Solutions to Today's Challenges Will Take More Than Technology
Several scientists and statesmen discuss the economic, moral, ethical, and political implications of science for mankind's future
The World Media Project asked several well-known scientists and politicians what questions they would put to each other if they had the chance, then gave each an opportunity to answer the others' questions. Excerpts from that dialogue follow.HD Science and ethics
Jacques Delors asks: Science raises new ethical problems - intergenerational solidarity, the status of the human embryo - that herald a return to the ethical aspect in public debate. Do you think a code of ethics could be adopted on a worldwide basis that would make it easier to regulate the application of scientific discoveries? As a man of science, would you accept subordinating science to ethics?
Stephen Jay Gould replies: I believe that any human activity must operate within ethical guidelines, for no imperative is more pervasive or overarching than proper moral conduct - however hard it may be either to define or to agree upon the content of such a concept.
The issue of such subordination arises whenever any human institution becomes powerful enough to harm and regulate people's lives.
Thus, war, politics, and penology - but rarely art or music - have been viewed (at least in principle) as subject to ethical restraint. The question has emerged so prominently for science in our time because this institution has now achieved the requisite practical power over our lives - what with nuclear bombs and direct reading of the DNA code.
I am not pessimistic. I believe that basic kindness and decency have increased their sway through history. Unfortunately, the instruments of destruction have grown in effectiveness at an even greater pace - so that one Hitler today can overwhelm in content of cruelty what one hundred of like mind might have contemplated 1,000 years ago, but were unable to implement at grand scale. Ethics cannot be legislated, and I do not think that a worldwide code could be adopted or enforced. But broad-ranging interna tional discussion of these questions - among scientists, philosophers, politicians, and religious leaders - should be convened in the hope that moral suasion thus achieved might help to promote moral action, or at least to focus the world's attention on this ultimate interdisciplinary issue. Overpopulation
Desmond Morris asks: My observation of animal behavior has allowed me to confirm that, in the animal kingdom, overpopulation always leads to destruction of the social order, to the appearance of blind violence, and to the spread of epidemics. Most species have mechanisms that permit a reduction in the reproduction rate when population growth reaches dangerous levels. Mankind does not seem to have such a system of natural control, or to have cast it aside. What measures can you take to prevent the overp opulation of our planet?
Abdou Diouf replies: First of all, one must note the discrepancies between animal behavior and the conduct of humans, and place special accent on the importance of the element of liberty that makes up the human being and that makes mankind something other than just a "species" among other biological species.
It is probably in this element of liberty that one must find the origin of the scourge tied to overpopulation, but also the true solutions to demographic challenges, the gravity of which are correctly emphasized.
It is a question of influencing people's attitudes, behavior, and ways of looking at things. That is why in Senegal we adopted in 1988 a declaration on population policy with the clear goal of control over the size of the population.
This is naturally a long-term policy, because when it is a question of attitudes and mentality, the only policy worth anything, and that can be effective, is one that takes the time to convince people to modify trends.
In this context, there are, of course, decisions that have an immediate result. They put the means of such a choice at the disposal of citizens, but they have only a limited effect without the sensitizing and education which must be done through the media and in which the school must play the greatest part.
If I had to quickly point to a decisive action to gain control of demographic processes, I would cite the elimination of poverty. There is no doubt that poverty is the cause of runaway population growth. It is a time-bomb in the powder magazines of poor countries.
In addition, fertility is linked with undereducation, especially in the case of women. The global action that the second part of your question seems to call for must include, as a priority, assistance to poor and overpopulated countries, especially to their educational systems. The scientific method
Jacques Delors asks: While science, since the Renaissance, has been linked to concepts of objectivity, truth, and progress, it has been the source of industrial development whose inconsistencies are becoming increasingly blatant (waste, underdevelopment, pollution). Where and how can protective measures be set up?
Abdou Diouf asks: Among the more urgent scientific and technological problems that Africa faces are the food crisis, tropical diseases, insufficient access to renewable energy, and population growth. How can scientists induce political leaders to resolve these problems?
Carl Sagan replies: Science is not so much a body of knowledge as it is a way of thinking - combining the greatest openness to new ideas with the most skeptical and critical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. The subtle balance between these two opposing mind-sets sometimes permits us to circumvent our prejudices and, at least to a limited extent, to understand nature as it really is.
In this important but limited sense, science is a tool, the most powerful ever invented. Our global civilization is based on this tool. But like all tools, it can be used for good or for evil, with short-term or long-term consequences in view.
We are a species with finite resources, limited insight, and sparse wisdom. We have an established pattern of discovering, often very late, the unsuspected, inadvertent negative consequences of the use of technology. So the idea that we could do anything we like without having to pay a price is and always has been short-sighted and dangerous. More significant, I think, than any new gadgets emanating from science would be the widespread acceptance - in social, political, and economic matters - of the scie ntific habit of thought, the delicate mix of openness and skepticism.
In much of the world the technological products of science are greatly desired, but the method of scientific thinking and its challenges to traditional beliefs are troubling and often conveniently ignored. Teaching people to think for themselves necessarily challenges a range of powerful individuals and institutions who are not anxious to see alternative possibilities considered or their own beliefs called into question.
The key issues facing the human species are not technological, but social, political, and economic. There are surely scientific and technological approaches to each of these issues, but limitations of science and technology are not what prevent us from making rapid progress. The impediments have to do with a perilous preference for short-term over long-term goals, the vested interests of the powerful, mediocre education, and a dearth of widespread skeptical thinking. If we wish to continue to enjoy the f ruits of science, we must learn how to apply its methods with far greater discipline to the challenges that confront us. Science and Africa
Abdou Diouf asks: Africa holds much useful knowledge that is not sufficiently considered when exploiting science and technology today. Isn't it time to set up a large multidisciplinary laboratory that would codify and develop African scientific achievements?
Kenichi Fukui replies: In its development through history, science has authenticated itself by its objectivity and universality. Yet the route science has followed in its development has been far from universal.
Modern science originated in the Greek and Roman empires and spread throughout the world until it had established itself as the orthodox mainstream of human learning. Japan was virtually unexposed to Western science until the first year of the Meiji era (1868), subsisting until then on its own unique traditions. But science inevitably spreads, and Japan owes its subsequent progress in the sciences mainly to Western influence.
In the natural sciences that constitute the mainstream of modern science, it has come to be accepted as a matter of course that, in order to establish credibility, one must present arguments that are logically persuasive. Since those who further science are themselves human beings, however, it is obviously impossible for science to advance purely through logic alone.
Not only in Africa, but all over the globe, there is a vast body of experience and learning that is not yet widely known. In particular, the scientific knowledge that man currently possesses cannot begin to encompass the wisdom held by plants and animals. The utilization of this wisdom is greatly to man's benefit, and we can expect that sooner or later its fruits will merge with the mainstream of science. Scientific priorities
Toshiki Kaifu asks: In an industrial society that is becoming more and more sophisticated, scientific and techno- logical development is accompanied by an increasingly evident succession of effects harmful to man and nature, particularly in terms of behavior patterns and respect for the environment. Moreover, the progress achieved in medicine and the life sciences has raised a number of problems from the moment it involved the ethical values of man.
Until now, science and technology have developed with the idea that they were not subject to any limitations. Today, this theory has been demolished. Do you believe that it is possible to overcome these inconsistencies and once again endow science and technology with unlimited development prospects? Would it be possible to set up a process in which the planet's greatest scientists could unite in a UN-type structure and set priorities for major projects that require international cooperation?
Jacques-Yves Cousteau replies: To answer your first question, I must note the confusion caused by language today. For me, the word science should be reserved for pure research. This is the source of all progress, but it is not responsible for it. Devoted solely to the growth of knowledge, science remains free of compromise with the applications that technicians and politicians can imagine. The result is that science has no other limit than that of the universe that surrounds us.
This is not the case with technology, which encompasses applied science and technology of all types. The principal obstacle to development of technology is the natural limits of mineral, biological, and energy resources. An imperative results: to obtain more services with fewer primary materials and energy.
The paradox is clear: Miniaturization, especially in electronics, allows us to imagine a society based on work at home, and the dismantling of urban centers in favor of multiple towns - reduced in size, centered around cultural and commercial services - which would bring us significant savings in energy in the transportation sector. Such a society would have only demographic limits, since man, of course, will never be miniaturized.
Japan is well placed at the beginning of this course towards miniaturization. This revolutionary way of life was suggested and described at the beginning of our century by various British scientists and economists.
Your second question concerns the possibility of putting in place an international structure to set priorities, in light of the appearance of great projects that can have long-term consequences. I think that such a plan is essential to assure the harmonious development of our species.
But I also think that this council of wise men, which will include, of course, the great scientists of the planet, should also include some nonspecialists, philosophers, or even poets. Moreover, it would be essential that this organism not depend on the United Nations or on its member nations, in order to preserve the purity of their choices.
I think that the swift creation of such a structure is possible, but only on condition that its conclusions be couched exclusively as recommendations, because the principal governments today are not prepared to take instructions on the outlines of their development.
On the other hand, I do believe in the necessity of an international authority, linked to the UN, in charge of overseeing the enforcement of basic rules concerning protection of the environment.
Whatever may be the fields considered for the development of humanity, it is imperative to submit to ethical scrutiny all decisions that could have long-term harmful consequences for the interests of future generations. National sovereignty and the environment
Carl Sagan asks: Should the assertion of sovereignty be subordinate to higher goals such as the protection of the planet and the human species? If so, to what point?
Carlos Salinas de Gortari replies: The question of the environment includes mankind's oldest and newest problems: poverty, hunger, disease, and production that is, everyone knows, the cause and the effect of serious environmental problems.
Many responses can be given to the questions posed by the environment. I myself think that there are four fundamental aspects, intimately linked, that require binding responses and agreements on the part of the international community.
Here I refer to changes required in the area of energy, to the distribution of new technologies that are inexpensive and clean, to the defense and replacing of biological diversity, and more generally to the redefinition of the criteria that regulate the inter- national economic order.
The economic policy of my government relies on a broad social consensus. Its first responsibility is to ensure the collective quality of life. In my country, we consider that development is compatible with the ecology. That is why we only accept programs that take this concern into account.
We do not want economic growth at the expense of our environment. We are engaged in a struggle that without a doubt concerns all the nations of the world. The deterioration of the environment is going on now, gaining ground each day. It is urgent; we must stop this threat.
This preoccupation is necessarily anchored in Mexican society, which no longer sees its well-being, liberties, and rights advanced by a deteriorated environment.
It is not only a matter of democratic management of the environment, but also of an equitable sharing of the burdens and the effort. To watch and ensure its protection are inescapable duties of every government and an elementary responsibility of the international community. Science and culture
Stephen Jay Gould asks: In the past, technology has often been a tool of destruction (notably as an instrument of war) or exploitation (by the destruction of the environment.) How can political leaders and statesmen ensure that science be equally a positive tool for humanity? The understanding of the scientific stakes involved also requires an advanced education. How will it be possible to expect a degree of development sufficient to bring all of humanity to this level of education?
Kenichi Fukui asks: Never before has humanity lived in such a era of intensive communication. Do you think that communication will help free or alienate people in the future?
Jacques Delors replies: It is not the responsibility of political leaders alone to master technology. We must restore the primacy of ethics, which should not only be something for theologians and moralists. Scientists and researchers must also hold themselves responsible and participate in a collective consideration of the limits of the powers of man over man.
It is often said, and rightly so, that we must manage the natural capital that we are borrowing from future generations. But the same reasoning must be applied to the genetic capital of the individual and with respect for the spiritual convictions of each. Then, and only then, does the responsibility of the politician arise. He must begin this debate on the ethics of science and draw from it lessons for government and administration. And I underline this point: What can culture do without ethics?
In order for this debate to be understood by all, the level of education must, of course, progress at the same speed as science. But scientific education can do nothing without the individual's acquisition of a level of culture that permits him to better understand himself and to participate in the evolution of society.
As for the distribution of such a concept to the four corners of the planet, the aim is noble, but we must be realists. We, the wealthy peoples, have not been able, up to now, to create a world economic order that is both efficient and just. Central to the world's future, the North-South question remains a potential cause of unhappiness and conflict. Let us begin by devoting more resources to works of peace and to development aid. Let us assure the opening of our markets to poor countries. Let us work t o make the world monetary system more stable and thereby reduce the cost of money and interest rates.
On this basis, and on this basis only, can we regain our credibility with the poor peoples and consider together new progress for man and society.
The development of communication is for the better if it leads to a better understanding between the men and women who live all over this planet. But it is for the worse if the power of the media becomes such that they can, without impunity, inflate a certain event, play on the emotions of viewers, and create public opinion movements which neither political leaders nor intellectuals can influence. Jacques Cousteau is a French oceanographer, writer, and film producer.
Jacques Delors is president of the European Commission.
Abdou Diouf is the president of Senegal.
Kenichi Fukui of Japan won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1981. He is president of the Kyoto Institute of Technology.
Stephen Jay Gould is an American paleontologist at Harvard University.
Toshiki Kaifu is the former prime minister of Japan.
Desmond Morris is a British zoologist and author who has appeared often on BBC-TV.
Carl Sagan is a US astronomer and author who has appeared on public television.
Carlos Salinas de Gortari is the president of Mexico.