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78 SCIENCE AND HUMAN LIFE - ‘I am in no degree ashamed of having changed my opinions. What physicist who was active...

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SCIENCE AND HUMAN LIFE

Science and the techniques to which it has given rise have changed human

life during the last hundred and 

fifty years more than it had been changed

since men took to agriculture, and the changes that are being wrought

by science continue at an increasing speed. There is no sign of any new

stability to be attained on some scienti

fic plateau. On the contrary, there is

every reason to think that the revolutionary possibilities of science extend

immeasurably beyond what has so far been realized. Can the human race

adjust itself quickly enough to these vertiginous transformations, or will it, as

innumerable former species have done, perish from lack of adaptability? The

dinosaurs were, in their day, the lords of creation, and if there had been

philosophers among them not one would have foreseen that the whole race

might perish. But they became extinct because they could not adapt them-

selves to a world without swamps. In the case of man and science, there is

a wholly new factor, namely that man himself is creating the changes of

environment to which he will have to adjust himself with unprecedented

rapidity. But, although man through his scienti

fic skill is the cause of the

changes of environment, most of these changes are not willed by human

beings. Although they come about through human agencies, they have, or at

any rate have had so far, something of the inexorable inevitability of natural

forces. Whether nature dried up the swamps or men deliberately drained

them, makes little di

fference as regards the ultimate result. Whether men

will be able to survive the changes of environment that their own skill has

brought about is an open question. If the answer is in the a

ffirmative, it will

be known some day; if not, not. If the answer is to be in the a

ffirmative, men

will have to apply scienti

fic ways of thinking to themselves and their institu-

tions. They cannot continue to hope, as all politicians hitherto have, that in a



world where everything has changed, the political and social habits of the

eighteenth century can remain inviolate. Not only will men of science have to

grapple with the sciences that deal with man, but—and this is a far more

di

fficult matter—they will have to persuade the world to listen to what they

have discovered. If they cannot succeed in this di

fficult enterprise, man will

destroy himself by his halfway cleverness. I am told that, if he were out of the

way, the future would lie with rats. I hope they will 

find it a pleasant world,

but I am glad I shall not be there.

But let us pass from these generalities to more speci

fic questions.

One of the most obvious problems raised by a scienti

fic technique is that

of the exhaustion of the soil and of raw materials. This subject has been much

discussed, and some governments have actually taken some steps to prevent

the denudation of the soil. But I doubt whether, as yet, the good done by

these measures is outweighing the harm done in less careful regions. Food,

however, is such an obvious necessity that the problem is bound to receive

increasing attention as population pressure makes it more urgent. Whether

this increased attention will do good or harm in the long run is, I fear,

questionable. By a spendthrift use of fertilizers, food production in the pres-

ent can be increased at the cost of food production in the future. Can you

imagine a politician going to his constituents and saying: ‘Ladies and gentle-

men, it is in your power to have abundance of food for the next thirty years,

but the measures that will give you this abundance will cause scarcity for

your grandchildren. I am therefore proposing measures to ensure frugality in

the present in order to avoid famine in the somewhat distant future.’ Is it

possible to believe that a politician who said this would win elections against

one less addicted to foresight? I hardly think so, unless the general level of

political intelligence and virtue can be very considerably increased.

The question of raw materials is more di

fficult and complex than the ques-

tion of food. The raw materials required at one stage of technique are di

fferent

from those required at another. It may be that by the time the world’s supply

of oil is exhausted, atomic power will have taken its place. But to this sort of

process there is a limit, though not an easily assignable one. At present there is

a race for uranium, and it would seem likely that before very long there will

be no easily accessible source of uranium. If, when that happens, the world

has come to depend upon nuclear energy as its main source of power, the

result may be devastating. All such speculations are of course very question-

able, since new techniques may always make it possible to dispense with

formerly necessary raw materials. But we cannot get away from the broad fact

that we are living upon the world’s capital of stored energy and are transform-

ing the energy at a continually increasing rate into forms in which it cannot

be utilized. Such a manner of life can hardly be stable, but must sooner or

later bring the penalty that lies in wait for those who live on capital.

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In primitive times, when the human population of the globe was small,

such problems did not arise. Agriculture, it is true, was practised in ways that

exhausted the soil for a time, but there were usually new vacant lands avail-

able; and if there were not, the corpses of enemies su

fficed as fertilizers. The

system was ‘conservative’ in the physicist’s sense. That is to say, energy on the

whole accumulated as fast as it was used. Now, this is not the case; and, so far

as one can see, it will never be the case while scienti

fic technique continues.

All this, however, you may say, is distant and doubtful: we have more

pressing matters to consider. This is true, and I will proceed to consider

some of them.

The problem which most preoccupies the public mind at the present

moment is that of scienti

fic warfare. It has become evident that, if scientific

skill is allowed free scope, the human race will be exterminated, if not in the

next war, then in the next but one or the next but two—at any rate at no

very distant date. To this problem there are two possible reactions: there are

those who say: ‘Let us create social institutions which will make large-scale

war impossible’; there are others who say: ‘Let us not allow war to become too

scienti

fic. We cannot perhaps go back to bows and arrows, but let us at

any rate agree with our enemies that, if we 

fight them, both sides will fight

ine

fficiently.’ For my part, I favour the former answer, since I cannot see that

either side could be expected to observe an agreement not to use modern

weapons if once war had broken out. It is on this ground that I do not think

that there will long continue to be human beings unless methods are found

of permanently preventing large-scale wars. But this is a serious question as

to which I will say no more at the moment. I shall return to it presently.

The substitution of machines for human labour raises problems which are

likely to become acute in the not very distant future. These problems are not

new. They began with the Industrial Revolution, which ruined large numbers

of skilled and industrious handicraftsmen, in

flicting upon them hardships

that they had in no way deserved and that they bitterly resented. But their

troubles were transitory: they died; and such of their children as survived

sought other occupations. The su

fferers had no political power and were not

able to o

ffer any effective resistance to ‘progress’. Nowadays, in democratic

countries, the political situation is di

fferent and wage-earners cannot be

expected to submit tamely to starvation. But if we are to believe Norbert

Wiener’s book on cybernetics—and I see no reason why we should not—it

should soon be possible to keep up the existing level of production with a

very much smaller number of workers. The more economical methods, one

may suppose, would be introduced during a war while the workers were at

the front, if such a war were not quickly ended by H-bomb extermination,

and when the survivors returned their former jobs would no longer be

available. The social discontent resulting from such a situation would be very

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701


grave. It could be dealt with in a totalitarian country, but a democracy could

only deal with it by radical changes in its social philosophy and even in its

ethics. Work has been thought to be a duty, but in such a situation there

would be little work to do and duty would have to take new forms.

Changes in political philosophy are necessary for several reasons. One of

the most important is that modern techniques make society more organic

in the sense that its parts are more interdependent and an injury to one

individual or group is more likely than it formerly was to cause injury to

other individuals or groups. It is easier to kill a man than to kill a sponge

because he is more highly organized and more centralized. In like manner it

is easier to in

flict vital damage upon a scientific community than upon a

community of nomads or scattered peasants. This increase of interdepend-

ence makes it necessary to limit freedom in various ways which liberals in the

past considered undesirable. There are two spheres in which such limitation

is especially necessary: the one is in economics; and the other in the relations

between States.

Take economics 

first. Suppose, as is not improbable, that most of the power

used in industry comes to be distributed from a fairly small number of

atomic power-stations, and suppose that the men working in these stations

retained the right to strike. They could completely paralyse the industrial life

of a nation and could levy almost unlimited blackmail in the form of

demands for higher wages. No community would tolerate such a state of

a

ffairs. The workers in power-stations would have to have understudies like

actors in a theatre, and the forces of the State would have to be employed if

necessary to enable the understudies to replace workers on strike. Another

example, which war has already brought to the fore, is the supply and use of

raw materials. Whenever raw materials are scarce their distribution has to be

controlled and not left to the free play of unfettered economic forces. Scarcity

of this sort has hitherto been thought of as a transitory phenomenon due to

the needs and ravages of war. But it is likely to remain, in regard to many

essentials, a normal condition of highly developed industry. Some central

authority for the allocation of raw materials must therefore be expected as

a necessary limitation of economic freedom. Another unavoidable limitation

comes from the vastness of some obviously desirable enterprises. To bring

fertility to the interior of Australia and to parts of Siberia is almost certainly

possible, but only by an expenditure far beyond the capacity of private enter-

prise. One may expect that the progress of science will increase the number

of such possible enterprises. Perhaps it will be possible in time to make the

Sahara rainy, or even to make northern Canada warm. But, if such things

become possible, they will be possible only for whole communities and not

for private corporations.

Even more important than the limitations of economic liberty are the

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702

limitations on the liberty of States. The liberal doctrine of nationality, which

was preached by liberals before 1848 and embodied in the Treaty of

Versailles by President Wilson, had its justi

fication as a protest against alien

domination. But to allow complete liberty to any national State is just as

anarchic as it would be to allow complete liberty to an individual. There

are things which an individual must not do because the criminal law forbids

them. The law and the police are in most cases strong enough to prevent

such things from being done: murderers are a very small percentage of the

population of any civilized country. But the relations between States are not

governed by law and cannot be until there is a supranational armed force

strong enough to enforce the decisions of a supranational authority. In the

past, although the wars resulting from international anarchy caused much

su

ffering and destruction, mankind was able to survive them, and, on the

whole, the risks of war were thought less irksome than the controls that

would be necessary to prevent it. This is ceasing to be true. The risks of

war have become so great that the continued existence of our species either

has become or soon will become incompatible with the new methods of

scienti

fic destruction.

The new dangers resulting from our more organic society call for certain

changes in the kind of character that is admired. The bold buccaneer, or the

great conqueror such as Alexander or Napoleon, has been admired and is

still admired although the world can no longer a

fford this type of character.

We come here upon a di

fficulty. It is a good thing that people should be

adventurous and that there should be scope for individual enterprise; but the

adventure and enterprise, if they are not to bring total disaster, must steer

clear of certain 

fields in which they were formerly possible. You may still,

without harm to your fellow men, wish to be the 

first man to reach the

moon. You may wish to be a great poet or a great composer or a man who

advances the boundaries of scienti

fic knowledge. Such adventure injures no

one. But if Napoleon is your ideal, you must be restrained. Certain kinds of

anarchic self-assertion, which are splendid in the literature of tragedy, have

come to involve too much risk. A motorist alone on an empty road may drive

as he pleases, but in crowded tra

ffic he must obey the rules. More and more

the lives of individuals come to resemble the motorist in tra

ffic rather than

the lonely driver in an empty desert.

I come at last to a question which is causing considerable concern and

perplexity to many men of science, namely: what is their social duty towards

this new world that they have been creating? I do not think this question is

easy or simple. The pure man of science, as such, is concerned with the

advancement of knowledge, and in his professional moments he takes it for

granted that the advancement of knowledge is desirable. But inevitably he

finds himself casting his pearls before swine. Men who do not understand his

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703

scienti

fic work can utilize the knowledge that he provides. The new tech-

niques to which it gives rise often have totally unexpected e

ffects. The men

who decide what use shall be made of the new techniques are not necessarily

possessed of any exceptional degree of wisdom. They are mainly politicians

whose professional skill consists in knowing how to play upon the emotions

of masses of men. The emotions which easily sway masses are very seldom

the best of which the individuals composing the masses are capable. And so

the scientist 

finds that he has unintentionally placed new powers in the hands

of reckless men. He may easily come to doubt, in moments of depression or

overwork, whether the world would not be a happier place if science did not

exist. He knows that science gives power and that the power which it gives

could be used to increase human welfare; but he knows also that very often it

is used, not so, but in the very opposite direction. Is he on this account to

view himself as an unintentional malefactor?

I do not think so. I think we must retain the belief that scienti

fic knowledge

is one of the glories of man. I will not maintain that knowledge can never do

harm. I think such general propositions can almost always be refuted by

well-chosen examples. What I will maintain—and maintain vigorously—is

that knowledge is very much more often useful than harmful and that fear of

knowledge is very much more often harmful than useful. Suppose you are

a scienti

fic pioneer and you make some discovery of great scientific import-

ance, and suppose you say to yourself: ‘I am afraid this discovery will do

harm’: you know that other people are likely to make the same discovery if

they are allowed suitable opportunities for research; you must therefore, if

you do not wish the discovery to become public, either discourage your sort

of research or control publication by a board of censors. Nine times out of

ten, the board of censors will object to knowledge that is in fact useful—e.g.

knowledge concerning contraceptives—rather than to knowledge that would

in fact be harmful. It is very di

fficult to foresee the social effects of new

knowledge, and it is very easy from the sheer force of habit to shrink from

new knowledge such as might promote new kinds of behaviour.

Apart from the more general duties of scientists towards society, they have

a quite special and exceptional duty in the present critical condition of the

world. All men of science who have studied thermonuclear warfare are aware

of two superlatively important facts: 

first, that whatever agreements may have

been reached to the contrary, thermonuclear weapons will certainly be

employed by both sides in a world war; second, that if such weapons are

employed there can be no hope of victory for either side, but only of uni-

versal destruction involving, quite possibly, the end of all human and animal

life and almost certainly, failing that, a complete reversion to barbarism. A

great war with thermonuclear weapons will not produce a universal victory

of Communism. It will also not produce the sort of world desired by the

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Western Powers. Nor will it give opportunity for the independent 

flourishing

of South-East Asia or Africa. Radio-active clouds, borne by the wind, will not

respect frontiers and will ignore the legal rights of neutrals. In view of this

prospect, there is one matter upon which the interests of the whole world

coincide. Whether you are a Communist or an anti-Communist, an inhabit-

ant of Asia or Europe or America, a white, brown, yellow, or black man, your

interests are exactly the same as those of the rest of the human race. Your

paramount interest, if you are aware of the situation, must be to preserve the

existence of mankind by preventing a great war. It is clearly the duty of men

of science to bring the facts home, as far as lies in their power, to the govern-

ments and peoples of both East and West. This is no easy task. The govern-

ments of both East and West, whether from ignorance or from motives of

prestige, are engaged in trying to persuade their populations that thermo-

nuclear weapons will destroy the enemy but not themselves. The Red Star, the

o

fficial military organ of the Soviet Government, published several articles on

methods of defence against thermonuclear weapons. These articles were so

absurd that one could hardly believe their authors to be sincere. It seemed

obvious that the purpose of the articles was to deceive people in Russia as to

the perils to which they would be exposed. I am afraid that the schemes

for civil defence put forward in America and Britain are equally misleading.

I hope that this is because the authorities are ignorant and not because they

are dishonest.

Clearly, scientists both of the East and of the West have an imperative duty:

namely, the duty of bringing home to the protagonists the fact that the time

is past for swashbuckling and boasting and campaigns of blu

ff which, if the

blu


ff is called, can end only in utter disaster. I have been glad to see a lead

given by a small number of men of science of the highest eminence, repre-

senting many countries and all creeds, Americans, Western Europeans, Poles,

and Japanese. I have rejoiced to see these men issue a clear statement as to

what is likely to happen in a great war; and I should wish them to invite all

other men of science, in all countries, to subscribe to this statement.

I am aware that this will involve a certain degree of heroism and self-

sacri


fice. But there will be a reward which brave men should find sufficient:

the reward of preserving uprightness and self-respect in the face of danger.

These virtues are common in battle, and men of science should be able to

show them also in a con

flict with ignorance and ferocity. Science has fought

great 


fights in former centuries against the embattled forces of obscurantism.

In the nineteenth century it seemed as though science were victorious, but

the victory is in danger of proving illusory. If science is to do its duty by

mankind, men of science must once again face martyrdom and obloquy and

the accusation of indi

fference to moral values. Perhaps their prestige may

su

ffice to save them from the worst penalties for their courage, but of this we

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705


cannot be con

fident. What we can say with confidence is that it is not worth

while to prolong a slavish and cowardly existence for a few miserable years

while those who know the magnitude of the impending catastrophe wait

for that radio-active death that is in store for them as well as for others.

A di


fficult readjustment in the scientists’ conception of duty is impera-

tively necessary. As Lord Adrian said in his address to the British Association:

‘Unless we are ready to give up some of our old loyalties, we may be forced

into a 


fight which might end the human race.’ This matter of loyalty is the

crux. Hitherto, in the East and in the West alike, most scientists, like most

other people, have felt that loyalty to their own State is paramount. They have

no longer a right to feel this. Loyalty to the human race must take its place.

Everyone in the West will at once admit this as regards Soviet scientists.

We are shocked that Kapitza, who was Rutherford’s favourite pupil, was

willing, when the Soviet Government refused him permission to return to

Cambridge, to place his scienti

fic skill at the disposal of those who wished

to spread Communism by means of H-bombs. We do not so readily appre-

hend a similar failure of duty on our own side. I do not wish to be thought

to suggest treachery, since that is only a transference of loyalty to another

national State; I am suggesting a very di

fferent thing: that scientists the world

over should join in enlightening mankind as to the perils of a great war and

in devising methods for its prevention. I urge with all the emphasis at my

disposal that this is the duty of scientists in East and West alike. It is a di

fficult


duty, and one likely to entail penalties for those who perform it. But, after

all, it is the labours of scientists which have caused the danger and on this

account, if on no other, scientists must do everything in their power to save

mankind from the madness which they have made possible.

Science from the dawn of history, and probably longer, has been intimately

associated with war. I imagine that when our ancestors descended from the

trees they were victorious over the arboreal conservatives because 

flints were

sharper than coconuts. To come to more recent times, Archimedes was

respected for his scienti

fic defence of Syracuse against the Romans; Leonardo

obtained employment under the Duke of Milan because of his skill in forti

fi-

cation, though he did mention in a postscript that he could also paint a

bit; Galileo similarly derived an income from the Grand Duke of Tuscany

because of his skill in calculating the trajectories of projectiles. In the French

Revolution, those scientists who were not guillotined devoted themselves to

making new explosives. There is therefore no departure from tradition in the

present-day scientists’ manufacture of A-bombs and H-bombs. All that is new

is the extent of their destructive skill.

I do not think that men of science can cease to regard the disinterested

pursuit of knowledge as their primary duty. It is true that new knowledge

and new skills are sometimes harmful in their e

ffects, but scientists cannot

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706


pro

fitably take account of this fact since the effects are impossible to

foresee. We cannot blame Columbus because the discovery of the Western

Hemisphere spread throughout the Eastern Hemisphere an appallingly devas-

tating plague. Nor can we blame James Watt for the Dust Bowl, although if

there had been no steam engines and no railways the West would not have

been so carelessly or so quickly cultivated. To see that knowledge is wisely

used is primarily the duty of statesmen, not of men of science; but it is part of

the duty of men of science to see that important knowledge is widely dis-

seminated and is not falsi

fied in the interests of this or that propaganda.

Scienti


fic knowledge has its dangers; but so has every great thing. And over

and beyond the dangers with which it threatens the present, it opens up

as nothing else can the vision of a possible happy world, a world without

poverty, without war, with little illness. And, what is perhaps more than all,

when science has mastered the forces which mould human character, it will

be able to produce populations in which few su

ffer from destructive fierce-

ness and in which the great majority regard other people, not as competitors

to be feared, but as helpers in a common task. Science has only recently

begun to apply itself to human beings except in their purely physical aspect.

Such science as exists in psychology and anthropology has hardly begun to

a

ffect political behaviour or private ethics. The minds of men remain attuned

to a world that is fast disappearing. The changes in our physical environment

require, if they are to bring well-being, correlative changes in our beliefs

and habits. If we cannot e

ffect these changes, we shall suffer the fate of the

dinosaurs who could not live on dry land. I think it is the duty of science—I

do not say of every individual man of science—to study the means by which

we can adapt ourselves to the new world. There are certain things that the

world quite obviously needs: tentativeness, as opposed to dogmatism, in

our beliefs; an expectation of co-operation, rather than competition, in

social relations; a lessening of envy and collective hatred. These are things

which education could produce without much di

fficulty. They are not things

adequately sought in the education of the present day.

It is to progress in the human sciences that we must look to undo the evils

which have resulted from a knowledge of the physical world hastily and

super


ficially acquired by populations unconscious of the changes in them-

selves that the new knowledge has made imperative. The road to a happier

world than any known in the past lies open before us if atavistic destructive

passions can be kept in leash while the necessary adaptations are made. Fears

are inevitable in our time, but hopes are equally rational and far more likely to

bear good fruit. We must learn to think rather less of the dangers to be

avoided than of the good that will lie within our grasp if we can believe in it

and let it dominate our thoughts. Science, whatever unpleasant consequences

it may have by the way, is in its very nature a liberator, a liberator of bondage

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707

to physical nature and, in time to come, a liberator from the weight of

destructive passions. We are on the threshold of utter disaster or unprecedent-

edly glorious achievements. No previous age has been fraught with problems

so momentous; and it is to science that we must look for a happy issue.

(What is Science? edited by James R. Newman, New York: Simon &

Schuster, 1955.)

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708



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