Science And Human Behavior
By the middle of the seventeenth century it had come to be understood that the world was enclosed in a sea of air, much as the greater part of it was covered by water. A scientist of the period, Francesco Lana, contended that a lighter-than-air ship could float upon this sea, and he suggested how such a ship might be built. He was unable to put his invention to a practical test, but he saw only one reason why it might not work:
… that God will never suffer this Invention to take effect, because of the many consequencies which may disturb the Civil Government of men. For who sees not, that no City can be secure against attack, since our Ship may at any time be placed directly over it, and descending down may discharge Souldiers; the same would happen to private Houses, and Ships on the Sea: for our Ship descending out of the Air to the sails of Sea-Ships, it may cut their Ropes, yea without descending by casting Grapples it may over-set them, kill their men, burn their Ships by artificial Fire works and Fire-balls. And this they may do not only to Ships but to great Buildings, Castles, Cities, with such security that they which cast these things down from a height out of Gun-shot, cannot on the other side be offended by those below.
Lana’s reservation was groundless. He had predicted modern air warfare in surprisingly accurate detail—with its paratroopers and its strafing and bombing. Contrary to his expectation, God has suffered his invention to take effect.
And so has Man. The story emphasizes the irresponsibility with which science and the products of science have been used. Man’s power appears to have increased out of all proportion to his wisdom. He has never been in a better position to build a healthy, happy, and productive world; yet things have perhaps never seemed so black. Two exhausting world wars in a single half century have given no assurance of a lasting peace. Dreams of progress toward a higher civilization have been shattered by the spectacle of the murder of millions of innocent people. The worst may be still to come. Scientists may not set off a chain reaction to blow the world into eternity, but some of the more plausible prospects are scarcely less disconcerting.
In the face of this apparently unnecessary condition men of good will find themselves helpless or afraid to act. Some are the prey of a profound pessimism. Others strike out blindly in counteraggression, much of which is directed toward science itself. Torn from its position of prestige, science is decried as a dangerous toy in the hands of children who do not understand it. The conspicuous feature of any period is likely to be blamed for its troubles, and in the twentieth century science must play the scapegoat. But the attack is not entirely without justification. Science has developed unevenly. By seizing upon the easier problems first, it has extended our control of inanimate nature without preparing for the serious social problems which follow. The technologies based upon science are disturbing. Isolated groups of relatively stable people are brought into contact with each other and lose their equilibrium. Industries spring up for which the life of a community may be unprepared, while others vanish leaving millions unfit for productive work. The application of science prevents famines and plagues, and lowers death rates—only to populate the earth beyond the reach of established systems of cultural or governmental control. Science has made war more terrible and more destructive. Much of this has not been done deliberately, but it has been done. And since scientists are necessarily men of some intelligence, they might have been expected to be alert to these consequences.
It is not surprising to encounter the proposal that science should be abandoned, at least for the time being. This solution appeals especially to those who are fitted by temperament to other ways of life. Some relief might be obtained if we could divert mankind into a revival of the arts or religion or even of that petty quarreling which we now look back upon as a life of peace. Such a program resembles the decision of the citizens of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, where the instruments and products of science were put into museums—as vestiges of a stage in the evolution of human culture which did not survive. But not everyone is willing to defend a position of stubborn “not knowing.” There is no virtue in ignorance for its own sake. Unfortunately we cannot stand still: to bring scientific research to an end now would mean a return to famine and pestilence and the exhausting labors of a slave culture.
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|Epub||July 17, 2018|
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