When talking about the perils of climate change or resource depletion, soil degradation or fisheries collapse, water pollution or nuclear waste–how annoying it is to have one listener respond dismissively, "They’ll figure something out. They always have."
It’s a nonsense rejoinder and yet, it often gains the assent of many–as if this assertion were a self-evident truth that only an enemy of progress would question. And, that’s where we’ll start examining the central contradiction in the modern outlook–with a statement that is offered as if it were a scientific fact, when, in truth, it is nothing more than a piece of dogma enunciated by the religion we call modernism.
At first glance, the statement seems backward-looking because it asserts that we humans have always averted catastrophe through our ingenuity. But, of course, this is complete hogwash. History is replete with civilizations that have risen and then fallen, crumbling for myriad reasons eerily similar to ones said to threaten our own: climate change, resource depletion, soil degradation, water pollution, plagues, war, and political disintegration. The listener’s statement above can’t really be backward-looking for it would fall to pieces with only a cursory review of history.
And so, this means that it must actually be forward-looking. It assumes that the future cannot fail even though the past testifies to almost certain decline for our civilization at some point. What is the basis for this forward-looking optimism concerning a future which we cannot know?
Let us examine the issue through the medium of film using two films that illustrate perfectly the contradiction I mention above. First, there is "Planet of the Apes." It is a truism in science that all species continue to evolve. But, they are not evolving toward some final state of perfection. Rather, random mutations confer traits on the Earth’s various species, some of which traits aid survival and propagation and some of which do not. The next dominant species on Earth could just as well be dolphins.
But for the purposes of this piece we’ll go along with the notion that in the future apes will have become intelligent and dominant on Earth. In "Planet of the Apes" these evolved apes talk and use tools and, yes, they use weapons. In this notion there is nothing particularly unscientific except perhaps the impossibility of unchanged ape vocal cords adequate to human speech. But even an ape’s vocal cords might evolve over time to become capable of human speech as they did once before if we take the fossil record seriously.
Modern science posits only change and evolution. It does not assume special exemptions for humans, and it acknowledges that the life of the human species on planet Earth will be here and gone in the blink of an eye when considered on the geologic timescale. The average lifespan of mammalian species is thought to be about 1 million years. The age of the Earth is 4.5 billion years, some 4,500 times that span. Modern humans have been around approximately 200,000 years, so we are a young species. On the other hand, 1 million years is an average. Extinctions have taken place on both sides of that number.
The arrival of another intelligent species at some point in Earth’s remaining period of habitability (1.75 to 3 billion years according to one study) seems plausible even if it is unlikely. "Planet of the Apes" is decidedly a film about evolution–a process which has no particular goal in a universe which, scientifically speaking, has no particular destiny–except perhaps an unglamorous and lifeless heat death, a possibility about which there continues to be a robust debate. Even physicists aren’t sure where we are headed.
"2001: A Space Odyssey" imagines humans in quite a different light, one that conforms to modern notions of a special destiny for humankind. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll realize that we can compare apes in "Planet of the Apes" to those in the first part of "2001" which includes scenes of a group of prehistoric apes who encounter an alien monolith.
The black monolith somehow imprints special abilities on the minds of the group’s members, abilities which allow them to learn to make and use tools for hunting and ultimately for battle. (Why this monolith which clearly comes from an advanced technical culture does not give the apes the specifications for computer chips and spaceships right then and there is a puzzle. Why wait millions of years for the apes to become humans in order to figure it all out? But then I digress.)
Apparently these abilities can be passed on genetically, a thoroughly unscientific view known as the heritability of acquired characteristics first proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. (My aim is not to pick on details of director Stanley Kubrick’s visual masterpiece, but to raise a flag to warn that in the painstakingly created realism of this film not all is precisely scientific.)
At the end of the film’s prehistoric scenes, an ape tosses a weapon made of bone triumphantly into the air. That weapon dissolves into a shape that roughly matches the form of a spacecraft now moving across the screen–an abrupt jump to the year 2001 on the presumably inevitable upward journey of humankind. (We are left to fill in the intervening years with progress.)
After more dazzling shots of spaceships and a space station, we join Dr. Heywood Floyd mid-flight on a space shuttle to an American Moon base near which another monolith has been excavated, one very much like the monolith we’ve already seen interacting with prehistoric apes. Oddly, in a movie supposedly presaging our techno-utopian future, the airline food has gotten worse. We watch Dr. Floyd sip from various straws the equivalent of strained carrots and corn and puréed fish from his covered tray. The toilets are tricky, too. In zero gravity there are apparently 10 steps to relieving oneself successfully.
After a briefing at the Moon base, Floyd goes to the excavation site to inspect the mysterious monolith. Evidence suggests that it was deliberately buried 4 million years ago. After Floyd approaches the structure and touches it (much like the apes on Earth before him), it emits a piercing sound, presumably transmitting data to the visiting humans (perhaps including a refresher course on laisser-faire economics or the virtues of untested chemical compounds–we are not told). Presumably, humans clever enough to find and excavate such a monolith on the Moon are ready for the next step–which turns out to be a trip to Jupiter.
(Read no further if you have never seen the film and do not want me to ruin the ending–though I tend to think of the ending as the least compelling part of the film.)
Once at Jupiter the lone surviving astronaut–it turns out really bad stuff happens in between launch and arrival at Jupiter–is transformed by alien powers into an incorporeal being, a star child–at least that’s what Kubrick and his collaborator, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, call it.
To be fair Kubrick consciously set out to make a mythic film. That’s why it includes such fantastical elements. Every good myth does. But what he does not know is that he has captured the modern myth perfectly, to wit:
Human progress is one-way and inevitable. No obstacles can prevent it. We humans are not flung into the future by the random forces of the universe. Rather, we are pulled into our future by our destiny. In the parlance of Aristotle this is what is known as final causes or teleology. End points in the future can supposedly cause things to happen in the present which push us in the direction of the inevitable techno-utopia we are destined to create.
Now, here is the problem. A film which spends so much of its time enlisting realism and scientific fact (as it was known at the time) tells us a thoroughly unscientific tale. And, it is the tale of our times.
We imagine ourselves to be members of a thoroughly scientific culture and to be scientifically minded. But, what science tells us is that the evolution of the universe and thus of planet Earth and its inhabitants is random. It is following no predetermined felicitous course. This process of change could be favorable to humans or it could be horrifically dangerous to them.
Our technological innovations will not necessarily shield us from this change. In fact, these innovations are part of the change. They influence climate in a way that is deleterious to the human future; they empty fisheries with a swiftness never before seen; they lead to degradation of the soil, not in isolated areas, but worldwide; and they poison the food, the air and the water in a manner that is global in scale.
A friend refers to this as the Midgley Effect. Chemist Thomas Midgley Jr. was heralded for his work in creating leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons. The story of leaded gasoline is rehearsed every time we pull up to a gas pump and fill our automobiles with UNLEADED gasoline. Lead added to gasoline for the purpose of preventing so-called engine knocking turned out to be very bad for human health. Big surprise!
But chlorofluorocarbons were even worse. Used primarily as refrigerants from the 1930s onward and later as aerosol propellants, they escaped into the air. No one thought to track their destination until the 1970s when one scientist, F. Sherwood Rowland, asked where these compounds ended up. They were by design inert–that is, they didn’t readily break down–so they must be somewhere.
That somewhere turned out to be high in the atmosphere attacking the ozone layer which protects humans and other living creatures from excessive radiation from the Sun. Had it not been for Rowland asking a very specific question and receiving a grant to fund the answer, we might well be living with little or no atmospheric protection from dangerous levels of solar radiation. Such are the perils of our technology. In this case, only one curious man stood between the human species and widespread disaster. Chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone-destroying chemicals were subsequently phased out worldwide by the Montreal Protocol.
Midgley–who believed he was doing good things for society and received many awards for his discoveries–turned out to have "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history," according to environmental historian J. R. McNeill. And, it wasn’t a good impact.
One of the pillars of our modern techno-utopian outlook is that invention is presumed to be good and should not be unduly impeded. It turns out, however, that our own science has shown that inventions can be potentially catastrophic.
So, now we come to the central contradiction of the modern outlook. We rely on science. We say we believe in science. But what science tells us about the trajectory of the universe and thus human beings is no more complicated that what "Planet of the Apes" tells us. There is no particular or preordained direction for the future development of humans or the universe we live in.
Yet, the techno-utopian vision that we cling to as modern people rejects this view even as we say our favored instrument of progress is science. Thus, we must conclude that our dissenting party guest’s reply above–"They’ll figure something out. They always have."–enunciates a religious belief, not a scientific observation.
Science recognizes the role of chance. There are processes beyond our knowledge which generate events we can neither predict nor control. The modern outlook acknowledges chance, but views it as a bothersome bug rather than a feature in nature–one that in principle can be held at bay and ultimately overcome with increased knowledge. In fact, we need not even concern ourselves with planning because God or providence or special instructions from an alien race or perhaps Adam Smith’s"invisible hand" in the marketplace will take us to our inevitable destination of ever more dominance. This is a religious view and therefore generally immune to both proof and debunking.
And yet, as professor of environmental studies David Orr has told us our ignorance grows alongside our knowledge. The things we create to "solve" our problems are likely to create more problems which we cannot now anticipate. In short, there is no solution to the knowledge problem. We will forever (or rather for as long as the human species lasts) be subject to chance.
That should make us much more cautious in our enthusiasm for anything that calls itself progress. But it is hard to find any true conservatives in the world anymore. Those calling themselves "conservative" are even more likely than those calling themselves "liberal" to advocate for rapid, unplanned change. A true conservative would question change of any kind, asking whether it might risk ruin for the entire culture or whether its harm, if any, will be limited.
So, let me say it altogether now, this modern creed: Our future as a species is guaranteed by our inventiveness through science and technology while we move down an entirely unplanned but nevertheless purposeful, that is, teleological path that ensures not only our survival but also our dominance indefinitely–extending even beyond the Earth.
This creed purports that our destiny is the cause of present events, events which will inevitably lead to that destiny–circular reasoning if there ever was any. No true scientist would ever make such a statement. No honest observer would call such a belief modern. The only thing that sets it apart from premodern religious beliefs is the insistence that human affairs run only in the direction of progress and cannot reverse.
It’s true that an acorn can become a mighty oak. But, it is also true that pigs eat them and that the vast majority of acorns never germinate. Chance happens. Acorns have possibilities. But that is not the same as having a destiny. And, it is important to remember that oaks are subject to the same evolutionary pressures as all other species. While we cannot know the future, it is nevertheless likely that both oaks and humans will someday go extinct, joining the 99 percent of all other species in Earth’s history that have disappeared.
In the film "2001" Dr. Floyd addresses his fellow scientists advocating strict secrecy about the monolith on the Moon. He explains:
Now I’m sure you’re all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation if the facts were prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning.
I would contend that the shock to the modern mind would not be the revelation that a superior mind is guiding humans to ever greater progress. Rather, a true shock would be to find out that we are adrift on a sea of chance–not necessarily helpless, but vulnerable nevertheless as were the apes at the beginning of the film.
That would be a radical shift of consciousness for it would force us all to hew more closely to a measured and gradual approach to innovation and part far less readily with the proven technologies and approaches of the past. It would be an acknowledgement that we are not the masters of our fate and that no science or technology will ever make us so.
A special note of thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Dr. James Armstrong, professor of English at Winona State University, for conversations that led to this piece which contains several of his ideas.
Photo: Original suit from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (2012). By: China Crisis via Wikimedia Commons.