The Impact of Science on Society


Herbert Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher, whose work is among the cornerstones of the study of media theory.  He began his teaching career as a professor of English at several universities in the US and Canada before moving to the University of Toronto in 1946, where he remained for the rest of his life. McLuhan coined the expression “the medium is the message” and the term global village, and predicted the World Wide Web almost 30 years before it was invented.

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

by Marshall McLuhan, 1964

The idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.

They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not;

They have ears, but they hear not; They have hands, but they handle not;

Feet have they, but they walk not; Neither speak they through their throat.

They that make them shall be like unto them; Ya, every one that trusteth in them.

The concept of “idol” for the Hebrew psalmist is much like that of Narcissus for the Greek mythmaker. And the Psalmist insists that the beholding of idols, or the use of technology, conforms men to them. “They that make them shall be like unto them.’ This is a simple fact of sense “closure.” The poet Blake developed the Psalmist’s ideas into an entire theory of communication and social change. It is in his long poem of Jerusalem that he explains why men have become what they have beheld. That they have, says Blake, is “the spectre of the Reasoning Power in Man” that has become fragmented and “separated from Imagination and enclosing itself as in steel.” Blake, in a word, sees man as fragmented by his technologies. But he insists that these technologies are self-amputations of our own organs. When so amputated, each organ becomes a closed system of great new intensity that hurls man into “martyrdoms and wars.” Moreover, Blake announces as his theme ín Jerusalem the organs of perception:

If Perceptive Organs vary, Objects of Perception seem to vary:

If Perceptive Organs close, their Objects seem to close also.

To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it. To listen to radio or to read the printed page is to accept these extensions of ourselves into our personal system and to undergo the “closure” or displacement of perception that follows automatically. It is this continuous embrace of our own technology in daily use that puts us in the Narcissus role of subliminal awareness and numbness in relation to these images of ourselves. By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. An Indian is the servomechanism of his canoe, as the cowboy of his horse or the executive of his clock. Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms.

World Brain

by H.G. Wells, 1938

Between the extremes of right and left hysteria, there remains a great under-developed region in the world of political thought and will, that we may characterize as “do-nothing democracy.” Out of the sudden realization of its do-nothingness arise these psychological storms which give gangster dictators their opportunities. It is only gradually that people have come to realize that current democratic institutions are a very poor, slow and slack method of conducting human affairs which need an exhaustive revision, and that when one has declared oneself Anti- Fascist, Anti-Communist or both, one has still said precisely nothing about the government of the world. One is brought back to the unsolved problem of the Competent Receiver. It exercised Plato. It has been intermittently revived and neglected ever since. It is an intricate and difficult problem. To that I can testify because for more than half my life it has been my main preoccupation.

The attack on this problem is, to begin with, a task to be done in the study and in the unhurried and irresponsible spirit of pure inquiry. As the attack gathers confidence a taint of propaganda may easily infect it, but the less that constructive sociology is propagandist, the higher will be its scientific standing and the greater its ultimate usefulness to mankind. The application of the results of its researches is another business altogether, the business of the statesman, organizer and practical administrator. And in spite of the paucity of disinterested explorers in this region of speculation and analysis, and in spite of the lack of effective discussion and interchange in this field (due mainly, I think, to the inadequate recognition of its immense scientific importance which forces its workers so often into a hampering association with politically active bodies) there does seem to be a growing and spreading clarification of the realities of the human situation. It is becoming apparent that the real clue to that reconciliation of freedom and sustained initiative with the more elaborate social organization which is being demanded from us, lies in raising and unifying, and so implementing and making more effective, the general intelligence services of the world. That at least is the argument in this book. The missing factor in human affairs, it is suggested here, is a gigantic and many-sided educational renascence. The highly educated section, the finer minds of the human race are so dispersed, so ineffectively related to the common man, that they are powerless in the face of political and social adventurers of the coarsest sort. We want a reconditioned and more powerful Public Opinion. In a universal organization and clarification of knowledge and ideas, in a closer synthesis of university and educational activities, in the evocation, that is, of what I have here called a World Brain, operating by an enhanced educational system through the whole body of mankind, a World Brain which will replace our multitude of uncoordinated ganglia, our powerless miscellany of universities, research institutions, literatures with a purpose, national educational systems and the like; in that and in that alone it is maintained, is there any clear hope of a really Competent Receiver for world affairs, any hope of an adequate directive control of the present destructive drift of world affairs. We do not want dictators, we do not want oligarchic parties or class rule, we want a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself. To work out a way to that world brain organization is therefore our primary need in this age of imperative construction.

It is an immense undertaking but not an impossible undertaking. I do not think there is any insurmountable obstacle in the way to the production of such a ruling World Brain. There are favourable conditions for it, encouraging precedents and a plainly evident need.

Evolution of Man & the Problem of Overpopulation

Thomas Robert Malthus was an English cleric, scholar and influential economist in the fields of political economy and demography.  In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus observed that an increase in a nation’s food production improved the well-being of the populace, but the improvement was temporary because it led to population growth, which in turn restored the original per capita production level. In other words, humans had a propensity to utilize abundance for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living, a view that has become known as the “Malthusian trap”.

An Essay on the Principle of Population

by Thomas Robert Malthus, 1798

“The constant effort towards population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies, increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress.

The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great that population is at a stand.

In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land, to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage, till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened, and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.”

Charles Darwin was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. His proposition that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors is now widely accepted, and considered a foundational concept in science.  He introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding. Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life

by Charles Darwin, 1859

Again, it may be asked, how is it that varieties, which I have called incipient species, become ultimately converted into good and distinct species, which in most cases obviously differ from each other far more than do the varieties of the same species? How do those groups of species, which constitute what are called distinct genera, and which differ from each other more than do the species of the same genus, arise? All these results, as we shall more fully see in the next chapter, follow inevitably from the struggle for life. Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.

Gregor Mendel was a meteorologist, mathematician, and biologist. Mendel gained posthumous recognition as the founder of the modern science of genetics.  Though farmers had known for millennia that crossbreeding of animals and plants could favor certain desirable traits, Mendel’s pea plant experiments conducted between 1856 and 1863 established many of the rules of heredity, now referred to as the laws of Mendelian inheritance.

“Mendelian inheritance”

by Gregor Mendel, 1865

  1. Law of dominance and uniformity: Some alleles are dominant while others are recessive; an organism with at least one dominant allele will display the effect of the dominant allele.
  2. Law of segregation: During gamete formation, the alleles for each gene segregate from each other so that each gamete carries only one allele for each gene.
  3. Law of independent assortment: Genes of different traits can segregate independently during the formation of gametes.

Sir Francis Galton was an English Victorian polymath, anthropologist, eugenicist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, psychometrician, and statistician. He was a half-cousin of Charles Darwin.

Eugenics: It’s Definition, scope, and Aims

by Francis Galton, July, 1904


Speaking only for myself, if I had to classify persons according to worth, I should consider each of them under the three heads of physique, ability, and character, subject to the provision that inferiority in any one of the three should outweigh superiority in the other two. I rank physique first, because it is not only very valuable in itself and allied to many other good qualities, but has the additional merit of being easily rated. Ability I should place second on similar grounds, and character third, though in real importance it stands first of all. It is very difficult to rate character justly; the tenure of a position of trust is only a partial test of it, though a good one so far as it goes. Again, I wish to say emphatically that in what I have thrown out I have no desire to impose my own judgment on others, especially as I feel persuaded that almost any intelligent committee would so distribute their invitations to strangers as to include most, though perhaps not all, of the notable persons in the district. By the continued action of local associations as described thus far, a very large amount of good work in eugenics would be incidentally done. Family histories would become familiar topics, the existence of good stocks would be discovered, and many persons of “worth” would be appreciated and made acquainted with each other who were formerly known only to a very restricted circle. It is probable that these persons, in their struggle to obtain appointments, would often receive valuable help from local sympathisers with eugenic principles. If local societies did no more than this for many years to come, they would have fully justified their existence by their valuable services. A danger to which these societies will be liable arises from the inadequate knowledge be evaded or overcome, before associations of Eugenes could be formed that would be stable in themselves, useful as institutions, and approved of by the outside world.

Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory – History

Cold Spring Harbor institution took root as “The Biological Laboratory” in 1890, a summer program for the education of college and high school teachers studying zoology, botany, comparative anatomy and nature.  In 1904, the Carnegie Institution of Washington established the Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor on an adjacent parcel. In 1921, the station was reorganized as the Carnegie Institution Department of Genetics. Between 1910 and 1939, the laboratory was the base of the Eugenics Record Office of biologist Charles B. Davenport and his assistant Harry H. Laughlin, two prominent American eugenicists of the period. Davenport was director of the Carnegie Station from its inception until his retirement in 1934.

Harry Laughlin was an American educator, eugenicist, and sociologist. He served as the Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office from its inception in 1910 to its closing in 1939, and was among the most active individuals in influencing American eugenics policy, especially compulsory sterilization legislation.

Eugenical Sterilization in the United States

by Harry Laughlin, 1922


It may be safely stated that the experimental period for eugenical sterilization legislation has been passed so that it is now possible to enact a just and eugenically effective statute on this subject. The following outline sets forth the underlying principles which should guide such a law.

Persons Subject.

All persons in the State who, because of degenerate or defective hereditary qualities are potential parents of socially inadequate offspring, regardless of whether such persons be in the population at large or inmates of custodial institutions, regardless also of the personality, sex, age, marital condition, race, or possessions of such person. Standards established and terms defined by the statute…

Carrie Buck was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, the first of three children born to Emma Buck.   Emma was committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded after being accused of immorality, prostitution, and having syphilis. After her birth, Carrie Buck was placed with foster parents, John and Alice Dobbs. She attended public school, where she was noted to be an average student. When she was in sixth grade, the Dobbses removed her to have her help with housework.  At 17, Buck became pregnant as a result of being raped by Alice Dobbs’ nephew, Clarence Garland.  On January 23, 1924, the Dobbses had her committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded on the grounds of feeblemindedness, incorrigible behavior, and promiscuity.  While committed she was ordered to undergo compulsory sterilization for purportedly being “feeble-minded.”

Buck v. Bell – U.S. Supreme Court –  274 U.S. 200


The judgment finds the facts that have been recited and that Carrie Buck “is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization,” and thereupon makes the order.

Ronald Fisher was a British statistician, eugenicist, geneticist, and professor. In genetics, his work used mathematics to combine Mendelian genetics and natural selection; this contributed to the revival of Darwinism in the early 20th-century revision of the theory of evolution known as the modern synthesis. For his contributions to biology, Fisher has been called “the greatest of Darwin’s successors”.

The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection

by Ronald Fisher, 1930

The different occupations of man in society are distinguished economically by the differences in the rewards which they procure. Biologically they are of importance in insensibly controlling mate selection, through the influences of prevailing opinion, mutual interest, and the opportunities for social intercourse, which they afford. Social classes thus become genetically differentiated, like local varieties of a species, though the differentiation is determined, not primarily by differences from class to class in selection, but by the agencies controlling social promotion or demotion.

Comparisons between the vital statistics, and especially between the birth-rates, of different classes, are generally defective and much out of date. The principal need in our own country is to bring the occupational classification, used in the registration of births and deaths, into harmony with that used in the census, and to record the ages of the parents in birth registration.

Numerous of investigations, in which the matter is approached from different points of view, have shown, in all civilized countries for which the data are available, that the birth-rate is much higher in the poorer than in the more prosperous classes, and that this difference has been increasing in recent generations. As more complete data have become available, it has appeared that this difference is not confined to aristocratic or highly educated families, but extends to the bottom of the social scale, in the contrast between the semi- skilled and the unskilled labourers. There is no direct evidence of a period at which the birth-rate in all classes was equal, and the decline in the birth-rate in all classes in recent decades has been apparently simultaneous, though greater in the more prosperous classes.

Since the birth-rate is the predominant factor in human survival in society, success in the struggle for existence is, in societies with an inverted birth-rate, the inverse of success in human endeavour. The type of man selected, as the ancestor of future generations, is he whose probability is least of winning admiration, or rewards, for useful services to the society to which he belongs. If, as is still uncertain, a similar inversion has prevailed in the Asiatic centres of civilization, the mortality suffered by the poorest class must have tended to arrest the progress of racial deterioration, and had perhaps produced an equilibrium before the impact of European ideas.

The condition of the Roman empire was certainly similar to that observed in modern countries. The causes, which have produced the inversion of the birth-rate, must have been sufficiently powerful to counteract both direct and indirect economic agencies, favouring a higher birth-rate among the more prosperous. By its tendency to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and, especially, to inflict hardship upon the parents of the next generation, the inversion of the birth-rate is an important cause of social discontent.

A consequence which, at first sight, appears beneficial, is the very large amount of social promotion which is required to maintain the proportion of the classes. Upon examination, it appears that this kind of promotion should not be confused with increasing prosperity, and that it carries with it the serious disabilities of the retardation of the cultural progress of every class, and the uncompensated depletion of the poorest class in the ability to maintain their self-respect and economic independence.

George Bernard Shaw was an Irish playwright, critic, and political activist. His influence on Western theatre, culture and politics extended from the 1880s to his death and beyond. He wrote more than sixty plays, including major works such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923).  Shaw grew up in Ireland and moved to London in 1876.  By the mid-1880s he had become a respected theatre and music critic. Following a political awakening, he joined the gradualist Fabian Society and became its most prominent pamphleteer. In 1925, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

George Bernard Shaw

March 5, 1931

“I object to all punishment whatsoever. I don’t want to punish anybody, but there are an extraordinary number of people who I want to kill. Not in any unkind or personal spirit. But it must be evident to all of you, you must all know half a dozen people at least, who are no use in this world; who are more trouble than they are worth. And I think it would be a good thing to make everybody come before a properly appointed board just as he might come before the income tax commissioners and say every 5 years or every 7 years, just put them there, and say, sir or madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can’t justify your existence; if you’re not pulling your weight in the social boat; if you are not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then clearly we cannot use the big organization of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us, and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.”

Bertrand Russell was a British polymath, philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate.  His work has had a considerable influence on mathematics, logic, set theory, linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computer science, and philosophy, especially the philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics.

The Scientific Outlook

by Bertrand Russell, 1931

Education has two purposes: on the one hand to form the mind, on the other hand to train the citizen. The Athenians concentrated on the former, the Spartans on the latter. The Spartans won, but the Athenians were remembered. Education in a scientific society may, I think, be best conceived after the analogy of the education provided by the Jesuits. The Jesuits provided one sort of education for the boys who were to become ordinary men of the world, and another for those who were to become members of the Society of Jesus. In like manner, the scientific rulers will provide one kind of education for ordinary men and women, and another for those who are to become holders of scientific power. Ordinary men and women will be expected to be docile, industrious, punctual, thoughtless, and contented. Of these qualities probably contentment will be considered the most important. In order to produce it, all the researches of psycho-analysis, behaviourism, and biochemistry will be brought into play. Children will be educated from their earliest years in the manner which is found least likely to produce complexes. Almost all will be normal, happy, healthy boys or girls. Their diet will not be left to the caprices of parents, but will be such as the best biochemists recommend. They will spend much time in the open air, and will be given no more book-learning than is absolutely necessary. Upon the temperament so formed, docility will be imposed by the methods of the drill-sergeant, or perhaps by the softer methods employed upon Boy Scouts. All the boys and girls will learn from an early age to be what is called “co-operative,” i.e. to do exactly what everybody is doing. Initiative will be discouraged in these children, and insubordination, without being punished, will be scientifically trained out of them. Their education throughout will be in great part manual, and when their school years come to an end they will be taught a trade. In deciding what trade they are to adopt, experts will appraise their aptitudes. Formal lessons, in so far as they exist, will be -conducted by means of the cinema or the radio, so that one teacher can give simultaneous lessons in all the classes throughout a whole country. The giving of these lessons will, of course, be recognized as a highly skilled undertaking, reserved for the members of the governing class. All that will be required locally to replace the present-day school teacher will be a lady to keep order, though it is hoped that the children will be so well-behaved that they will seldom require this estimable person’s services.

Those children, on the other hand, who are destined to become members of the governing class will have a very different education. They will be selected, some before birth, some during the first three years of* life, and a few between the ages of three and six. All the best-known science will be applied to the simultaneous development of intelligence and will-power. Eugenics, chemical and thermal treatment of the embryo, and diet in early years will be used with a view to the production of the highest possible ultimate ability. The scientific outlook will be instilled trom the moment that a child can talk, and throughout the early impressionable years the child will be carefully guarded from contact with the ignorant and unscientific. From infancy up to twenty-one, scientific knowledge will be poured into him, and at any rate from the age of twelve upwards he will specialize on those sciences for which he shows the most aptitude.

Lily E. Kay  was a historian of science noted for her studies of molecular biology.  Kay was born in Kraków, Poland, the daughter of concentration camp survivors. The family relocated to Israel and then, in 1960, to the United States. Kay graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1969 and in 1986 earned her Ph.D from Johns Hopkins University in the history of science.  Teaching, research, and fellowships Prior to earning her Ph.D, Kay taught high school physics, worked as a biochemistry research associate at the University of Pittsburgh and a senior research assistant at the Salk Institute. While there, she studied the molecular biology of viruses.  Kay spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow of the American Philosophical Society. She taught the history of science at the University of Chicago and then spent eight years at MIT.  She was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1997. Kay then worked as an independent scholar and held guest appointments at Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. At the time of her death, Kay was studying serial computing, artificial intelligence, and models of brain function.

The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology

by Lily E. Kay, 1993

“This broad spectrum of biological fields and the multiplicity of biological realities grounded in divergent conceptions of life make it clear that a number of viable biological programs existed that could have been singled out and promoted by the Rockefeller Foundation during the 1930s. The evolutionary, ecological, and organismic standpoints spotlighted many secrets of life to be unraveled. They supplied different kinds of knowledge about the human body and mind as well as alternative paths to understanding social and environmental maladjustments. In short, there were different possible human sciences. Why then did the Rockefeller Foundation’s “Science of Man” agenda privilege a molecular vision of life? The answer to this question is embedded in the matrix that linked the particular forms of social control sought by that agenda with the specific kinds of control supplied by the new biology.” p17

“Although the Foundation voted for the maintenance and expansion of the primary routes to the “the well-being of mankind throughout the world,” some of the road signs had changed—those related to eugenics and social control. The linguistic discontinuities between program descriptions of the early 1930s and late 1940s are particularly striking in light of the Foundation’s implicit ongoing commitment to the biology of human behavior. The policy discussions of the early 1930s still reflected, through linguistic slips and semantic variants, the struggle with the stigma and promise of eugenics, race biology, and social hygiene. Having rejected the wayward Davenportianism, the Foundation nevertheless had placed the genetic control of human behavior at the center of its “psychobiology” program during the early 1930s, acknowledging that the goal of breeding a physically and mentally superior race was predicated on fundamental research in genetics, physiology, and neurophysiology. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s the Foundation supported a number of research projects in “human genetics,” including the study of hereditary diseases at the Gallon Laboratory (University of London) and the genetics of mental defectiveness at the University of Copenhagen. In fact, Alan Gregg’s long-standing commitment to a sound eugenics had been inaugurated as the project of behavioral genetics in 1945. Unlike the 1930s, however, the policy discourse of the late 1940s reflected the emergent taboos surrounding the Holocaust, and the reports were sanitized of all rhetorical traces of eugenic goals.9 Gone also the rhetoric of social control. Ubiquitous in sociology discourse, social control during the 1920s and 1930s had concrete technocratic meanings for the rational management of society. Whereas policy discussions during the 1930s were literally conceptualized in terms of individual and group control—research aimed at “control through understanding”—these terms were absent from postwar discussions; neither the biological nor the social sciences were promoted as furnishing the rational bases for social control. The term largely disappeared from postwar annual reports of the Social Science Research Council as well as from mainstream sociology textbooks. It appears that the stigma of fascism and Nazism, which infused terms such as “social hygiene,” “eugenics,” and “race biology” with politically specific connotations virtually eliminated the usage of such expressions as “social control” and “rationalization of human behavior.” The changing politics of meaning demanded alternative rhetorics. The promotion of the study of human behavior— research and applications—was articulated during the late 1940s in terms of “understanding” and “international cooperation” through a language divested of the specific tropes that had characterized nearly half a century of corporate-academic discourse.”  p 219-220

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations aimed at promoting world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture.

UNESCO: its purpose and its philosophy

by Julian Huxley, 1946

Still another and quite different type of borderline subject is that of eugenics. It has been on the borderline between the scientific and the unscientific, constantly in danger of becoming a pseudoscience based on preconceived political ideas or on assumptions of racial or class superiority and inferiority. It is, however, essential 37 that eugenics should be brought entirely within the borders of science, for? as already indicated, in the not very remote future the problem of improving the average quality of human beings is likely to become urgent; and this can only be accomplished by applying the findings of a truly scientific eugenics. Natural Science is one of the fields in which two of Unesco’s general principles–of thinking in global terms and of relieving the darkness of the “dark areas” of the world-are most obviously applicable. Science is already the most international activity of man, and represents in most developed because most conscious form man’s new method of evolutionary advance, by means of cumulative tradition. Put in more immediate terms, the application of scientific knowledge now provides our chief means for raising the level of human welfare.

The Impact of Science on Society

by Bertrand Russell, 1951

I do not pretend that birth control is the only way in which population can be kept from increasing. There are others, which, one must suppose, opponents of birth control would prefer. War, as I remarked a moment ago, has hitherto been disappointing in this respect, but perhaps bacteriological war may prove more effective. If a Black Death could be spread throughout the world once in every generation survivors could procreate freely without making the world too full. There would be nothing in this to offend the consciences of the devout or to restrain the ambitions of nationalists. The state of affairs might be somewhat unpleasant, but what of that? Really high-minded people are indifferent happiness, especially other people’s. However, I am wandering from the question of stability, to which I must return. There are three ways of securing a society that shall be stable as regards population. The first is that of birth control, the second that of infanticide or really destructive wars, and the third that of general misery except for a powerful minority. All these methods have been practiced: the first, for example, by the Australian aborigines; the second by the Aztecs, the Spartans, and the rulers of Plato’s Republic; the third in the world as some Western internationalists hope to make it and in Soviet Russia. (It is not to be supposed that Indians and Chinese like starving, but they have to endure it because the armaments of the West are too strong for them.) Of these three, only birth control avoids extreme cruelty and unhappiness for the majority of human beings. Meanwhile, so long as there is not a single world government there will be competition for power among the different nations. And as increase of population brings the threat of famine, national power will become more and more obviously the only way of avoiding starvation. There will therefore be blocs in which the hungry nations band together against those that are well fed. That is the explanation of the victory of communism in China. These considerations prove that a scientific world society cannot be stable unless there is a world government. It may be said, however, that this is a hasty conclusion. All that follows directly from what has been said is that, unless there is a world government which secures universal birth control, there must from time to time be great wars, in which the penalty of defeat is widespread death by starvation. That is exactly the present state of the world, and some may hold that there is no reason why it should not continue for  centuries. I do not myself believe that this is possible. The two great wars that we have experienced have lowered the level of civilization in many parts of the world, and the next is pretty sure to achieve much more in this direction. Unless, at some stage, one power or group of powers emerges victorious and proceeds to establish a single government of the world with a monopoly of armed force, it is clear that the level of civilization must continually decline until scientific warfare becomes impossible — that is until science is extinct. Reduced once more to bows and arrows, Homo sapiens might breathe again, and climb anew the dreary road to a similar futile culmination. The need for a world government, if the population problem is to be solved in any humane manner, is completely evident on Darwinian principles. Given two groups, of which one has an increasing and the other a stationary population, the one with the increasing population will (other things being equal) in time become the stronger. After victory, it will cut down the food supply of the vanquished, of whom many will die. Therefore there will be a continually renewed victory of those nations that, from a world point of view, are unduly prolific. This is merely the modern form of the old struggle for existence. And given scientific powers of destruction, a world which allows this struggle to continue cannot be stable.

Charles Galton Darwin was an English physicist who served as director of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) during the Second World War.  He was a son of the mathematician George Howard Darwin and a grandson of Charles Darwin.  He served in the role into the post-war period, unafraid to seek improved laboratory performance through re-organization, but spending much of the war years working on the Manhattan Project co-ordinating the American, British, and Canadian efforts. Darwin was appointed KBE in 1942. In 1952, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society.

The Next Million Years

by Charles Galton Darwin, 1953

For the government of the separate provinces, it is no use hoping that democracy could often be possible, for the very simple reason that a hungry man will vote for his next meal, rather than for reasons of state.  Even at the present time the attempt to import democratic institutions into poverty-stricken countries has been a failure.  A necessary condition for democracy is wealth, and the wealth must not be concentrated in too few hands; the lack of this diffusion of wealth is the reason why some rich countries, such as imperial Rome, failed to give democracy to their peoples.  Widespread wealth can never be common in an overcrowded world, and so in most countries of the future the government will inevitably be autocratic or oligarchic.

John B. Calhoun was an American ethologist and behavioral researcher noted for his studies of population density and its effects on behavior. He claimed that the bleak effects of overpopulation on rodents were a grim model for the future of the human race. During his studies, Calhoun coined the term “behavioral sink” to describe aberrant behaviors in overcrowded population density situations and “beautiful ones” to describe passive individuals who withdrew from all social interaction.

John B. Calhoun – Studying Overpopulation on Rodents

The conclusions drawn from this experiment were that when all available space is taken and all social roles filled, competition and the stresses experienced by the individuals will result in a total breakdown in complex social behaviors, ultimately resulting in the demise of the population. Calhoun saw the fate of the population of mice as a metaphor for the potential fate of man.

The Population Bomb is a best-selling book written by Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, in 1968. It predicted worldwide famine due to overpopulation, as well as other major societal upheavals, and advocated immediate action to limit population growth.

The Population Bomb

by Paul Ehrlich, 1968

The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines-hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.  At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to “stretch” the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production.  But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.  Population control is the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs, not just of individual families, but of society as a whole.

Nothing could be more misleading to our children than our present affluent society.  They will inherit a totally different world, a world in which the standards, politics, and economics of the 1960’s are dead.  As the most powerful nation in the world today, and its largest consumer, the United States cannot stand isolated.  We are today involved in the events leading to famine; tomorrow we may be destroyed by its consequences.

Our position requires that we take immediate action at home and promote effective action worldwide.  We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.   We must use our political power to push other countries into programs which combine agricultural development and population control.  And while this is being done we must take action to reverse the deterioration of our envirionment before population pressure permanently ruins our planet.  The birth rate must be brought into balance with the death rate or mankind will breed itself into oblivion.  We can no longer afford merely to treat the symptoms of the cancer of population growth; the cancer itself must be cut out.  Population control is the only answer.

Jonas Salk was an American virologist and medical researcher who developed one of the first successful polio vaccines (made public in 1955).  In 1963, Salk founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, which is today a center for medical and scientific research. He continued to conduct research and publish books in his later years, focusing in his last years on the search for a vaccine against HIV.

The Survival of the Wisest

by Jonas Salk, 1973

In general this implies a dualistic, relativistic, and dynamic attitude in which value judgements are expressed in developmental and evolutionary terms rather than in absolute and static terms; in the latter, fixed preconceptions, once laid down, serve as the basis for judgement even though these may be anti-evolutionary. Absolutists are extremists who see life exclusively from their own narrow, rigid viewpoint.  They may play either revolutionary or conservative roles and yet be destroyed by their own inability to participate in the evolutionary process.  Revolution and evolution are not synonymous.  The former is part of the latter in the oscillations that characterize the process of selection both in biologic and metabiologic evolution.

Judgement as to what might be “wise” biologically or metabiologically is related to survival both of the species and of the individual.  That which is of biological value has been judged by Nature through its processes of natural selection.  That which will prove to be of metabioloical value as well as biological will, in due course, be decided not only by Man but by Nature.  Hence it behooves Man to become as wise as Nature-i.e., to use a value system corresponding to that of Nature-if he wishes to avoid errors in judgment for which he will have to pay the price of suffering which, if not correct, will be a stage on the way to self-elimination or extinction.

John Holdren is an American scientist who served as the senior advisor to President Barack Obama on science and technology issues through his roles as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

Paul Ehrlich is an American biologist, best known for his warnings about the consequences of population growth and limited resources. He is the Bing Professor Emeritus of Population Studies of the Department of Biology of Stanford University and President of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology.

Anne Ehrlich is the associate director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.

Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment

by Paul R. Ehrlich, John P. Holdren, Ann H. Ehrlich, 1977

Individual rights must be balanced against the power of the government to control human reproduction. Some people ~ respected legislators, judges, and lawyers included – – have viewed the right to have children as a fundamental and inalienable right. Yet neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution mentions a right to reproduce. Nor does the UN Charter describe such a right, although a resolution of the United Nations affirms the “right responsibly to choose” the number and spacing of children (our emphasis). In the United States, individuals have a constitutional right to privacy and it has been held that the right to privacy includes the right to choose whether or not to have children, at least to the extent that a woman has a right to choose not to have children. But the right is not unlimited. Where the society has a “compelling, subordinating interest” in regulating population size, the right of the individual may be curtailed. If society’s survival depended on having more children, women could be required to bear children, just as men can constitutionally be required to serve in the armed forces. Similarly, given a crisis caused by overpopulation, reasonably necessary laws to control excessive reproduction could be enacted.

Relf v. Weinberger


The Relf Sisters, Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf (who were 12 and 14 years old in 1973, respectively), are two African-American sisters who were involuntarily sterilized by tubal ligation by a federally funded family planning clinic in Montgomery, Alabama in 1973. A class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center brought the wide-spread reality of U.S. government-funded sterilization abuse to the national spotlight.

Madrigal v. Quilligan


Madrigal v. Quilligan was a federal class action lawsuit from Los Angeles County, California involving sterilization of Latina women that occurred either without informed consent, or through coercion.  Although the judge ruled in favor of the doctors, the case led to better-informed consent for patients, especially those who are not native English speakers.

Poe v. Lynchburg Training School & Hospital


Poe v. Lynchburg Training School & Hospital, concerned whether or not patients who had been involuntarily sterilized in Lynchburg Training School and Hospital, a state mental institution in Virginia, as part of a program of eugenics in the early and mid-20th century had their constitutional rights violated.  The case had been filed in 1980 by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project on behalf of 8,000 women who had been sterilized under the program.

Fritjof Capra is an Austrian-born American physicist, systems theorist and deep ecologist.  In 1995, he became a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California.

The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture

by Fritjof Capra, 1982

I believe that the world-view implied by modern physics is inconsistent with our present society, which does not reflect the harmonious interrelatedness we observe in nature.  To achieve such a state of dynamic balance, a radically different social and economic structure will be needed: a cultural revolution in the true sense of the word.  The survival of our whole civilization may depend on whether we can bring about such a change.

Jacques Attali is a French economic and social theorist, writer, political adviser and senior civil servant, who served as a counselor to President François Mitterrand from 1981 to 1991.  He was the first head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 1991-1993.  In 2008-2010, he led the government committee on how to ignite the growth of the French economy. Attali co-founded the European program EUREKA, dedicated to the development of new technologies.

A Brief History of the Future

by Jacques Attali, 2006

“Each continent or subcontinent will group its market democracies in a union, as the European Union has already done.  Each such inion will be responsible for its currency, the transparency of its markets, the harmonization of its members’ social conditions, environmental protection, domestic security, civil rights, health, education, immigration, foreign policy, and regional defense.  It must create for itself a continental parlament and government. It must also possess (as is already the case with Europe) a body empowered to resolve conflicts between nations of the same continent.  Such a future could become possible, especially in the Middle East, which must one day unite all its nations – including Israel and Palestine – in a regional union.  The European Union, standard-bearer of hyperdemocracy, will become a notion of a new kind, probably expanding one day to include Turkey and Russia.  It is there that the conditions for equilibrium between market and democracy will best be met.  It is in Europe that hyperdemocracy will begin. New institutions must be created – will be created – on a global scale, expanding those already in existence.  The United Nations will be their base.  A Constitution for the planet will pick up and extend the current United Nations Charter.  For this to happen, the UN will have to assume a supranational (and no longer just multilateral) dimension.  Its preamble will list all the rights and duties of every human in relation to nature, to other humans, and to life.  It will include rights not foreseen in the present charter, especially the new right – essential, groundbreaking, to a decent childhood, with implications for the duties of parents.  Other rights and obligations will mandate the protection of life, nature, and diversity, and will impose absolute boundaries on the market….To support this world government, new organs for control, defense, and regulation will step by step take up a position stemming from the governance bodies of super-empire and those of relational enterprises: a planetary criminal court will ensure the compatibility of laws enacted on each continent and try the most dangerous pirates: a global authority will ensure the availability” of water; a global department of labor will prevent monopolies and require compliance with worker rights.  Another authority will verify the quality of consumer goods, in particular of food…”

4th Industrial Revolution

by the World Economic Forum (Davos), 2016

“Our bodies will be so high tech we won’t be able to distinguish between what is artificial and what is natural.”

Introducing Neuralink

July, 26, 2019

Neuralink Corporation is a neurotechnology company developing implantable brain–machine interfaces.


The Shape of Things to Come

H.G. Wells, 1933

Oswald Cabal: Dragging out life to the last possible second is not living to the best effect. The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat. The best of life, Passworthy, lies nearest to the edge of death.

Rowena: I don’t suppose any man has ever understood any woman since the beginning of things. You don’t understand our imaginations, how wild our imaginations can be.

The Boss: You are not mechanics, you are warriors. You have been trained, not to think, but to do.

The Boss: The State’s your mother, your father, the totality of your interests. No discipline can be too severe for the man that denies that by word or deed.

Rowena: You’ve got the subtlety of a bullfrog.

Oswald Cabal: There’s nothing wrong in suffering, if you suffer for a purpose. Our revolution didn’t abolish danger or death. It simply made danger and death worthwhile.

Pippa’ Passworthy: This little upset across the water doesn’t mean anything. Threatened men live long and threatened wars never occur.

John Cabal: If we don’t end war, war will end us.

Raymond Passworthy: Oh, God, is there ever to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?

Oswald Cabal: Rest enough for the individual man, too much and too soon, and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First, this little planet and its winds and ways. And then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and, at last, out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the depths of space, and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning…

Raymond Passworthy: But… we’re such little creatures. Poor humanity’s so fragile, so weak. Little… little animals.

Oswald Cabal: Little animals. And if we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness, and live, and suffer, and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this, or that. All the universe or nothing. Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?