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What has science ever done for us?

With apologies to Monty Python, this seems like as good a title as any for what I have to say this week, prompted by an essay on the BBC website by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, current president of the Royal Society (How science transformed the world in 100 years). In a world in which science is too often feared and distrusted, it’s good to see such a prominent member of the scientific Establishment speaking out in defence of the sector.

He starts by saying “If we could miraculously transport even the smartest people from around 1900 to today's world, they would be simply astonished at how we now understand things that had puzzled humans for centuries.” He also makes the point that scientific knowledge is itself morally neutral; it is how we apply that knowledge where problems may occur.

Towards the end of the piece, he writes “Science is the pursuit of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. That pursuit of knowledge has also shaped the way we view the world, as has the application of the knowledge. It has transformed our lives, generally for the better. We live nearly twice as long today as our ancestors did in 1900 and the quality of our lives is far better than it was then. But the uses of science and technology are not shaped by science and scientists alone. They depend on an interplay of cultural, economic and political factors.”

All incontrovertible stuff, you might think, but one of the most interesting aspects of opinion pieces like this is often the comments made by readers. In this case, there is a range from a religious viewpoint that science is essentially responsible for all the bad things in our lives, to complete confidence that science is a tool for good.

One argument is that it is science that has brought misery and destruction on us, summed up by this comment: “And as a consequence of how stupid we are, we now face extinction.
Humans, the only species foolish/stupid & insane enough to Trash, Destroy, Poison, Overpopulate and Cook the very planet that endeavours to sustain them.”
This is a pretty extreme view but, in a more measured form, has actually become rather widely accepted.

It is, for example, common to hear people say that the root cause of all our problems is overpopulation, with groups such as Population Matters (formerly the Optimum Population Trust) being mainstream and clearly well supported. Prominent patrons include, most famously, Sir David Attenborough, but also Jonathon Porritt, Paul Ehrlich, James Lovelock, Sir Crispin Tickell and a sprinkling of figures from the Arts.

Their website includes quotes from the great and the good, including “The human population can no longer be allowed to grow in the same old uncontrolled way. If we do not take charge of our population size, then nature will do it for us and it is the poor people of the world who will suffer most” (Sir David Attenborough), “It’s our population growth that underlies just about every single one of the problems that we’ve inflicted on the planet. If there were just a few of us, then the nasty things we do wouldn’t really matter and Mother Nature would take care of it — but there are so many of us” (Jane Goodall) and “Population was a big issue about 30 years ago, now it’s not, but I suspect it will come back because it has to be discussed as one of the big environmental problems of our time, it’s one animal species out of control, and the awful thing is that if we don’t control it then Mother Nature will do it for us”(Sir Crispin Tickell).

This pessimistic and negative view of our species is unfortunately very common among the broad environmentalist movement. It’s a them-and-us situation, with ‘them’ being all other species, but the difference is that we are the bad guys. Homo sapiens is a unique species in many ways. We are able to reason and invent and also be self-critical, but this aspect can quickly turn to self-loathing.

For those of this turn of mind, scientific discovery allows technological innovation, which in turn has decimated other species, polluted the air, oceans and rivers and is now leading to global warming. By this reckoning, the Deep Greens who probably represent the extreme fringes of the population control movement would prefer to see our entire species disappear from the planet. Only then will Nature be able to follow its course.

The alternative argument is that humans are fully part of the natural world and are only doing what they are capable of. Although as hunter/gatherers humans can only subsist in small groups ranging over significant areas of land, the development of farming has vastly increased the Earth’s carrying capacity for our species. And science, as encompassed in the development of the Haber-Bosch process, has allowed the present population of over 7 billion to exist by increasing agricultural outputs.

The point is that there has to date been no hard limit to the total human population, because we have been able to surmount those that exist. In doing so, of course, we have had a large impact on the environment and other species. There may be cause to regret some of this, which is why many countries have active conservation programmes and are taking efforts to continue improving air and water quality.

But, while other species may be driven by instinct without regard for the impact on others, we can reason and make moral judgements on the impact of our own activities and, in some cases, choose to take action to remedy them. Scientific discovery allows us to understand these impacts on natural processes, and also to develop effective ways to modify them.

At the same time, scientific knowledge and innovative skill has immeasurably improved the lives of billions of people. Things are far from perfect, and conflicts can bring misery to millions, but these are a result primarily of political and cultural differences. Scientific knowledge may have allowed the development of tremendously destructive weapons, but it has not been the cause of conflict.

Too often, we take for granted the benefits of scientific progress, while decrying the negative aspects. But identifying unforeseen problems allows us to solve them. To focus too much on these problems means we risk losing many of the benefits of progress in the name of ever greater safety, which itself may be illusory. Science underpins the modern world, and we should be grateful for it.