litigious. He is also a good judge of character. If he likes you, he will help you. But he is very unusual, so I can’t make any promises.”

“What’s his Ph.D. in?” I asked.

“No, not a Ph.D. Albert is a psychiatrist. He doesn’t practice anymore, but I think he still teaches.”

Several days later, I found myself in a nondescript Midtown office suite with about a dozen casually-dressed young men and women working at banks of computer terminals, slightly shabby office furniture, Broadway posters, and bookshelves filled with hardbound deal books, file boxes, medical journals, and numerous volumes in English and German. In a private inner office decorated with photographs of its occupant with well-known Hollywood and Democratic Party personalities, a man of about 70, wearing a cardigan, with slumped shoulders and an expression of serene intelligence, sat at a desk and marked up papers in green ink. He looked slight, but his impressive stature and robust physique unfurled themselves when he stood up to shake my hand.

After hearing me out, he said in a refined, faintly European accent, “I’ll make some calls and arrange for you to meet a few lawyers I know. But I also have a number of projects that I could use some help with. I am building a house in town, which requires a lot of minding. I am involved with a number of eleemosynary activities that need coordinating. I also have some interests in the Virgin Islands that require attention. Interested?” I gratefully accepted.

To work for Dr. Altschuler was to step into a world that — as far as I knew — existed only in fevered Hollywood imaginations. When I met him his staff included a butler, a chef, a Princeton-trained physicist, several Russian mathematicians, a full-time personal architect, a ship’s captain, and a flight crew. He produced Broadway shows and Hollywood films. In cold weather he wore black, satin-lined capes. He was on first-name terms with members of the Houses of Bourbon and Romanov. Like Koestler, he was a refugee from Nazi Europe, and grew up in the shadow of World War II. Also like Koestler, in his youth he had been a communist, but his political views mellowed somewhat in later years. I once saw him call his office and casually inform his assistant that he needed to speak with a leading Democratic senator, pronto; the senator personally called him within three minutes. Dr. A was the Most Interesting Man in the World.

At the end of my first week of work, Dr. A summoned me into his office and asked if I was seeing anyone. I said yes, flattered that the great man would take an interest in my personal life. “Oh. That’s too bad,” he said. “I have a friend in town for the weekend, an actress. Julianna Margulies – I don’t know if you’ve heard of her. I thought if you didn’t have any commitments, you could come out with us. But I take it this may be awkward for you?” Yes, I stammered, it may. “Well, all great men are polygamous, but it’s up to you.”

“You got a job and a date with Julianna Margulies within the space of a week?” my girlfriend said later that evening. “That’s quite a reversal of fortune.”

I agreed. “I think she was George Clooney’s girlfriend on ER. Doesn’t that put me in the same league as him? Anyway, I told Albert about you.”

“Trust me, you’re no George Clooney. And you’re an idiot for telling him you’re not single.”

I knew then that I had found the future Mrs. Oblomov.

I worked for Dr. A for about a year. I can’t say that I covered myself in glory, but in that time he involved me in many of his projects and interests. One of these interests was psychoactive drugs, a subject in which he was a recognized authority. One day in his limousine he shared with me that his biotech company was developing a new product. “I’m most proud of it. It is a cure for xenophobia.” I laughed nervously, thinking this was a joke, but Dr. A was quite serious. “Xenophobia is the curse of mankind,” he continued. “The problem is not governments or religion or bad institutions or leaders – it’s the people, THE PEOPLE!” His blue eyes flashed and he stabbed the air with his finger to punctuate this important point. “To go on preaching sweet reason to an inherently unreasonable species is, as history shows, a fairly hopeless enterprise. Biological evolution has let us down; we can only hope to survive if we supplant it by inducing the necessary changes in our clannish, tribal natures. We cannot cure our xenophobic disposition by rewiring the circuitry in our brains. But we will be able to achieve a cure, or at least a significant improvement, chemically.”

I sat transfixed in awe of the sheer hubris of what I was hearing. The People required Dr. Altschuler’s pharmaceuticals to save them from their fatal pathology. I thought, what a perfectly operatic, even Wagnerian, idea for a work of dystopian science fiction: a powerful and charismatic billionaire-physician with both a perfectly loopy diagnosis and diabolical cure for humanity’s ills. The dramatic or — alternatively — comedic possibilities practically write themselves. It would be fun to imagine the side effects and unintended consequences if such a drug were ever added to the water supply and people stopped forming group attachments. The end of organized sports, obviously. But what of the less obvious? The end of family? Of love? Or maybe your nose falls off.

And are we really so sure this isn’t happening already, without anyone paying attention?

P.S. Classical liberals tend not to see society as a thing to be centrally shaped, managed, directed, and coordinated; they see it as basically self-managing, self-directed, self-coordinating and self-shaping. This is the salient difference between our side and theirs. For a brilliant clarifying discussion of this difference, I refer you to Troy Senik’s conversation with Richard Epstein and Yuval Levin on the Hoover Libertarian Podcast.

Nor does classical liberalism make any claims on the human soul, which is why it is far less likely to result in an anti-human hell than its alternatives.

Note: Hat tip to John Derbyshire for bringing The Ghost in the Machine to my attention.

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  1. jzdro Member

    Oblomov:I was thinking, can’t we take the Koestler/Altschuler idea, weaponize it, put it on ICBMs and drop it on ISIS/Iran/Gaza/Russia? What would be wrong with that? Seems like it would solve a lot of problems.

    As a corollary, we should develop some kind of testosterone weapon and drop it on the Euros.

    Nice to think about, but the Feds would mess it up – probably by inadvertent switching of the two payloads.  There is precedent for this in the screwworm-fly eradication program of decades back, in which they destroyed their own irradiated male flies, which were sterile, and released untreated ones, which were virile, along with a few billion female flies, into the southern border region.  No worries!  They figured it out after a couple of years.

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