2001 : WHAT NOW?

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Biologist; Editor at New Scientist; Author, The Link
Glaxo/ABSW Science Writer

I continue to think science is wonderful and that in principle it really should help us to understand human nature and the human condition. But I continue to be disappointed by the contributions of scientists to this end; even outstanding scientists.

Thus Martin Rees is surely right to suggest that in the future biotech buffs might wreak enormous destruction just as computer nerds do now with their viruses. But what's new? The Old Testament tells of miscreants poisoning wells, with consequences way out of proportion to the effort. (Why doesn't this happen more often?). In principle, anyone could wipe out a city by putting a judiciously diseased cow into the reservoir (or perhaps a duck, notorious bearers of botulism). Genghis Khan was among scores of highly-charged young men who at various times have laid waste large proportions of the known world with bands of horsemen, and by setting fire to crops and cities (with the near certainty of epidemic to follow: one of the principal 'dogs of war'). A question for science, sensu lato, is why does this happen? What conditions predispose to such outrages? Can such conditions be recognised, and forestalled? Evolutionary psychology should be able to contribute; the deep answers are surely not to be found in the particularities of specific religions or ideologies, though some will obviously prove to be more conducive than others. To reduce such outrage, I suspect that a lot of social restructuring is necessary, rather than a simple increase in restrictions: renewed bursts of 'clamping down'.

But when Richard Dawkins offers thoughts with an evolutionary theme, they are less than convincing. It simply is not the case that young men agree to kill themselves on behalf of the causes they believe in because they are too ugly to attract women; and to suggest that they do so only because they have been brain-washed to believe in harps and virgins after death is really too ludicrous. Many a brave and handsome young man from the kinds of schools that Richard went to himself, and many, many more from more ordinary backgrounds, 'laid down their lives' in the two world wars, simply from a belief that their way of life, and their children and families, were seriously threatened and were worth dying for — and indeed that there was no tolerable alternative. (This is good modern Darwinism too: a variation on the theme of kin selection). Perhaps the brave young men were deluded in their beliefs, and perhaps not, but that is why they did it. Many knowingly committed suicide, and they were called heroes. Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain, their homelands gone, are reported to have flown their planes into German bombers when their ammunition had run out. Many people in the modern world in all kinds of contexts feel as desperate as those Polish pilots did: they have seen too much horror, and suffered too much privation. They see no way forward except to attack what they perceive to be the root cause of their problems, even at the cost of their own lives: and some, at least, perceive the enemy to be American capitalism. Writing the New York highjackers off as madmen deluded by religious memes is neither accurate not helpful. It is simply a random insult, like calling them (ludicrously) 'cowards', as Bush and Blair have done. This is the kind of analysis that gets science a bad name.

Paul Davies's purely technical contribution surely could be helpful — rather like the technology that prevents the bank staff getting at the serious money, so that raids become pointless. So is Kevin Kelly's comment that knives may slip the guard of cruise missiles (though I have heard this from several quarters. It's common sense rather than science).

On the whole, though, the comments so far reinforce Churchill's (I think it was) adage that 'scientists should be on tap but not on top' — i.e., they come up with some good wheezes, but generally say nothing very much that enhances what might be called wisdom. That is a pity. The challenge remains.