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Nous avons retrouvé cette interview donnée, il y a vingt-neuf ans, à l’hebdomadaire U.S. News & World Report du 3 mars 1975, par l’anthropologue américain Loren Corey Eiseley. Cette interview fut donnée deux ans avant la mort d'Eiseley, le 9 juillet 1977.
Eiseley aborde ici ce qui peut être regardé comme la question fondamentale de notre civilisation, qui est le développement de cette civilisation par rapport aux réalités naturelles, aux conditions de vie, à l’équilibre de la nature. Eiseley met notamment en question le rôle et l’effet de notre mécanisme et de nos capacités technologiques, et les capacités destructrices d’influence de ces moyens sur l’équilibre du monde.
Eiseley avance l’espoir que les êtres humains sauront trouver le moyen de contrôler les effets des excès de leur puissance, sans quoi l’évolution à prévoir est évidemment catastrophique. Vingt-neuf ans plus tard, il apparaît évidemment que Eiseley n’a été ni exaucé, ni seulement entendu.
« If the human race is to survive into the next century, scientific technology will have to learn how to control the devastating forces it has unwittingly turned loose on the planet — the world's exploding population, the reckless pollution of the environment, the spiraling arms race and the expenditure of irreplaceable energy. All of these disasters are rooted in the successes of our scientific technology of the past — from things like medical advances, sanitary engineering, atomic energy and the gasoline-combustion engine.
» This is the great paradox of the scientific age. »
Bien sûr, les réflexions d’Eiseley sont passionnantes. Il s’agit d’un savant, certes, mais d’une espèce qu’on qualifierait d’“humaniste”, qui semblerait en voie d’extinction. Eiseley était aussi connu pour ses poèmes que pour ses travaux d’anthropologue. Ces préoccupations se retrouvent aujourd’hui, plus vives et plus angoissées que jamais, et bien plus, bien sûr, qu’à l’époque d'Eiseley.
Interview With Loren C. Eiseley, Authority on the History of Science. — Will great breakthroughs in years ahead bring well-bring or disaster to the world? In this interview, a noted scholar describes the perils of knowledge-and the promise of wisdom that could curb its abuses.
Q — Professor Eiseley, what is science and technology going to do for people in years ahead?
A — I think science, more and more, is going to be giving its attention to finding ways whereby humanity can live at peace with itself and nature.
If the human race is to survive into the next century, scientific technology will have to learn how to control the devastating forces it has unwittingly turned loose on the planet — the world's exploding population, the reckless pollution of the environment, the spiraling arms race and the expenditure of irreplaceable energy. All of these disasters are rooted in the successes of our scientific technology of the past — from things like medical advances, sanitary engineering, atomic energy and the gasoline-combustion engine.
This is the great paradox of the scientific age.
Q — Will science, in the next quarter of the century, be developing answers to the problems it has created?
A — I would think so-barring, of course, an unforeseen catastrophe.
I can foresee breakthroughs giving us cleaner and lesswasteful forms of energy. There will be important gains in medicine. We desperately need international control and conservation of the sea's declining resources. And skilled agricultural techniques should be encouraged in the poor countries of Asia and Africa.
Q — Will science be able to curb the population explosion in those countries?
A — This is going to be a most difficult challenge, because while the laboratories can develop simpler and moreeffective forms of contraception-and are doing so-the contribution of science has to be one largely of education and communication.
Most of the world's religions were founded in times when large families were necessary for survival, and this is still reflected in their attitude toward birth control. That is one important barrier.
Another is the false expectation that greatly expanded food production itself can solve the population problem. It threatens merely to augment it. We are already seeing this in the famine situation now developing in Africa and elsewhere. Food shipments are mere palliatives.
People must understand that limitless multiplication on a planet of limited size can only spell misery and disaster.
I was riding in a New York cab some years ago — this was at the height of public enthusiasm over the moon shoos — and the driver said: ''Well, if there's excess population, we can shoot it off to other planets.'' He had no comprehension of the problem.
Q — In view of the troubles we've had with some of science's successes, is it likely that research will use more caution in times ahead?
A — Yes. I suspect there will be less of this blind pursuit of technological innovations.
We can remember how Thalidomide deformed so many unborn children [when the medication was taken by women during pregnancy].
We are disturbed to learn that chlorine may be having a carcinogenic effect on our water and that some aerosol sprays could change the ozone [layer of the atmosphere] and expose us increasingly to the sun's rays.
In short, the scientists are learning that long-term tampering with nature is a very risky business.
Q — Hasn't mankind always been in a battle with nature?
A — Yes, but not always in the sure way.
Let's go back to our prehistory. We're now finding out archaeologically that man and his immediate forebears have been in existence for perhaps 5 million years-much longer than Darwin and even later evolutionists had realized.
During those 5 million years, mankind has been struggling to emerge and survive against nature's hazards. Remember, here was an organism that seemed rather ill-adapted for survival. Whole species of man-apes disappeared. We know, for example, that something like 45 to 50 per cent or more of the Australopithecines and related forms in East Africa died while they were still adolescent.
What I'm trying to emphasize is that this cutting edge of selection, which finally led to our present civilization, was ruthless and devastating. For millions of years, the species struggled to survive fire, disease, carnivorous animals, ice sheets, volcanic eruptions, floods and other catastrophes.
Adding to his miseries, man acquired the ability to think. He wondered about the meaning of the stars and whether there was a spirit in every tree and every stream. He was crushed into a kind of propitiation of everything — even the spirits of the animais he hunted and killed.
Yet note that man, paradoxically, was at home in nature. Symbolic thought, language, was a ''tool,'' really, that finally enabled him to survive as he organized and related himself to his environment.
This relationship carried well over into the rise of civilizations as long as mankind remained bound primarily to the land. It was only in the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution that a few people began to glimpse the fact that man was becoming alienated from nature, and his struggle to keep nature at bay was being transformed into a kind of devouring frenzy.
Q — What caused this transformation?
A — Largely, the trouble came with the formulation of science's methods and goals. It was Francis Bacon who defined the mission of science, three centuries ago: ''Not to imagine or suppose, but to discover what nature does or may be made to do.''
This vision has enabled a once-simple creature to subdue diseases, explore ocean depths, fly at supersonic speeds and penetrate the universe itself — while also waging atomic wars, exterminating whole tribes of people, and plundering the earth's resources.
Francis Bacon had also mentioned learning as a path toward an ''enlightened life,'' but that became pretty well forgotten in the rush to bend nature to our will.
Q — Are you saying that somewhere along the way man has been losing a moral vision while he has been gaining a scientific one?
A — That is the Faustian bargain we made. Tragically, the very great in science have always feared it.
If you look back, there was a period of many centuries — roughly the first millennium before Christ — when pursuit of transcendent values developed in several civilizations. Men such as Plato, Lao-tse, Buddha and the Hebrew prophets gave importance to the destiny of the human soul.
These prophets wanted man to rise above his own nature — to achieve mastery of self. What science offered was seemingly unlimited power over exterior nature.
One result of this is a tremendous and wasteful ravaging of the earth. The U. S., which I suppose is the nation richest in science and technology, has 6 per cent of the world's population but consumes over 34 per cent of the world's energy and 29 per cent of its steel. Of course, much of this energy was recycled and went overseas to help others. Our advanced technology enables us to feed about 25 per cent of the world's total population. We cannot sustain this kind of technology without pollution, but we can learn to confine it to bearable limits.
Another thing that has happened is that we have become future-oriented in anticipation of what science will bring us next. We barely tolerate the present, and discard the past. Students in the 1960s often called history ''irrelevant,'' lived existentially for the moment and for oncoming happenings, whatever they might turn out to be.
Q — Can scientiste ever foresee fully the possible uses to which their discoveries may be put?
A — No. These is always the possibility of ill effects as well as good. Human nature is the problem.
Take the gasoline-combustion engine which enables us to transport more goods, harvest more crops and travel farther and more comfortably. I suppose most people could foresee results of that kind.
But I'm sure that few could foresee how the automobile would disrupt social life. It gave the young a new way of courtship, and the criminal a more-rapid escape from the scene of his crimes. It fed the growth of cities and suburban sprawl as well as planned obsolescence. The automobile may well have contributed to our sense of anonymity and alienation from each other.
Or take the X rays that William Roentgen discovered in 1895. At the time, it seemed not to be a very significant event, except medically. Yet what that discovery did was to repudiate the ''closed physics'' notion in which many distinguished physicists felt that they had solved ail the basic laws of the universe. And from Roentgen's rather accidental discovery came further exploration by the Curies, Lord Rutherford and others — all culminating, of course, in the splitting of the atour and, ultimately, the achievement of atomic energy.
So out of Roentgen's laboratory came a discovery that ultimately offered the possibility of the destruction of the world as well as a better understanding of the universe and means for fighting disease.
Farming techniques are another instance of what I'm talking about. Last summer I had to go to Montana on some archaeological business, and I was really amazed by the enormous harvesting machinery that I saw, with its huge wheels and air-conditioned cabs-where all I remembered from my youth were dust — covered people riding along on simple horse —drawn harvesters.
Yet the moment you go in for this kind of city-bred agriculture, dependent on mass production of a single crop and huge amounts of artificial fertilizer, you are asking for trouble that the simple farmer looking after a variety of crops on his modest plot never has to think about. What happens, for instance, when an oil crisis suddenly reduces the supply of chemical fertilizer to a trickle?
The farm has become an extension of the City in a way heretofore unknown.
Q — Is the so-called green revolution in Africa and Asia running into the same kind of unforeseen trouble?
A — In Africa, the Sahara is moving south because of nomadic overgrazing.
In Asia, newly developed strains of rice that do well in controlled conditions are vulnerable to disease or mishandling by peasant farmers. More experimentation will produce less-vulnerable strains, but meantime you've created a new problem of convincing the peasants all over again that the things they've done for generations should be done differently because we tell them so.
Q — Are these adverse results responsible for the antiscience feeling one occasionally encounters in the U. S. today?
A — Abuses always lead to a reaction, especially among young people, who tend to forget the benefits that science has given us.
I don't know what we would do in decades to come without science to help us clean up pollution. Our medical achievements are remarkable, and our standards of living have gone up very sharply. Our average age at death is about 68 for men and 73 for women —which is a good thing to remember when you realize that the average age at death in the Roman Empire was somewhere around 25.
I know there are some young people who say: ''We'll just drop out of this civilization.'' Then they take their nicely manufactured sleeping bags, get into their well-designed vans, and take off for the California redwoods and wait for a check from Dad. It's a play game, just as some aristocrate in the eighteenth century headed for the woods to play at being the ''noble savages'' that Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote about.
Q — Could we do away with science and technology?
A — I see no possibility of that. Today, far more than in Rousseau's time, we are living in a civilization built primarily upon scientific mots. The machine is in our blood, and you can't escape from that without bringing starvation and epidemics and other miseries to hundreds of millions of people.
The way I look at it is this:
When humanity invented the scientific method, it was a little like a child who gets up on a rickety chair while mother isn't looking and gropes in the cupboard for the cookie jar. If he's lucky, he may get some cookies out of it — and we've gotten quite a few in the form of well-being. On the other hand, while this child is standing on his tottery chair, he may pull the whole cupboard down on himself unless he is careful.
Q — Is science itself changing in the way it looks for answers?
A — Very much so. When we talk about great figures of the past — Galileo or Pasteur, for instance — we are talking about individuals who were engaged in essentially individual activity. Today, more and more, we are talking about scientific research as a great structure of co-ordinated projects sponsored by big government, big business and big universities working toward assigned goals, whether in terms of telephone systems, military development or energy shortages.
Q — Is that turning science itself into big business?
A — I would say it is possibly the fastest-growing institution in our society-except, perhaps, for big government. If the number of scientiste were to multiply at the rate they have so far in this country, all of us would be scientiste by the year 2000. Obviously this will not happen.
Q —You speak of science as an ''institution.'' Is it becoming institutionalized?
A — Certainly. Its comportment fields are developing their own jargon, behavioral codes and norms.
As we get down into the deeper realms of science, we are having to pay millions of dollars for great cyclotrons and cher equipment. It is the institutional ''teams'' and ''projects''-not the individual scientiste single-mindedly pursuing basic knowledge-who are accounting for most of the important research applications.
Sometimes the ''loner'' does come upon a great discovery through luck or his own insight, but less and less so these days. Or, if he succeeds, it is apt to be the institutionalized team that finally verifies his conclusion.
Things like that don't bother me too much. What does distress me a little is this: While sitting on foundation committees, I have seen people asking for grants as high as $50,000 for doing work that I would regard almost as footnotes to what has already been done-things that in my youth would have been donc alone in one's spare time.
I've also seen scholars whom I would term ''scientific politicians'' assemble a team of graduate students, get a big grant for some project, and then keep one eye on it occasionally-enough to satisfy foundation investigatorswhile students, basically, did the work.
Now, I'm not saying that some good research and training haven't been accomplished this way, but there is a twist away from the old standards.
And I was even more unhappy when I heard of students who wanted courses on ''grantsmanship'' — in plain words, courses on how to shake grants out of the Government money tree.
Another problem is this: The more that science grows in a society like ours, the more competitive it becomes. There have been a few instances of research overpublicized or manipulated in the race for recognition and grants. And James D. Watson in his book, ''The Double Helix,'' gave us some idea of the heavy competition that developed over which team would be first to complete the theoretical research necessary to break the genetic code containing the secret of our individual heredity.
Q — Is big research able to accomplish all the things expected of it?
A — It can accomplish a great deal — but l'm afraid that we have corne to expect unlimited results, especially since the moon landings which, after all, were mainly an engineering problem, no matter how costly or difficult.
When Congress avants to spend billions to find a cure for cancer, however, the best specialists in the field know it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. There is more than one kind of cancer, so we’re not sure we're always dealing with even the same entity. The specialists whom I respect have no solid idea of where the answer is going to come from a botanical laboratory, a biological laboratory, or from some totally unforeseen bit of research. But, like magicians or Oriental seers, they're expected to find quick answers with big money.
The moon shot started this trend — the idea we can buy anything at will — and the implication of all this is that within a few generations we're going to know everything worth knowing about the universe, and thereby become gods.
Personally, I think that the human race will be long gone before that could ever happen, because there is just no end to the trait of exploration that we've embarked on. We forget that we are tiny créatures down here on a sand-grain planet lost in one arm of a tremendous galaxy that takes 100,000 years for light to pass across. And this is just one of innumerable galaxies.
Q — What future do you see for space exploration?
A — Our future is here on this planet. There are things to be learned by venturing into space, but I suspect that somewhere underneath the purely scientific curiosity there lives in our subconscious a migration impulse, however irrational it may be.
Q — Will a planetary migration ever occur?
A — Oh, I can conceive of a far-distant crisis when manmachines or even intelligent machines-devised by a technology we cannot yet visualize-would be launched into other galaxies in a magnificent spore like dispersal from a doomed earth many hundreds, if not thousands, of years hence.
But the réal path of escape from pollution, famine and terrorism still lies within ourselves. What is required is the reconditioning of the expectations of humanity in Away that no society in history, to my knowledge, has ever succeeded in doing.
Q — Isn't there some popular support already for curbs on consumption of resources and other environmental controls?
A — Yes, but that's only the beginning. There are many vested interests that have been built up by scientific advances. Suppose the great powers were to fall into each other's arms and announce they were going to usher in peace and destroy their armaments. I suspect that in no time at all you would have a clamor from the armed forces, the arms makers and thousands of supporting businesses and industry all asking: ''What happens to us? What are we going to do? How are we to earn a livelihood?''
Man is the most intractable material in the world to work with — full of vestigial fears and instincts from his shadowy past, reacting also within giant institutions which long outlast the individual. We face a future in which humanity must learn to comprehend and live within nature's limits and achieve the love and self-mastery needed to live together and survive.
Q — Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the ability of science to deal successfully with the problem of human survival?
A — I'm afraid of the intricacies. The broader and more complex our range of technology, the less our scientiste may be able to foresee the possible disruptions or destructive vibrations that could overtake our many-faceted society.
The task of uniting power and wisdom is a difficult one. How do we handle this race with time? Can science inform a world which is in several different stages of development in éducation and communications?
As an anthropologist used to dealing with vast ranges of time, I raise another question, looking to a distant future:
Does man build up his civilizations over and over again, in a great wave which collapses on the beach, recedes, but marshals its forces again for another wave? Is this his limit? All he can do?
Or, even if he does this a thousand times — if the United States of America disappears, and all that the West once spoke of as high civilization goes under — is there the potential that man may someday begin a new climb, this time in the right direction ascertained from his long series of adventures? May he finally climb on to some plateau of wisdom after exhausting so many sources of energy that he will have to remain there, getting along on less, but hopefully with greater nobility?
Is this the road he will take, some thousands of years into the future.
Science has no magic answer to these questions. Humanity itself will have to provide the answers. I believe, as I wrote some years ago, that man himself must become his own last magician. He must realize that in the end he contains his own future within himself.
[Notre recommandation est que ce texte doit être lu avec la mention classique à l'esprit, — “Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.”.]