imagesThis article is a slightly abridged version of one which was written in 1997 and appeared in issue #3 of the Christchurch-based journal revolution, Aug/Sept 1997

by John Gillot and Manjit Kumar
(with additional information from Simon Faraday)

Is science the liberator of humanity, or the tool of despots? Is the attempt to control the laws of nature the handmaiden of progress, or the suicidal act of ignorant fools? These are the kind of issues being raised today, as the world’s pressing demographic and environmental problems make more people ask whether progress is such a good thing. What answers can we come up with?

Marxists support the unlimited growth of scientific knowledge and capacity. The dangers posed by the application of modern science arise from the nature of the societies in which it takes place not from the science itself. The system which dominates the globe – capitalism – is at best stagnant. Without the constraints this system imposes, the potential exists for fundamental scientific advances to be made and used for the good of us all. In opposition to the Marxist view, however, there is a growing belief among radical thinkers that humanity is inevitably threatened by technological and scientific advance.

This view has been put clearly by the modern Green movement. Discussing the environmental problems of today, Fritjof Capra has argued that these “manifold health hazards are not just incidental by-products of technological progress; they are integral features of an economic system obsessed with growth and expansion, continuing to intensify its high technology in an attempt to increase productivity.”

The Green view of science and technology as inherently dangerous makes sense to many people. Mention biotechnology, for example, and images of man-made mutants are more likely to come to mind than thoughts of a cure for genetic disorders. Such a reaction is understandable, given the misuse of scientific research. If people like Capra and his colleagues only wanted to expose the abuse of science by the capitalist system, we could have no objection. However, they go much further, asserting that “technological progress. . . growth and expansion” as such are the problem. This simply will not stand up to scrutiny.

Technological growth and scientific progress have vastly improved the state of human existence through the ages. A glance at life expectancy figures demonstrates the advances which society has made compared to the past. What’s more, we would argue, popular fears about science and the real dangers it can pose are not primarily the product of growth and expansion. Instead, these fears have been far more prevalent when the capitalist system is in one of its many cycles of decline and retrenchment. We can illustrate this point through a brief look at the modern history of science in the Western world.

The wonder years

As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages with the development of trade and commerce at the end of the fifteenth century, a new optimism began to spread about the possibilities for material advance. Science, or “man’s way with nature”, as pone observer put it, was seen as part of this new expansion. Indeed, it was seen as “hardly less wonderful than nature itself”. An optimistic vision spread and intensified as the rising capitalist system spread across Europe and later the globe, revolutionising science and technology in the process.

By the end of the sixteenth century Francis Bacon was arguing for the domnation of nature by man through science. At the close of the seventeenth century, Newtonian science pointed to this as a real possibility, and a century later it was widely perceived that there were no obstacles to man’s ability to control nature through science, thus improving the human condition. The optimism of the age was summed up by M. de Condorcet, mathmetician and secretary to the Paris Academy of Sciences, in 1794:

“Nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties. The perfectability of man is truly infinite, and. . . the progress of this perfectability, from now on independent of any power that might wish to halt it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe u;pon which nature has cast us.”

This period was the culmination of the Enlightenment, representing a truly enlighened view of the possibilities for progress. The developments of the nineteenth century seemed to justify the optimism: mechanics, heat, waves, sound, light, magnetism, electricity all fell to the advance of science. And, perhaps, most dramatically of all, Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution.

The period in which optimism about scientific progress was strongest, from bacon to Darwin, was characterised by theexansion of the capitalist system. Occasional economic crises still occurred, and technology was still used for such ends as fighting reactionary wars, but in an overall context of social advance which encuraged enthusiasm for science. The twentieth century, by contrast, has been characterised by more profound depression and stagnation, world wars, the Holocaust and serious global problems. This has encouraged the modern questioning of Enlightenment attitudes towards progress, particularly scientific progress.

Twentieth century

Within the twentieth century, the short periods when people seemed more optimistic about scientific advance have generally coincided with economic expansion. In the post-war boom years from 19950-1970 the American space programme captured the imagination. In 1989, by contrast, who took seriously George Bush’s declaration that America, now the biggest debtor nation on earth, would send a manned trip to Mars? Indeed, who can even remember him saying it?

In today’s harsher economic conditions, scientific advance continues, but it is more episodic. And, despite the end of the Cold War, the lion’s share of research funds goes to the military – a telling example of how science is warped to fit the needs of capitalist society.

Underlying much of the West’s modern scientific thinking is the belief that there are natural limits to the expansion of human knowledge and control of natural laws. So far as we are concerned, this opinion is the product of the prevailing pessimism in capitalist society; it has no basis in scientific fact.

Take the highly fashionable ideas of Chaos theory.** Chaos theorists argue that many or all physical systems can be modelled using non-linear mathematical equations. From this, some generalise that nature is inherently unpredictable and therefore is neither controllable nor even susceptible to an analysis based on cause and effect.

There is no positive evidence that Chaos captures the essence of more than a few simple systems. Yet can we be surprised that such a theory is gaining support today, when humanity’s present capacity to control nature is so clearly limited? Blaming this limit on nature itself rather than on the problems of a social system is obviously an easier explanation for some.

Another example of how social conditions influence scientific views is the recent revival of interest in the theory of population put forward by Thomas Malthus in 1798. Malthus argued that poverty is caused by an excess of people, rather than a shortage of food, because the growth in population has a natural tendency to outstrip the capacity to feed it. His views were well-received by the ruling classes, since they provided a convenient explanation for the crushing poverty and unemployment brought on by the early stages of capitalist industrialisation. Indeed, Malthus’ ideas were an open apology for the class system. He made very little effort to ‘prove’ his theory, but insisted that even levying taxes on behalf of the poor was harmful, since it would only encourage their procreation, thus making the problem worse.

Feed the world

Today the world’s agricultural system is visibly failing to feed its more than 5.5 billion population, and it is predicted that there will be six billion people by 2000 and more than 9 billion by 2050. This has set the alarm bells ringing, and led to renewed interest in half-baked Malthusian theories of over-population. Yet, as the food mountains and wasted agricultural resources of the West indicate, there is no natural reason why the Earth couldn’t support such numbers. Poverty and starvation are social problems.

It is striking that support for Malthusianism has risen with each major economic recession since 1873. The argument that these recessions were caused by too many people soon looked ridiculous when economic expansion restarted and the population rose as well. Once more, blaming the limits to growth on nature rather than society seems to be a convenient explanation for some.

The barrier which capitalist society poses to the advance and use of science is not simply economic. Political and moral factors also intrude today. Across the Western world, the authorities are now seeking to encourage conformity and conservative values. Embryo research, for example, is under pressure in the West. Through in-vitro fertilisation child-bearing can be separated from sexual and family relations, a decided advantage for gay couples or any women who want to have children withut men.

Despite the importance of embryo research, nobody has been awarded a Nobel Prize for work in this field. The USA banned state funding for IV research in the early 1980s. The treatment remains badly under-developed. Embryo research that could help in the elimination of cancerous cells or the diagnosis of disabilities during pregnancy is either on hold or severely under-funded.

The renewed arguments against research, or in favour of limiting it, are often couched in ethical or religious terms. But this is misleading. Religious arguments against tampering with nature have always been around. The point is that they are flourishing today because of the more fundamental earthly considerations involved. We can be sure that if the authorities considered it in their interests to encourage lesbian motherhood, they would dig up (or make up) some obscure religious quote to justify that too.

‘The deity business’

The ethical arguments against progress in embryology and in the connected field of biotechnology do not come only from the ‘moral majority’. Some of the fiercest critics of embryology and biotechnology are feminists and Greens who attack the whole Enlightenment project of using nature for the benefit of humanity.

In his book The End of Nature, Bill McKibben argues against biotechnology on the grounds that it represents “the second end of nature” and amounts to humans playing God: “It is the simple act of creating new forms of life that changes the world – that puts us forever in the deity business.” This Green reverence for nature is entirely misplaced, and serves only to mystify the scientific project.

For our benefit

The purpose of science, and humanity’s use of it, is not to create new laws of nature, but to manipulate existing ones for our benefit. Indeed, it is impossible to create new laws of nature. As Marx put it, man “opposes himself to nature as one of her own forces”. From the point of promoting scientific advance and control over nature, the tragedy today is that supporters of the capitalist system can appear positively progressive compared to their critics like McKibben. These ‘radicals’ are now rationalising many socially-imposed limitations on science as natural ones, obscuring the fact that the major barriers to scientific progress lay in the capitalist system.

Our goal should be to encourage a newly-enlightened attitude to scientific and social advance. But for now such a mood of intellectual optimism is likely to be restricted to a minority. It will only be properly popularised when science and society really do advance, and people practicially experience the benefits on a systematic basis. This presupposes a transformation of society. In other words, the struggle for progress is a political issue rather than a narrowly scientific one.

In the meantime, can we say anything sensible about what the science of the future could achieve? Most predictions reveal much more about society today than about science tomorrow, particularly by magnifying current fears about the misuse of science. Variants on the Frankenstein theme are a staple of science fiction now.

A more fruitful approach is to assess future possibilities on the basis of current theories and technical capacities. In his book on artificial intelligence , Roger Penrose, Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, categorises theories as “superb”, “useful” and “tentative” (The Emperor’s New Mind, 1989). By ‘tentative’ Penrose means those theories without any experimental support worth talking about, and he correctly observes that such theories are usually forgotten in the course of a fundamental leap forward in scientific knowledge. Most recent theories he places in the ‘tentative’ category. This is not surprising; late capitalist society, with its relative economic stagnation provides limited opportunities for significant empirical verification. But does this imply that it would be useless to try to assess future scientific possibiities? Not quite.

Future possibilities

Projections based on current technical knowledge and known technical possibilities provide the surest footing from which to glimpse the future. Consider an historical comparison. In the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci made many mechanical constructions, real or imagined, and drew up bold plans for the future. Those he based entirely on speculative (or ‘tenative’) scientific theories were proved wrong in time. But those he based in some way on existing technical knowledge proved in many cases to be useful even if, as with the use of ballbearings in mechanical devices, it took 300 years for them to be realised.

For examples of what we might predict today, let us look at a few areas: nanotechnology and optical communication and computing technology. These have provided fertile ground for speculative discussions about the possibility of artificial intelligence which, following Penrose’s argument, haven’t extended our knowledge of intelligence in any meaningful way. But they offer exciting possibilities about the future constructions we could build.

Nanotechnology deals with dimesnions from 0.1 to 100 nanometres, where a nanometre is a billionth of a metre. This is arund the dimensions of individual atoms. The idea began with Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman who in 1959 declared that “there’s plenty of room at the bottom”. He argued that the principles of physics did not preclude “the possibility of manoeuvring things atom by atom. . . but, in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.”

Atomic bombshells

Subsequent advances mean that, in a primitive way, there is already the capacity to effect change at the atomic level. Building on the invention of the scanning electron microscope in 1952, Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer (Nobel Prize, 1986) developed the scanning tunnelling microscope. Using techn ology in this field, Colin Humphreys of Liverpool University is carrying out precision electron beam lithography. With this microscope it would be possible to engrave all 28 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on to a pinhead. Scanning tunnelling microscopes are being used by teams around the world to manipulate atoms and molecules. For example, at IBM in San Jose, not only have they successfully placed a molecule in a predetermined place, they have also severed portions of the molecule.

If society can significantly advance its capacity to develop and use these technologies, the potential is there to replicate the complexity of the human body, and build machines to repair the body at the atomic level. Eric Drexler, a leading enthusiast, points out that the first step is the construction of assemblers which would be able to carry out construction work at the atomic level. From that point rapid advance is possible:

“Because assemblers will let us place atoms in almost any reasonable arrangement. . . they will let us build almost anything that the laws of nature allow to exist. In particular they will let us build almost anything we can design, incuding more assemblers. The consequences of this will be profound, because our crude tools have let us explore only a small part of the range of possibilities that natural law permits. Assemblers will open a world of new technologies.”

To carry this through in practice will pose a major challenge to existing scientific theories and technological capacities and will no doubt require the development of new ones, especially in the field of quantum mechanics. But, as Drexler points out in response to those who dismiss the whole idea, such feats of engineering are already carried out within the human body. There is no reason why science cannot improve upon bodily functions.

Advances in optical communication and computing are no less exciting. ‘Coherent optical communications’ are moving towards the point where in principle it would be possible to have one half of the world’s population speaking to the other half of the world’s population simultaneously through one optical fibre, opening up undfemaned of possibilities for communications and data transfer on a massive scale.

Developments in optical computers are in turn providing the basis for much faster processing of information, by using the fastest thing there is, light (photons) as the basis of the computer instead of electricity (electrons). Scientists at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in New Jersey have already built what they claim is the world’s first digital optical processor, which processes information using light rather than electricity. They estimate that within five years they will have an optical computer which can match today’s machines. From there it’s a slow march to the death of electrical computing.

But judging future possibilities is not a natural scientific question. History is littered with those who claimed to have solved the ‘final’ scientific problem, only to apear ridiculous a few years hence. The fact that we are well away from understanding the functioning of, for example, the human brain, let alone understanding sub-atomic phenomena, should be a warning against scientific arrogance.

In principle there are no limits to the possible expansion of scientific capacities. However, those who expect the development of nanotechnological assemblers in the next 20 years should take a look at the state of the Western economies. It is hard to imagine the capitalist system advancing rapidly in the field of natural science when it is grinding to a halt in every other department. Social change is the precondition for significant and prolonged scientific advance.

Science and society

Enthusiasts for optical computing and nanotechnology are rightly scathing of those who think science cannot help overcome current human problems. In The Engines of Creation (1986), Drexter savages leading neo-Malthusian Mihajlo D. Mesarovic, co-author of Mankind at the Turning Point: “When asked whether he or any of his colleagues had allowed for even one future breakthrough comparable to, say, the petroleum industry, aircraft, automobiles, electric power, or computers (perhaps self-replicating robotic systems or cheap space transportation?) (Mesarovic) answered directly: “No.”

However, despite advances in science and technology, the number of people in absolute poverty is increasing rapidly. The Malthusians are wrong to claim that this is caused by incfreasing human numbers; but we should not fall into the opposite trap of believing it is susceptible to scientific solutions pure and simple.

Under the capitalist system the most advanced technology in the world is considered useless unless its application is profitable. The transformation of society to create an economy which produces for need rather than profit is not only preferable, it is the only way that we can reap the benefits of current and future advances in science and technology. Progress in science is dependent upon progress in society; and a change in society is the key to using science to serve humanity and solve its problems.

  • It’s unclear what Gillot and Kumar meant by ‘Stalinism’ since the only significant country with a CP still in power was and remains China, which is clearly capitalist and clearly not stagnant. At the time Gillot and Kumar were Trotskyists and, like many Trotskyists, over-used the term, conflating different types of movements and societies.
    ** Keep in mind that this article was written in the 1990s.
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