For whom is the world better?
When NASA sent the Atlas V 401 rocket into space last Saturday morning, I got a slight thrill. The launch was hailed as “humanity’s next mission to Mars”.
The craft will touch down on the Martian equator late in November.
In my mind it represented another significant step in scientific and technological progress that we have made at least since Albert Einstein founded his theory of general relativity in 1905.
I wandered off, in a mind-numbing reverie, imagining how, once we were able to bring together Einstein’s theory, and that other great scientific challenge, quantum physics (Dear reader, don’t read about quantum physics – it makes your head hurt), we would be able to unlock so many secrets of our universe.
An item in my Twitter feed brought me back to reality.
It was a picture of a cancer patient, Ntombizodwa Matthews, being moved from Mahikeng Provincial Hospital, an almost lifeless body carted on a wheelbarrow.
Nomvula Matthews, the patient’s sister, explained that the family became concerned a month earlier when Ntombizodwa’s left breast started to darken.
Within three weeks, her breast had turned black, and a lump as big as a golf ball appeared. When they first brought Ntombizodwa to the hospital, her sister said, she was walking and animated, “but today she cannot even feed or clean herself”.
My excitement about space exploration, of achievements in physics and science and technology – of a craft landing on Mars for the first time – disappeared, like tears in rain.
It was a most powerful reminder of that most Panglossian of liberal idealist beliefs – that the world has made great progress over the past 200 years, and that this is the best time to be alive.
Sometime at the end of the 1990s or early 2000s, a question was put to a journalist, upon his retirement after four or five decades in the craft.
The journalist was asked what it was that appalled him the most about the world at the end of his career.
He replied that enduring poverty, inequality and conflict were what he found most disturbing.
The person who asked the questioned was miffed. I have only the vaguest recollection of the interviewer’s name.
Nonetheless, he was astounded that the journalist had not seen the good things, and the progress that humanity had made.
He explained that human beings were generally better off, having once lived in caves. Today we had cars, planes, electricity, running water, advanced medical technologies, institutions, and global networks of commerce and communications that made everyone better off.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in September last year, the former United States president, Barack Obama, echoed this global Panglossian liberal idealism.
“If you had to choose any moment in history in which to be born, you would choose right now. The world has never been healthier, or wealthier, or better educated or in many ways more tolerant or less violent,” Obama told guests.
This tradition, a belief that today is the best time to be alive, and that our knowledge is such that we can address all our problems in a scientific and amoral way, draws great inspiration from the Enlightenment.
Recall that the Enlightenment emerged from 18th-century Europe as an intellectual and philosophical movement, and extended a set of core ideas as the basis for progress, across the world.
The main claims of the Enlightenment were that reason was the main source of authority and legitimacy, and that knowledge, especially the scientific method, would best serve humanity, and thereby result in progress.
There is some truth in the claims of progress.
We cannot completely discount the idea that we have made some moral progress over the past 70 years or so – notably around women’s rights, civil rights, the rights of gay and lesbian people, and capital punishment.
Sometimes, when I think of the magnificent scientific achievements humans have made, I keep myself in check with the reminder that the greatest minds in science came together in the Manhattan Project, between 1939 and1946, and made an epoch-defining breakthrough that produced the nuclear bomb.
So yes, sometimes it’s clear to see scientific and technological progress – and we should probably not discount nuclear medical technological advances and related applications, but the nuclear bomb simply made mass murder more efficient.
And so, we may ask, for whom is the world a better place?
Who will go to India, Cambodia, Indonesia or the Philippines and explain to people who forage and make their homes on vast rubbish dumps, and tell them that the world is a better place?
Who will tell a 10-year-old Iraqi, or a five-year-old Syrian in Damascus, that the world is a more peaceful place than it was in the 18th century?
Let us bring it back home. Who will tell Ntombizodwa Matthews and her family that scientific progress has made every one more prosperous?
Or, as Obama said, glibly, and without a trace of compunction, that “the world has never been healthier, or wealthier, or better educated”?