George Walford: Miscellanea

ROUSSEAU believed that the feelings individuals experience for each other (which he called ‘natural commiseration’) could hardly exist between societies. But he recognised the presence of ‘a few great cosmopolitan spirits’ (grandes Ames Cosmopolites) who ‘cross the imaginary barriers that separate peoples, and who, following the example of the sovereign being which created them, embrace the whole human species in their benevolence.’ (Reported in Benthall J. 1992 Disasters, Relief and the Media. London etc. Tauris,215)

Those few superior spirits have now multiplied to become whole movements. (But remember the Mount Everest fallacy; some have become able to climb that mountain, and others to run a four-minute mile; it does not follow that eventually all, or most, will be able to do so).

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The Biosphere experiment, recently concluded, had a group of people living in a sealed environment for two years. One discovery, carrying implications for some proposed alternative societies, was that tilling the land without powered machinery left insufficient time for scientific experiments. (Science page of the Observer Review, 9 Jan 94).

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MARY Leakey, with other archaeologists, discovered in Laetoli, Tasmania, footprints made by three humanoids 3.6 million years ago. Brain-size, teeth and body-structure were still ape-like at that time, but the footprints showed that the upright posture – sometimes taken as defining humanity – had been perfected. The first stone tools do not appear until more than a million years later, and John Reader (reporting that these unique footprints are now in danger of destruction) draws the conclusion that ‘the human ancestor had managed without technology for longer than anyone had supposed.’ (Guardian, 2 December 1993) He seems to have overlooked other materials, more easily worked and more perishable than stone; the Inuit use wood and bone in a technology admired by all who study it. Given that animals are known to use tools, chimpanzees stripping the leaves off a twig to make a probe for getting termites out of nests, it seems unlikely that humans should not have been doing at least that much during the million years for which we have no direct evidence.

LEST WE FORGET More than 10 million people were killed during the Great War, probably 55 million in the Second World War and, from a recent report, 23 million in conflict since 1945. The research group World Priorities lists 29 wars now being fought, with the number of deaths in 1992 the highest for 17 years. (Observer 14 November 93)

It sounds as though the planet will soon be depopulated; in fact, during all these killings, and while many more millions have died prematurely from causes other than war, the population has been increasing faster than ever before. It took from the beginnings of humanity to about 1900 – perhaps as much as four million years – before there were two billion of us. We now number over five, and the UN predicts that the next two billion will take not four million years but just twenty-seven; it forecasts eight billion by the year 2020. Perhaps no less important, we now have safe and effective ways for controlling the growth of population should we choose to use them. The power of this society, for production as well as destruction, for good as well as for evil, exceeds anything previously imagined.

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SCIENCE THEN AND NOW: People often claim for science not merely an advance beyond earlier approaches to the physical world, but truth. Valid though this claim may appear as we observe the effects of science combined with technology, it weakens when we find history littered with the rotting corpses of discarded theories, each of them ranking as science in its time. Phlogiston, the ether, the indivisible atom and many others all offered useful explanations of things or happenings formerly mysterious. Each of them worked, within limits, and some of them still serve today; the geocentric model of the universe provides a method of navigation, and for nearly all purposes Newtonian physics gives quite adequate results. With greater experience, however, and access to the results of using these theories in wider contexts, their limitations have appeared; although still practical and valuable, qualified people now reject some of them and accept others as true only with heavy reservations. We have to expect the same to happen with today’s theories. Having witnessed the demise of the indivisible atom, why should we expect the quark to prove immortal? Science has amply proven its usefulness, winning access to immense funds and a high degree of social respect; it has a limited connection with the eternal verities.

from Ideological Commentary 63, February 1994.