My family comes from Hiroshima, and I was born there myself. On August 6, 1945, my father was thirteen and just far enough away from home in the center of Hiroshima, across a few hills assigned to digging potatoes. The rest of his immediate family was scattered far enough from Ground Zero to survive. Branches of his family and branches of my mother’s family came to an end that day, however.
My father was impressed by the power of technology, though. He became a physicist and in the 1960s ended up working under Robert Rathbun Wilson. Wilson, as a Quaker, was one of two physicists involved in the Manhattan Project that opposed dropping the bomb on civilians. The other was Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist. I myself started college planning to study physics. I abandoned physics mostly because it was too hard, but I had also learned that half of physics PhDs end up working on weapons development.
Although science in and of itself is neither good nor evil, the history of science highlights a relationship between scientific advancement and the degree of human atrocity. While the atomic bomb represented a scientific breakthrough, it led to a new scale of warfare. In the realm of medicine and public health, the human experimentation conducted by Japanese Imperialists in occupied Manchuria and the Nazi euthanasia programs serve as examples of technique applied in horrific manners.
Jacques Ellul identifies the role of technique in the atrocities of our age. He defines technique as “the totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity” (Ellul 1964, p. xxv, italics in original). As he noted in 1990,
But what remains of this humanistic discourse, considered from any angle, when we look at the reality of the world since 1900? What we see is deadly exploitation, the armed invasion of the whole world by colonization, two monstrous world wars with millions more dead than ever previously, concentration camps, police states, a mad development of torture, blind terrorism, scores of local wars during the past fifty years, and finally an imbalance of wealth and poverty that makes a joke of the wealth of the nobility in comparison with the misery of their peasants. . . . None of the atrocities of our age would have been possible without technique (Ellul 1990, p. 131).
If we are compiling a litany of threats to the continued existence of the human species, we should add to Ellul’s list the climate catastrophe and pandemics – neither of which is possible without technique.
For Ellul, technique seems to take on a life of its own as an all-encompassing totality. To talk in terms of technique is to obscure the role of the individual scientists, the technocrats who create, promote, and uphold this totality. Robert Rathbun Wilson and Leo Szilard objected to using the atom bomb on civilians, but all the other scientists involved in the Manhattan Project did not. In the post-WWII period, the Marshall Islanders were blithely told to turn their islands over to the U.S. military for atomic testing “For the good of mankind.” As Native Hawaiians and peace activists object to building ballistic missile defense systems in Hawaiʻi, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says, “Our main objective is to protect the homeland and our home in Hawaii. To do that, we must rely on the experts.”
The experts include the scientists who split the atom and design the rockets. The experts include the logisticians who target cities to bomb and count the bodies of enemy killed. (See Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.) They work for the government, and they work for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics.
In 2020, our attention is on the pandemic. We are told to put our trust in the experts. The experts tell us to wash our hands. Check. The experts tell us to keep our distance. Check. The experts tell us that wearing masks is bad (because you end up touching your face more). Check. . . . Wait, wait, the experts now tell us that wearing masks is good. And it is good. But now people don’t trust the experts so much. It might help if the experts could be less dogmatic about such things in the first place and not be so, “Don’t you know masks are bad? What diploma mill did you get your degree from?” Or if they could admit that were wrong and that, no, they don’t know everything – because that’s the way science works.
This brings us to the scientific question of the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The prevailing scientific view is that the coronavirus lives in bats, that there was a “spillover” event such that the virus entered humans, perhaps through an intermediary species. This was the case with the original SARS epidemic of 2002-2003.
The Nature Medicine letter, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” is widely cited by those who pooh-pooh any suggestion that SARS-CoV-2 might have its origin in a laboratory. The virologists confidently declare, “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” I tried to read through the entire letter – but, of course, I don’t have a good grasp on the virology.
But who are these virologists that know so much about mucking around with the coronavirus genome? If they know that it hasn’t been mucked around with, maybe it’s because they know how to muck around with it? Maybe they have a vested interest in making sure that their own research doesn’t lose funding. Why should I trust their conclusions?
The point being, the scientists in the know are always going to know more than the rest of us. But the rest of us, that is to say, everybody else in a democratic society, have to impose some limits on the dangerous stuff that scientists do.
It’s pretty clear that so-called “biodefense” research is a cover for bioweapons development. It’s just a matter of semantics whether it’s called “biodefense” or “bioweapons”. What is clear is that we must put a stop to it.
Ellul, J (1964) The Technological Society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Ellul, J (1990) The Technological Bluff. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub Co.