In 1983 the world came within a whisker of nuclear Armageddon when Soviet satellite photos mistakenly revealed NATO missiles in the sky. Only the impulsive refusal of Russian officer Stanislav Petrov to believe his eyes prevented mutually assured destruction being set in train. Now a US president threatens to “totally destroy” another nuclear-armed country – with twenty-five million inhabitants – using the same technology. Evisceration by mistake or design, it hardly matters to the millions of people and other life forms caught in the conflagration. It just takes one fat finger to push the button, or for that matter to pull the trigger on conventional weapons widely available to citizens of the dominant superpower.
Armed with such weapons, it is hard to rebut Carl Jung’s charge that modern man is a “technological savage”. He believed this stemmed from denial of a primitive or primordial self, previously expressed in religious rituals and popular rites. Instead the intellectual zeitgeist is an ideal of infinite progress that permits rapid digestion of the planet, with scientists often oblivious to the consequences of their innovations. Homo sapiens has long displayed destructive tendencies and, armed with our latest tools, we wreak unprecedented environmental havoc while mistakenly assuming that technological advances improve our collective decision-making. How we chart a course for humanity requires different lenses, as Yuval Noah Hariri points out in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: “by definition it [science] has no pretensions to knowing what should be in future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions.” Science must be reconciled to these objectives.
Nuclear proliferation after World War II raised the stakes to such a degree that nuclear powers have not waged war with one another since Japan was bombed into submission in 1945. Instead, we saw proxy conflicts from Greece to Afghanistan throughout the Cold War, and further peripheral engagements since the fall of the Soviet empire, but none between members of the nuclear “club”, or their allies. No wonder the leader of a “rogue” state should wish to join the top table, having witnessed the grizzly fate of other ruling regimes previously stigmatised. But if we are to take the hectoring “leader of the free world” at his word, even nuclear capability may no longer confer immunity.
Nevertheless, Hariri proposes that “the Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have gone to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the Atomic Bomb”. He admits the assessment may be naive and, since the success of Trump and other similar figures, that seems increasingly so. One psychotic leader – and democracy is no guarantee against this coming about as the Nazis’ electoral success underlines – or just a technological glitch, could unleash disaster. There is also the possibility of a nuclear power station malfunctioning, as we saw in Chernobyl; or being subjected to a natural disaster, such as a the tidal wave that washed over Fukushima; or even a reactor being attacked by terrorists. Nuclear fission is intrinsically dangerous, and its by-products almost eternally toxic.
The end of the Cold War represented our best chance of decommissioning these horrendous weapons, but this was not given serious consideration, as the United States took on the role of global policeman, with Britain acting as its obsequious sidekick. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 spelt the demise of a lingering hope for multilateralism.
Now the majority of politicians in Britain, including in the Labour Party, consider nuclear capability a totem of national sovereignty, and funnel billions into the Trident programme. The once mighty Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament barely flickers; its logo a vaguely nostalgic reminder of student idealism. The recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons seems more of an expression of the aspirations of the committee than a reflection of that NGO’s ability to enter popular consciousness.
Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus (1818) is a great parable for our time, in which a bionic monster torments his master for failing to acknowledge his responsibility. It spawned a new genre in science fiction, which grapples with technological advances in a way novels usually no longer attempt. “At the time,” according to Amitav Ghosh, “there does not seem to have been any sense that Frankenstein belonged outside the literary mainstream, only later would it come to be regarded as the first great work of science fiction.”
The book’s disarming implication is of profound monstrosity lurking, not in an impressionable invention, but in humanity itself. The invention is neither beneficial nor harmful, but a reflection of the human world in which it co-exists. Victor Frankenstein’s creature is born with a pure heart, and it is only when his friendly overtures towards humans are rudely rebuffed that his diabolical tendencies are unleashed. Towards the end of the book he reveals: “When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that wished to be participated. But now, that virtue has become to me a shadow, and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair.”
Abandoned by his creator and without a friend in the world the monster casts a long shadow, killing members of Victor’s family. Crestfallen, Victor eventually consents to build a mate in exchange for an end to this reign of terror. But at the last moment he destroys her, shuddering to think that “future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race”. In revenge the monster kills Victor’s own wife on their wedding night. United in grief, Victor meets his doom in the polar wastes as he vainly pursues that shadow.
Finally, over Victor’s corpse, the monster announces:
I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.
Through Victor’s belated self-sacrifice the genie is put back in the bottle, and humanity can endure. If only it was so easy.
A host of Hollywood potboilers have followed the same theme of the destructive capacity of scientific innovation. One such was the Terminator series, which posited a nuclear calamity brought on by rebellious robots, who acquire the most diabolical human traits. A succession travel back in time to eradicate John Connor, the future human leader of the human resistance, along with his doughty mother, Sarah Connor.
In Terminator II the leading engineer of cyborg technology, Miles Bennett Dyson, takes responsibility for his work and abets the destruction of the technology, dying, like Victor Frankenstein, in the process. A further parallel with the novel is that at the end of the film the benign robot, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, demands his own destruction in a pool of molten metal, exultantly fading away in the “light of that conflagration”.
In both cases catharsis arrives only when the inventor acknowledges responsibility. In the real world such foresight is scarcely possible, and once a technological frontier is crossed only rarely is a reversal possible: scientific advances often serve simply to amplify our destructive capacity, even if the original motivation is speculative.
Thus, although the unprecedented breakthroughs in physics during the early part of the twentieth century were motivated by a genuinely inquiring spirit, these developments permitted less scrupulous scientists to develop a nuclear bomb, and allowed even less scrupulous politicians to deploy it. Gar Alperovitz’s 1995 book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb presents compelling evidence that President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Harry S Bryant, ordered bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not to defeat Japan, but as a warning to the Soviet Union; and that General Marshall’s proposal to drop it on a non-civilian target was ignored. Geologists date the beginning of the Anthropocene from this point, and it is worthwhile considering human history in terms of “the before and after” of this terrifying exhibition of technology.
History shows that once one power acquires a new weapon, whether it is the horse, the cannon or the machine gun, the rest will follow or face annihilation. Rarely, if ever, is a military technology put aside. Moreover, even if an innovation is designed for the benefit of humanity it may well have devastating side-effects, as we are discovering with innovations such as the Haber-Bosch process that manufactures artificial fertiliser from natural gas. This appeared to solve the age-old problem of field crops depleting nitrogen from the soil, and farmers having to keep fields periodically fallow. In combination with mechanisation and improved breeding it brought the so-called Green Revolution that permitted exponential population growth over the course of the twentieth century. But besides seemingly solving the problem of global food scarcity we created another in feeding over half of all cereal crops to other animals, and developing an insatiable desire for meat. This has reduced much of the world to a patchwork of fields that rely on chemical inputs for life, and billow greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Similarly, the internet is an invention with extraordinary capacities for expanding awareness and knowledge, but social media have facilitated surreptitious methods of influencing voter behaviour. The current US president is a master of the short written form of the tweet , and his allies have also used Facebook to devastating effect. Unknowingly, the earnest scientific minds that developed the internet have created a propagandistic monster which threatens nuclear Armageddon.
Yet it is still commonly assumed that advances in scientific education elevate human consciousness. Expressing the optimism of the Enlightenment in The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposes that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension of the objects of his “social instincts” and “sympathies”:
Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later he came to regard more and more “not only, the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellow men”; then “his sympathies” became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals.
Of course there is some substance to Darwin’s claim. Over the course of the last century the chances of someone dying violently have diminished significantly. The archaeological evidence from prehistory suggests far more of us were killed in violent circumstances than is the case in most societies today. Life for the foraging homo sapiens was generally nasty and brutish, though rather less short than one might expect. The restricted diets of early agricultural civilisation, which also brought most communicable diseases from animal husbandry, lowered life expectancy considerably. But as for our relationship with so-called lower animals, that is another story: one of unremitting devastation.
Most creation myths hark back to a Fall before which our species lived in balance with Nature. Some contemporary versions imagine us living like bonobos, playing erotic games from dawn and dusk, as we swung through trees in search of sweet fruits. But well before the Industrial Revolution, or even the first Agricultural Revolution that produced civilisation just about twelve thousand years ago, homo sapiens had embarked on our wild career of ecocide. An ability to utilise fire gave all hominoid species, including homo Neanderthalensis, a Promethean capacity to alter the landscape unlike any animal up to that point, but homo sapiens also exhibited an unprecedented tendency to wipe out large fauna, once we preserved a bridgehead out of Africa.
We began by eradicating bigger-brained relatives such as homo Neanderthalensis and homo Denisovan – although we acquired a few of their genes along the way – before hunting large fauna such as the woolly mammoth to extinction. Worse followed when we announced our arrival in the Americas and Australia by wiping out most large – many of them apparently docile – fauna within a short period of our arrival. As Hariri puts it: “the historical record makes homo sapiens look like an ecological killer”.
According to Hariri, what distinguished homo sapiens from other hominoids is a capacity to invent fictions that are vital for togetherness. Such mythologies survive in modern societies, not just in religious worship, but also in legal fictions such as the separate legal personality of companies and the imagined communities of nation-states. A conceit also underlies trust in the money economy where the actual amount in coins and notes in circulation is less than ten per cent of the notional amount that keeps commerce afloat.
Moreover, we maintain the myth that we are, for the most part, doing “good” in the world. But we cannot get away from the shocking casualties that our success as a species has brought to others. We are now living through the Sixth Extinction, but it is hardly considered newsworthy. There are now over seven billion humans in the world, with a combined weight of 300 million tonnes, while other animals domesticated by humans weigh up to 700 million tonnes. All other surviving large wild animals (including marine life and birds) weigh a mere 100 million tonnes. That is a ratio of ten to one between the human world and wild animals.
Also, the conditions in which most domesticated animals now live and die is one of unrelenting torture. In Hariri’s plausible view: “over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth”. We may not be killing and maiming one another to the same extent, but technology allows us to distance ourselves from unspeakable exploitation of domesticated animals, while eradicating the habitats of most wild animals. Eventually, as Hariri indicates, this “orgy of reckless consumption” may destroy the foundations of human prosperity too. That is what many climate scientists are predicting at least. Is it too late to turn the ship around?
There is no easy way out of the pickle that humanity finds itself in. No bride of Frankenstein’s monster can be sacrificed on the funeral pyre. We cannot return to subsistence in restored forests, as these would never support our present numbers. Traditional methods of farming are not going to feed us either. The scientific revolution and the discovery by Europeans of new continents have got us into the mess we are in, and science has to dig out a way for us. Synthetic meats and clean energy are viable alternatives, but we need to alter the terms of the relationship between science and other fields.
According to the philosopher Mary Midgely: “the very word ‘science’ which had originally meant knowledge or understanding in general, gradually became narrowed during the nineteenth century to mean only physical science”. She argues that if we are to deal with major questions we will have to combine “several different methods belonging to different disciplines”. She charges the Pythagoreans with rejecting an Earth Mother in favour of disembodied mathematical forms in the physical world. Pythagoreans identified intuitive female qualities as evil, and good ones as rationally masculine, a tendency exhibited by scientists ever since, she argues.
The prevailing narrow focus tends towards abstractions that ignores a wider assessment of consequences. The success of a polymath such as Aristotle is today unthinkable. Specialisation has reached a point where, according to Richard Feynman: “There are too few people who have such a deep understanding of two departments of our knowledge that they do not make fools of themselves in one or the other.” Similarly, Einstein wrote that “specialisation in every sphere of intellectual work … is producing an ever-widening gulf between the intellectual worker and the non-specialist worker”, adding that “since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself any more”!
Scientists who go into great depth on a particular subject may lose sight of the implications of their innovations, just as Victor Frankenstein chose to ignore what he had done. We also face the huge problem of funding being directed by short-term commercial gain, and the influence of lobbyists on government investment. As Hariri puts it: “many scientists do, in fact, act out of pure intellectual curiosity. However, only rarely do scientists dictate the scientific agenda”. The education system as it is currently ordered ill equips them for this role.
Any scientific education should be linked to an appreciation of the arts, which lay bare the human condition and imagine a multiplicity of realities. Therein lies the key to charting the future. Thus Aristotle writes that “it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen”. A broader education should also encourage artists to become more scientifically literate, perhaps giving rise to new creative forms. In return scientists will be afforded the creative vision of art to plot a route for humanity out of the impending crises we face. The artist and the scientist may work as one.
More controversially, it is still possible to envisage a place for religion in the modern world as we seek to temper an innate savagery that has harnessed technology. As Laurens van der Post puts it: “For me the passion of spirit we call ‘religion’, and the love of truth that impels the scientist, come from one indivisible source, and their separation in the time of my life was a singularly artificial and catastrophic amputation.” The progress that Darwin observed in human empathy originates in large part from religious sensibility, seen in its widest terms. A dogmatic atheism is alien to our nature.
But religious devotion has erred terribly in venerating ourselves as God’s chosen species over the rest of Nature. Monotheist religions in particular must accept a broader responsibility, as the current Pope Francis has done, at least in part. We demand a Reformation in the human spirit to save us from intellectual savagery. The portents are monstrous. Either we come to terms with technological barbarity, or we face annihilation.
Frank Armstrong is a Dublin-based writer. His twitter handle is @frankarmstrong2