Icarus or the Future of Science

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of around 50 or 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting one each Wednesday to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Prophecy is a fool’s game, which perhaps is why so many of us indulge in it. In 1924 Bertrand Russell wrote a very short book called Icarus or the Future of Science, a response to J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus or the Science of the Future. Daedalus, you remember, gave the power of flight to Icarus, and we all know what happened to him (oddly enough, the Brazilian airline Varig once unadvisedly called its in-flight magazine Icarus).

Haldane painted a rosy future for mankind thanks to its increased control over nature; Russell was more pessimistic. He thought American domination of the whole world was the best that we could hope for, next to the complete collapse of our civilization which, he said, ‘would in the end be preferable to this alternative.’

Russell divides the sciences into two, the physical and the anthropological, of which medicine is much the most important. He believes (correctly, as it now turns out) that ‘the study of heredity may in time make eugenics an exact science, and perhaps we shall in a later age be able to determine at will the sex of our children.’ Though no monogamist himself, he was not altogether sanguine about the results: ‘This would probably lead to an excess of males, involving a complete change in family institutions.’

He sees the march of birth control as inevitable. Opposition to it comes from superstition and the desire of employers to have enough people to keep wages low. However, not all the effects of birth control are to his taste. ‘Before long the population may actually diminish. This is already happening in the most intelligent sections of the most intelligent nations… before long, birth-control may become nearly universal among the white races; it will then not deteriorate their quality, but only diminish their numbers, at a time when uncivilized races are still prolific and are preserved from a high death-rate by white science.’

The other problem is the ductless glands:

More sensational than tests of intelligence is the possibility of controlling the emotional life through the secretions of the ductless glands. It will be possible to make people choleric or timid, strongly or weakly sexed, and so on, as may be desired. Differences of emotional disposition seem to be chiefly due to secretions of the ductless glands, and therefore controllable by injections or by increasing or diminishing secretions.

The politically powerful will inject the masses to make them docile. But if it is not the ductless glands that will give the powerful this control over the masses, it will be some other technology:

We shall have the emotions desired by our rulers, and the chief business of elementary education will be to produce the required disposition, no longer by punishment or moral precept, but by the far surer method of injection or diet.

Of course, the main emotional disposition required has turned out to be not docility, but self-esteem.

Russell foresaw the end of physical want, thanks to the application of science, but luckily we are different from the animals.

Wolves in a state of nature have difficulty in getting food, and therefore need the stimulus of a very insistent hunger. The result is that their descendants, domestic dogs, over-eat if they are allowed to do so.

But because of our difference from the beasts ‘over-eating is not a serious danger.’

As I said, prophecy is a fool’s game.

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  1. Pingback: Infelicitous name for an inflight magazine | A dose of Theodore Dalrymple

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