The patron saint of the British Industrial Revolution was Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan philosopher and crusading apostle for science. His passionate advocacy of the scientific method and belief in science’s ability to banish superstition – allowing nature to be harnessed for humankind’s betterment – was light years ahead of his time. The Royal Society was founded 34 years after his death as the scientific academy he wanted to create.
Almost every successful Anglo-Saxon inventor and industrialist during the next 250 years – from Benjamin Franklin to Michael Faraday – paid tribute to his inspiration. He was the Enlightenment man before the Enlightenment, and one important reason why the Industrial Revolution started in Britain.
Francis Bacon’s spirit will be sorely lacking in Harpenden today. Take the Flour Back is organising a day of “mass protest” around one small field where researchers from government-funded Rothamsted Research are growing a strain of wheat that resists being eaten by aphids. So far, so good – it could hugely boost wheat yields. The trouble is that this variety of wheat has been developed in a laboratory with scientists blending the seeds’ genes with a gene that gives the wheat a smell that frightens off the insects in a way that could never happen in nature. Take the Flour Back wants the wheat, now a foot tall, uprooted and the threat of its pollen contaminating the surrounding countryside removed.
The short video on its website makes its case effectively and emotionally, stroking the sweet spot of every contemporary bogeyman. The new director of Rothamsted, inevitably, has worked for a sinister multinational. This is an open-air trial with no prior public consultation, despite the fact that the GM pollen will be spread by the wind, so contaminating neighbouring fields. This will hurt farmers’ interests, as it has in Canada, because so many people worldwide don’t want to eat anything that might be associated with genetic modification. We must do something to stop it all, the video urges, backed up by some rock’n’roll that makes any old 1968-er like me want to get down to the demonstration.
But then turn to the Sense About Science website, where four young scientists from Rothamsted make their case for allowing the wheat to be grown. They are dedicated, unpretentious men and women. Rothamsted is a government-funded lab dedicated to improving plant types since 1843. The results of the research will be available for all freely and not patented. The wheat seeds are not some Frankenstein mutation from cow genes, as Take Back the Flour claims, but synthetically made in their labs. The only way to test if the wheat succeeds in repelling aphids is in the open air. There is no risk of contamination because the wheat is self-seeding and gives off no wind-borne pollen. Let science do its work; talk and engage with us, they say. Don’t just trample on our life work. If we don’t let the wheat grow, we will not have answers.
The 68er in me sympathises with Take the Flour Back, the Enlightenment pro-science side of me with the young scientists. And the more I have learned as I worked on this column the more I think they have right on their side. There is no risk of contamination with this particular wheat seed. Today’s wheat, as the scientists point out, is a human creation and, unlike 400 other plant types, wheat has no capacity to scare away aphids. The addition of this pheromone to wheat brings it in line. Without it, the job in reality is done by chemical pesticides, much more environmentally destructive. Higher food prices are a reality; increasing yields in any wheat-growing country – because this new gene technology will not be patented – is a genuine public good.
The young scientists at Rothamsted are brave; they court a violent reaction from protesters who really believe that the integrity of nature is at stake. It is slightly fanciful, but they are directly in the great Baconian tradition. Like scientists over the centuries, they are having to stand by the logic of where intellectual inquiry takes them, however their ideas are received. Galileo spent the latter part of his life under house arrest courtesy of the Vatican’s inquisition for his heresy in insisting the Earth revolved around the sun. Yet by 1859, Darwin could publish On the Origin of Species to popular acclaim. Nineteenth-century Victorian England embraced science with enthusiasm.
Today, I wonder how a work as ground-breaking as Darwin’s would be received. Take Back the Flour would accuse him of being the slave of corporate interests set on unleashing dangerous new methods to lift agricultural productivity. Animal Rights protesters would say that the voyage of the Beagle was predicated on inhuman experimentation on animals. The Tea Party movement and religious fundamentalists would try to ban him from entering the US. Islamic fundamentalists would doubtless issue a fatwa.
Part of the problem is that today’s science is taking human capabilities to master nature to new levels. We are going to be able to prolong and clone life, open up the universe and transform our senses and intelligence to a degree previously unimagined. There are profound ethical and moral questions at play. The cloning of skin or limbs to help burn victims or the disabled is an obvious good. But how about cloning whole people? The closer science gets to mastering the secrets of life, the more scientists become quasi-gods.
In fact, they never will answer every question; not only is scientific advance within disciplines growing explosively, so are unexpected jumps between disciplines. The story of the decades ahead is going to be dramatically exciting scientific progress that we should welcome as unambiguously as the Victorians celebrated their science. We need to rediscover the Baconian tradition and to manage the inevitable ethical and moral dilemmas through public argument, just as the Rothamsted researchers want.
Which is why the dismal advance of bad capitalism and monumental inequality has been so destructive. Victorians could see that science and capitalism were engines of progress. Today, we see corporations as manipulators of science to create huge personal fortunes for a distant, antisocial elite at the top – and the public realm in which scientific advance might be discussed is dominated by media careless of objectivity.
This is a culture that generates movements such as Take Back the Flour that trust no one and it won’t change until companies are forced, or volunteer, to rejoin the society of which they are part. And until we create media that respect truth.