DAEDALUS & ICARUS
by Phil Ebersole
These are notes for my talk to the Rochester Russell Forum on Sept. 11, 2014.
My presentation tonight is based on two essays, Daedalus: Science and the Future, written in 1923, in which the mathematical biologist, J.B.S. Haldane said that science held the seeds of a possible utopian future, and Icarus: the Future of Science, written by 1924 by Bertrand Russell in rebuttal, warning of the dangers in the development of scientific technique.
These conflicting claims about science are still with us, and I think these older essays shed light on the question precisely because they are old. Both Haldane and Russell made predictions about the future which we are in a position to judge.
I think most of us know something about Bertrand Russell, but maybe not so much about John Burton Sanderson Haldane.
He was born in 1892 to an aristocratic and secular Scottish family. He made important contributions to science.
He helped lay the groundwork for combining Mendelian genetics with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which is the current basis of evolutionary theory, and for the idea of kin selection, popularized by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. He developed a theory of the origin of primitive life from complex non-living molecules, and constructed a human gene map for color blindness and hemophilia.
Like Richard Dawkins, he was both a successful popularizer of science and a militant atheist. He was a staunch socialist and Marxist, and edited the London Daily Worker from 1940 to 1949.
In 1956, he emigrated to India in order, he said, to enjoy the freedom “not to wear socks”. He became a naturalized citizen of India and worked at the Indian Statistical Institute until his death in 1964.
It is interesting that he entitled his essay “Daedalus,” who was, according to the legend, a morally ambiguous figure. Daedalus was a technological genius who supposedly fled his native city of Athens to Crete after murdering his nephew, whom he feared would surpass him in achievement. He constructed a wooden cow for the Cretan Queen Pasiphae (pas-if-eye) to hide in while she had sex with a white bull sent by Poseidon. She became pregnant with the Minotaur, half bull and half man, so Daedalus, as Haldane pointed out, was the first genetic engineer. He designed the Labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, which fed on youths and maidens, and he gave Ariadne, daughter of Pasiphae and King Minos, a thread by which her lover Theseus could find his way out after killing the beast.
King Minos shut Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth, but Daedalus made feathered wings for himself and his son so they could escape by flying to Sicily. But Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax attaching the feathers to his body melted, and he drowned. There’s more, but I’m going to turn to Haldane’s essay.
Haldane said the science is —
(1) the free activity of humanity’s divine faculty of reason and imagination
(2) the answer of a few to the demands of the many for wealth, comfort and victory, and
(3) humanity’s gradual conquest of
(a) space and time,
(b) matter as such
(c) the bodies of living things, including the human body, and
(d) the human soul