I wish I could link you (but I can’t, outside the UK) to an interesting BBC radio series on the history of ideas. Each Monday, presenter Melvyn Bragg introduces a big subject such as “What is man?” with a plenary session of experts from diverse fields, who each present their own programme on the other four days. Plenty to agree or disagree with, but always educational. This week I caught historian Justin Champion’s take on “How has technology changed us?”
He started by introducing Francis Bacon as his “intellectual architect of the modern world”, especially through his manifesto for empirical science of 1605, The Advancement of Learning. But he actually concentrates on chapter 19 of Bacon’s 1609 work on classical myths, The Wisdom of the Ancients, which is the story of the artisan Daedalus, and shows how aware Bacon was of “the ethical ambiguity of progress.”
Bacon’s introduction says:
Among the rest, by his abominable industry and destructive genius, he assisted in the fatal and infamous production of the monster Minotaur, that devourer of promising youths. And then, to cover one mischief with another, and provide for the security of this monster, he invented and built a labyrinth; a work infamous for its end and design, but admirable and prodigious for art and workmanship.
EXPLANATION. – The sense of the fable runs thus. It first enotes envy, which is continually upon the watch, and strangely prevails among excellent artificers; for no kind of people are observed to be more implacably and destructively envious to one another than these…
The succeeding part of the fable is plain, concerning the use of mechanic arts, whereto human life stands greatly indebted, as receiving from this treasury numerous particulars for the service of religion, the ornament of civil society, and the whole provision and apparatus of life; but then the same magazine supplies instruments of lust, cruelty, and death: For, not to mention the arts of luxury and debauchery, we plainly see how far the business of exquisite poisons, guns, engines of war, and such kind of destructive inventions, exceeds the cruelty and barbarity of the Minotaur himself.
Champion introduces a mythology specialist, Edith Hall, who points out that Daedalus, as a mythological artisan, in unusual first in being human rather than divine, but also in always showing a dark side to his inventions: he doesn’t suffer, but other people do from what, essentially, is his irresponsibility.
And so Bacon, in inaugurating the modern scientific project, is concerned lest people don’t think hard enough about consequences, or become driven by pride. For his project was for all humanity to expand and participate in God’s work, but he saw that the individual worker was only human, and liable to cunning and vanity as well as good intentions.
The most telling interview is with nanotechnologist Prof Richard Jones, who responds to Bacon’s use of the Daedalus myth by confirming how much scientists may be motivated by the approval of their peers. His first example is nuclear weaponry, in which the motivation of the pioneers was, firstly, doing what society asked of them (which is, of course, a complex enough issue in itself), but also in some cases, he has no doubt, the solving of “technically sweet problems”.
In conversation with him, Champion takes comfort in the fact that Daedalus usually manages to find a fix for the problems he has caused, but Jones is less sanguine. For evidence he cites the nitrogen fixation process of Haber and Bosch, whom he calls “the most important people of the twentieth century”, and not for good reasons, but as the greatest example of unforeseen effects of science and technology. Others agree with this assessmenst, it appears.
As he explains, their process was developed to enable the mass production of high explosives in World War 1, a questionable and world-changingly costly project in itself (what society asked them to do? A technically sweet problem? Or just highly lucrative?). But it also led directly to the production of artifical fertilizers, in turn the major cause of the population growth of the twentieth century. The process itself is dependent on fossil fuels, whose subsequent use is the major cause (if we accept that evidence) of climate change. Jones points out that there is no current fix for this vicious circle – higher population requires more artifical fertilizer, and so more fossil fuel dependence. Daedalus has lost the key to the labyrinth.
The programme ends on a note not entirely convincing to me: Edith Hall concludes that a key issue with Daedalus was that he worked for tyrants whose projects were selfish. What, she asks, if he had been employed by a democratic government offering him a fortune to cure cancer? We all have a responsibility (the programme suggests) to make sure that we ask the right things of our researchers: “Maybe Bacon is telling us that we get the scientists we deserve.”
Well, that’s true, I suppose – just as we get the governments we deserve. But it is small comfort, given the realities around us, to know we deserve them. Is it not rather naive (given daily experience another set of ancients discussions by the likes of Plato in The Republic) to pin our hopes for purely beneficial science and technology on democracy, especially given its recent track record around the world?
There is, of course, no more simple answer to the harmful spinoffs of technology than there is to the problem of evil in general. Would it have been any better had Haber and Bosch developed their process in order to make food cheap and plentiful, rather than in order to blow up young men? And if that had been their motivation, ought they to have abstained on Malthusian social Darwinism grounds and let nature take its course? Such social engineering was part of the German reason for wanting to win the war anyway, so it cut both ways.
Yet it has to be helpful when a programme like this reminds us that science is not The Answer To Everything beamed in from the land of truth to sweep away all superstition and wrong, but another integral part of the human condition just like those things that inspire it and pay for it (from this programme alone including politics, greed, curiosity, religion, fear, patriotism, pride and mythology). Scientists are no more responsible than the rest of us to have the right motives, and the character that produces them – but they are no less responsible, either, to be educated in the things that build character. Doubly so now that their errors can cause the world, rather than just Icarus’s wings, to melt.
And that takes us back to another ancient, largely discarded, view of the primary role of all true knowledge and wisdom – to live the life of virtue.