The New Statesman Essay - What we must learn from Concorde

All technology is unpredictable, and none more so than cloning

London's lovely new footbridge wiggled and writhed when people importunately set their feet on it. London's "Eye" was brought to an albeit imperceptible standstill when its gears began to creak. Beautiful Concorde, the apotheosis of the aeroplane, fell out of the sky. Every now and then, technologies, even the simplest and most well-tried, go wrong; and they do so for any one of a hierarchy of reasons which, in the end, are absolutely beyond prediction.

The bridge and the Ferris wheel are comic, while the Concorde crash is horrible. Yet, in a sense, all three incidents are trivial. The Paris Concorde has ended lives and ruined many more - but at least the tragedy is discrete, and local, and the next-but-one generation will forget. There are bigger technologies afoot that could change the whole world for ever - and they are at least as susceptible to mishap as the bridge, the wheel and the aeroplane; and even more unpredictable.

You have to be very badly brought up, or educated at a very expensive English university, to doubt that science is a beautiful and noble thing, hammered together by the Greeks and Arabs, refined by Europeans (with noises off from the Chinese), and now the collective endeavour of the world. To adapt (and invert) a comment of Karl Marx: the prime purpose of science is not to change the universe, but to enhance appreciation. It seems a materialist pursuit, but it has a mystical setting. Technology is quite different. It has a culture, too - machines are ideas in space, as Robert Pirsig said, and the most beautiful are almost invariably the ones that work best - but its task is to change things. There is plenty of science without technology (such as Darwin's natural selection) and plenty of technology without science (almost everything made before 1700), but the two together bear special fruit, widely known as "high" technology. Computers and cloned sheep are archetypal high-tech.

It is less and less possible to do science unless you first tell the givers of grants what technologies will come out of it. Yet, as a Bangladeshi physicist said to me the other day: "If you know what the science is for, then it is already technology." In short, real, "pure" science that does nothing in the foreseeable term, except tell us what is true, is harder and harder to get funds for.

Technology justifies science because it generates cash. It doesn't always do this, however. Porsches do; pneumatic tyres for Indian ox-carts do not. Genetic engineering for European maize does (even though it is not needed); genetic engineering for developing-world sorghum does not (even though it could bring obvious benefits). The technology that generates the most cash can generate the most research, and so establish an even greater lead for those who provide the finance.

Hence, the technologies that are developed are the ones that reinforce the existing foci of capital; and they, in turn, support the science that will help them on their way. So a loop is established, ever tighter and more exclusive. The poorest people in the world and the most endangered landscapes could often benefit from the highest technologies (contrary to much fashionable wisdom). But it is very hard to break the loop that directs the sharpest techniques to those who can pay most and need it least.

These loops arise inevitably from the free market; a computer model would show the eddies building up within it as naturally as night follows day. The market can be "free" and yet conform to general moral rules - or at least this is the driving conceit of social democracy. But to American Republicans, for example, the "free" in "free market" stands for liberty in general. To contain the market (as, for example, good old "Chuck" Heston argues in the context of "personal firearms") is to suppress the spirit of humanity itself. Some say, in short, that it is not logical to suggest that the free market should be controlled by external, moral forces. The market expresses the will of the people and therefore is the only safe and natural generator of morality.

Lee Silver of Princeton University, a pioneer of genetic engineering, argues that the free market, freely operating, is bound to bring us human cloning and, not many decades after that, the "designer baby", one whose genome is built to a specification, like a Formula One racing car. It isn't clear whether Silver thinks this is a good thing or a bad thing. But if people are already prepared to pay $50,000 for ivf, he says, then surely they would pay at least as much for a cloned baby. And if they are willing to pay $100,000 to send their child to Stanford, then surely they would pay another $20,000, say, for a gene or two to improve its brains before it starts. There is no point in making these technologies illegal, because what is banned in one country becomes a minor industry in another. Nor is there any point, Silver implies, in just railing against cloned and bespoke babies. The market will assure that they happen.

But, even leaving aside any attempts to defend absolute standards of right and wrong - which may take us into essentially religious territory - there are some all too secular lessons from the bridge, the Eye and Concorde.

To begin with, it is absolutely impossible to predict exactly how any technology will turn out. This notion is colloquially known as Murphy's Law: if something can go wrong, then sooner or later it will. It comes across as a kind of joke, but it conceals deep and serious theory.

The point is related to the general notions of chaos and of non-linearity. In summary, simple forces, even when simply applied, can generate complicated outcomes. Furthermore, the outcome is influenced by any one of a million (actually a potential infinity) of external factors. It is impossible to take all the potentially significant factors into account, because many of them, at any one time, are simply not known. Even if we could list all the putatively relevant factors, it would take more computing time than is left in the life of Earth to work out mathematically all the possible interactions of a million or so factors. But this still would not be possible because there are innate uncertainties, which ultimately have to do with the innately unpredictable character of fundamental particles.

In short, all technologies are launched on a wing and a prayer. The Thames footbridge was built on the principles of Isaac Newton, as tried and tested over 300 years, with materials measured to the last nano-henry. And still it moved - just as the Tay Bridge came tumbling down, and Ronan Point, and Boston's Hancock Building once shed its vast plate windows like autumn leaves.

More profoundly - and this is a different point, and one that is amazingly overlooked - it is innately impossible for scientists to know how the technologies that result from their own efforts really work. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper was wont to point out, scientists can never know for certain that their theories are true - or, more to the point, that they are adequate. If their science gives rise to a high technology, and the technology works, they take this as proof that the science is both accurate and adequate. Yet this is false reasoning. The theory may fit reality only where it touches. In the 1980s, several scientists cloned animals by techniques more primitive than those that made Dolly (born 1996), and they thought they knew why their methods worked. After Dolly, it is clear that the earlier theory was largely wrong, and that the scientists had inadvertently done some of the things that were necessary while attempting to do something else. You can't tell that the scientific theory is inadequate until the technology fails (as the early attempts at cloning eventually did, to various degrees). But even when the technology seems to be working, you can never be absolutely sure - and this is a matter of bedrock logic - that the underlying science is adequate.

Bridges, wheels and even aeroplanes are easy stuff. The physics is a breeze by modern standards. The materials, to the appropriate specialists, are second nature. The biotechnologies that are waiting in the wings deal with mechanisms - living cells - that are a thousand times more complicated, and with materials (such as DNA and proteins) whose properties have barely been outlined. Furthermore, even if the biotechnologies succeeded 100 times in doing what their perpetrators intended, they still might fail the following 1,000 times. If the failures included late abortions and neonatal deaths and deformities, of the kind that occur when animals are cloned, this would be bad enough; but at least the pain would be confined to the child and its distraught parents. But if some other biotechnology released some alien gene into the environment at large - another cliche, but that does not make it go away - then the problem could simply get out of hand. Ask the New Zealanders about possums: not genes, but whole furry animals imported from Australia, now devastating their native wildlife and out of control.

If we risk nothing, we gain nothing. If our ancestors had not chanced their arms, then we would still be living in caves (or not living at all). But, for them, staying as they were was not an option; and all their risks were localised. For us, the gains of the highest technologies can be very small - nothing but profit, and only for the people who put up the cash in the first place. But as the technologies grow more powerful, the risks get bigger; and, despite what is often implied, they cannot be done away with altogether. That is a logical impossibility.

The committees that control the flow of technology can do a good job. The government's intention to allow cloning technology to be used to repair damaged tissues for human patients is surely to be welcomed. But committees on their own have the air of firefighters. If we are to ensure that technology truly serves our needs, we have to dig very deep indeed: explore the limitations of the free market, and ask what kind of economy might truly do what is needed; continue to ask, as prophets and moral philosophers have always done, what is good and what is bad, and by what criteria they may be judged; and, in general, put a great deal more philosophy into science, and into business. In short, in this frivolous, secular age, we need to get serious.

Colin Tudge's The Variety of Life: a survey and a celebration of all the creatures that have ever lived is published by Oxford University Press (£35)

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis