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Can Science Solve Our Problems?

Updated on October 7, 2013

The Cost Of Progress

Science allowed to create heavy industry, but it has had at the same time catastrophic consequences for the natural world and the earth itself.
Science allowed to create heavy industry, but it has had at the same time catastrophic consequences for the natural world and the earth itself. | Source

The Man Who Opened Our Eyes

Charles Darwin demonstrated that humans are not set apart from nature, but rather a part of it. Moreover, he warned that no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape its confines.
Charles Darwin demonstrated that humans are not set apart from nature, but rather a part of it. Moreover, he warned that no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape its confines. | Source

The Virtual World As An Object

Gadgets such as this iPhone are essentially mini portals into a virtual world created by science. As a result humans are more detached from the natural world than ever.
Gadgets such as this iPhone are essentially mini portals into a virtual world created by science. As a result humans are more detached from the natural world than ever. | Source

How IVF Works

The Downside Of IVF

While IVF has brought great joy and happiness to many infertile couples in the Western world. The obvious downside is that it has removed another natural check on our species, thus confounding the already grave problem of overpopulation. The effects of which, are still to play out.

The Ghost Of Darwin

Wondering whether science can solve our questions is undoubtedly one of the most perplexing questions of our time, and whenever one attempts to answer it seriously, one must first focus on a man who many regard as the most influential scientist, naturalist and thinker of all time.

The reason why Charles Darwin was so reluctant to publish his theories described in On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man was simply that their conclusions led to the question of whether humans are fundamentally different from other animals. Many people today find Darwin’s prophetic warning that ‘Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin’ hard to accept, either for religious reasons or simply because evidence from all around suggests that humans are not susceptible to the same rules of survival and extinction.

Mankind’s ability to sidestep nature’s systems shows no sign of abating. Since the Second World War his cunning has developed systems that have radically changed the way we relate to each other and to the world around us. Televisions, computers, video games, mobile phones, text messaging and the Internet have taken ordinary people into unnatural worlds where no wildlife can possibly get in their way. Seasons have been abolished as obstacles in the way of consumer choice, with the emergence of air conditioned supermarkets which can source and deliver tens of thousands of different lines of refrigerated foodstuffs from around the world, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.

Broadcast media, which emerged in a truly mass consumer form only in the 1950s, transformed the ability of manufacturers to sell their products through advertising. Modern economic growth can now rely on marketing agencies developing elaborate strategies for convincing millions of consumers to buy products not found in nature that no one really needs. Fashions and fads are essential ingredients in modern man’s ‘virtual world,’ which further increases the distance between the human world, nature and other living things.

Western science is the self-appointed protector of man’s artificial world. Synthesised drugs have engineered longer lifespans; couples who can’t have children naturally now have the chance through IVF; and slim-hipped women who in the past would probably have died during childbirth can now elect to have Caesareans that minimise the risks to their own health.

Such innovations tamper with the fundamental fabric of nature herself- the path of natural evolution through which species survive or fail based on each generation’s natural adaptations to its surroundings. Artificial selection has been applied by humans to animals and plants since the advent of selective breeding and agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, but modern science, with its recent understanding of life’s genetic code, DNA, aspires to giddy new heights. In the short term its aims are to help genetically engineer out life-threatening diseases or to develop drought-resistant crops. In the long term such ‘solutions’ compound the problems of ever-increasing human populations making demands on the same resource-depleted, environmentally wrecked planet.

How far distant is this approach from Hitler’s attempts to interrupt nature’s flow to produce his master race, weeding out the weak from society, allowing the strong and wealthy who can afford expensive treatments to prosper and thrive?

The Roman Habit

European Imperialism of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was built upon ideals established by the cradle of modern European civilisation- the Roman Empire.
European Imperialism of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was built upon ideals established by the cradle of modern European civilisation- the Roman Empire. | Source

Undoing The Damage

One way of redressing the balance is by reconnecting and reassessing our relationship with nature. Hunter gatherers such as the Hadza see themselves as a part of the land rather than owners of it.
One way of redressing the balance is by reconnecting and reassessing our relationship with nature. Hunter gatherers such as the Hadza see themselves as a part of the land rather than owners of it. | Source

Why We Need To Rewild The Planet And Ourselves

Looking Beyond The Earth

Others believe that the answer lies in leaving the earth beyond and colonising the cosmos. But such a venture presents a whole range of problems and challenges.
Others believe that the answer lies in leaving the earth beyond and colonising the cosmos. But such a venture presents a whole range of problems and challenges. | Source

Reversing Tribalism And Nationalism

The flag of the United Nations
The flag of the United Nations | Source
Organisations like the UN and European Union are two examples of how humanity has attempted to break free from its tribal instincts and think collectively as a species.
Organisations like the UN and European Union are two examples of how humanity has attempted to break free from its tribal instincts and think collectively as a species. | Source

Why Our Problems Are Nothing New

Despite modern appearances, are humans really so different, so apart from nature? What will happen when the earth’s oil runs out? The global addiction to fossil fuels is likely to prove even harder to kick in the 21st century than imperial China’s addiction to imported opium in the 19th. Unless dramatic new levels of investment are made in nuclear energy and renewable energy sources, man’s fossil-fuel-dependent virtual reality could be unplugged by global conflicts over increasingly scarce energy supplies. Financial markets may buckle under the weight of inflation as demand for food and energy soars.

The mantra of ever increasing economic expansion assumes a world with limitless resources. As discovered by the Roman Empire, territorial and economic growth cannot be assured ad infinitum. Plundering the wealth of other continents- a Roman habit inherited first by European explorers and later by Western governments and business corporations- has already been stretched to its limits by the takeover of North America by European settlers and the Scramble for Africa. For how much longer can cheap Asian labour subsidise living standards in the democracies of the West?

What about developing alternative lifestyles that are more sustainable in the long term? Darwin concluded that man has evolved, inescapably, as part of the natural world. Perhaps now is the time to relearn how to live within nature’s means, as some, like Mahatma Gandhi and his followers, have tried to demonstrate. Switch off the electricity, turn out the lights, sell the car, grow vegetables, walk to work, bring back the small local school, learn a craft, buy only what you need, make your neighbours your friends and have fun in simple, traditional ways such as playing cards, storytelling, drama, dancing and building dens outdoors.

But Darwin’s conclusion that humans evolved in the same way as all other life forms suggests that people aren’t naturally well adapted to long-term, rational planning. It has always been the blind watchmaker- nature- that determines, however randomly, the long term state of life on earth, while individual species either collaborate or battle in the here and now. Evolution depends on the strongest survivors passing on useful traits to their successors, while the weakest fall into obscurity and eventually extinction.

Humans today appear to follow their natural instincts every bit as much as their ancestors did. Modern democracies, like hedge-fund managers, plan around the here and the soon-to-be. Their concern is not with making sacrifices in the present for the sake of alleviating possible risks in an uncertain future. As one 21st century American President famously declared, modern Western lifestyles are ‘blessed.’ The pursuit of life, liberty and happiness in the present is what most often seems to count.

Those who hold this view believe humans should continue to live as they do now, except perhaps for a few tweaks here and there. These are the sceptics who believe that all the fuss about finite raw materials and overpopulation is some elaborate hoax propagated by fanatics and societies’ envious have-nots.

Others believe humans, unlike other animals, do have within themselves the capacity for a rational escape from their evolutionary origins. Huge investment in a search for new sources of raw materials, for example by colonising the moon, could be a stepping stone for exploration elsewhere. Techniques to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions before they leak out into the atmosphere could be perfected and made mandatory throughout the world. Proposals to limit CO2 emissions could be driven by a comprehensive trading system in which governments, companies and individuals bid to purchase a fixed number of credits that cap the total amount produced. Consumers could make a start by making short-haul aeroplane flights morally unacceptable- a modern day taboo, to take a leaf out of the Australian Aboriginals’ book.

Such efforts would have to be applied globally, in a rational, consistent and universal manner. Governments would have to agree to caps on CO2 emissions for their military operations too. Thousands of years of tribal conflict, more recently manifested in nationalistic pride and sporting contests, would have to be set aside for the sake of the greater global good, and for generations to come. It could happen. The European Union and the United Nations are examples of attempts to end centuries of tribal rivalries that have got in the way of collective, thoughtful, long term policy.

Final Thoughts

For all of the benefits that it has brought us Westerners, capitalism is vulnerable and will very likely collapse as a direct result of the complete depletion of finite natural resources. Perhaps, the collapse has already begun with the current climate change crisis. It could well be that it is the first phase of nature’s response to the exponential population growth of humans.

It would be nice to be able to say that we can turn things around, but what if our evolutionary instincts prevent us from collectively reaching beyond the short term satisfaction of its immediate material desires? If this proves to be so, then the stark prophecies of Thomas Malthus and Charles Darwin will come to pass, and take centre stage in the next chapter in the thrilling story of life on earth.

What Do You Think?

Can Science Solve Our Problems

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© 2013 James Kenny

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    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much for your input.

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      Sanctuary 3 years ago

      The problem with science is its inability to close circles. A lot of great ideas but not a lot of research on its long term effects or what to do with side effects or waste. Like Industry its all about profits and ignoring consequence. When science goes from discovery to putting out fires from previous science we are changing why we do science. We eventually end up down to separate roads. We explore new ideas and we explore solving the problems we have already created. I think we are in the latter at this point.

    • Reizach profile image

      Reizach 4 years ago from Phoenix

      This was a majestically composed article Mr. Kenny, and I wish you all the best in your writing career.

      When I see pieces that mention things like overpopulation, environmental crisis and finite resources I always naturally cringe. I don't mean to disagree on these points as I am not an antagonist of any kind. It always leaves me with big questions, which is why I love thought provoking posts like yours.

      I have read a decent amount of history, and throughout that time I came across a theme, especially in modern times. The 'experts' are nearly continuously predicting imminent catastrophic doom, yet have had a track record of being incorrect 100% of the time, so I am reluctant to accept that our current situation is any different. Example: In the 1960s published works predicted overpopulation would cause global starvation by the 80's, yet in that time science has allowed us to increase crop per acre output by many times in industrialized countries during that time and continues to rise. The crop yields in the US per acre are at levels never dreamed possible in the 60's. All thanks to science. Less acres used, more food produced. So you can see my skepticism. Yet I am looked at like a freak when I challenge the status quo.

      Please keep up the good writing!

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much for your input.

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      Sanxuary 4 years ago

      No program based on greed and a complete disregard for common sense will apply to science. If you ignored science in favor of making money you lose everything eventually. A step forward as you poison the water you drink and then ignore its victims is only a leap forward until the oceans rise and you lose your beach front property. Only greed, hypocrisy and complete selfishness could possibly lead anyone to believe that they have enough money and arrogance to escape the penalties that will follow. Oddly their only escape is death before the disaster gets here.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you all very much for your feedback. It's very greatly appreciated, I can assure you.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      Science has played a great part in the advancement of mankind. I don't know if will solve our problems entirely. Great reflection and gives us all something to ponder.

    • Nathan Orf profile image

      Nathan Orf 4 years ago

      I wonder whether it wouldn't be a good idea to require scientists to agree to a set of rules and regulations before beginning their careers. I imagine a sort of Hippocratic Oath for scientists (most especially for those going into artificial intelligence, neuroscience or bioengineering, and the like). I think that there is nothing in the world that is worse than a scientist without ethics.

      Not that the world that science has created for us is a bad thing. In fact, I consider our way of life to be worth protecting. I just think that it is ultimately unsustainable, and changes will have to be made in how we use technology if we wish to continue improving the lives of all human beings. There are some grim hints of how things could play out, but there are always reasons to hope, too.

      Again, JKenny, you have written a thought-provoking hub, and I enjoyed reading it. Here's to hoping that science will, in the end, be joined along with wisdom, and that we each can contribute some small thing to make that day come sooner.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      Very interesting and leaves much food for thought. Thank you so much for sharing .

      Eddy.

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 4 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

      I think that you are exactly correct in stating that science is increasingly moving us towards an artificial world, detached from nature. I'm not a luddite, and I think that science is a wonderful tool - but that we must carefully watch how we are using it. Much food for thought here - voting up, useful, interesting and sharing.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem Suzette. It's an article I've wanted to write for a while. Thank you for popping by.

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      Suzette Walker 4 years ago from Taos, NM

      I don't think science can solve all our problems, but it sure can help. I agree as human beings we need to be more thoughtful and protective of nature around us and the fossil fuels we have been using. There are advantages and disadvantages to everything, but if we concentrate of the advantages of science, we can improve our world. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and for a thought-provoking article.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Indeed, because of the human rights issue. When the technology wasn't available, people had to just put up with infertility, but now things are different...Anyway thanks for popping by.

    • thebiologyofleah profile image

      Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      At the risk of sounding trite- this is a really thought-provoking piece. You managed to tie in so many different trains of thought without coming off as all over the place.

      I think the IVF-overpopulation issue is something people are reluctant to talk about and I can see why- even if it seems to be nature's plan for a couple to not have children it is hard to resist reproductive assistance now that it's so widespread.

      Voted up and shared.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you for popping by. I appreciate your input.

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      CJ Kelly 4 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Nice article. Food for thought. Although I disagree on the carbon trading/caps issue, we still have to be mindful of how we treat our environment. Little things help a lot. And I'm very happy you mentioned flying. You hear so many preach to the masses about saving the planet and then you see them using private jets or traveling to environmental conferences thousands of miles away. Good job. Voted up.