Whose World, and How We’ll Leave it

Fifty years ago this autumn, the record at the top of the UK singles chart was ‘In the Year 2525’ by Zager and Evans. The song’s lyrics (by Rick Evans himself, who also wrote the music) follow humanity into distant futures, and picture with rising alarm (and rising pitch in the music) the gradual decommissioning of human functions by technology – “Some machine’s doing that for you” – until finally “man’s reign is through”. Then, the suggestion seems to be, things start again from the beginning, as the song itself does.

The ambitious and pessimistic theme made this record an unusual victor in the hit parade. It was also remarkable in looking beyond what was then the most obvious and discussed form of apocalypse, nuclear war. (That had indeed been the theme of Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve of Destruction’ a few years earlier: “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.”) But of course the question whether we shall be science’s masters or science ours was hardly new: it had been a topic for debate and imaginings ever since (if not before) Mary Shelley put it into brilliantly mythical form for her story Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818). And as science itself has increased its scope and powers, which it has done enormously since Zager and Evans sang about babies being selected from “the bottom of a long glass tube” (in the year 6565), so concern has grown about how those powers may variously jeopardize the world.

In 2012, a research institution devoted to the subject was set up at Cambridge: the Centre for the Study of Existentialist Risk. One of its founders, the astrophysicist Martin Rees, had published a book in 2003 plainly setting out the reasons for taking the matter seriously. The book’s title is Our Final Century: Will Civilization Survive the Twenty-First Century? It’s an expert survey by a very distinguished scientist, although, like the Zager and Evans song, it’s intended for popular or at least non-specialist consumption. Alarming it also is, like the song: reviews called it “eloquently frightening”, “provocative and unsettling”, “terrifying”. It has, as I’ve said, much more material to be alarming about than the song had, and the material is crowded into a more panicked perspective: the remainder of this century as opposed to about seven millennia. Eighty years is certainly the more plausible time-allowance, but in at least one respect the song is wiser than the book, as I hope to show.

Our Final Century does discuss the threat of nuclear war, but Rees considers that the use by terrorists of stolen or improvised nuclear materials is the less controllable and therefore more dangerous possibility. In fact, having rather more trust in the international order of treaties and institutions than might be justified today, he concentrates on terrorism and error as the most likely routes to mass disaster, with small groups or even individuals as the agents. He writes, for example, about ‘bioterror’ using either known infections (smallpox, ebola, anthrax) or newly engineered ones. Or he pictures self-replicating ‘nanomachines’, designed with the capacity to live off organic material; such creations might, by accident or design, “proliferate uncontrollably . . . until they had consumed all life.” Reviewing these and other such science-based threats, Rees says “We are entering an era when a single person can, by one clandestine act, cause millions of deaths or render a city uninhabitable for years . . . Indeed, disaster could be caused by someone who is merely incompetent rather than malign.” After all, it was a sort of collective incompetence which got us here, wasn’t it?

Rees very reasonably concludes that we ought to subject the practice of science to some kind of “restraint”: close off some of its more sinister directions or at least keep them unpublished, and control others through international agreements. And it’s here, rather suddenly, that a few of the non-human planetary species woodboatget a rare look-in to Rees’s text (and of course they have a vital interest in this topic too; they may not know that, but we know it). He instances animal experiments as evidence that, in “many countries” at least, limits to what is allowed in scientific research can indeed be agreed upon and kept to. But, he wonders, where are we to fix those limits? He then introduces the term “yuck factor”, used by bioethicists (so he claims) for the sort of quasi-ethical squeamishness which, it seems, has no reliable relevance to welfare or morality. Rees admits feeling this sort of response himself to “invasive experiments that modify how animals behave”, but he considers his response “disproportionate”. In fact this discussion of ethics in life-science is conditioned by words like that: “exaggerated”, “perceive” (in the now common sense of ‘impute’ or ‘imagine’), “unthinking”, and indeed the childish “yuck factor” itself. The suggestion is that we shouldn’t take very much notice of our “deep-set repugnances”: that’s the phrase which C. S. Lewis uses in his science-fiction novel That Hideous Strength to identify humanity’s most fundamental ethical guides. In fact the novel is largely about that most fatal of all usurpations of human function: the supplanting of human judgement as to what is right by the mere fact of what is technically possible.

What we learn, then, from this not unfeeling but not especially interesting three-page discussion is that (as its unexamined assumption) humans are quite entitled to make such decisions about what to do to other species, and, on the other hand, that they can’t be trusted to make them wisely. And now we can get at the world-view which this book teaches us to take into the future, and indeed to make that future with – long or short as it may turn out to be. It’s a world-view not absolutely man-centred, for Rees does contemplate evolutionary advances on the human species as it now is: “intelligence and complexity could still be near its cosmic beginnings.” But the reader knows which species is being identified by those privileged characteristics, intelligence and complexity. We humans may possibly be improvable, therefore, but we do represent at least the “beginnings” of what really matters in nature. And although we may subsequently rise into other forms or even other planets (Rees discusses this latter possibility – an especially disgraceful one, given the book’s theme), what we apparently won’t do is feel any solidarity with varieties of life that have lagged behind us in evolution.

For all its “terrifying” material, therefore (and there’s much more of it than I have been mentioning, including of course climate change), Our Final Century is a surprisingly triumphalist text. You may recall that when Zager and Evans get to the far end of their journey into the future, they take stock like this:

In the year 9595,
I’m kind of wondering if man is gonna be alive;
He’s taken everything this whole Earth can give,
And he ain’t put back nothing

It’s a shaming summary, and surely an incontrovertible one. But its well-founded moral diffidence, its suggestion that man may not deserve to survive, is wholly absent from Our Final Century: there, the assumption is that we have only been taking what was ours. For Rees, the Earth, or at least the world, is humans. When he writes about “the world’s needs” (i.e. for energy), he means human needs. When he writes of “prospects for life beyond the Earth”, he means human life, or ultra-human life. What he hopes that his book will achieve, he says in the preface, is to show how crucial it will be to deploy “new knowledge optimally for human benefit” (still putting back nothing, then). In fact not just the world but the whole cosmos, as Rees prefers to think of it (and he’s a professional cosmologist), has this same human reference: he quotes with approval the mathematician Frank Ramsay, who wrote in 1931, “I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens . . . My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model drawn to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings, and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.” We don’t need to ask, then, exactly whose “existential risk” that centre in Cambridge is studying.

The assumption is that readers will share this strangely arrogant point of view. There’s a probabilistic theory put forward by Professor Richard Gott of Princeton which argues that humanity as we now find it is unlikely to be at an early stage of its career; it’s an intriguing theory, and makes a pleasant break from epidemics, meteorites, etc., but Rees calls it “far from cheerful”, since “none of us welcomes a new argument that humanity’s days may be numbered.” None of us humans, he means of course, not us earth-dwellers, for surely Gott’s idea would raise a world-wide clamour of pleasurable expectation among the other species if only they could understand it.

Even so, “none of us”? I try to keep up with the science which, as Rees says, “is surging ahead at an accelerating rate”, with its “benign applications” in one prosthesis, and “new hazards” in the other. Much of it is wholly obscure to the amateur – and of course even most scientists are amateurs in each other’s specialist areas, a fact which tends to favour the hazards – but some of it is patent enough. In the journal Science, for instance: still a few weeks behind, I’m attempting the issue of 4 October. Here there’s a report, all too easy to understand, on the international trade in wild-life, and one on the “staggering decline of bird populations”. Then among the research articles there is one about how juvenile zebra finches are taught by their parents to sing, or rather how they can be force-taught to sing without parental guidance by means of “optogenetic manipulation of a synaptic pathway connecting auditory and vocal motor circuits to implant song memories”. A link is provided to some video material, which shows these birds performing in their wretchedly alien laboratory surroundings. But not for long, evidently, because the birds were then “quickly decapitated”, after which “The brain was removed from the skull and submerged in cold (1-4˚C) oxygenated dissection buffer . . . “ etc. Meanwhile another research project has involved collecting the brains of pigs in slaughterhouses – this part of their bodies being “readily discarded by the food industry” – and attempting to show that not just cell samples but the whole brain may be kept alive even some hours after death. As the author complacently observes, “one person’s trash is another’s unexpected model.” So one way or another it all gets used; what else is it for? Read or look where you will, there is man the great world-wide plunderer, taking “everything this old Earth can give”.

“None of us”, then? As tribal members of humanity, we may indeed feel “far from cheerful” at the prospect of an early end to our species, especially if we think about its practical details. But as impartial observers, judging things as they are rather than as they suit ourselves (and isn’t that what academic scientists are supposed to aim at?), we must surely regard the fact that “humanity’s days may be numbered” as earth’s brightest hope.


Notes and references:

Our Final Century is published in the UK by Arrow Books. Since it’s a relatively short book, 228 pages of pleasantly large type, and well worth reading in full, I haven’t put page references for the quotations.

That Hideous Strength was first published in 1945 by Bodley Head; the quotation here is from p.121 of an edition slightly revised by Lewis and published by Pan in 1956. The title is itself a quotation from a text referring to the Tower of Babel; Lewis uses the phrase for the modern scientific form of that ancient act of hubris.

The woodcut ‘We Are All in the Same Boat’ (2005) is by Sue Coe. This and other remarkable woodcuts by Sue Coe can be viewed here: https://graphicwitness.org/coe/wood.htm. For a post in this blog about Sue Coe’s art, see https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/