Is Changing the Culture the Golden Key to Progress?

Students of human evolution have long argued that it has long been powered, not by natural selection, but mainly by “social evolution”. Humans can emancipate themselves through cultural change, which accumulates knowledge and passes it on directly to descendants via education. Traditions are built up ” which may take the form of superstition, myth, doctrine, or rite, or may be codified by law or taught as recognised academic knowledge. In the span of human culture, these external bodies of formalised information form a second tier that overlays the message of our genes… But we must be aware that in such a system it is risky to remove elements arbitrarily, even those that are apparently bad, for they are part of a coherent system of a complexity comparable to that of our instinctive behaviour patterns. They are so intricately linked that pulling out one brick may topple the entire structure. Anthropologists rightly warn against subjecting primitive tribes to ‘culture shock’. A culture is not easily directed from without, but can be all too easily destroyed – and the humanity of man, deprived of its supporting culture, is destroyed with it”.

Alec Nisbett (1976).

Civilized Man’s 8 Deadly Sins

The founder of modern ethology (the study of animal behaviour) wrote this in 1973:

“All the advantages that man has gained from his ever-deepening understanding of the natural world that surrounds him, his technological, chemical and medical progress, all of which should seem to alleviate human suffering … tends instead to favour human destruction”

Konrad Lorenz, Civilized Man’s 8 Deadly Sins (1973)

This from a scientist who generally described himself as an optimist !

Freud’s Mythological Inferno of Evil

” Though Freud himself was always striving to express his findings in terms of objective realities, the actual entities he constructed were far more like the spirits, virtues, and faculties of a medieval morality play than the material entities of the physicist and chemist.

The unconscious, with its trinity of ego, super ego, and id, the complexes, the censor, the libido, and the death-wish, were all invented by Freud to explain the strange imaginings, dreams, and compulsive behaviour of his patients… [These constructs] tended to take on, especially with his followers, an absolute character, and created a fixed and almost mythological inferno of evil influences…..”

Bernal, Science in History (1957)

Newton’s Compromise Between the Worlds of Religion and Science

After the destructive phase of the Renaissance and Reformation was over a new compromise was needed between religion and science:

“Newton’s system of the universe did represent a considerable concession on the part of religious orthodoxy, for by it the hand of God could no longer be clearly seen in every celestial or terrestrial event but only in the general creation and organization of the whole.

God had, in fact, like his anointed ones on earth, become a constitutional monarch. On their side the scientists undertook not to trespass into the proper field of religion – the world of man’s life with its aspirations and responsibilities”

Desmond Bernal, Science in History (1957)

A Radical Scientist Predicts the Rule of Nuclear Power in 1957 – We Can All Be Wrong

“Already the cost of nuclear power is comparable with that from thermal sources, and we may reasonably expect that with the use of breeder piles… it will become cheaper as time goes by. There need be no fear for a 1000 years or so of any shortage of nuclear fuel…

If wat can be avoided, the era of nuclear power is rapidly approaching and by the end of the [20th] century it will be the main source of electricity”

J. D. Bernal, Science in History (1957)

I wonder what he would think today?

Is Science A Force for Progress or Destruction?

Desmond Bernal was debating this issue way back in 1954. The scientific advances of the Industrial Revolution underlay the Victorian Doctrine of Progress. After two horrific world wars that doctrine was no longer in vogue:

” It is certainly not so now, in these grim and anxious days, when the power that science can give is seen to be more immediately capable of wiping out civilization and even life itself from the planet than of assuring an uninterrupted progress in the arts of peace”.

J. D. Bernal, Science in History (1954)

Science Is Psychologically Conditioned: Einstein

“Science as something existing and complete is the most objective thing known to man. But science in the making, science as an end to be pursued, is as subjective and psychologically conditioned as any other branch of human endeavour – so much so, that the question “what is the purpose and meaning of science?” receives quite different answers at different times and from different sorts of people”.

Albert Einstein

Tottering Civilizations

The young radical scientist Desmond Bernal wrote that he lived in an age of “tottering civilizations. Seeing waste and ignorance, deliberate wrong from minds twisted by old ideas and ill adjusted lives…[But] I do know that I am happy to be born in my own time (b.1901), a time of stress, but a time of hope and of new born knowledge”

Biographical fragment “Microcosm” (about 1926)