CARACAS, Wednesday April 01, 2009 | Update
What is deeply ironic is that both the best hopes and the worst fears of 1909 are still with us and totally unresolved, even though they have all been transformed by technology. In 2009, as in 1909, it remains to be seen if mankind's pragmatic technological achievements can lead to a better life
Photo: Freddy Henríquez
The bitter truths of the last 100 years have given mankind the unique choice between self-transformation and total destruction. If we discard the possible illusion that the human race has a privileged status in the history of life on this planet, then we must admit that our species is now freely empowered either for its total obliteration or the establishment of a new sustainable order for life.
What is deeply ironic is that both the best hopes and the worst fears of 1909 are still with us and totally unresolved, even though they have all been transformed by technology. The concerns of the long distant Belle Époque illustrate with exemplary clarity both our worst fears and our best hopes.
Examples abound. In 1909, the suffragette movement caused major rioting in London and other European cities. Finland and Norway finally granted women the right to vote in 1909. Nonetheless, the equality of political rights for women continues to be a major social conflict for most of the world. The industrialized world has demonstrated that giving women equal access to education is the only effective long-term way to limit population growth.
In 1909, Cambridge biologist William Bateson published Mendel's Principles of Heredity. In 1912 the First International Congress of Eugenics was held in London. This event was chaired by Major Leonard Darwin, chairman of the British Eugenic Society and son of the founder of the theory of evolution. Armed with Bateson's ideas, the members of this society sought to improve human society invoking Social Darwinist concepts of the selective "breeding" of superior races only. These flawed Social Darwinist ideas led to the atrocities of the Holocaust and continue to justify genocides today in Darfur.
Darwin spoke of individual random mutations. Each of them is a unique random mutation. To condemn entire races is not just a crime against humanity but bad science. The better minds of the day realized this.
Invited to speak at the opening of the conference, former Prime Minister of Great Britain Arthur Balfour criticized the stupidity and circular reasoning of the Eugenics movement. "We say that the fit survive. But all that means is that those who survive are fit…The idea that you can get a society of the most perfect kind merely by considering certain broad questions about the strains of ancestry and the health and the physical vigor of various components of a given society is, in my view, a most shallow view of a very difficult question." Obviously, education played a role in fitness, not just heredity. And the Russo-Japanese war had already demonstrated that an Asian power could defeat a European force much to the dismay of Europe's "pseudo scientific" white supremacists. Would you suppress the genes of a Napoleon I because he was too short?
One hundred years later, however, the human genome was mapped in record time by private sector genetic technology companies. There are chances that future generations will be able to choose the eye color and other gene specific traits of their offspring. We have gone beyond the unscientific concept of races, and can now engineer individual genes. The ethical implications are daunting. Now that US President Barack Obama has lifted the ban on stem cell research, it is only a matter of time before organ tissues for transplantations as well as an entire new generation of medicines will come on stream.
In theory, with time, a selective sequencing of genes in ovum and sperm might lead to the creation of the ultimate athletes and supreme geniuses that were dreamed of by the International Congress of Eugenics at the beginning of the 20th century. At the other end of the spectrum, our world, in theory, is closer to creating genetic monsters as those described in H.G. Well's most chillingly prophetic of novels, and a best seller in 1909, The Island of Dr. Moreau.
In 1909, Italian poet Fillipo Marinetti published his Futurist Manifesto, which praised the future of technology as "the lance of spirit that flies across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit." Now, a century later, our species has hundreds of satellites in all sorts of orbits and tens of thousands of nuclear warheads ready to become the lances that can extinguish all spirit.
In 1909, as now, "socialist" scientists and utopians explained their views of how to perfect society. In 1909, one of them, the European social revolutionary (and anarchist to some) Paul Robin mixed female liberation with his socialist ideas: "A woman must be able to dispose freely of her own body and to decide, when she is pregnant, whether or not to keep the child she carries. The emancipation of women is the condition sine qua non for the socialist regeneration of mankind."
Then as now, many worried about the possibilities of war. The first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, the novelist and pacifist agitator, Bertha Von Suttner wrote in her work Maschinenzeitalter, published in 1909, this vision of things to come:
"All nations will be ground to dust... Every village will be a holocaust, every city a pile of rubble, every field a field of corpses and yet the war will rage on... in the very clouds, armed and manned airships will rise against airborne troops and mutilated warriors will fall from six thousand feet like bloody snowflakes..."
According to the most important economics historian alive, Niall Fergesson, our current international situation resembles that of the pre-1914 world. He writes: "The present political situation presents the same five dangerous flaws as the pre-1914 international order: a declining empire (the United States), great power rivalry, an unstable alliance system, rogue regimes sponsoring terror, and the rise of revolutionary terrorist organizations hostile to capitalism."
Given these factors, a world war in the 21st Century may begin accidentally as it did in 1914. Given the technological breakthroughs in military technology, this accidental war -if it ever takes place- will be the ultimate in total war, with entire societies annihilating each other with extreme speed. Today, in 2009 there are unmanned weapons that can reach at least Mach 6 -six times the speed of sound. When El Universal was founded, mankind was already in love with speed and military power. In 1909, on Sunday, July 25th, a French military engineer, Louis Bleriot, became the first man to cross the English Channel by plane. It took him some 37 minutes.
Two currents of thought that were alive and well in 1909 still survive today in somewhat modified form: Pragmatism and Psychoanalysis. Both are purely materialistic doctrines which make no appeal to metaphysical constructs or beliefs.
As devised by US thinkers, Pragmatism exemplifies the instrumentalist theory of truth. Only the useful is true. An idea without practical consequences lacks all meaning. As Charles Pierce, a founder of Pragmatism wrote: "In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception, one should consider only what practical consequences might conceivably result from the truth of that conception." Any idea without practical consequences lacks any meaning or truth. The historical and practical embodiment of pragmatism is the binary computer code. A computer language is only true to the extent that it has practical consequences. There is no room for contemplative reason. In 1909, the pragmatists were working on the theory of index signs and semiotics, from which the concept of machine codes would inevitably develop.
In contrast, psychoanalysis posits a biological model of the mind in which consciously undetected and instinctual desires lead to irrational motivations and acts with little or no apparently practical outcomes. Dreams, slips of the tongue, and automatic verbal associations were all key factors to uncover subconscious motivations. For Freud, man was a rational actor only to the extent that his reason could discern the driving logic of hidden instinctual motivations. Furthermore, we are all irrational victims of our childhood. Bullies become aggressive in adulthood because of mistreatment while growing up by parents or siblings. When he was six years old, future composer Gustav Mahler was traumatized by a street organ while his parents were having a violent argument. Mahler was briefly treated by Freud for obsessive compulsive disorder, and it later became evident to future biographers of the composer that the traumatic street organ incident of Mahler's childhood not only conditioned his adult life choice to become a composer, but explained certain obsessively repeated haunting melodies in his works -most notably in the Second Symphony that he conducted for the first time in New York City in 1909.
For Freud, man could act as a rational pragmatist although he is trapped both by his childhood traumas and his irrational instinctual drives. By 1909, Freud had added the aggressive instinct to his previous ideas concerning the pleasure principle of sexual gratification. Guilt, repression, and anxiety can annihilate our need for love and lead us to gratify our death instinct, our need to destroy or at the very least aggressively dominate others. We are conflicted and diseased primates in love with love and death.
In 2009, as in 1909, it remains to be seen if mankind's pragmatic technological achievements can lead to a better life, or weather our unconsciously self-destructive nature will lead only to the new total post-war silence after a nuclear war.
The nascent dangers of quantum physics and radioactivity were already well known in the Belle Époque. When Madame Curie won her second Nobel Prize in Physics in 1911, she recalled part of a text she had published before, in 1909: "Radium could be extremely dangerous in criminal hands, and here the question can be raised whether mankind benefits from knowing the secrets of nature... There will be terrible means of destruction in the hands of great criminals who are leading the peoples towards war."
Everything that was to become important for the next 100 years -including quantum physics, space travels, bioengineering, woman's emancipation and the industrialized slaughter of future warfare- had already made deep impressions by 1909. The next 100 years have been little more than an exercise in living out, often in blood and sorrow, these new historical possibilities.
By 1909, the great unresolved tension of the next 100 years had already revealed itself: the struggle between our pragmatic capabilities and our instinctual aggressiveness as a species. This struggle is evident on every page we have published for the last 100 years, and will be evident on every page yet to be written for as long as this organization, or any news gathering organization exists in an open society.
Andrés Mata Osorio
Editor of El Universal newspaper
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