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DISPROPORTIONS CREATED BY THE EXPONENTIAL GROWTH OF KNOWLEDGE FRITZ LIPMANN* I have often asked myselflately: Do we exaggerate the degree ofchange that we have been living through? Even counting in an undeniable tendency to exaggerate recent ones, I find it inescapably true that changes have increased with unusual rapidity in degree and impact through our success in the natural sciences. These are indeed presenting us with an exponential , upward curve, the "reaction" occurring at a mounting rate. When we plot progress against time, we get a soaring curve, the upper one in our figure. At the same time, on inspecting the situation more closely, we come to realize that this describes onlypartoftheover-allpictureofour man-dominated earth. The missing part is the relation ofman to man or, in a very wide sense, the social relationships between men, which have not followed through with aparallelradicalchange. Rather, they have more or less oscillated between various levels allthrough history, every so often exaggerating in one direction or theother, but thenreturning tothenorm. On the average, however, even accepting a trend toward certain gains which we do not want to define too closely at the present time, we find this change has been, at best, not exponential but rather proportional with time, and slow at that, as indicated in the lower curve ofthe figure. These two curves, the one running away from the other, 1 believe dramatically present the problem ofour time. Ifwe look, as biologists, at the relationship between man and his environment , we find that, on thebiological scale in the framework ofevolution , man as a species has changed very little, ifany, during the last maybe ?,??? years, the historical period. There have not been dramatic mutations that have influenced the behavior ofthe species on a grand scale. In con- * The Rockefeller Institute, NewYork 21, N.Y.This articlerepresents a talk given at a symposium, "Changing Concepts ofLife and Man," moderated by Dr. Lincoln Reis at Long Island University in December, 1961. 324 Fritz Lipmann · Exponential Growth ofKnowledge Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Spring 1962 trast, by interaction between man and his physical environment, profound changes have resulted from the very special position that man as a rational animal has developed in the framework ofbiological evolution. Through his ability to formulate and set it down in written language, man has been able to transmit learned information. This has proved to be most important in the development ofour understanding ofNature. In the evolution ofthe natural sciences, their recent exponential growth is largely due to the transmission ofexperience; it would have been impossible ifthe Man vs. Man ?9ß? 2000 years skills ofprevious generations were not transferred to the following ones. This is one ofthe factors; let us consider another which 1 feel is important . As a biochemist, nowadays more commonly calleda molecular biologist , I have followed and participated in the development ofa large segment ofthe biological sciences. By successful analysis ofthe chemical and physical devices that keep organisms alive and, during the lastfew years, of those that are responsible for reproduction, we have come to realize that something exists inside the cells which I like to call an organismic technology . That is, the problems on the cellular level that confront the living organism are similar to those with which we are confronted in our man325 developed external technology. Our communities are becoming superorganisms that are built and function on principles not unlike those met with in our recent understanding ofcellular processes. This intra-cellular or organismic technology developed at a very slow pace in the course of evolution. The method of mutational change was tried out against the environment through survival of the fittest, a slow process. But, as a thinking animal we learned to build instruments that, to speak very generally, enormously increase the resolving power with which our organs have been operating up to the not too distant past. On the one hand, such prosthetic organs as the microscope, the electron microscope, and X-ray diffraction apparatus now permit our eye to discern refined images that go down to atomic levels. On the other hand, what one might call our resolving power ofspace has increased through the engineering of vehicles that can transport us with greater...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 324-326
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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