3 JUNE 1972, Page 37

Ii °11 1WatChing

ard Dixon

In 44 of the day (as Harold Wilson .sev, rtittl," °ne's reaction to contemporary 'e problems of environment, poithe misuse 1Y :Idof science depends titt'lli. whether by temperament one is hiss„r Or a pessimist. Qvi "ew book The Doomsday Synhioh4e,nlillan), John Maddox adopts an optimistic approach to the technological catastrophe. Some trs'"culties emphasised by the doom he believes, will more or less --fe of themselves. Above all, yo'eels that, just as intelligent, adaple 41° sapiens has solved many fortie Pttoblems in the past, so he will isti t/ do so in the future. He is also to Mout human nature, seeing no h4vop SuPPose that medical scientists, 114developed antibiotics and other '54 Products, will begin to pursue l to, ends. We need not, therefore, en';' thuch over fears that such deNs `8 as 'test-tube babies' or N 4:4 tinkering with heredity will be Sinister ends. This is not the place to discuss the technical feasibility of genetic engineering, or the seriousness of various threats of ecocatastrophe. Suffice to say that, from an Astronomer-Royal who not so long ago dismissed space travel as bilge, to expert dismissals of the early warnings of Rachel Carson (many of them later vindicated), we have learned to suspect reassuring statements from experts about future technological change. Though I agree with much of what he says, therefore, I dislike the basic temper of John Maddox's book, and believe we should not accept his reassurances either. Two factors in particular should caution us against robust optimism. First, the increasing rate of technological change in the world demands greater vigilance than ever before. The accelerating pace at which laboratory discoveries reach commercial application can be greatly exaggerated, but what is true is that, at that point of application, the products and processes of science are deployed ever more extensively, more quickly. A new and unnatural chemical, for example, introduced as a pesticide, food additive, or industrial catalyst, can within a few months become an inescapable part of the environment for millions of people. If the environmentalists Maddox attacks awaken and mobilise concern about incipient dangers in such developments, so much to the good. Second, there is the relative autonomy of much science and technology. Maddox dismisses as a fallacy the belief that "the course of development of modern technology cannot be influenced by human beings." Yet here we are building Concorde, at a cost of over £5 for every man, woman and child in Britain, with very little genuine sensitivity or accountability to the community at large. The citizen in Britain has had virtually no real democratic influence over Concorde, just as the American public played no part in the absurd decision to send men to the Moon.

The crucial question is whether the need to monitor new science and forestall its illeffects, and provoke more public concern over science (which Maddox acknowledges as legitimate concerns) is well served by the crusading of such people as Rene Dubos, Paul Ehrlich, and Barry Commoner (whom Maddox attacks). I believe it is. Despite the desensitising effect of crying wolf too often, despite some wrong-headed panic decisions (such as the cyclamate ban), the overall influence of those Maddox attacks is positive and to the good. What a pity, too, that Maddox does little to distinguish between scientists such as Commoner and Dubos and some of their sillier followers. The problems under discussion, whatever else they require, will need science in their solution. That's why it is important that among the leading critics of science and its social effects are high calibre scientists who understand their subject thoroughly but are not so blinkered that they do not see beyond it.