Thursday, February 14, 2013

Eugenics as Techno-Topia in Gilman’s Herland

I figured the technological advances of Gilman’s Herland utopia would go relatively under-utilized in the blog posts this week—so I figured I’d tackle it as best I could.

I would venture that all of the technological advancements in Herland stem from one area of science: genetic manipulation. To point to the second most obvious example, let’s look at the cultivation of the fruit bearing trees. All of the trees in Herland bear some kind of edible fruit or nut, even the single “beautiful” tree kept only for its aesthetic merits. This tree did not initially bear any fruit, but after 900 years of genetic cross-breeding, it now bears “nutritious seeds” (104).

The most obvious sign of genetic manipulation comes from the women themselves; once it was determined that population quantity needed controlled, population quality became something to strive for. Jennings tells us that for 1500 “uninterrupted” years the inhabitants of Herland quite deliberately controlled whose genetic material (and thus traits and temperament) got passed onto the next generation (97). This “weeding the genetic gene pool” resulted in such health that “the science of medicine” was hardly needed (97). In addition, the stronger gene pool resulted in significant advances in all areas, including education, psychology, ecology, public safety (no criminals for 600 years) (107), mathematics, distribution of labor, religion. All advancements easily explained by a perfected temperament, work ethic, and belief in the collected motherhood of the community.

We now come to the ultimate question: so what? What’s the big deal about Herland’s genetic manipulation, and what does it have to say about utopia?

My cop-out answer is: I’m not sure. Let’s explore it for a bit, though.

Utilizing genetic manipulation to achieve utopia challenges or calls into question our modern understanding of human rights. What right do we have to tell another person that he or she does not have enough genetic worth to reproduce? What about China’s recent one-child policy? (Now, in honor of Dr. Thompson, let’s try to avoid being anachronistic in our answer, shall we?) Thanks to the pdf of the review copy of Herland, we’ve at least two separate pieces of background material giving information on eugenics in Gilman’s time. Eugenics comes as a branch of Darwinism, (in one sense), as one of the conclusions of natural human evolution. Population growth has always been a problem, if only as an intellectual one to be tackled in the not-so-distant future.  (It calls to mind Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” of the 1700s).

But then again, do the Herlanders achieve utopia through eugenics, or was it in place before they began weeding out the genetically “inferior?” I think it went hand-in-hand. Although Herland had their religious beliefs about Motherhood, solidarity, and community before they needed to address population size/quality, they couldn’t reach their pinnacle without choosing which traits to pass on.
At the same time, however, the “modern” Herlanders are willing to re-introduce men into their world as they believe bi-sexuality to be superior to parthenogenesis (16). This is the missing picture of Herland: even this utopian society sees a need it cannot fulfill on its own—and that is enough to keep it from “full-utopian status.”

As I end my rant, I’ll leave you with this trailer for Gattaca, ca 1997.



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