The Mature Society
The principal public statements of Lord Snow between 1959 and the present are collected in this book of lectures and essays: “Two Cultures,” only too well known, and “Science and Government,” which is about science in war time, are among them. He is concerned with the relation of science and technology to political decisions, and particularly to the decisions that will determine whether famine sweeps across half the world and whether overpopulation becomes a catastrophe.
There is another theme. Lord Snow is excited by power: not by the outward and superficial marks of it, but by the realities of decision behind the scenes. The excitement sometimes takes extravagantly romantic, even novelettish, forms, as when, writing about Sir Henry Tizard, he suddenly remarks: “Like nearly all successful men of affairs, he was in a muscular sense strong,” a vision of Whitehall supermen running up from the Athenaeum gym while weedy intellectuals wilt by the bar.
Whatever their musculature, leading scientists must become men of affairs if rational plans for the survival of the species are to be made. Lord Snow knows all about this intersection of roles from direct experience. He also knows that the topic is beset by clichés and gloomy truisms: he believes repetition of them to be a duty. It may already be too late to avert the starvation that uncontrolled growth in population will bring.
There is one alleged truism, repeated here, which seems only a half-truth; and it has important implications. Lord Snow writes:
The only weapon we have to oppose the bad effects of technology is technology itself. There is no other. We can’t retreat into a non-technological Eden which never existed.
Surely the bad effects of technology can be, and have been, opposed by something other than technology itself: by those literary intimations of disgust which have had their slow influence upon opinions and policies of resistance. Lord Snow mentions Ruskin and Morris dismissively, as the authors of mere “screams” of protest; and he calls literary intellectuals who protest against advances in technology “Luddites.” He recognizes that many of the great figures in the modern movement in literature have been hostile to technological improvement and to the habits of mind that sustain it. I doubt whether this hostility was just ignorance and illusion. In part it was an insight into human needs, and a perception of the unbearable ugliness and deformities which industrial technology, uncontrolled, would bring; perhaps also an intuition of a future deterioration and despair, because of the spoiling of nature.
All this has to be set against the established misery of the long agricultural centuries before. But Lord Snow underrates, I think, the strength of Ruskin’s and Morris’s case against the displacement of individual feeling which Victorian technology caused. He attributes fastidious distrust of technology to literary intellectuals, a well-fed minority; but the desire to get away from the effects of modern technology was, and is, fairly widespread and very strong, and not confined to the leisurely few …