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BITTER FRUITS FROM THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE: REMARKS ON THE CURRENT REVULSION FROM SCIENCE* ERWIN CHARGAFFt I I have been a scientist for many years, and although I have always tried to maintain my amateur status, it still is true that I have spent most of my life in the laboratory, doing one thing or another. It is, therefore, not difficult to understand why I am concerned by the widespread revulsion from science that is noticeable among our young people and quite a few older ones. This aversion often takes the form of a distaste for scientists, for experts, for people licensed to have an opinion on a narrowly defined set of matters that the rest of humanity really care very little about. This beautiful soft rug on which we have been playing our games for such a long time, has it been pulled from under us? Or have we pulled it ourselves? What makes all this so surprising to us is that we had been under the illusion that the name of this rug was Nature. How could objections be raised to studying what we all felt ourselves to be part of? Dignified indignation assumes a posture resembling that of Jan Hus on the way to the stake, and the cry "Sancta simplicitas !" ascribed to him on a similar occasion, is designed to make us feel victims of what is often referred to as the current wave of anti-intellectualism . I do not believe that anti-intellectualism is stronger now than before. What I think has happened is that, while people always lived by their wits, not so many expected to be paid for their wits, * I dedicate this essay to the memory of Dr. Wilhelm Kiitemeyer, professor of medicine at the University of Heidelberg. It incorporates some material used in lectures before students at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, in 1971, and at Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York (Henry Margenau Lecture) in 1972. It also formed the subject of one evening's discussion in the Columbia University seminar on "The Nature of Man." t Department of Biochemistry, Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons , New York, New York 10032. 486 I Erwin ChargafJ · Revulsion from Science and that the present overproduction of professional intellectuals has caused a certain amount of disgust for this peculiarly undefinable specialty.1 The point I shall try to make is that something has gone wrong with our ways of doing science and even with the views, held by a majority of scientists, about what the purpose of studying nature in all its manifestations really is. II "Nature" comes from the Latin word natura ("she who will be born or she who will bear"). Adherents of the women's liberation movement should be happy to hear that "nature" is feminine in many languages: in Greek and Latin, in French and Italian, in German and Russian. But for the first time in human history we may begin to ask ourselves: Will she always be born or are we approaching the time when, perhaps, she will be born no longer? The great old goddess Cybele, is she on the Pill? Even worse, is she on drugs? Has the defoliation of the human mind made such progress that soon the only thing that still can grow will be misery? This, too, is one of the bitter fruits—our magna mater has become the cloaca maxima. But Cassandra feels happier looking back to the past than into the future, and even there her jaundiced eye discerns peculiar signposts. Our modern sciences began, one could say, about 350 years ago, in the late Renaissance. Soon we hear from Francis Bacon, and he proclaims in 1597, "Knowledge is power." Then there rises out of less ancient dust the majestic and bearded figure of the great historian Lord Acton, and he says to me: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." At this moment the logical machinery begins to grind: Science is knowledge is power corrupts. And the young scholastic may raise his hand and blurt out the conclusion: "Absolute science corrupts absolutely!" "Thank you," says Society, "but nobody asked you. And anyway, Lord Acton was a Catholic...


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