Saturday, March 14, 2009

Science and Politics in Swift

The more or less undisputed findings of science can be attacked from both left and right. The right, meaning here social conservatives, criticizes "evolution" at least partly because of it's effect on faith in God, and thus on the soul. It is not obviously crazy to say these things are more important than whether children learn the latest findings on how life on earth develops. I might as well add: I have always found discoveries in the realm of evolution tremendously exciting. For a while in my twenties I was interested in the idea of serious doubts about evolution, not necessarily based in any way on the Bible, such as Koestler's, but I am dazzled by the way genetics, and waves of new paleontological discoveries, now show evolution to be a theory that is capable of explaining vast and growing stores of data. I was raised by somewhat liberal Protestants, and I don't really see why believers can't simply say: no matter how complex and surprising evolution is, all the glory goes to God, or something like that.

Some of the same social conservatives criticize stem cell research that involves killing human embryos. Pro-lifers are committed to the view that every embryo is a human being, so every killing of an embryo is tantamount to murder. As a rule, pro-lifers have had little to say about in-vitro fertilization since the time when Louise Brown was born--even though IVF historically, and almost inevitably, involves the deliberate destruction of embryos. Presumably pro-lifers realize that many of the parents going through IVF are the salt of the earth from a conservative perspective; they build loving, supportive families, they are likely to vote Republican in the U.S., and they may even go to church. In a way, they are more likely to be anti-abortion than their peers who do not go through IVF, just as neo-natologists, who care for fragile babies, are more likely to be pro-life than peri-natologists, who see a pregnant woman as the patient.

IVF and stem cell research aren't exactly "undisputed science" in the way that evolution is, but they are defended by many of the same people as extremely promising avenues of medicine and research.

The left, of an environmental variety, is likely to object to genetically-modified foods, to much corporate-produced food in general, and to the actions of corporations in general as allegedly harmful to human health. They claim, I suppose, to put one kind of science--nutrition and public health--up against the allegedly crackpot science that supports mass production, always driving down the cost, of food. They would tend to say that organic food is healthier than food produced with more artificial intervention--not only because of the lack of pesticides, but in other ways as well.

It may seem strange that criticisms of the work of modern, technological agriculture echo some passages in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, first published in 1726. In the Third Voyage, Gulliver famously visits the flying island of Laputa, but he also visits the land underneath the island, called Balnibarbi, and the metropolis Lagado. When he visits Balnibarbi, he finds that agriculture has been destroyed in most of the land; "except in some very few places, I could not discover one ear of corn or blade of grass." The only estate he sees that still has "fields ... containing vineyards, corn-grounds, and meadows" is owned by his host, who says that old-fashioned methods, which produce such impressive results, are only followed by "very few, such as were old, and wilful, and weak like himself."

Gulliver learns that 40 years earlier, a few people went up the flying island, and came back determined to put "all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics upon a new foot." In the newly created colleges:

the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments and tools for all trades and manufactures, whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase an hundred fold more than they do at present, with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection, and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes.


Swift seems to insist that modern, scientific agriculture began as hardly more than a dream; it will not work soon, perhaps it cannot work, and in any case a sane person would not place his hopes in it. Applied to agriculture, and perhaps to other fields as well, Swift's description seems to fit Soviet efforts more than anything in the West. One well-known element of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, which eventually led much of the world into a truly modern economy, was the Agricultural Revolution, well under way during Swift's lifetime. It involved new methods including larger fields, new crops, crop rotation, and selective breeding. By about 1800, fifty years or so after Swift's death, agricultural output in England had increased about three and a half times. Of course, people were often moved, against their will, off land that their families had occupied for generations, and the growth of cities meant no economic security in the absence of a job, as opposed to living in the country where it was rare to have no food at all.

Twentieth-century Communists were foolishly trying to achieve even greater gains in output by more dramatic and harsher methods: more central control, less tolerance of private property. If one huge experiment failed, it would be followed by an even bigger experiment on similar lines.

The West, by contrast, has actually continued to increase agricultural output per plant, animal, and acre of land. With the Green Revolution, similar benefits were brought to the Third World, so that predictions of endless famine were replaced by estimates that India, for example, was self-sufficient in food.

Why was Swift so confident that modern, scientific methods would fail? The point seems to be that he thought the proper attitude was to believe that they would fail--to remain loyal to traditional methods, even if in a given year the new methods might achieve some success. Although capable of assuming a kind of comic distance from almost everything he saw, Swift was also capable of a very conservative orientation in politics. He seems to think feudal agriculture, in which hardly anyone achieved more than subsistence, and bad years of starvation were fairly common, was better, or should be regarded as better, than a world in which experts are somehow trusted to transform all known methods in order to deliver unheard of, almost undreamed of results.

Today perhaps the history of medicine provides a better example than that of agriculture. Until about the beginning of the twentieth century, medicine was hardly more than quackery and torture. To be admitted to hospital was to prepare to die. Over the centuries, the various fields of medicine had attracted many bright, hard-working, ambitious people--probably even some geniuses. These geniuses were more and more trusted; the old taboos about autopsy were long gone, lots of surgeries and other methods were tried every day; to some extent medical people first became separate from priests or unofficial religious figures, and then became more trusted and respected than the religious people. Yet the medical geniuses themselves were puzzled at their catastrophic failure with actual patients. Not knowing about antibiotics, aseptic surgical technique, the importance of tying up blood vessels even if that slowed down a surgery, managing pain, and many other matters, they were in fact hardly more than butchers. Yet during these centuries, many people trusted them, and patiently waited for the amazing breakthroughs that eventually, in fact, arrived.

Was it morally or politically a good thing to put such trust in experimental butchers working on human beings? That is still a lively question today, which is at least touched on when people wonder if too many people are being kept alive, or being mis-treated while alive, in hospital. The pro-lifers always imply a kind of criticism of all modern medicine, insofar as it treats the body as all-important, and neglects the soul. To take only one example, it seems the main determinant of whether a patient has actually died has been defined in such a way that organs can be harvested. Not: make absolutely sure someone is dead, and then maybe organs will be available, and maybe not, but: make sure the organs are available. Swift is trying to ask the same kind of question about practitioners of scientific agriculture: are the human beings in front of our eyes being treated as means, or part of an experiment?

Of course, once science or technology has "worked," it seems impossible to go back. How can a sane person reject better results for worse? Since scientific agriculture, absent communism, does not reduce good land to a desert, people will support it. Modern medicine seems more colossal in its achievements than ever, although there may be a growing impatience at the lack of a dramatic breakthrough with cancer. And of course, while it is true that more people live to 80 or 90, it is still extremely rare to live to 100.

And so, actual debates continue about the morality and politics of both agriculture and medicine.

UPDATE July: I might have mentioned that the Irish potato famine, long after Swift's death, may seem a great example of the failure of scientific agriculture: one crop grown on a huge scale to maximize profits and feed the workers cheaply, etc. Without being an expert, I would say the Irish famine resulted from a combination of "new" agriculture and a corrupt version of "old" feudalism.

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