In his bestselling book ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’, Professor Yuval Noah Harari commented that “during the Agricultural Revolution, humankind silenced animals and plants, and turned the animist grand opera into a dialogue between man and gods. During the Scientific Revolution, humankind silenced the gods too.” In fact, the very premise of Harari’s seemingly outlandish claims is that modern science has made men gods; although the best and the brightest understand that scientific research simply reflects the inadequacy of human knowledge, the accessibility and transformative power of modern science has granted us an immeasurable amount of power which we are wont to abuse. This power manifests itself in terms of the ability to control fellow human beings, manipulate the biological building blocks of life, and decide the fate of all other forms of life on this planet, all of which we are already doing with impunity.
It should be established that the objective of scientific research is to produce accurate explanations of how the natural world works, and this is a slow and laborious empirical process. Proponents of the scientific method argue that the modern sciences have taught us just how little we know about the universe. As Valentine, a character of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ noted whimsically: “It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing…The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about—clouds—daffodils—waterfalls—what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in—these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks…It’s the best possible time to be alive, when everything you thought you knew is wrong”. Scientific discovery is premised on the fact that nothing can ever be found or proven to be right; it can only be proven wrong. Besides the mysterious possibility that the truth which we so wholeheartedly believe in at present may not be the objective truth, what science has uncovered about the natural world, about the universe is mind-boggling. For instance, NASA’s successful exploration to the moon over 40 years ago brought about pieces of information about the solar system, the cis-lunar space, near-Earth asteroids, Mars and beyond. But each of those discoveries had to take place incrementally, with many safeguards in place, because there is so much more that space researchers do not know about.As Carl Sagan, an American astronomer and physicist, once asked, ‘If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason for the Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?’, science humbles us by confronting us with the sheer perplexity of the unknown, and the vastness of the universe. The pale blue dot is simply a “mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam”, and our petty struggles so insignificant when compared to the history of the universe. Knowledge of this fact should keep us humble, instead of make us arrogant.
Yet, if this fundamental premise of the scientific method is ignored, it can be argued that the power accorded to man by technological advancements has made us arrogant. It has allowed us to rule over our fellow human beings, and we have done so with little moral accountability. For many years, especially when destructive scientific knowledge fell into the wrong hands, mankind has sought the power of science to intimidate others into submission. From Hitler and his Nazi human experiments, to contemporary human experiments on the effects of chemical and biological weapons conducted in North Korea, there is no end to man’s desire to control and manipulate our fellow beings. Even the United States employed modern scientific techniques to interrogate inmates at Guantanamo Bay through the use of high doses of barium to induce neuropsychiatric effects on the inmates, which led to suicidal thoughts and psychosis. Throughout the course of human civilisation, modern science has granted mankind the ability to take control of others by force, and the fact that we have done so with scant regard for our humanity attests to our arrogance.
When it comes to the field of genetic engineering which seeks to modify the genetic makeup of an organism, it appears that science has allowed man to play God, and play God we have. In February 2016, the UK Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority authorised the editing of genomes in human embryos using CRISPR technology for ‘research purposes’. In 2019, barely 3 years later, Professor He Jiankui announced that he had altered the DNA of a pair of twins to prevent them from contracting HIV.This could transform the concepts of designer babies and eugenics into a frightening reality. Aldous Haxley’s ‘Brave New World’ describes a dystopian world where infants are grown in vats and sorted according to their intelligence levels. Even back in 1937, when the novel was first published, the fear of dehumanization and infringing upon the sanctity of human life was already gaining traction among readers. Does having power alone make us ‘arrogant’? Not necessarily as it can be argued that it is the inability to set limits on our growing powers that constitutes arrogance. Although there is considerable academic debate about the ethical considerations of genetic engineering and authorities are moving to regulate this growing field, it appears that we have arrived at a stage where the ethical debates arising from CRISPR are severally left behind by technological advancement. According to a 2009 report released by the United Nations, 133 out of 192 nations lacked an adequate regulatory framework for the regulation of genetic modification technologies. In the wise words of Jean Rostand, a French biologist and philosopher: “Science has made us gods even before we are worthy of being man.” We now hold the biological building blocks of human life in our hands, which can be parlayed according to one’s whim and fancy – potentially undermining the sanctity of human life – and we have made insufficient efforts to understand and control the extent of our influence.
Given that modern science has allowed us to play God, it appears that our arrogance extends to asserting superiority over the other species which populate the Earth. Much has been said about how mankind uses animals for scientific experimentation, but modern science has even given mankind an opportunity to clone animals for the purpose of scientific advancement, food, environmental reasons, and even for man’s sentimentality. Pet cloning, which reunites owners with carbon copies of their beloved but deceased pets, is now a burgeoning international industry, which has grown by leaps and bounds since the first dog was cloned at the Seoul National University in 2005. Scientists and pet owners alike pay scant regard to the fact that 90% of fertilised embryos implanted in surrogate mothers either fail to implant, or spontaneously abort, or result in ‘serious or fatal issues perinatally’, with disastrous effects on the health of the surrogate mothers. This is a prime example of the moral conceit and flagrant disregard for non-human life that sets in following the advent of technological advancement. Scientists have successfully genetically modified Aqua Atlantic Salmon such that it can grow much faster in order to meet the rising demand. The invention of fish that glow as a result of an insertion of a genetic element that causes the fish to fluoresce, is used to detect pollutants in water. Mankind has reached a stage where we can flagrantly transform entire animal species just for our selfish purposes without qualms as to whether these interventions impact the entire ecosystem in pernicious ways. Therefore, modern science poses the serious threat of mankind constructing an artificial environment, against the workings of nature.
In summary, though modern science has taught mankind to accept our limited knowledge about some secrets of the universe, it has enabled us to take pride in the ability to carry out research and experimentation that cross the ethical boundaries and jeopardise human safety. Hence, modern science poses the threat of making mankind supremely arrogant more than teaching us humility, and the path to disaster may not be too far away if we do not rein in our scientific hubris.