June 3, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Science as Tyranny

Movements since the late 19th century have employed science as justification for tyrannical ideas.  Ziauddin Sardar wrote in Nature, “Misplaced faith in science, as rational dogma, as the enemy of pessimism, as a theory of salvation, often serves as the glue that binds modernity and fascism together.”1  Could that happen again?
    Sardar, the editor of Futures, was reviewing a new book by Christine Poggi, Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism (Princeton, 2009).  He began,

A hundred years ago, a group of Italian visionary artists declared war on civilizationRejecting the artwork, poetry, music and architecture of the period, these ‘Futurists’ wanted to create the world anew.  Science and technology formed the building blocks of their brave new world, which they expressed not just in art but in violence and naked nationalism.  In Inventing Futurism, art historian Christine Poggi describes how the Futurist movement’s raw passion for technology was moulded by the atmosphere of political foreboding of the times.

Sardar contrasted those radicals with today’s futurists.  “Futurists today forecast how science and technology will change our lives, and predict alternative paths…. By contrast, the Italian Futurists rejected everything that was old.  They were determined to destroy the existing order and desired a future in which speed and technology represented the absolute triumph of man over nature.  They glorified electricity, the car, the aeroplane and the industrial city.  They despised women, the human body and the idea of a peaceful coexistence.”  He quotes the “godfather” of this movement, Tommaso Marinetti, to give a flavor of the attitude of these people:

“We want to free this land,” Marinetti wrote, “from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquarians … the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.”  He urged his readers to set fire to library shelves and to flood museums.  “Take up your pickaxes … and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!  Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.”  Marinetti saw science as a modern, virile enterprise to be pursued at all costs, and technology as the instrument that would usher the world into sunlight with velocity and violence.  A mythical struggle had to be waged between the masculine forces of science and technology, represented by the sea, and the seductive feminine power of the stars that prevented civilization from advancing forwards.

Talk about hate speech; these people glorified war and envisioned a merger of man and machine.  Their art portrayed landscapes and bodies merged with technology to depict “religion of velocity.”  They depicted “bold, spectacular images of geometric masses, symbolic of the dawning of a new age.”  It was at once anti-intellectual and anti-human, yet strangely pro-science and steeped in the idea of progress. 

The visions and concerns of the Futurists, Poggi tells us in this difficult, sometimes frightening but always illuminating study, emerged out of the uncertainty and confusion produced by modernity.  Their artificial optimism sought to produce a philosophy for a new life, not just new art or architecture.  It is not surprising that the Futurists saw an echo of excessive nationalism in their notion of modernist violence and war.

This movement was active from the early 1900s into the era between the World Wars.  Memories of what actually happened in Italy and Germany are inescapable.
    The dark side of scientism got a brief mention in Science.2  William Shockley would be honored by most people as a Nobel laureate and co-inventor of the transistor – if that is all they knew about him.  “However, he also proclaimed the intellectual inferiority of black people and favored voluntary sterilization for people with low IQs.”  In other words, he was a eugenicist.  People in Auburn, California are angry about a park being named after him. 

Environmentalists want the park, but social activists are up in arms.  “I don’t want to honor a despicable man,” says Karen Tajbl, chair of the social action committee of the Sierra Foothills Unitarian Universalist Church.  Tajbl points out that last year in Sacramento, the citizens “cleansed” the name of Charles M. Goethe, a philanthropist but also founder of the Eugenics Society of Northern California, from several public places.

Eugenics was very popular among scientific elites in the first half of the 20th century – till it got a bad name from the horrors of Nazism.  Before that, they felt it was a way to further human evolution scientifically – to live according to Nature’s law of the survival of the fittest.
    Have we outgrown the days of eugenics and radical scientific futurism?  Another book review in Nature in the same issue looked to our scientific future.3  Michael Goldman (San Francisco State U) reviewed What’s Next?  Dispatches On the Future of Science by Max Brockman (Vintage Press, 2009), a collection of essays by young scientists on what they think the future holds.  A notable aspect of the book is its emphasis on materialistic psychology:

A pervasive theme in the book, which is heavily slanted toward psychology, is the scientific basis for ethical behaviour.  Neuroscientist Christian Keysers explains that mirror neurons are activated when we perform certain activities, and when we watch others do those same activities: “The emotions of others are contagious because our brain activates our own emotions at the sight of them.”  This facilitates both learning and empathy.  “Our brain,” he concludes, “is ethical by design.”

But are these ethics rooted in moral absolutes?  No; it appears that the authors strive to ground their views of ethics in neuroscience and evolutionary history.  A hint of a future eugenics revival is found in the following paragraph, where Hippocratic oaths take a back seat to pragmatics in the name of Evolution:

Philosopher Nick Bostrom tackles human enhancement.  He is concerned because humans “are a marvel of evolved complexity”, something with which we tamper at our own risk.  So he proposes a “rule of thumb, for identifying promising human enhancements”.  Bostrom sees some of our limitations as resulting from selection pressures that no longer exist for most humans.  Today, for instance, we can feed the higher metabolic demands of a larger brain, whereas in our recent past, we could not.  We might also overcome evolutionary restrictions.  Bostrom suggests that genetic ‘medication’ could be administered to confer an advantage, such as the protection a mutant haemoglobin gene offers against malaria in people with the sickle-cell trait.  Alternatively, embryo screening could promote favourable genetic profiles.  Thus, Bostrom sees the morality of human enhancement as an issue of what is achievable rather than what is acceptable.  His heuristic is useful from the scientific point of view, offering us a test for whether we should even consider a particular kind of enhancement, but it probably won’t be accepted by the ethics community….

Those darn ethicists.  They always get in the way of progress.  Hasn’t science already determined that our differences in beliefs, and our Big Ideas, are just chemical? 

Psychologist Matthew D. Lieberman believes that some ideas are more ‘sticky’ than others, and that the ideas that persist differ from one cultural group to another.  He argues that “Big Ideas sometimes match the structure and function of the human brain such that the brain causes us to see the world in ways that make it virtually impossible not to believe them.”  Lieberman thinks that East Asian cultures stress interconnectedness among individuals, whereas Western Europeans tend to be more independent.  He suggests that this tendency might be genetically influenced by a serotonin transporter gene, found twice in its ‘short’ variant in two-thirds of East Asians, but in only one-fifth of Western Europeans.  “These cultural Big Ideas appear to have migrated until they found the populations with the right neurochemistry to make them sticky,” Lieberman says.

While failing to consider whether his opinions just expressed are chemically based, Lieberman appears to be opening the door for genetic modification of individuals who don’t believe the politically acceptable things.  After all, a little extra serotonin, or some gene modification for the victims with the wrong version of the gene, is certainly “an issue of what is achievable rather than what is acceptable.”  Goldman, the reviewer, did not comment on that loophole, or take issue with its premise.


1.  Ziauddin Sardar, “An Italian vision of a scientific Utopia,” Nature 459, 510-511 (28 May 2009) | doi:10.1038/459510a.
2.  Random Samples, “Shockley Dilemma,” Science, Volume 324, Number 5931, Issue of 29 May 2009.
3.  Michael A. Goldman, “A limited view of the future,” Nature 459, 511-512 (28 May 2009) | doi:10.1038/459511a.

If you are not terrified of the Darwin-drunk scientific elitists, you should be.  In America, they are drooling over the new prestige the current administration is granting to “science” (which means liberal scientific establishment institutions, as distinguished from the unbiased pursuit of knowledge).  Today’s scientific futurists, who root their morality in the same Darwinist ideology that was rampant among futurists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, would love nothing better than to play the elite oligarchy directing the fate of every human being on the planet (themselves exempted).
    Morality to the materialistic evolutionists is something that can be chemically or genetically controlled.  We are the results of selection pressures from our past that can be influenced with science, they say.  Ethics becomes what they say it is, because they have ruled out any unchanging, absolute foundation for ethics.  You can be sure that the Italian futurists pictured themselves as the most ethical people in the world, as did William Shockley.  So what if a certain lady’s genetic predisposition was to consider him a despicable person?  Adjust her serotonin level and she will come around.
    Everyone should get a copy of a lecture series called Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century by Vejas Liulevicius from The Teaching Company and listen to it carefully.  Horrific as the events are he describes, he actually understates their awfulness.  As you listen, note the influence of Darwinian thinking on the worst totalitarian dictators.  Darwinian ideology has contributed to the most ruthless horrors in the history of the world, resulting in a body count that outstrips any number of religious wars you want to list by orders of magnitude.  These atrocities all occurred within the 20th century, “Darwin’s century,” within the memory of people alive today.  Millions of white crosses in military cemeteries don’t lie: ideas have consequences.*
    Would that leaders had listened to J. Gresham Machen who warned at the coming storm before the first World War, “What is today matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.  In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combatted; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate.”  We have another chance today.
*Not forgetting the millions in unmarked mass graves.  Remember the 11/30/2005 entry.

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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