Imagine telling someone that human beings could use large flying machines to travel across oceans or use small talking machines to speak to anyone in the world as if they were standing nearby. Imagine telling someone that the universe is composed of unseen particles or that emotions ranging from joy to rage can be influenced by minute quantities of chemicals in the brain.
Anyone hearing these facts today would understand and say, “Of course!” But six centuries ago, quite in contrast to today, you would have likely been regarded as a lunatic (or hanged) for harboring such beliefs. Over the course of human history, the seemingly impossible has been made real by science and technology, resulting in previously unimaginable improvements to human life.
The frontiers of science and technology continue to promise us even greater benefits. Quantum physics allows us to harness the energy of atoms in nuclear reactors to power our cities, hospitals, and electronics. Research into the regenerative power of stem cells has shown their capacity to fight malignant tumors, grow organs, and perhaps extend our lifespan by decades. Cybernetics has allowed amputees, the blind, and the deaf to enjoy fuller lives with artificial limbs, yes, and hearing aids. These achievements only hint at what more is possible in the future.
But despite the success of science in improving human life, there exists a long history of opposition to scientific innovation. New discoveries have often met with resistance and resentment. In 1163, Pope Alexander III banned the study of physics, directing that those who disobeyed “be avoided by all and excommunicated.” A 19th century group known as the Luddites denounced the Industrial Revolution, physically attacking inventors and destroying efficiency-improving machines. In the early 20th century, resistance to the new theory of evolution culminated in the Scopes Monkey Trial, which convicted a man of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which forbade any educator from denying the Biblical account of creation.
A mistrust of science still persists today. Groups like Greenpeace and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service advocate restricting or outlawing genetic engineering and nuclear technology, despite the many existing and potential benefits thereof. Interest in homeopathic medicine is widely popular, with adherents expressing an automatic trust of anything “natural” and regarding man-made pharmaceutical remedies with categorical skepticism or suspicion. Inventions like microwave ovens, mobile phones, and disease-preventing fluoride water treatment have all been attacked with baseless claims of their alleged dangers.
This is a curious contradiction: on the one hand, the many benefits of science seem obvious; on the other, many people harbor a level of distrust towards science and technology, some going so far as to advocate the halt of some areas of scientific inquiry altogether. Why?
Religion is one source of this view. Consider, for example, the Catholic Church’s longstanding opposition to birth control, grounded in its view that sex is for procreation and never for pleasure alone. For the same reason, the Church warns scientists “not to play God” by cloning human embryos—because they also believe procreation should only occur through sex. Birth control and genetic cloning are seen as unnatural interventions in God’s plan.
The same attitude can be seen in other religions. From tribal Africans regarding electricity as the work of demons, to Hollywood scientologists rejecting psychiatric medicine in favor of mystic rebalancing, religion often characterizes nature as beyond our intellectual grasp and necessarily out of our control. Morally, we’re told to follow a nonscientific path—whether by drinking the potion of a shaman or following the holy edicts of Deuteronomy. Practices like genetic engineering, on this view, are presumptuous deviations of a species that should recognize its need for divine subservience.
Religion is not the only obstacle with which scientists find themselves confronted; secular ideas also contribute to the mistrust of new sciences or technologies. Consider the seemingly science-friendly environmentalists who warn that when we cut down a forest to make paper, or drill a well to extract oil for fuel, or modify the DNA of plants to make them grow more robustly, we violate the “natural order” of how things ought to be. In doing so, they argue, we destroy a natural thing and create something unnatural, placing us at war with nature. Instead, we’re told to minimize our “footprint” on our surroundings, to seek “natural” solutions for all our needs, and to view scientific marvels like plastic bags and gasoline-fueled cars as undesirable blemishes on the planet’s surface.
Both the religious and secular versions of scientific mistrust share a common premise: that human life should be subordinated to a “higher order”, despite the benefits to be gained by going beyond the naturally given and creating something that never before existed. The Church opposes the manipulation of our genetic code despite the fact that doing so could eliminate fatal hereditary diseases. The secular counterpart fares no better—many environmentalists oppose genetic engineering of crops despite the millions fed by such agricultural improvements. Both viewpoints agree that human beings’ place in the universe is to be subservient to a higher power—that we must leave the forests and the fish and nuclear particles alone because we are not equipped to understand and control the world in which we live. Any vain attempts to the contrary will result in punishment from a higher power, be it God or Mother Earth.
But the fact is that human life demands certain things for survival and healthy, happy lives. Unlike other animals which rely on their instincts to find food and shelter, we as human beings require something much greater: knowledge. Everything that we need to make life possible comes from something we know, whether it is how to plant a seed and cook a meal, or how to build a hospital and perform a surgery. Neither God nor nature provides for our biological needs, like reliable sources of food, energy, and shelter, or uniquely human needs like communication infrastructure, education, and entertainment. It is only through science and technology that we create these values to address our needs, both material and spiritual.
Human life demands these values be produced, making our nature that of a creative being. Our invention of technology—our rearranging of the world to suit the purposes of our lives—is as natural and good for us as a dam is to a beaver, or a nest is to a bird. We are rational animals, capable of using our minds to find solutions to the problems facing us, to engage in the task of discovering the workings of the world and use that knowledge in service of our needs—whether that means building a skyscraper or creating entirely new organisms in the lab. Through scientific study, we acquire the knowledge necessary to create; through technological productivity, we apply that knowledge to the needs of life. Every product of scientific discovery or practical innovation is evidence of the fact that we are creative beings whose basic nature is to apply our minds, invent technology, and further our lives beyond our alleged “natural limits.”
Contrary to those who mistrust science and its products, human beings are not incapable of the sometimes daunting task of knowing and then manipulating nature. The human mind is capable of independently achieving success—health, wealth, convenience, peace, happiness. We are not passively dependent on a supernatural God or the planet to provide us with the guidance to solve our problems, nor should we limit ourselves to follow the arbitrary laws derived from them.
Fundamentally, the conflicted feelings many have about scientific and technological progress comes down, not to a conflict between the scientific and the unscientific, but to a conflict between two views of human progress: either we should act and innovate in pursuit of our material well-being and happiness, or we should subvert that ability in an attempt to live meekly in service to a nonexistent higher power or purpose. Either we seek to create a new, previously unknown world with our knowledge, or we submissively accept the world in front of us as one where no improvement is necessary or possible.
Science and technology have demonstrated their value to human life on earth, here and now. If our goal as human beings is to flourish, we should be eager to enrich our lives as much as we possibly can. To this end, we should celebrate the process of scientific discovery and technological innovation, and pursue them confidently. This doesn’t mean assuming every scientific or technological innovation comes free of risk or unintended consequences, but we must reject the superstition that technology as such is a threat, and realize the irrational nature of such opposition. To those who insist that we should restrict ourselves to the given, to the “natural,” let us answer: embrace the “unnatural.”
Daniel Casper is a fiction and nonfiction writer living in Dallas, Texas.