Paths of Curiosity – Daedalus, Icarus, and the Science of the Future

Standing in front of the student club the Heretics in Cambridge in 1924, the young J.B.S. Haldane, who eventually became a famous biochemist, delivered a lecture later published under the title Daedalus, or Science and the Future. He was inspired equally by scientific visions and by the future socialistic society in which science would be the primary determinant of the progress of human civilization. “Science,” he wrote, “is the free activity of men’s divine faculties of reason and imagination . . . it is man’s gradual conquest, first of space and time, then of matter as such, then of his own body and those of other living beings, and finally the subjugation of the dark and evil elements in his own soul.” His youthful self-confidence, his comprehensive knowledge of the state of the sciences of his day (he was equally familiar with its art and literature), and his scientific and political enthusiasm tempted him to make far-reaching predictions about the contributions that science would make in the future to the solutions of humankind’s urgent problems.

Haldane predicted the rise of biochemistry and the biosciences as a whole. Almost all inventions of practical utility have a physical-chemical basis, and many new inventions in the field of biology will build on them. Among them are contraceptives, the application of endocrinology, and the invention of many other substances that (like alcohol, tea, and tobacco) have stimulating or pleasant properties. He has a future student, “a rather stupid undergraduate member of this university,” read a paper in which he summarizes for his academic adviser the most important scientific developments and societal problems. Among them are the triumph of the eugenic movement, the introduction of artificially created, nitrogen-fixing organisms, the artificial alteration of character by means of applied endocrinology, and finally “ectogenesis,” the artificial development of the human embryo outside the womb from egg cells cultivated in vitro and artificially inseminated. It is clear to him that society, especially people who hold traditional values and ideas of morality, will not accept these achievements without objection.

Haldane was aware that he lived in a time between two world wars. The first had displayed the terrors of such a war, and after it many people nursed hopes for a world government (“it may take another world-war or two to convert the major-ity”): “The prospect of the next world-war has at least this satisfactory element. In the late war the most rabid nationalists were to be found well behind the front line. It will be brought home to all whom it may concern that war is a very dirty business.”

The future, said Haldane, would not be a bed of roses, and the only thing that can be definitively said is that no doctrine, no values, and no institutions are safe from the progress of science. But he thought moral qualms should not be taken too seriously since traditional value systems and the distinction between good and evil are subject to change. Because religious traditions cling to unchanging values, there can be no truce between science and religion. Ultimately, society must adjust to scientific progress—or it will perish.

A prominent source promptly raised a serious objection to this unbroken and aggressively articulated belief in progress, in which humankind has no other option but to accept the positive achievements of science. Bertrand Russell, under the equally telling title Icarus, or the Future of Science, questioned the attractive image of the future in which scientific inventions would promote human happiness. He said it was more likely that science would be used to bolster the power of ruling groups than to make people happier. Once science taught it to fly, human-kind’s fate could mirror that of Icarus. But Russell’s main argument aimed at science’s failure so far to bring human passions under control to the degree that it brought nature under control. People are not rational; they are a bundle of passions and instincts. The progress of the sciences has changed the balance between instincts and environmental conditions, he wrote, and therefore the most urgent task was to tame people’s rivalries and lust for power if “industrialism” was to triumph with the aid of science.

Russell sees clearly that progress does not come simply from the physical sciences but also requires social organization. The question, however, is not whether but how much and what kind of organization is needed. The “anthropological sciences,” too, would have important contributions to make. Control over emotional life, using hormones and similar substances, would become more important than intelligence tests. The men who administer this system would have power exceeding the imagination of even the Jesuits. Russell arrives at the conclusion that science will permit power holders, in particular, to achieve their goals more completely than before. If these goals are good, this is a gain; if not, it is an evil. “Science is no substitute for virtue; the heart is as necessary for a good life as is the head.” The heart stands for the totality of all friendly and generous impulses that ignore one’s own interests. But so far, science has failed to give people more self-control, more friendliness, and more power to restrain their passions.

The undeniable fascination exerted even today by the equally brilliant and virulent intellectual and scientific debates of the 1930s must not obscure the fact that the framework and the problem fields have meanwhile greatly changed, politically, economically, and culturally. First, the debate is no longer con-ducted within a relatively small, elite circle of participants. It is carried out publicly, contributed to and intensified by the mass media. It is pressured to hold science publicly accountable and to democratize scientific expertise. Today, no one any longer expects the sciences to be able to provide the rational foundations for the societal or political order. On the contrary, despite the sciences’ spectacular successes, which fulfilled or exceeded what was once only imagined, the prestige and credibility of science have declined in the public realm. Even the assumption that a rational worldview would displace the importance of religion, replacing it with trust in science and technology, has proven false. Yaron Ezrahi suspects that the current decline of belief in science’s capacity to solve the problems of human civilization coincides with two events—the dissolution of the Communist block (which for Haldane and other prominent scientists long embodied the hope of productively uniting science and socialism) and a disenchantment with the attempts to bring together science and democracy (as John Dewey and others Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), point out that the economically highly developed industrial states in which secularization is most advanced show the lowest degree of trust in science and technology—far less than the trust displayed by countries with low levels of economic development.Both events indicate that there have been fundamental misunderstandings in the relationship between science and politics.

Science and technology have developed under both authoritarian and democratic regimes, albeit in different ways. But if, under diametrically opposed political preconditions, the expectations placed in science have historically failed, then we must reexamine the suppositions about the function of politics and its relation to science that underlie those expectations. The roots of the exaggerated expectations that Haldane and other contemporaries placed in the rationality of science and in its direct society-transforming power (which were still influential into the 1970s) reach back down to the critical countercurrents of the Enlightenment, especially to Rousseau. They are borne by the—false—assumption that people can ultimately agree on what is good and that political decisions on goals can emerge that can then be fulfilled by science and technology. This runs counter to the experience of Western liberal democracies that there are insoluble conflicts of values and interests. If no basic consensus can be achieved, then there can also be no rationally compelling decision among political alternatives. This means that the scientization of public life that the Enlightenment thinkers dreamed of is impossible.

The absurdity of the bifurcation of nature into objective and subjective sides seems to have turned into an equally absurd bifurcation of society. Knowledge, even rational knowledge, cannot be automatically translated into action. Haldane’s elitist assertion that society must adjust its values to what science offers not only founders on democratic objections but never really gets off the ground in the face of the regulating effect of the market, which selectively feeds back to what is taken up from the plethora of scientific ideas and technological possibilities. The harmless and endearing amateurs who bred pigeons or orchids in Darwin’s times and thereby conducted “artiflcial” selection have been succeeded by professional innovation systems fueled by the market and the state. These consist of an impressive host of entrepreneurs, joint-venture funders, small start-up firms, stockbrokers specialized in blue-chip investments, technology-transfer bodies, and others who are assiduously bringing constantly new products and processes onto the market. And here we see a shift. Whereas the most important sites of technological change in the twentieth century were the research laboratories of the giant industrial concerns, today the emphasis is increasingly on close collaboration between industry and university research. New software-intensive and knowledge-based technologies are emerging as a result of the progress in molecular biology and in the capacity of computers, which increase university research’s direct utility for industry.

In the meantime, it is mostly left up to art and literature to test what ambivalent emotions they can evoke in audiences with, for example, new forms of life created by mutations. Patricia Piccinini’s artful figures consciously cross the boundaries between humans and animal species. She creates monsters whose familiar human characteristics disturb and speak to us even while they appear in an alienated from. She arouses the viewers’ curiosity, a curiosity that follows two separate paths at the same time. One path leads to the created object, which is alien and familiar to us at the same time. The other path leads back to ourselves, for looking at the object nourishes our suspicion that science’s conscious and intentional manipulations could one day also make us humans take on such an alienated from, just as the artist has done with her mutated form produced from silicon, acrylic, human hair, and leather.

Curiosity thus moves between the fronts, popping up first on the one side and then on the other when the pendulum swings and provokes vehement contradiction or resistance. Curiosity prepares for the new without already knowing what form the new will take. Curiosity does not place any limitations on itself; it is deeply amoral (as the church fathers knew, which led them to condemn it). But curiosity does not lead directly to the new and to renewal, and it doesn’t like to be steered. initially, what counts as renewal is what is economically valued and what shows provable economic success. As an equivalent, “objective” nature preserves the market, which is outfitted with “natural” effective powers. Subjectivity is pushed aside to the sphere of the emotional factors that influence purchasing decisions and that trigger feelings of well-being and the satisfaction of needs when a purchase is made. Daedalus and Icarus remain two figures from Greek mythology that ought to remind us that the attempt to advance into the unknown remains risky. The outcome is uncertain.

You may also like...