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Can We Save Ourselves From Our Own Progress?

Is science a tool for progress, prosperity and happiness, or a curse that has set the natural world on the path of destruction?
Rajgopal Nidamboor, science news, scientific progress, ancient science, scientific advances, history of science, scientific inventions, life in space, world environment day, nature versus science

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June 05, 2020 12:30 EDT

All that is old need not be dated. Take for instance, our ecological heritage. It has been rightly proposed by scholars that countless enlightened ideas may be drawn from old precepts of previous civilizations, especially from ancient India. More than that, knowledge may also, in today’s context, be derived from the traditional individual whose old commitment, eternal in every sense, would help us to maintain the delicate order so essential to preserve Mother Earth in a hospitable, habitable state.

This brings us, inevitably, to the two faces of science. One view of science is as a tool for progress, prosperity and happiness of our race. The other curses it for creating a world of materialistic chutzpah, not to speak of violence and destruction, including the COVID-19 tornado (a lab-grown organism, as some conspiracy theorists believe it to be), that has rattled our planet. Call it science’s double-edged sword, thanks to its overwhelming, cascading effect on our environment, ecology and values, besides health and wellness, down the ages.

The impact of science on our society any which way you look at it is significant and total. Besides, the sway of technological authority, through such means as nuclear power and automation, is direct and immediate. You may call it the technological spell that casts its perpetual effects in the application of knowledge for practical purposes.

Understanding Our Place in the Grander Whole


To be a technologist, one need not be a scientist with academic training alone. Thomas Alva Edison and Albert Einstein had nothing to rave about by way of pure academics or test scores. Yet the fact is, modern technology would not have flowered but for the individual scientist — ensconced in the lab with no interest whatsoever for the simple pleasures of life. While the role of the scientist has been central to technological development, the important advances of today, ranging from nuclear reactors, computers, space programs, lasers and the silicon chip, have come about because of science’s intimate involvement — and the collaborative efforts of scientists — with technology.

The Transformation

While science has changed from the realms of pure speculation and influence of the past to a unique mode of approaching knowledge, the scientific method, unlike before, has been broadly based on the interplay of sizzling new ideas and facts. Isaac Newton’s concepts of force and motion led us to understand the behavior of machines and planetary movements. Einstein’s theory of relativity, likewise, suggested not only the nuclear processes which keep the sun shining, but it also delved into the frills of atomic reactors that now drive ships. Interestingly, when the word “science” first emerged in English writings, it was accepted as the personal knowledge of a scholar and did not mean the theoretical framework of a previous student of the subject.

How things have changed. In the path-breaking triumphs of technology since the 19th century, applied science has increasingly depended upon the fundamental knowledge provided by its theoretical and academic contemporaries.

When James Watt, an instrument-maker, invented his model of the steam engine — based on Robert Boyle’s principle that steam could be used to move a piston — he was guided by the work of Joseph Black, a university professor in latent and specific heat. In the same way, ideas about electromagnetism were applied by Samuel Morse to produce the telegraph, the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, and the electric light, phonograph and cinema by Edison.

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As a matter of fact, Edison’s discovery that the filament of his electric bulb produces particles — what we now know as electrons — led to the invention of the radio by Guglielmo Marconi and the development of electronics. Jagadish Chandra Bose, the real creator of the wireless receiver, was “robbed” of the credit because Marconi was faster at applying for a patent. What’s more, the basic idea of thermodynamics made possible the amplified development of a host of fascinating advances in metallurgy, modern warfare, aviation and refrigeration, to mention just a few.

World War II changed the face of science like never before. When progressive mathematicians were asked by the Third Reich to devise theories that could help with the communication, processing and utilization of information, a whole new branch of mathematics was born — information theory. This led to the development of the radar, improved telephone systems and computers. The rest is history. Interestingly, information theory has practical use in medicine too: It explains how data stored in our genes is used for protein-building in our cells. While neurologists have used it to analyze nerve impulses, economists use it to evaluate national and international economic trends.

Things to Come

Curiously, most of our high-tech gadgets spring from the 17th, 18th and 19th-century inventions — typewriters, clocks, washing machines, recording equipment, refrigerators and fiberglass boats. Interestingly, the bounty has been plentiful, but not as bountiful as it appears it may be in the future. A sample review would give us a good idea of the shape of things to come.

Electrically-powered robots will take over the running of domestic chores, fed by information from a computer at home, while drivers may run their vehicles on automatic control systems. Commuters will rely heavily on helicopter and hovercraft services — and, owing to extremely crowded air traffic, the use of autopilot will be banned. Body organs would be replaced at the proverbial drop of an illness, and many animals and plants, which have barely managed to survive our technological boom so far, will disappear from the face of our planet.

We are also extending our compass and radar elsewhere, proclaiming that life potentially exists everywhere, “out there,” potentially billions of years old. More recently, the evidence of DNA components in interstellar space has increased the chances of “discovering” alien life. This is a significant finding in the search for extraterrestrial life, more so with the evidence of prebiotic molecules in interstellar space.

The discovery, as scientists aver, could increase the odds of finding life outside of our own solar system. The prebiotic molecules cited include a fragment called ethanamine, which produces adenine — one of the four nucleobases that form the rungs of the DNA. Yet another newly-discovered molecule, cyanomethanimine, is evidenced to play a significant role in the formation of the amino acid, alanine — a key player in human physiology. The allegory is apparent.

Paradigm Shift

As noted ecologist Edward Goldsmith points out in his book “The Way: An Ecological World-View,” the paradigm shift was inevitable but also counterproductive: “The concept was probably entertained, explicitly or implicitly, by all vernacular societies” — from the beginning of time. He adds, “Ecology is a way of looking at the world, in a subjective and emotional way, not just as an objective and rational one. It involves seeing the world with wonder, awe and humility — as something to feel part of, to love and to cherish, rather than to exploit. This principal tenet of the traditional man is confined to logic — of all benefits regarding a favorable climate and generous supply of the source of life, water.”

It is only when we respect the biosphere, as Goldsmith emphasizes, can we also evolve a system, a behavioral pattern that enabled the traditional individual to preserve the critical order of the biosphere and venerate nature’s own biological laws. “The present worldview serves to rationalize and legitimize today’s policies. Its most basic tenet is the tenet of progress and the idea that science, technology and industry are going to create a paradise. This is the worldview of modernism which believes that all benefits are man-made.” This also relates to the benefits measured in terms of manmade goods that you acquire or possess. Paradoxically, it does not take into account non-manmade benefits — a favorable climate, fertile soil and clean water.

What does this signify? That our ancient, logical view legitimized a plan or policy toward a sustainable and fulfilling society. This was also the traditional worldview. Adds Goldsmith: “I don’t think there is anything to invent. I think the solutions are already there. The people who lived in the valleys in India for 2,000 years are likely to know how to farm the land. The idea of an American graduate coming and teaching them is preposterous. I studied irrigation and found that the traditional ways were fine.” The other downside is population explosion. This is, of course, the consequence of economic progress. As Goldsmith explains, “I have realized that the only answer to our problems is to return to the traditional type of society,” as Mahatma Gandhi understood it. “What we are trying to do is impossible. What we are proposing is difficult. So, I opt for the difficult.”

Goldsmith derives his ecological hypothesis from the Vedic principle of rika, the behavioral template aimed at maintaining the natural order of the cosmos. He explains: “The religion of the earth is in the Vedas and in early Greek scriptures. Science is superstition and a pernicious one at that. It has no foundations. There is no epistemological justification for modern science. It is sitting in the air. Things like neo-Darwinism are simply a farce.” Just think of it. The grand idea to adopt geoengineering solutions to climate change, like placing 50,000 mirrors, each one 100 square kilometers into space to reflect the heat of the sun away from us.

The argument is simple: It is evident that our climate operates on the basis of self-regulatory processes, just like the human body. If it depends on our conscious effort through technology, there is little hope. “Yet the saving grace is,” as Goldsmith underlines, “god or whoever created the evolutionary process knew it. Hence, the functioning of our body or metabolism is well-insulated against human follies.” 

Proponents of technology may oppose such a radical view, but the inference is obvious. While Sigmund Freud, the plumber of the psyche, is said to have robbed man of his soul, modern science, with all its stupendous progress, has reduced our brain into a mechanical tool. In the process, we have all moved, or so it appears, out of Einstein’s famous phrase, “God does not play dice with the universe,” thanks to our incredible and lopsided scientific advance — always more, never less.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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