We should listen to the scientists who were also wisdom keepers

“As Nature continues its game of biological mutation and selection of ideas and as Man

“As Nature continues its game of biological mutation and selection of ideas and as Man plays his own games of biological mutation and selection and of cultural innovations, Nature will have the last word.” 

     —Jonas Salk  

“Mankind has reached a crossroads, and is confronted by two road signs pointing in opposite directions. One of these is symbolized by the happenings at My Lai. It points towards a dark world, dominated by military industrial complexes and conducted by fear, hatred and distrust. This road leads to doomsday, to the deserved disappearance of man from his polluted little globe. The other road sign point in the opposite direction. It would lead man to a sunlit, peaceful and clean world, marked by good will, human solidarity, decency and equity and free of hunger and disease, with a place for everyone.”

     —Albert Szent Gyorgi

Science is a pillar to our civilization and few scientists have been able to articulate that humanity’s morals are also becoming increasingly fragile and perilous to the life force of the planet. Three in particular wrote books, all written after the promise of the 1960s, in the 1970s, expressing great concern for the future of man, not for lack of technical wherewithal and knowledge but from a dearth of wisdom, and coherence for humanity’s foundation on Earth.

All three had a major scientific, biochemical or medical understanding of life and all were deeply concerned with man’s evolution. All three were humanists and wary of mankind as a future species. Not just happy to earn wages, prizes or to make a name for themselves they were united in their common concern for what it means to be human and humanity’s long-term prospects on an increasingly tenuous Earth. Jonas Salk is a household name and came up with something called the polio vaccine. Erwin Chargaff’s research led to the discovery of DNA and Albert Szent Gyorgi won the Nobel Prize for isolating Vitamin C. They studied life up close, at the cellular level and were more anxious about civilization’s long-term prospects than the mere diseases afflicting mankind. In light of the pandemic, or allied viruses to come, which may challenge us for decades, the voice of scientists with a moral vision from decades past is more vital than ever. Those who hold a particular knowledge of how life works ought to be held in particular esteem, especially in our time of overweening indulgence in technology and industry. Few scientists have been as concerned with our moral agency as with our technical and scientific know how. Their words should serve a special warning to big science and the military industrial complex which seems to have lost all ballast in this very unstable time.

Jonas Salk in his epochal book “The Survival of the Wisest,” from 1973, stresses the impact of metabolic diseases humans have had to deal with since time immemorial, but there are meta-biologic ones that deal with the “nature and causes of Man’s distress at the present time.” This disease Salk attributes to the “maldevelopment and malfunctioning of the Being and Ego systems.” Our being, our essence as humans, which marvels, prays, aspires, yearns, loves and creates art and cares is losing ground to an overweening Ego whose toxins through industry and our technical knowhow have overwhelmed the metabolism of the planet. For most of human history, until very recently, our Being was tied to our Ego and conscious awareness of the world in what seems like two intimately tied strands. The two were bonded together like the DNA double helix and then they started to separate. Today the Ego has veered precipitously off the scale, almost mimicking the temperature gradient of the planet in the last few years. The wisdom required to make judgements ahead of what a world civilization needs to survive, “implies making judgements in advance rather than retrospectively.”

With regard to the pandemic and climate change Salk would have been the first to affirm that mankind needs to be conscious of its own “evolutionary agenda” and that of Nature’s and that he modify his own to fit Nature’s. Our Ego and Being will have to learn to cooperate. Jane Goodall affirmed this notion recently when she exclaimed that humanity must change with respect to the virus and its relationship to Nature or it is finished. In other words, our Ego system, our cognitive/intellectual faculties, are woefully suppressing and even overwhelming our basic Being. This is the last decade in which our economic, energy, and education systems and our lack of environmental respect of Nature can be transformed, if our evolution is to continue.

At this unique inflection and infection point in time, Salk urged the wise to avoid a “win lose” conflict with the unwise — the wise represent in fact “a new kind of fitness for survival.” For the wise and unwise not to annihilate each other or create this artificial and bogus political dualism we have gotten ourselves into, especially in America, we need human values which respect judgement, good sense and the laws of Nature. Our Ego systems are inadequate to meet the needs of our Being, and if that being is suppressed as it has been for a long time now, you get riots, societal upheaval and even revolution. Jonas saw it plainly for he saw the results from the ’60s, which seems to be the last gasp of humanity. Today, if good sense does not prevail, human life will become more of a punishment than rewarding experience,” he wrote. Because now biological/ecological upheaval is also upon us. One can only hope that by the end of the so-called month of Thanksgiving, common sense and wisdom will have won the day over that which is anti-life. The dialogue is no longer a political one, it is about the survival of life itself.

Albert Szent Gyorgi also had some credentials. He discovered Ascorbic Acid, called Vitamin C. And got the Nobel Prize. Very concerned about the emergence of modern science he wrote in his book from 1970 “The Crazy Ape,” “Most of our social institutions now serve mainly their own interests while pretending to serve the purpose for which they were created. This holds equally for armies, churches, or governments and means that we are living in a hypocritical world, one of false pretenses, one which is now being rejected wholesale by our youth.” Albert tells of his uncle who saw a paper presented at the French Scientific Academy, that proved that heavier than air objects would never fly. We are able to increase our speed of communication by a factor of ten million fold, our power of weapons by 10 to the sixth power. We have increased our ability to be rich exponentially. But what we have not been able to do is adapt ourselves with “our caveman’s brain” to forces that can destroy us in the blink of an eye.

Albert was very concerned about the way forward. He was proud of his discovery of Vitamin C and then one day in a factory found a large collection of jars containing preparations of Vitamin C which had been put in German submarines enabling them to stay at sea for months on their death dealing missions without the crew breaking down with scurvy. He added, “we constantly cut and cut scientific and cultural appropriations to enlarge our already swollen military budget. A society which is death oriented is difficult to save. In an atomic war, the only fortunate ones will be those who die with the first bang.” One of Albert’s observations throughout his years of diplomacy was that we are a gerontocracy and women were largely absent in decision making. While that is changing, it is interesting to note that what appears as a seismic shift in thinking today is something that concerned Szent Gyorgi 50 years ago. “There is one over-riding question that corners us all: how can we get out of the fatal groove we are in, the one that is leading towards the brink? We must make a new beginning, but it is only the youth who can make it by building a new world,” he wrote. But Szent Gyorgi insists, we have conceived no new ideas, no new leaders, and no new methods today despite all our engineering and sciences and technics. “We are still acting like man thousands of years ago.”

Erwin Chargaff, an Austrian, was an educated biochemist whose work on “base pairing” and “complementarity” led to the discovery of DNA. “Heraclitean Fire” from 1978 is a collection of essays and a masterpiece of humanistic concern. Chargaff was preoccupied with the roots of the scientific mind and what science could offer but he also realized that many scientists today had lost touch with the big picture and indeed wisdom itself. We search for the facts, the equations and have lost touch with meaning. In his superb chapter “The Silence of the Heavens” Chargaff wrote,“ Profounder men than I have failed to diagnose, let alone cure, the disease that has infected us all, and I should say that the ostensible goals have obliterated the real origins of our search. Without a firm center we flounder. The wonderful inconceivably intricate tapestry is being taken apart strand by strand; each thread is being pulled out, torn up, and analyzed; and at the end even the memory of the design is lost and can no longer be recalled.” Chargaff warned his generation, “This world is given to us on loan. We come and we go; and after a time we leave earth and air and water to others who come after us. My generation or perhaps the one preceding mine, has been the first to engage, under the leadership of the exact sciences, in a destructive colonial warfare against nature. The future will curse us for it.”

All three would agree that humanity is behaving in ways that is “pathologically divisive” in Salk’s words. We are courting disaster and our whole civilization could be said to be anti-life. How we will choose life in this critical decade when our very health as a species is being subverted, is perhaps the greatest test in mankind’s short evolution. Szent Gyorgi says of children that they came into this world with “clean and empty minds.” They grow up and  see “the energies and resources of nations diverted into ever larger ways of expunging and cheapening human life” and see “people preoccupied and swollen with meaningless satisfactions” and “see a world insanely fouled by pollution… the good earth being covered over with tar and cement” and are “unsatisfied with the argument that it is impossible to make life on earth a little less hellish.”

These thinkers who were immense doers were also humanists who hoped for the betterment of mankind. In our frenzy of innovation and new cell phones and vaccines, our ingenuity today is nearly incalculable, but one has to question where the will will actually come from to find resources, not just within our ability to create and innovate things like renewables, not just the intellectual wherewithal to add fuel to our Ego, but the will to save our essence, our very Being as humans. Something far deeper than Ingenuity will be needed if we are to survive. The heart and the brain are finally going to have to work together, in ways we have never seen before. This decade had better make sure of that.

“I consider the attempt to interfere with the homeostasis of nature as an unthinkable crime. Have they peeped into the Creation and found it wanting? We do not yet have a pathology of scientific imagination; but the urge to change the biosphere irreversibly could make an excellent object for such a study; an even better one than would the desire to hop on the moon. If as is claimed, a fish begins to stink from its head, one could say that man begins to stink from his heart.”

—Erwin Chargaff 


Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.


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