NS Essay 2 - New science, old myth

From the Middle Ages through Marx to the free market, humankind has clung desperately to the idea of

Recalling a congress of communist writers that he attended in the 1930s, Arthur Koestler described how a simple question reduced the meeting to silence. Bored beyond endurance by the eulogies to the new world that would come into being once scientific socialism had been installed, Andre Malraux asked impatiently: "And what about the man who is run over by the tramcar?" There was an awkward pause - but not for long. Soon a right-thinking comrade supplied the answer: "In a perfect socialist transport system, there will be no accidents."

Koestler's story contains a forbidden truth. The great projects of human emancipation that shaped the past century claimed to be based on science, but they were actually founded on myths. In holding out the prospect of a world without senseless accidents, communism renewed the eschatological hopes of western religion. History might seem a mix of drift and disaster, but it unfolds under divine guidance; a day will come when no one dies in vain. In the past, it was believed that God would bring about this happy state. Revolutionary movements such as communism promised something even more fantastic. By using the power of science, human beings could create it themselves.

Science is supposed to be the pursuit of truth, but in secular cultures it has become the chief vehicle for myth. The human needs that were once expressed in religion have not disappeared. From the cult of cryogenics to absurd neo-Darwinian ideas, the core myths of western religion are being recycled as science. In the course of this transformation, the wisdom they contain is being lost. Growing scientific knowledge is not producing a more rational view of the world, but a secular mythology that is further from the truth of the human condition than the religious myths of the past.

Communism proved to be a mirage. Millions of people died in the search for a non-existent earthly paradise, but that has not stopped the search. Towards the end of the 20th century neoliberals peddled a version of the same myth. Global capitalism would do what communism had failed to do - bring freedom and prosperity to all of humankind. Though it began on the right, the cult of the free market was like communism in being a revolutionary creed. Just like Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, neoliberals believed that they had solved the riddle of history.

Both Marxists and neoliberals insist that their promises of a radiant future are the result of rigorous scientific inquiry, but their adamant conviction betrays the true source of their beliefs. Marxism and neoliberalism are ersatz religions in which the Christian myth of the end of history is rendered into the idiom of science. Missionaries of central planning may quarrel with votaries of the free market about which is the best economic system, but they are at one in their belief that, once it has been adopted, worldwide prosperity and universal peace will inevitably follow.

In fact, at the start of the 21st century, Marxism and neoliberalism are discredited creeds. Ageing Trotskyists may even now be gathering in their cells to plot the coming revolution and pious free-marketeers may be holding their listless seminars on the glories of global capitalism, but the faith in salvation through politics is dead. If communism was a tragedy, neoliberalism was a farce. After all the babble about the irresistible spread of democracy and free markets, the reality is war, protectionism and the shifty politics of secrecy and corruption - in other words, history as usual. Outside the Trotskyist sects and the right-wing think-tanks, no one believes that the world can be remade by revolutionary politics. The fantasy may linger on in the anti-globalisation movement, but even there it is more an expression of fear of the future than a genuine conviction.

Yet eschatological myths have not disappeared, only shifted into other areas. In his seminal study The Pursuit of the Millennium (originally published in 1957), Norman Cohn showed that modern revolutionary movements were animated by beliefs in many ways similar to those of millenarian movements in late-medieval Europe. Both saw history in apocalyptic terms: the old world was coming to an end and a new world being born. Today, secular cultures are looking to science for salvation. Politics has been replaced by technology as the focus of eschatological hope.

A curious example of the fusion of eschatology and technology is the Californian cryogenics movement. Followers of this cult have themselves frozen - or sometimes just their heads, if they cannot afford the whole deal - in the faith that, with the progress of science, it will one day be possible to bring them back from the dead. There has been some dispute about the scientific credentials of this process and doubts have been raised regarding the probity of some of the companies providing it, but these are details. The point is that what is on offer is a technological surrogate for immortality. Just as Christianity promises the resurrection of the body, cryogenics offers the prospect of never having to die - but whereas the Christian promise is accepted on faith, that of cryogenics is supposed to be based on science. In fact, it is far more incredible than any of the promises of religion.

The main trouble with seeking immortality through technology is not that the technology does not exist. Maybe some day it will - but even if techniques are developed for defrosting frozen cadavers and returning them to some semblance of life, these new technologies will not grant immortality. Believers in technological immortality assume that the laws and institutions that exist now will last indefinitely, but in doing so they are taking for granted a degree of economic and political stability that has no precedent. In effect, the possibility of cryonic resurrection depends on the proposition that the society we have today is immortal.

Developing the new technologies may take hundreds of years, but over such a time-span, there are bound to be large-scale discontinuities in law and politics. If the companies that store the waiting cadavers do not go under in stock market crashes, they will be swept away by war or revolution. These may seem apocalyptic possibilities, but they are only history carrying on as it has always done. What is truly apocalyptic is the belief that history will come to a stop.

Seeking perpetual life through cryogenics is a fringe pursuit, but it illustrates a more widespread phenomenon. Science has not done away with myth. It has enabled the myths of the past to survive in new forms. There is nothing in science that points to immortality as a realistic possibility for humans. The lesson of science is that death has a vital function in the natural environment. In the only world we know, nothing is immortal. The hope of escaping death comes from religion, not science. Yet science has been appropriated to give this mystical hope a new lease on life.

A striking example is the way in which Darwinism has been used to bolster belief in progress. Darwin's theory says nothing about whether the results of natural selection are good or bad. It simply describes a biological mechanism at work. So far as Darwinism is concerned, the world has no built-in tendency to improvement. The natural selection of genetic mutations may lead to more complex life forms, but equally it may wipe them out. This is much too austere a vision ever to be popular. The hopes bequeathed by Christianity are too deep and pervasive in the culture for such a vision of purposeless change to be accepted. As a result, Darwin's theory has been turned upside down and used to prop up the belief in progress.

The most familiar examples are varieties of social Darwinism. In the late 19th century, erroneous versions of evolutionary theory were used to give support to laissez-faire capitalism and European imperialism. In the late 20th century, a form of social Darwinism was revived on the American right to give a spurious explanation of the country's stark racial inequalities. These are pretty crude uses of science for political ends. Not only is the science shoddy, so are the ends that are being pursued. More interesting are recent attempts to use Darwinism to give the idea of progress a scientific basis.

Richard Dawkins's theory of memes is a neo-Darwinian account of the spread of ideas. As Dawkins makes clear in his book The Selfish Gene (1976), memes include tunes and catch-phrases, ways of making pots or building arches, political ideas and scientific theories. Dawkins's theory is that just as genes propagate themselves by moving from body to body via spermatozoa or eggs, so memes propagate themselves by moving from brain to brain. Actually, it is unclear whether this is really a theory or simply a rather inept analogy, for though he talks loosely of the propagation of memes occurring by a process of imitation, Dawkins never specifies a definite mechanism for the transmission of ideas. Nor is this surprising, given that no such mechanism exists.

It has long been known that ideas can spread by a kind of contagion, but in the history of ideas there is nothing resembling the natural selection of genetic mutations in biology. Persecution and war, the power of wealth and the ability of governments to shape the news are only some of the factors explaining why some ideas spread and others do not. Imitation may have a part in this complicated process, but it can hardly be said to explain it.

Even if the spread of ideas could be explained by some simple mechanism akin to natural selection, it would in no way ensure that good ideas prevailed. The worst ideas are among the most successful in propagating themselves. Take anti-Semitism, one of the most poisonous memes in history and one of the most successful. Or consider the religious beliefs against which Dawkins rails with evangelical passion. As he himself admits, ideas such as eternal damnation have an awesome capacity for self-replication. Memes represent an attempt to apply evolutionary theory to culture, but cultural evolution - if there is such a thing - is blind. The cultural transmission of memes is as directionless a process as the natural selection of genes.

Theories of cultural evolution may be tosh, but they have had an enduring appeal. The reason is not hard to find: they identify evolution with progress. They are formulated in the language of science, but the need they answer is not a need for truth. It is to find meaning and purpose in history. The Christian myth of salvation in history did not vanish with the arrival of secular thought. On the contrary, it has shaped secular thinking, giving rise to the idea of progress that inspired many of the political movements of the past century.

Now that faith in politics is dead, secular cultures have pinned their hopes on science. The reality of scientific progress cannot be seriously disputed - it is demonstrated by the fact of increasing human power. That does not mean that it can be replicated in society at large. Science cannot end the conflicts of history. It is an instrument that humans use to achieve their goals - whether winning wars or curing the sick, alleviating poverty or committing genocide. To think that it can ever be otherwise is to envisage a transformation in human affairs as miraculous as any expected by the millenarian movements of the late Middle Ages. The belief that science can bring about a new world is a secular myth - and further from the enduring realities of human life than almost any of the myths of the past.

The biblical story of the Fall is closer to the truth. Knowledge is not an unmixed good; it can be as much a curse as a blessing. If the superseded science of the first half of the 20th century could be used to wage two hideously destructive world wars, how will the vastly superior science of today be used? After all, there is no sign of the human animal changing its ways. We would surely be better off without the powers of destruction that science has already given us - let alone those we will acquire as scientific advance accelerates. I doubt we can return to the myths of the past and I am not sure we should try. But which is the greater leap of faith: to accept that humanity has eaten from the tree of knowledge and must somehow live with the consequences, or to believe that science can deliver humanity from itself?

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Blessed are the peacemakers (and probably Norwegians)