Haldane vs. Russell on science and the future

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.

J.B.S. Haldane

J.B.S. 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

Science will survive, he said, because it is necessary for waging war and conducting business.  But the transformative power of science (everything I am saying in this part can be attributed to Haldane unless I say otherwise) will force humanity to abandon old ways of doing things, including capitalism and nationalism, as being irrational.  Poets in the future will receive a scientific education instead of a classical one, and will be better poets because they will able to describe the actual society in which they live instead of a past one.

The alternative is a reversion to barbarism, which means that humanity would have to wait a few thousand years for a scientific civilization to rise again.

Notice Haldane’s assumption: that scientific technique is not possible without the scientific values of reason based on evidence.

What would be the fruits of a scientific civilization?

From the progress of physics, Haldane predicted
# More efficient technologies than heating filaments for producing light (that was fulfilled by the LED), which would for practical purposes abolish the inconvenient distinction between day and night.
# More efficient technologies for communication by which in principle any two human beings in the planet can be in direct communication with each other (that was fulfilled by the cell phone and the wireless Internet).
# Energy produced by the power of wind, and stored as liquid hydrogen.  Haldane said the world’s reserves of coal and oil were adequate to last only a few centuries.  He was one of the first to foresee the problem of peak oil.  He proposed covering the UK with windmills that could generate electricity, and also store energy by using electricity to decompose water into oxygen and hydrogen, and then storing liquid hydrogen in vacuum reservoirs.  He was the first, or one of the first, to advocate the hydrogen economy.  Hydrogen is of course the ideal 100 percent efficient non-polluting fuel.

From the progress of chemistry, he predicted
# More useful psychotropic drugs, which would have the same benefit as alcohol, caffeine and nicotine, without the harmful side effects.
# Synthetic food, which Haldane took for granted would be cheaper and more nourishing than naturally grown food because it would be, of course, scientific.  Traditional farming, he predicted, would become a luxury.

From the progress of biology (and he saw the biological sciences as the wellsprings of future progress), he predicted
# Improved medicine, longer lives, abolition of old age.  People would die by choice rather than when their time was up.

At this point he started to quote from an imaginary history, supposedly written in the late 21st century about the early 20th century.

Scientists in 1940 developed an artificial algae that fixed nitrogen more efficiently than natural plants, which led to a huge increase in agricultural productivity.

Unfortunately, there was an accident, parallel to what people fear from GMO crops today.  The algae escaped into the ocean, where it multiplied without limit, and turned the tropical Atlantic into a purple jelly.  People were naturally somewhat upset about this, but mutant plankton developed that were capable of absorbing the algae, and became a food source for fish.  The fish population multiplied, and became humanity’s main source of animal protein.

In 1951, scientists produced the first “ectogenetic” child – what we would call a test-tube baby.  His future historian said most people preferred this to the inconvenient natural method.

This facilitated the development of eugenics, in which only people with desirable characteristics were allowed to breed.

In Haldane’s future history this resulted in such a dramatic improvement in human life, ranging from more first-class music to fewer convictions for theft, that opposition died out.

The future historian said that without ectogenetic technology, civilization would have died out, owing to the rapid increase of the “less desirable” segments of the population.

Haldane went on to predict the application of biochemistry to psychology.  To the extent that human emotions are a product of the glands, physiology should provide more efficient ways of controlling negative emotions and habits than by fasting, flagellation and the threat of prison.
So, in short, through the powers of science, people would become healthy, wealthy and wise, and also happy.  The increasing mastery of human beings over themselves and their environment would continue indefinitely.

How could Haldane have been so sure that science would be used as he described?  He said that science could be used for both good and evil, but went on to say that, when it was used for evil, as in war, the evil would become so great as to be intolerable, and therefore would be self-correcting.

As an example, the horror of war, as he experienced as an officer in the Great War (World War One), had generated a mass movement for a world government to enforce peace.

He said this might not come about through the League of Nations, or through the Communist Third International, and it was possible that more world wars might ensue, but a world government was bound to come sooner or later.  Likewise, the misuse of scientific technique was bound to be self-correcting.  Human beings did have the power to learn from experience, in his view.


Bertrand Russell in 1924 wrote an essay in response to Daedalus.  It was entitled Icarus, after Daedalus’s nephew who flew too close to the sun.  Russell feared that scientific technique might cause human civilization to, like Icarus, crash and burn (or rather burn and crash).
He said scientific technique made possible three things: (1) an unprecedented increase in the population, (2) a higher material standard of living of the masses and (3) more energy for war.  What scientific technique did not do was to make humanity either more rational or more kindly—only more powerful.


Bertrand Russell

Scientific technique (all of what I’m going to say now is Russell’s view) increased the power and scope of organizations.  Telephones, telegraphs and wireless radio make is possible to transmit orders from a center over a wide area.  Railways and steamships made it possible to transport troops in case the orders are disobeyed.

The result was growing uniformity of the press and of education, and these were used to transmit the ideas that the State (with a capital “S”) desired.

The growing power of organization had made the old ideas of 19th century liberalism – free trade, free speech, unbiased education – a relic of the past.  Free competition within nations had virtually ceased to exist.  Instead there was intense competition between nations for raw materials and for markets, without which modern industry could not survive.   Scientific technique therefore increased the danger of war, while increasing the destructive power of war.

The only hope, as Russell saw it, was in the eventual unification of the world by one nation, such as the United States, that was more powerful than all the others.  Even if that nation’s rule was cruel and tyrannical, it would eliminate the danger of war, and create the possibility of a more humane world society.

Scientific technique brought about improvements in medicine, which reduce the death rate, and in birth control, which reduces the birth rate.  Unfortunately birth control is used more by the white races than by the “uncivilized” races (that was Russell’s term) and more by educated people than by uneducated people.

European governments may have to follow the example of France and depend on “the more prolific races” (Russell’s term) as mercenaries.

Eugenics offered the possibility of increasing the quality of the population.  But who would decide what type of human being is desired?  The decision would probably be made by the existing powers that be, and the powers that be would desire strong, healthy people who are obedient to authority and make good soldiers.  Eugenics as practiced by even public-spirited people may result in the weeding out of certain flawed human types who in the past proved to be geniuses and important contributors to humanity.

Advances in psychology would increase the power of the powers that be through more persuasive advertising and propaganda.  The possibility of controlling the emotions by biochemical means will be another means by which the ruling powers will be able to control the population.

The seeming paradox is that the growing use of scientific technique by organizations results in a decrease in the true scientific spirit, of judging things critically and based on evidence.

If men were rational in their conduct [Russell wrote], that is to say, if they acted in the way most likely to bring about the ends that they deliberately desire, intelligence would be enough to make the world almost a paradise.

In the main, what is in the long run advantageous to one man is also advantageous to another.  But men are actuated by passions which distort their view; feeling an impulse to injure others, they persuade themselves that it is in their interest to do so. [snip]

It may be laid down as a general principle to which there are few exceptions that, when people are mistaken as to what is to their own interest, the course they believe to be wise is more harmful to others than the course that really is wise.

Russell had no practical solution to the problems created by the misuse of science.   Tongue in cheek, he advocated a conspiracy of physiologists who would, on a given day, kidnap all the rulers of the world and inject them with a substance that would induce feelings of benevolence towards their fellow-creatures.

The key difference between Haldane and Russell, as I see it, is that Haldane regarded the values of science—objectivity, evidence-based argument, willingness to abandon outmoded theories—as impregnable in a society that depended on scientific technique.  Russell wasn’t so sure.  He thought that a society based on scientific technique could turn against scientific reason.


J.B.S. Haldane is supposed to have once said that the universe is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose.  As Jack Belli said in one of his presentations, each succeeding scientific vision of the cosmos is of a universe that is larger, more awesome and more counter-intuitive than the previous vision.

The universe is also much more complex and resistant to human control than we suppose, and so is human nature.

I think one mistake of both Haldane and Russell is to over-estimate the power of scientific technique in gaining control over the environment, including the human environment.

I don’t think that scientific technique has the power to create the planned utopia that Haldane envisioned, or the totalitarian nightmare the Russell feared.

I think rather the danger is in the unforeseeable consequences of acting as if technology would make us omnipotent.


Daedalus, or, Science and the Future by J.B.S. Haldane (1923)

Icarus, or the Future of Science by Bertrand Russell (1924)

The World, the Flesh and the Devil: an Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul by J.D. Bernal (1929).

I didn’t mention Bernal’s strange but interesting essay in my talk, but it fits with the other two.

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3 Responses to “Haldane vs. Russell on science and the future”

  1. Holden Says:

    Haldane got one thing terribly wrong, he assumed people would ever be even remotely rational.

    He also mentioned science being self-correcting. But isn’t economics and capitalism by extension a science in itself and potentially self-correcting as well? What isn’t self correcting is communism, where scientific methodology seems to be cast aside in favor or control by a central power for better or worse.

    “Science will survive, he said, because it is necessary for waging war and conducting business. But the transformative power of science will force humanity to abandon old ways of doing things, including capitalism and nationalism, as being irrational.”


  2. philebersole Says:

    Haldane’s supposedly rational utopia resembled Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and may, according to my friend Doug Fisher, have inspired Huxley’s book


  3. Joe Luker Sr. Says:

    Astute and very lively. Reality is far less amenable to reduction than it seems even to the most astute among us–as necessary as reductions of some kind appear to be for human observers. It seems to me that this is, if nothing else, an argument for bold humility (!). Enjoyed your work here. Humble thanks.


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