Tom's History of Science BLOG

24 Jul 2007

Week 12 – 4/17/06 – Neuromancer
Neuromancer depicts the blending of computer technology and biotechnology. For the ‘cowboys’ and the ‘Moderns,’ this blend creates whole new vistas for crime and terrorism. It would seem that in almost all cases, the computer technology is used to extend the mind’s capabilities and reach. At the same time, security mechanisms (‘ice’) have advanced to thwart cyber attacks and surveillance is omnipresent. What is puzzling about the security aspect is that human minds do not appear to be actively engaged in thwarting cyber attacks. One would expect active countermeasures from security guards who are similarly ‘jacked’ into the system. Only the AI seems to provide this active role. Other biotechnology including synthetic organs, vat-grown food, and various treatments that block the effects of certain drugs appear commonplace. All of these items are no doubt enabled by sophisticated computer modeling.

In 1984, the first personal computer was introduced. Microsoft with a capital M was working hard to teach the world about the intricacies of DOS. WordStar and Lotus began their climb to the top of the software pyramid. Gibson appeared to be imagining where all this could lead us, and the result was not pretty. Technological determinism will rapidly drive society in a direction where machines will be omnipresent and much of that presence will be dark and foreboding. Sure lives will be extended by medical advances, but much of the life will actually be artificial. Sexual outlets, far from being the rather innocuous holosuites imagined by the writers of Star Trek will be populated by human drones executing a pleasure program for a little spending money. This is a dystopian view of the future, much like Bladerunner.

Wintermute and Neuromancer combined represent a new step in evolution. The combined entity would appear to have an intelligence far surpassing any one human. Case appears to recognize this transcendence by enquiring as to whether [the entity] is God? Gibson appears to be suggesting that man’s next evolutionary step will come by his own hands in an architected way not through some random occurrence of genetic mutation. In other words, intelligent design from within rather than from on high. Gray, Gladstone, or Mivart would no doubt not be pleased with such a suggestion.

Postscript: I find it interesting that this book once again blends the line between man and machine. While this is no where near the vision that Chaplin or Lang offered in their movies, one can definitely see a similarity to Tron that came out two years prior to Neuromancer. The types of implants envisioned here complete with direct linkages to computers are becoming ever closer to reality. Perhaps man will steer the next step of evolution in a blended fashion such that the gap between software and wetware will be indistinguishable.

Week 11 – 4/10/06 – By The Bomb’s Early Light

This idea of atomic weapons being Frankensteinian appears to stem from the idea of science being out of control. The monster (bomb) once understood in form and function could not be ignored nor forgotten it was the proverbial genie out of the bottle that could never be coaxed back in. The ominous nature of the bomb truly came home to roost with the American public as the Cold War heated up and Kennedy was urging people to build fallout shelters. Never before had the annihilation of the American way of life seemed so possible and so imminent. Scientists had harnessed a tremendous force and now control of that force rested with warring ideologies. According to Boyer, there also appeared to be a unwillingness on the part of some to confront the bomb directly. Much like Dr. Frankenstein’s initial run from his creation, many tried to distance themselves, almost to the point of denial of both the bomb’s destructive capability and its use.

Clearly the use of the bomb raises tremendous moral issues. Should one create such a weapon in the first place? Should it be used against another nation? What ethical and moral safeguards, if any, should be employed in its use? Where Darwin’s theory leads one to postulate whether there is a god, nuclear weapons allow man to play God. As Boyer notes in describing the Evangelical’s response, “Our concern is not so much about the bomb as about the people who control it. If the people are saved Christians, it will do the world no harm.” (p.199). Unfortunately, such a view is naïve given the number of wars that have been fought in the name of Christianity and other religions. It is interesting to note that Boyer’s research shows Church laity to be more reflective of the general population’s views than of their leaders. The idea that the atomic bombings were justified to hasten the end of the war was a widely held view even among devout Christians. I think Boyer’s findings would say the Church was more successful in rallying anti-Darwin sentiment than anti nukes.

The advent and use of the first atomic bomb was the start of a long steep fall for science from a pedestal it had stood on since the Enlightenment. No longer would Science be held as the best way to both understand and interact with the world around us. The atomic bomb also marked the start of an increasingly close relationship between science and politics, one that continues to this day. Science began to be perceived as anything but neutral. We now live in a world where competing interests trot out their scientists for hire, each claiming to command the truth. This politicization of science has completely hamstrung efforts to arrive at new forms of energy, thwart global worming, and advance medical understanding. This is the true downside of the atomic bombings in Japan. Scientific enquiry has been stifled on multiple fronts and there would appear to be no end in sight.

Week 10 – 4/3/06 – Modern Times and Taylor

While the introduction of the Principles of Scientific Management would appear to have a broad audience, Taylor rapidly focuses his attention on ‘engineers and managers’ responsible for the efficient operation of the modern factory. Early on there is a bit of dramatic flare intended to frame his approach to efficiency as a patriotic issue, one that should be the concern of all. This is followed with a description of the competent man, one that any male reader would naturally aspire to be. There’s even a flavor of such men not just having innate qualities but that those qualities need to be nurtured and groomed, presumably by their parents and society writ large. One could argue a portion of what appears here is targeted at the mother whose responsibilities at the time clearly included molding the character of her children. From the second page on (beginning with “This paper has been written”), the audience is clearly management. How to identify the soldiering worker, how to reduce and remove this drag on production efficiency, and how to foster an environment that moves from the existing antagonistic one to one of mutual benefit are all addressed in turn. I would suspect a laborer undertaking a detailed reading of this treatise would be quickly annoyed by the overly patronizing, paternalistic tone that Taylor sets.

We get to see a bit of soldiering in Modern Times, as well as the drive to ever greater efficiency through the introduction of such novel contrivances as the Billows Feeding Machine. Whether it be Chaplin trying to sneak a cigarette (on his own time no less) or filing his nails (now clearly on the clock), Chaplin would seem to prefer a more leisurely pace than allowed for in the mill. Management is portrayed quite negatively here starting with the idle puzzle solving and comic reading to the complete unfeeling response to the feeding machine as not being “practical.” The imagery here is anything but subtle as labor and management are pitted against one another. Technology would appear to be a backdrop for the social commentary presented in this movie. Technology is certainly not all bad since it represents the one opportunity to “get a real house” for him and his girl. I recently viewed Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last for another class. In this movie, Lloyd, a contemporary of Chaplin, is similarly trying to make a better life. In this case opportunity is hard to come by and Lloyd must resort to a stunt to win money to marry his beaux rather than actually earn it.

These two movies taken together point very much to a set of social problems centered on class. Technology becomes a metaphor for how the elites, here the managers and ‘captains of industry,’ abuse their employees to squeeze out every last bit of profit for themselves and their wealthy investors. Chaplin’s trip through the gear train echoed by the mechanic later in the movie appear to symbolize the worker as part of the machine, not an attendant to it. There is no doubt that technology reshapes human interactions, and that automation in a factory can be dehumanizing work. Modern Times touches on these themes but the broader point seems to be the relationship between the working class and the elites. All social commentary aside, the movie is enjoyable as a cute and often hilarious love story, something the Little Tramp excelled at.

Week 9 – 3/27/06 – This Week’s Reading: Larson

The Enlightenment thinkers primed the pump for Darwin’s reception in Europe. It appears as though his theories were rapidly accepted precisely because they represented more of the rational, well-supported arguments that intellectuals had been serving up on the continent for many years. It certainly did not hurt that the Church, in all its guises, had suffered from various scandals and splits that generally weakened its response to Darwin and his pit bull, Huxley. The American response was all about the Church and the supposed ‘war’ between science and religion.

Although freedom of religion and separation of church and state has been a part of our guiding principles since the country’s founding, there has also been this undercurrent of state-sanctioned belief in God. Anti-evolutionists siezed on this en masse in a way that no single organized group did in Europe. William Jennings Bryan and his ilk left no room for appeasement between creationism and evolution, preferring the strict biblical literalism of the fundamentalist movement. No where is this more apparent than in the writings of Louis Agassiz. His writing on the Geographical Distribution of Animals, supposedly scientific in nature, tacitly accepts creationism as a foundation and then proceeds to quibble over the implementation. No where does he acknowledge that differing interpretations may be possible that allow for evolution to play a role in a similar fashion to what he proposes for distribution. In this, he is certainly closer to Wilburforce than Gray, Gladstone, or Mivart.

I believe a lot of the delay came from United States simply being focused on other things when Darwin first came on the scene. First, it was the Civil War and its aftermath. Then there was the run up to WWI and the growing concerns over Bolshevism. There is clearly evidence that the intellectuals were clued in on the possible ramifications of Darwin, but there does not appear to be much in the way of broad press dialogue on the subject in this country. Interest appeared to increase as Darwinism started to be mentioned in the context of social order and political philosophy. No doubt, the various arguments for and against the coming war in Europe influenced the extent to which Americans concerned themselves with the subject. The religious underpinning of the public school system that Larson highlights also clearly contributed to the delay.

People fear what they do not understand. In a country that has always had a strong Christian bent, trying to harmonize a personal belief structure that has been instilled almost since birth with a new way of thinking that removes God from day-to-day life proved too much of a stretch for many. It was simply easier to stick with the belief structure even when the surrounding evidence of the natural world did not seem to match that structure near as well as it used to. The anti-revolutionists reinforced this by associating belief in Darwinism with atheism and decrying the attack on their faith by public institutions. Little regard was given to the fact that the schools were one of the only places where students could be exposed to alternative views from those shouted from the pulpit every Sunday. The religious and social forces arrayed against evolution by natural selection wanted to see the perpetuation of their doctrine through every means possible. Nothing as trivial as freedom of religion and the protections for the minority view would or should stand in their way in their opinion.

The legend of Scopes appears to be directly related to two events. First, the lack of a clear victor in the trial. Darrow is credited with besting Bryan but yet Scopes was found guilty. Because of this, the trial actually continued through speeches given by both Bryan and Darrow in the days following the formal proceedings. This direct back and forth was brought to an abrupt close with Bryan’s death. This was the second major event in that now Bryan’s follower’s had a martyr. The effect of all of this was to leave the issue unresolved, a state that continues to today. The recent resurgence of fundamentalism has yet again pitted the church and science against one another. The teaching of evolution has now been joined by a host of other lightning rod issues: abortion, stem-cell research, right to die laws, and homosexuality, all of which have major scientific aspects. Never has there been a greater need to reaffirm the founder’s clear intent separating religion from state institutions.

Week 8 – 3/20/06 – This Week’s Reading: H.G. Wells

For Wells, man is simply an evolved animal. The lineage and linkage is clear for all to see and is indisputable. Wells is clearly hypothesizing that the process of evolution can be fully mastered by man. The effects may be disquieting and the resulting steps along the way may be abhorrent, but science will be able to make the connection. Once mastered, man can then begin to steadily improve on his existing form. Unlike Frankenstein, Moreau sees his experiments as noble and his creations as a natural part of scientific discovery. Where Frankenstein runs from his creation, Moreau subdues and controls his through the imposition of a moral law.

For Darwin, religion is not a prerequisite for having a moral sense. Rather this comes from animals or men living in close proximity where the good of the many is directly impacted by the conduct of the one. At one point (p.99), he talks of ‘absurd religious beliefs’ coming about through youthful indoctrination. For him, religious belief is an extension of societal mores imposed for the purposes of maintaining the common good. With Wells, we see ‘the law’ made up and imposed from outside for the purposes of control. This law is critical for making up for an absence of a moral sense in the ‘monsters.’ Without the law, the creatures would revert to their inherent instincts. I believe it could be argued that neither author presents an extremely favorable view of religion. The one distinction is that for Wells, the religion is necessary. Pendrick has to resort to exhorting it for the sole purpose of staying alive. For Darwin, there is no such imperative. Even though Darwin professes a belief in God, one has to wonder as to exactly how he would harmonize the belief fully with his own theory. For this point, the selected readings from Darwin are ambiguous.

In The Island of Dr. Moreau, the reader is confronted with a rogue scientist, shunned from society and forced into exile to continue his work. This is science fiction built around fear, much as Shelley’s Frankenstein had been almost eighty years earlier. The science is more pronounced than in Shelley, but the moral issues are as pointed and pressing. Moreau is also more willing to push the limit, to continue to experiment even though society does not approve. Frankenstein is both afraid and ashamed of his creation. Extrapolating from the Wells example, science fiction at the end of the nineteenth century would seem to be oriented toward engaging the public in contemplation of what science could do both the good and the bad.

Week 7 – 3/13/06 – SPRING BREAK

Week 6 – 3/6/06 This Week’s Reading: Huxley et al

Huxley and Darwin seem to be very much in agreement with regards to how man overcomes the literal interpretation of survival of the fittest. In their view, the human race advances through a more refined and intellectual approach that incorporates social interaction. Darwin sees some of these same interactions among other animals but at a much lower level of sophistication. Mivart and Wilburforce strongly disagree with this view. For Wilburforce, any idea that man is simply advanced beyond other animals, is a direct assault on his belief structure and the teachings of the Christian Church. Mivart allows for a broad interpretation of religious doctrine that allows room for much of Darwin’s theory. He draws the line at the life force or soul; this he contends must remain a direct gift from the Creator. Since the soul is the seat of all reasoning, it stands to reason that morals and ethics stem from this divine providence. Gladstone also seems to hedge his bets by allowing a much broader interpretation of scripture, thus making room for much of Darwin’s theory. By closing with the quote from the Psalmist, he would seem to clearly be looking for a way to have it both ways.

It is clear that Darwin’s theories kicked off a significant reevaluation of how the scriptures should be interpreted. I am not sure that the fundamental definition of what constitutes a religion changed. Ultimately, it is a question of how faith is interpreted and expressed that had to be modified to make way for the broader approach to explaining the natural world. I feel that Huxley’s discussion of the Buddhist and Stoics coming full circle in how they interpret the world is the most salient in showing that Darwin’s work is a natural step in man’s understanding of the world. Huxley notes that man ultimately must combat the ‘cosmic process.’ Without such an aggressive stance, savagery and entropy will win out.

None of the readings for today annunciate a clear strategy for synthesizing Darwin and traditional Christianity into a workable whole. I do not believe that such a synthesis is possible. Being trained as a empiricist, I do not see such a synthesis as necessary either. Religious faith is a malleable entity, much more so than natural laws that can be demonstrated in concrete terms. I am sure that science does not have all of the answers as to the origins of the universe and of man. I am also sure that some of the theories that currently exist will give way to new ones in the future. However, to dispute the overwhelming evidence that underpins Darwin’s theory seems to me to be rather ludicrous. The evolution debate is one that cannot be won because the Christian belief structure and the scientific method are in direct opposition to one another on multiple levels.

Having missed the discussion on the mythical audience, I cannot directly comment to that aspect of today’s last question. For me, Darwin was writing for the intellectual elite. I think Huxley’s lecture is very much targeted toward the same audience. The common man on the street is not going to have the patience or the education to follow this discussion in detail. Of the two, Darwin is probably the more accessible.

Week 5 – 2/27/06 This Week’s Reading: Darwin/Bowler

Week 4 – 2/20/06 This Week’s Reading: Darwin/Bowler
[partial post 3/7/06]

Darwin’s theory is completely dependent on the long time periods being available for variation and natural selection to work. There is close affinity to the principal of uniformitarianism espoused in Lyell’s Principals of Geology. Darwin employs many of the same techniques. Overwhelming amounts of data, clear and well articulated logical arguments, and a thoroughly engaging narrative style all help to make the case. The idea of everything in nature is knowable if man simply takes the time to study, in detail, the world around him. Much of what appears in the selected readings points to Darwin’s struggle to find the simplest explanation for what he observes without resorting to the “then a miracle occurs” copout so often used by many of the naturalists that Lyell excoriates. Darwin is, by far, the kindler, gentler child of science declaring the emperor of creationist theories has no clothes.

TBP - as far as I was able to write up today.

Week 3 – 2/13/06 This Week’s Reading: Lyell/Bowler

The focus of much of this week’s reading was centered on showing how scientists have made every attempt to find common ground with the church in matters concerning the earth’s creation and the history of man. Lyell goes to great lengths to show how his predecessors worked to marry their theories with both the Genesis account of creation and the great flood associated with Noah. In some cases it appeared that these efforts were heartfelt struggles to reconcile personal beliefs. In other cases, it appears likely that the efforts were more focused on placating the ever watchful church.

Lyell’s take on all of this seems very much in keeping with the works we have read from Bacon and Newton. In particular, the idea of universality of effects found in Newton’s second rule of reasoning is present. So to is the idea that Bacon expresses in his forty-sixth aphorism regarding how man tries to fit all of the evidence to support an established opinion rather than working from first principles. His exposition is a cautionary tale and one that is intended to prepare the reader for his take which appears to be very much from first principles and focused on observation of the natural world.

Lyell sees copious evidence that the natural processes have been going on for far longer than the biblical explanation would allow. Although the excerpt that we read did not delve into this in detail, it would appear that Lyell is picking up the torch from James Hutton, another Scottish geologist who is now regarded as the father of modern geography and who is credited with the theory of uniformitarianism. My geology book from my undergraduate days (Physical Geology by Plummer and McGeary) notes that “the principle of uniformitarianism does tell us is that we cannot violate the physical and chemical laws of the universe – we cannot attribute the earth’s features and processes to magic and supernatural powers.”

Bowler’s introductory chapters sounds very much like Lyell. Again we see a detailed look at how various scientists tried to dance around the implications to the biblical story of creation. Key aspects of the scientific history in laying the foundation for evolution are the expansion of the geologic time scale, the elimination of a typological point of view, and certainly the elimination of any sort of agency or teleological element in the observed natural world.

Week 2 – 2/6/06 This Week’s Reading: Smith and Ure

For Smith, efficiency is at the heart of technological innovation. The ability to accomplish more with fewer resources, be they human or otherwise, drives improvements at every step of the production process. There is a saying among engineers that it is basically laziness that drives the discipline. In other words, how can we get the most done with as little effort as possible. This is a very utilitarian view, and not nearly as romantic as that attributes of the modern that Shelley portrays in Frankenstein. I would note, however, that the comparison is not really a fair one since technology focuses on the application of scientific principles in the accomplishment of work, whereas Shelley’s description of natural philosophy was one of ‘pure science,’ discovery for discovery sake.

I would define the division of labor as a structural relationship between individuals that allows for specialization which, in turn, provides for more efficient use of resources to produce goods and services. The net effect of such divisions is to allow a group of people to achieve far more production than individuals could when working in isolation from one another. Without the division of labor, human potential is stifled since so much of the individual’s time and energy are consumed with the basic tasks of living, i.e., finding food and shelter. I believe that Smith places this first in his treatises because he sees it as a necessary first step in being able to achieve efficiency. There is an economy of scale that comes from allowing one person to focus on doing a single task. It also eliminates the need for each individual to invest their limited resources in specialized tools that would not be utilized frequently. For example, it makes no sense for a farmer to have all the accoutrements of the blacksmith if he only needs the use of such items a few times a year.

In terms of the Ure readings, the efficiency gains of mechanizing the factory are joined with the ability to utilize much less skilled labor in the production of commodities thus freeing man for other pursuits. Ure sees the ‘Manufactures’ as freeing man from the menial and affording better working conditions (than their ‘damp hovel.’ He also extols the factory’s virtue in creating new jobs by way of its greatly accelerated consumption of raw materials (e.g. coal for the steam engines), thus allowing more individuals to participate in the economic bonanza of the modern state. One has to wonder who or what organizations funded his position at the University of Glasgow. His sentiments are completely out of line with what we understand today of the working conditions and general side effects of rapid industrialization, not to mention the rapid redistribution of wealth to the industrialists of the time.

Ure believes that ultimately machines will do all of the work with little or no oversight from humans, including machines building other machines. In the meantime, he seems perfectly content to allow women and children tend to the machines while the men go off to other pursuits. He justifies this by the supposed increase in material wealth the workers gain, and even goes so far as to speculate that the factory environment may be healthier than running around outside. Afterall, how else could one explain such a low absentee rate in children due to sickness. Surely, it couldn’t be due to severe punishment for not showing up for their shifts. And who needs that ‘blooming, robust appearance’ anyway? Highly overrated if you ask me.

Week 1 – 1/30/06 This Week’s Reading: Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein, the scientist in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, seeks to recreate man, and in doing so ultimately unravel the “hidden laws of nature.” (p.22) Frankenstein embraces natural philosophy, but never completely sheds his earlier embrace of the alchemist’s ways learned through his early readings of Agrippa and Paracelsus. Science is portrayed here as dedicated to learning the “secrets of heaven and earth.” (p.23) Its pursuit is noble. It is characterized as the formulation of theories to explain the observed as in the case of the tree destroyed by lightning or the circulation of blood. Frankenstein’s view is something quite different. He longs to be like the much older “masters of science” who “sought immortality and power.” (p. 32). In this regard, Frankenstein can not be thought of as representing the scientist of Shelley’s time, but rather what one could become if the modern science was warped and twisted by man’s proclivity for base desires. Frankenstein serves as a cautionary character of how ambition can destroy both one’s self and those around you. Frankenstein, himself, notes to the reader, “Learn from me…how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” (p. 38)

While science endeavors to understand and explain nature, Shelley portrays nature as the sublime. It is an ideal set of relationships between man and his surroundings. Whether it be the mountains of Switzerland described as “palaces of nature” (p. 58) or the “meadows of exquisite verdure” in Scotland (p. 139), nature is pure and beautiful. It represents the full spectrum of power on Earth, sometimes placid and serene, at other times violent and unforgiving. The scenes of dramatic storms and the desolate, endless flows of ice that mark the end of Shelley’s tale are examples of the latter. Shelley portrays science as a window into nature.

For me, personally, I did not see this story as ultimately about science, but rather about man. The science is a vehicle for setting up the conflict, but that conflict is really between man and nature. Frankenstein is a coward; a man unwilling to deal with the mess that he created by his pursuit of power and immortality. Presumably, Shelley used science as the enabler for this creation due to the fears that the rapidly advancing science of the day was creating in a largely uneducated population for whom science must have appeared as much magic as anything else.