There are two science stories which promise to change the world irrevocably. What’s interesting is that they contradict each other. The first is the optimistic one. We hear less of this since the dotcom crash, but it is still true that medicine and computer technology are advancing in the most extraordinary ways. The big drug companies worry that better knowledge of the genome will wipe their profits out since patients will know in advance whether a particular drug will work on them. Stem cell research and related matters will allow us to grow spare parts. Pills that might delay the onset of Alzheimer’s look perfectly credible. In rich countries we have just about emliminated mortality at the beginning of life. It’s not beyond imagination that we might eliminate it at the end of normal life too. So that’s one story, and it’s mind-boggling.
But at the same time, there is a narrative just as huge and just as difficult to grasp in its details, coming out of other sciences. The end of oil; the threat of global warming; the fear of pandemics and of nuclear war. All these stories, too, require a scientific understanding of the world to appear in their proper horror.
I know that one might, in theory, have both. The Black Death killed a third of the population of Europe, but it did not kill off the continent’s energy and may even have released quite a lot of it. There has to be a mortality beyond which a population is finally defeated — look at the American Indians — but perhaps it needs to be more than 50%. so the earth, and the human species, could probably survive a pretty large die-off.
What seems to alter that balance, though, are nukes. It’s very hard to imagine that we’re gong to get through this century without some of those weapons being used somewhere — North Korea, anyone? And once that starts, all bets are off, and the wise man starts making himself useful to the cockroaches.
fn1. understanding is not the right word here