Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

19 July 2004

True Believers and The Power of Nations

For those inclined to ignore the lessons of history—and there are many of them—the story of the Luddites is worth repeating. In eighteenth-century England, the textile mills were industrializing. Machines were replacing people as weavers, and the process caused tremendous social dislocation and hardship among workers. One response was a workers’ movement know for its leader, which went from town to town smashing the new machines and burning the buildings that housed them.

The Luddite movement failed, but not before giving its name to all movements that seek to brake the advance of science, technology and commerce by destructive or other irrational means. The changes that the Luddites failed to stop helped bring on the Industrial Revolution, which made a small Island nation a master of war, navigation and commerce and eventually a superpower—a mantle the United States has inherited today.

Today we have our own Luddites. They seek to stop the advance of science, technology and commerce not by destructive means, but by legislation and regulation. Their motives, however, are less sympathetic than the original Luddites.’ Whereas their earlier namesakes sought only to stem the tide of hardship caused by vast economic dislocation, the modern ones seek to impose their religious faith on others.

The mills they seek to destroy today are not buildings, but test tubes. The advances they seek to thwart are embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning, and the arguments they use are worthy of medieval religious scholars. A mass of cells in a test tube, they say, is a “human being,” although it has no nerves to feel with, no brain to think with, no heart to beat, and nothing that any scientist worthy of the name would call sentient behavior. The mass of cells is valuable to science precisely because the cells are undifferentiated but have the capacity for growing into any of the marvelously differentiated cells that make up a human being. A mass of undifferentiated, unfeeling cells is a person, the modern Luddites argue, because their religious faith says it is.

The world has seen this all before. In the early seventeenth century, the Italian city-states were world leaders in science, technology, navigation, and trade. A fellow named Galileo, having invented the telescope, used it to look at the stars and the planets. Based upon his direct observations of objective reality, he deduced that the sun did not revolve around the Earth, however self-important its inhabitants might be. For his effrontery in questioning the Church’s terra-centric view of the Universe, he was threatened with excommunication and forced to discontinue his research.

At much the same time, two interesting events were occurring far to the north, in England. Isaac Newton was co-discovering the calculus, a method of mathematical analysis which carried Galileo’s observations forward into modern astronomy. Newton’s discoveries, based in part on Galileo’s observations, were and are the foundation for all modern science, engineering, and technology. At about the same time, the English Parliament was adopting the Statute of Monopolies, the first democratic law adopting modern economic principles of commerce and trade. Believe it or not, these three developments—Galileo’s near-excommunication, Newton’s discovery of the calculus, and Parliament’s adoption of the statute of monopolies—occurred within three decades of each other, i.e, within the lifetime of a single individual even in those days.

Now fast-forward 400 years. The country whose religious authorities stopped Galileo’s research is, notwithstanding its wonderful music, food and wine, a third-rank power dependent upon others for its technological advancement and defense. In contrast, the country that chose the path of reason, not faith, in both science and economics came ultimately to see its technology- and business-oriented culture dominate the world.

In Galileo’s time, the city-states of Italy had clear superiority in science, technology, architecture, medicine, navigation, and commerce. Indeed, our own continent and our country (colloquially) derive their names from an Italian explorer’s. Yet four centuries later, Italy is a third-rate power scientifically, militarily, and economically, for it took the path of faith, not reason.

There are other examples of the drag caused by Italy’s religious faith. Perhaps the next most important is the Catholic Church’s edict against dissecting human cadavers, which outlawed anatomical research. As a direct result of that edict, research in medicine moved to Protestant Northern Europe, where the basic discoveries of modern medical science, including the function of the human circulatory system, occurred. The quality of medicine in Italy today, as compared to that in England, Germany and the United States, owes much to that fateful edict.

Fortunately for humankind, but perhaps unfortunately for the United States, many technologically advanced parts of the world are unburdened by the fundamentalist branch of Christianity that sees a blastocyst as a human being with a “soul” and is willing to enforce blind faith with legislation. China, which for many reasons bids to become the world’s next dominant power, had no such religious ideology. Nor does Japan. Nor does India. Nor does England, whose scientists discovered the double helix that laid the foundation for the present revolution in biotechnology. All are in hot pursuit of stem-cell and even cloning research. Despite the vast sums spent on medical research in the United States, their support for academic freedom may yet give them leadership in a vital area of technology that promises to change human life as much or more than have electronics and computers.

Will bans on embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning, based ultimately on nothing more than the religious faith of a small but powerful minority, hobble the United States? Will the health-care industry in the United States, now the best in the world, become second rate? Will historians centuries hence look back on the present as a turning point at which the only nation ever consciously founded on reason and pragmatism lost its bearings and its leadership? Or will our country come to its senses and base its public policy on rational and pragmatic considerations, not on the religious principles of a few, however strongly held?

Time will tell. At the moment, only two things are certain. First, in the long run, the revolution in biology that began with the discovery of the Double Helix is likely to have a far greater impact on human progress and human welfare than any previous revolution in human knowledge. Second, history has not been kind to true believers.

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