The Evolving View of Science and Evil
Daedalus begins with an artillery bombardment on the Western Front, the shell bursts nonchalantly annihilating the human protagonists who are supposed to be in charge of the battle. This opening scene epitomizes Haldane's hard-headed view of war. And likewise at the end, when the biologist in his laboratory, "just a poor little scrubby underpaid man groping blindly amid the mazes of the ultramicroscopic," is transfigured into the mythical figure of Daedalus, "conscious of his ghastly mission and proud of it," this closing scene epitomizes Haldane's hard-headed view of science. Haldane was saying that the destiny of the scientist is to turn good into evil, that the horrors of the first world war are not an isolated phenomenon but only an example of the disruptive consequences that we may constantly expect to emerge from the progress of science. Now, seventy-four years later, we are beginning to see more clearly what he had in mind.
The decision of the United States Congress to kill the Superconducting Supercollider project came as a shock to many of my scientist colleagues, but it would not have surprised Haldane. At the time when Haldane was writing in the 1920s, science was intensely unpopular in England. Science was identified in the public mind with the technological carnage of the recent war. The first world war was seen as peculiarly evil, because the organizers and promoters of the slaughter were old men while the victims were young. The public blamed scientists in general, and chemists in particular, for the invention of explosives and poison gases which killed or scarred a whole generation of young Englishmen. Scientists were seen as a privileged priesthood, callously profiting from the misery of the unprivileged. Forty years later in America, a similar hatred of science was aroused in the generation of young people who experienced the consequences of technology in the Vietnam war and felt themselves to be victims.
Today, science has once again turned good into evil. This time the evil is not a war, but a civilian technology that systematically widens the gulf between rich and poor, deprives uneducated young people of jobs, and leaves large numbers of young mothers and children homeless and hopeless. The evil is to be seen in many places around the world, especially in the great cities of North and South America. When one walks through the streets of New York after dark during the Christmas season, one sees the widening gulf at its starkest. The brightly lit shop windows are filled with high-tech electronic toys for the children of the rich, and a few yards away, the dark corners of subway entrances are filled with the dim outlines of derelict human beings that the new technology has left behind. In every large Ameri- can city, such contrasts have become a part of everyday life.
My scientist friends may justly protest that the calamities of American society are caused by drugs, or by guns, or by racial intolerance, or by illiteracy, or by bad schools, or by broken families, rather than by science. It is true that the immediate causes of social disintegration are moral and economic rather than technical. But science must bear a larger share of responsibility for these evils than the majority of scientists are willing to admit. When we look at historical processes on a time-scale of fifty or a hundred years, science is the most powerful driving force of change. Because of science, machines have displaced unskilled manual workers, and computers have displaced unskilled clerical workers, in all branches of industry and commerce. Because of science, the traditionally conservative middle class of well-paid blue-collar industrial workers has almost ceased to exist. Because of science, jobs paying enough to support a family in comfort are no longer available to young people without higher education, unless they happen to be gifted with special talent as baseball players or rock stars. Because of science, families with access to computers and to higher education are rapidly becoming a hereditary caste, the children inheriting these advantages from their parents. Because of science, children deprived of legitimate opportunities to earn a living have strong economic incentives to join gangs and become criminals.
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