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Is Science Evil?

Prophecy is never a comfortable activity, but sometimes, as witness the Bible, it is a popular one. Today is one of those times when there is a flourishing market for predictions of doom. It is as significant that the Book-of-the-Month Club has selected Lewis Mumford’s The Pentagon of Power as that its author has written it. More so, indeed, for Mumford has been developing his message for two generations. It has varied less than the size and attention of his audiences.

Essentially it is not a new message. Through Mumford’s teacher, Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), it unites two traditions of nineteenth-century thought, one critical primarily of science, the other of society, though the confidence with which Victorian capitalism appealed to “science” to back up its conviction of superiority sometimes linked the two trends. As it happens, their fortunes have diverged. The sort of argument by which the society of private enterprise and profit was shown to create the best of all possible worlds a century ago has long ceased to carry conviction. Even the much more sophisticated apologists of the 1950s are on the defensive or have changed their minds. The inability of Western society to create or even maintain an environment—human and natural—fit for any living things, including men, has recently become so obvious that the most minor and fragmentary thinkers of the past are listened to with attention, provided they showed some insight into this characteristic of the modern world.

On the other hand, the mathematical, mechanist, and positivist approach to the sciences is as influential as ever; or, rather, it has been reinvigorated in the past generation by the remarkable theoretical and practical achievements secured by means of it. This does not apply so much to the social sciences, where mathematical methods never had comparable results to show—not even, except among economists, in economics.

In the natural sciences the theoretical opposition to the prevailing orthodoxies consists at present of little more than guerrilla sniping, though recently a much more serious practical challenge has appeared, as growing numbers of students in most developed countries have boycotted the natural sciences as a subject for study. The success of the challenge to the social orthodoxies of the nineteenth century and the failure of the challenge to its scientific ones in themselves prove neither the rightness of one nor the wrongness of the other. They do, however, complicate the problem of writers like Mumford who fight, as it were, simultaneously on both fronts. The force necessary to swim with one intellectual tide is not adequate to swim against another. Mumford has not, it seems to me, recognized this clearly enough.

His message, though not fundamentally original or complex, is elaborated in ways which are often very interesting, and contains insights which, I ought immediately to add, are convincing. Since most of what I shall say is critical, it is also worth stating plainly that, though often exasperating, his book is welcome and worth reading. The trouble is its excessive vulnerability.

Mumford has the strength and weakness of the successful prophet, which is the gift of saying what is about to become common wisdom, and what his readers already believe but cannot formulate. Who is not aware of the discrepancy between man’s virtually unlimited power to transform the material environment and our dramatic incapacity to control the material forces at our disposal? The predicament of the sorcerer’s apprentice is the starting-point of Mumford’s argument. Who has not speculated on what will happen if we do not learn to control these forces? The reader of 1970 has a wide choice of literature predicting disaster in one or many forms—demographic catastrophe, a globe made uninhabitable by pollution, a nuclear holocaust, a relapse into barbarism, and others, all unfortunately far from implausible.

Mumford’s analysis itself is by now familiar. The villain of the piece is the “myth of the machine,” creator of the “Pentagon of Power” whose sides reinforce one another: the power of scientific technology and political organization, which is the source of property and productivity, which in turn spells profit or money power, and is reinforced by publicity “through which the merely human directors of the power complex—the military, bureaucratic, and scientific elite—are inflated to more than human dimensions in order better to maintain authority.” These forces combine to create the “new mechanical world picture” which first emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fatally merging the aspiration to intellectual order, political absolutism, and the endless accumulation of material power with the hubris of the scientist. These helped to give “primacy to the machine with its repetitive motions, its depersonalized processes, its abstract quantitative goals.” They produced the dehumanized world of mass production abundance which is today breaking down.

This summary, though it reflects Mumford’s own taste for ponderous slogan, alliteration, and diagrammatic concepts, is unfair to an argument which is elaborate, often sensible, and full of insights. Nevertheless it illustrates an important point. If we think of the last paragraph as in any sense “true,” it is not because of the force of its exposition or argument, but because we recognize what is being discussed from our own experience, because the terms of discussion, or their equivalents, are familiar, and, above all, because we are already disposed to accept this experience as evidence of a fundamental crisis in society. That is, it has merely to be stated to convince. We are aware of the nuclear danger, of the vulnerability of the vast complex of technological living, of the erosion and breakdown of systems of social and private relationship at the points of maximum technological development, as in the big cities of the US. If we are the sort of people who read argumentative books and think-pieces in Western countries, we are likely to belong to the classes which take for granted the material abundance of Western society, but also to be haunted by the uncontrollable progress of Mumford’s “megatechnics” and the increasingly unmanageable tensions of the society it is creating. We no longer have to be persuaded of the imminence of the apocalypse.

The major weakness of Mumford’s book is that what is original and valid in it has first to be separated from what is merely another formulation of pop social criticism; what is convincing from what merely sounds so because of the reader’s prior convictions; what sounds plausible in Lexington, Massachusetts, or Palo Alto from what ought to sound true everywhere. Is the identity crisis “the typical psychological problem of our time” as Mumford claims? I see no evidence or likelihood of this, though it is quite probable that something which, until recently, struck foreigners as a characteristically North American preoccupation may become more widespread. Are “divided powers, tenacious traditions, embarrassing historic contradictions, confusions, compromises and obscurities” characteristic of “democratic government”? Only if we take nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western, and more particularly North American, representative systems as the paradigm of democracy. Mumford believes that we may be sure “of only one fact”:

This is that although the material resources of the world have been immensely increased by our high-energy technology, the net gain has not been nearly as great as is usually reckoned, when the constant factor of wanton waste, premature obsolescence, organic deterioration through environmental pollution and depletion, and premature death by war and genocide are taken into account.

But the point is that the great majority of the world’s population are by no means sure of this, and indeed believe the opposite, on what seem to them to be good grounds. He may be right, but he is not so obviously right as he thinks.

The trouble about this sort of question begging in Mumford’s work is that it not merely weakens a good case, but strengthens the hand of those “megatechnicans” who treat their critics simply as people unable to adjust to a beneficial or at any rate inevitable progress and their behavior as an emotional reaction. There is no sense in abandoning the banner of rational argument to those whose procedures are (as Stuart Hampshire has recently reminded us* ) a caricature of rationalism. Why should people like Herman Kahn be in a position to discredit the reasoning of a writer who, at his best, shows more insight into the present and future of “megatechnical” society than a score of positivist symposia extrapolating trends?

Moreover, Mumford not only hands ammunition to his opponents, but also restricts the number of his potential supporters in two ways. Those who live in countries in which his assertions do not sound relevant will tend to dismiss his book as yet another piece of North Atlantic provincialism. (How many Indians, Indonesians, or even Russians and Chinese will be seriously worried, for the foreseeable future, by his “Strasbourg-goose syndrome: gorging or forced feeding for the sake of further fattening a system of automation that produces quantities beyond the normal requirements of consumption”?) Those whose professional occupation is science or even history will shrink from what sounds at best like intellectual campaign rhetoric and at worst like error.

Mumford’s case against modern technology and the admittedly narrow and abstract type of science on which it increasingly rests seems to be that it should never have started. Sometime during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries humanity took the wrong intellectual turning, abandoning a mixed, “organic,” and rooted technology and a mixed and organic approach to knowledge for the power-crazed rigors of Descartes and Galileo. This type of argument can avoid the simple reactionariness of the medievalist romantics only by taking a very exaggerated view of the capacities of preindustrial technology and science or, alternatively, by playing down the actual positive achievements of post-Galilean science and technology. Mumford does both.

As an abstract proposition, his argument is not implausible for technology, if we overlook the social conditions that fostered its development. for until the mid-nineteenth century industrial techniques were not usually more advanced than the know-how available in the sixteenth century. The argument is much harder to maintain for the natural sciences. As a historical statement it is nonsense. Whatever the moral and aesthetic achievements of the preindustrial world, or its undoubted superiority in building successful human communities, even in many cases under the handicap of intolerable inequality, exploitation, and oppression, it never showed any signs of being able to abolish famine, acute poverty, premature aging and death, and the stunting of the human mind and body on any large scale for any length of time.

We cannot afford to forget this, as Mumford does, nor that even today these things have been adequately achieved only for a minority of human beings. In so far as they depend on modern science, its work is not exhausted. All serious social analysis today rests on the empirical discovery that an economy of potential or actual plenty, so far from solving all human problems, may create new or intensify old ones; but at least we can now recognize and identify them better than the men of pre-industrial societies, whose idea of utopia could hardly be more advanced than the dream of material abundance—the Land of Cockaigne or the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

  1. *

    Russell, Radicalism, and Reason,” NYR, October 8, 1970.

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