Joseph Rotblat



Science and Humanity in the 21st Century

by Sir Joseph Rotblat
1995 Nobel Laureate in Peace*
6 September 1999

The twentieth century saw more momentous change than any previous century: change for better, change for worse; change that brought enormous benefits to human beings, change that threatens the very existence of the human species. Many factors contributed to this change but – in my opinion – the most important factor was the progress in science.

Academic research in the physical and biological sciences has vastly broadened our horizons; it has given us a deep insight into the structure of matter and of the universe; it has brought better understanding of the nature of life and of its continuous evolution. Technology – the application of science – has made fantastic advances that have affected us beneficially in nearly every aspect of life: better health, more wealth, less drudgery, greater access to information.

The continuation of such activities in the twenty-first century will result in an even greater boon to humanity: in pure science – a wider and deeper knowledge in all spheres of learning; in applied science – a more equitable distribution of material benefits, and better protection of the environment.

Sadly, however, there is another side to the picture. The creativity of science has been employed to the detriment of mankind. The application of science and technology to the development and manufacture of weapons of mass destruction has created a real threat to the continued existence of the human race on this planet. We have seen this happen in the case of nuclear weapons. Although their actual use in combat has so far occurred only in 1945 – when two Japanese cities were destroyed – during the four decades of the Cold War, obscenely huge arsenals of nuclear weapons were accumulated and made ready for use. The arsenals were so large that if the weapons had actually been detonated the result could have been the complete extinction of the human species, as well as of many animal species.

To a large extent the nuclear arms race was driven by scientists. They kept on designing new types of weapons, not because of any credible requirement – arsenals a hundred times smaller would have sufficed for any conceivable deterrence purpose – but mainly to satisfy their inflated egos, or for the intense exhilaration experienced in exploring new technical concepts.

This is a complete perversion of the lofty ideals of science. It is a severe, but justified, indictment of members of a highly respected group in society.

William Shakespeare said: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” The above brief review of the application of only one strand of human activities – science – seems to bear out this adage. But does it have to be so? Must ill always accompany good deeds? Are we biologically programmed for aggression and war?

I am not an authority in genetics, but from my readings and life-long observation I do not see any evidence that we are genetically condemned to commit evil. On the contrary, on very general grounds I would say that genetically we are destined to do things that are of benefit to the human species, and that the negative aspects are mistakes, transient errors in the process of evolution. In other words, I believe in the inherent goodness of Man.

The human species is the outcome of a continuous, natural process of evolution, involving an infinite number of transformations; an inexorable process that has been going on since the formation of the Earth, about 4.5 billion years ago. This process of evolution has led, through random mutations, and influenced by environmental factors, to the emergence of systems of ever better adaptation, thus securing their continuity. In animals, this has led to the evolution of species with increasing intelligence, climaxing in the human species, which has acquired the ability of original thinking. I believe that this marks a very important phase in evolution, the first time that a species has been able to take charge of its own destiny.

The acquisition of the power of original thinking has greatly accelerated the process of natural evolution. It has resulted in huge strides in all aspects of civilization, in the arts, in literature, in medicine, in technology, above all, in science, which is at the forefront of the expansion of the human intellect. However, these very advances in science have led to the acquisition of the capacity for self-destruction, to the development of the means to destroy the human species itself.

I have already shown that this has already happened in one area – the development of nuclear weapons. Other means of wholesale destruction, perhaps more easily manufactured, may result from further scientific research, if it is allowed to proceed completely unrestricted.

We are thus faced with a daunting dilemma. As a process of natural evolution, science should be allowed to develop freely, without restrictions. But can we afford the luxury of uninhibited research in the natural sciences, with its awesome potential of total destruction, in a world in which war is still a recognized social institution?

The preservation of the human species, and its continuing enhancement, demand that we learn to live with one another in peace and harmony. But this learning process has been slow and arduous, and is not yet complete. Due to the harsh conditions under which primitive Man lived, he often had to fight with other human beings for survival. Individual killing and, later, collective killing – war – thus began to be seen as a natural phenomenon. But with the improvement of standards of living resulting from science and technology, wars have become less and less necessary. We are gradually coming to appreciate the futility of war; we are slowly learning how to resolve conflicts without resorting to military confrontation.

We are not there yet. We are still not organized for a war-free world. But in the meantime, the human species may be brought to an end by the use of the tools of destruction, themselves the product of science and technology.

In my opinion, the problem has to a large extent arisen from the uneven rate of advance in the different areas of human activities, in particular, between the progress in the natural sciences – which include the physical and biological disciplines, and the various social sciences – economics, sociology, politics (with psychology perhaps at the interface between the two major groups). Undoubtedly, there has been much faster progress in the natural sciences than in the social ones.

Why have the natural sciences, especially the physical sciences, advanced so much faster than the social sciences? It is not because physicists are wiser or cleverer than, say, economists. The explanation is simply that physics is easier to master than economics. Although the material world is a highly complex system, for practical purposes it can be described by a few general laws. The laws of physics are immutable, they apply everywhere, on this planet as well as everywhere else in the universe, and are not affected by human reactions and emotions, as the social sciences are.

Indeed, these very characteristics of the physical sciences have led to the “ivory tower” mentality of the natural scientists, to their assertions that science is neutral, that it has nothing to do with politics, and should be allowed to be undertaken for its own sake, without regard to the ways it may be applied. In its extreme form, it was this attitude that enabled the scientists in the military establishments on both sides of the iron curtain, in Los Alamos and Livermore, in Chelyabinsk-65 and Arzamas-16, to use their ingenuity to keep on inventing new, or improving old, instruments of destruction, during the Cold War. It is this frame of mind that currently enables scientists working in genetic engineering to propose experiments that could damage our genetic make up.

How can we tackle this unevenness in the rate of progress of different areas of science? Two ways come to mind: one, by accelerating the rate of progress in the social sciences; two, by slowing down the rate of advancement of the natural sciences in some areas, for example, by the imposition of ethical codes of conduct.

Clearly, the former is by far the preferable way. What we would like to see is faster progress in the social sciences, leading to the establishment of a social system which would make war not only unnecessary but unthinkable; a system in which the existence of old, or the invention of new, weapons of mass destruction, would not matter, because nobody would dream of using them; a system in which people will be able to say: “nuclear weapons: who cares?”

How long will it take to achieve this state? Considering that this would require an educational process to develop and nurture a feeling of loyalty to mankind, transcending national boundaries, it may be a long time in coming.

Meanwhile the threats now hanging over our heads may become a reality, should there be a major military conflict. We have therefore to consider, in addition, the other way, namely, imposing some restraint on research in the natural sciences.

At first this sounds unimaginable – a limitation on scientific research is almost a contradiction in terms. How can thinking be muzzled? How can one control the ideas that come into one’s head? We still remember the political regimes that tried to do this, and nobody wants to bring them back. Moreover, scientific research is very likely to bring further benefits to all of us, and we should not do anything that may hinder such outcomes.

On the other hand, unlimited research may lead to grave dangers, as I have described. In my opinion, the prevention of these dangers should have priority, even if it means that, temporarily, science does not have a completely free run. After all, we do not need to do everything, we don’t have to pursue every idea that comes into our heads. In exercising our intellectual powers we have to be responsible for the social impact of our work.

Responsibility for one’s actions, is of course, a basic requirement of every citizen, not just of scientists. Each of us must be accountable for our deeds. But the need for such responsibility is particularly imperative for scientists, if only because scientists understand the technical problems better than the average citizen or politician. And knowledge brings responsibility.

In any case, scientists do not have a completely free hand. The general public, through elected governments, have the means to control science, either by withholding the purse, or by imposing restrictive regulations harmful to science. Clearly, it is far better that any control should be exercised by the scientists themselves, through a self-imposed code of conduct.

The establishment of an ethical code of conduct for scientists is an idea whose time has come.

An ethical code of conduct for physicians has been in existence for nearly two and a half millennia, since the days of Hippocrates. In those days – as still today – the life of the patient was literally in the hands of the medic, and it was essential to ensure that he would wield his power responsibly, the care of the patient being his foremost duty. Hence the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors when they qualify.

Nowadays, science can be said to have acquired a somewhat similar role in relation to humanity; the destiny of mankind lying in the hands of scientists. The time has thus come for some sort of Hippocratic Oath to be formulated for scientists. A solemn oath, or a pledge, taken when receiving the degree in science, would, at the least, have an important symbolic value, but it might also generate awareness and stimulate thoughts about the wider issues among young scientists.

We should also borrow from medicine another practice, of more recent origin: ethical committees to review research projects. In many countries, a research project that involves patients has to be approved by the ethical committee of the hospital, to ensure that the investigation will not put the patient’s health and welfare at a significant risk. This practice should be extended to research work in general, but in the first instance, perhaps, to the area of research that has a direct impact on the health of the population, namely, genetic engineering.

I suggest that ethical committees, composed of eminent scientists from different specialities, should be set up for the task of examining potentially harmful long-term effects of proposed research projects. The ethical committees should work under the aegis of the national academy of sciences in the given country, but it is essential that the criteria used in the assessment of projects are agreed internationally by academies of sciences, so that the same standards are applied everywhere. This would entail a greater than hitherto involvement of academies of science in ethical matters, which is needed in any case.

The implementation of these proposals would go some way towards the prevention of harmful consequences of scientific research. It would enable the scientist’s creativity to fulfil its proper function: enhance our cultural and intellectual heritage, and, at the same time, protect the environment and improve the material lot of human beings, thus helping the establishment of an equitable and peaceful world.

* Sir Joseph Rotblat died on 31 August 2005.

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