Review of The Biological Time Bomb by Gordon Rattray Taylor. London, Thames and Hudson, 1968
British Journal of Psychiatry, 115, 1969, p. 355-6
There are not many, least of all among the young, who have any doubt of the grimness of the future which now faces mankind. The population explosion is just getting going, and the number of millions by which the human race annually adds to its numbers will continue to increase for as long as we can foresee. The pollution and the destruction of the environment by what Dr. Fraser Darling has called "the cancerous growth of human population" spreads in widening circles‑"cancerous because it is uncontrolled and out of control‑growth without form". As the years pass, each human unit makes a larger demand on the resources of the environment, for living space, for community facilities and for recreation. Each human unit becomes year by year increasingly mobile, and impinges on other units with increasing frequency and at higher velocities. The speed of social change, by itself, is making the processes of adaptation increasingly difficult. Governments have to make or to postpone decisions of an increasingly fateful kind; and they have to do so, reluctantly and half‑heartedly or impulsively, on a basis of inadequate information and inappropriate principles. The decision‑makers are themselves men of merely "superior" ability, and are not appropriately trained for their tasks. "Relative mental deficiency", i.e. an intelligence unequal to the tasks required of it, is the rule in all the hundreds of uncoordinated control‑centres of this terrestrial space‑ship. Very likely there just are not the men, regardless of whether or not we could find them, who would be capable of solving with sufficient speed and sufficient accuracy the problems now crowding upon us. We have no reason to suppose that the decisions made on our behalf will not be more and more out of touch with the existing state of the world, more inappropriate to a foreseeable future, more infatuated and more disastrous.
Against this landscape of gathering storm, Mr. Taylor's voice pipes up with a note of terror. He would like to make our flesh creep, indeed to frighten us into our wits, and he calls for a slowing down of the processes of biological discovery and of their practical application. But he does not undertake this necessary task in a well thought out way. So many of his bogies are turnip‑ghosts, that the malignant spectres that flit among them pass unrecognized. He shows us many ways in which our ability to influence our future i being enlarged, but he does not distinguish between the ones which are mere curiosities and the ones which hold out a threat or promise of mass effects. The economic aspects and the logistics of biological advances are nowhere considered. There is, for instance, a chapter on genetic engineering and what this might do to mankind. These prospects are absurd. We have not needed genetic engineering to improve the quality of crops and animal stocks; and if we wish to go about improving the genetic endowment of our children, established breeding methods will be the ones to choose for a mass population effect. Of course no such thing will be done; to apply "eugenics" to human populations is an idea universally repudiated, both by scientists and the lay, as dangerous, unscientific and ethically infamous.
A similar criticism applies to Mr. Taylor's discussion of the horror comics of transplant surgery. He should not have hoped to curdle our blood with accounts of all the possible ways of cannibalizing the living and the dead to provide viable mosaics, human‑animal and man‑machine hybrids. When the population of the globe is numbered in millions of millions, such facilities will affect the destinies only of an infinitesimal few. The economic absurdity of the work we are already doing in this field only needs to be plainly stated to be appreciated. In 1966, in England and Wales, 152,383 men and women died of arteriosclerotic and degenerative heart disease. What is the contribution that the prima donnas of our heart units are making to the amelioration of this enormous problem in public health? If Mr. Taylor had forgone some of his oohs and aahs about transplant work, he might have done something to help us to decide on our priorities and to distinguish between prestige surgery and useful surgery.
One comes in the end to the reflection that, if the biologists are to be given their heads along the lines Mr. Taylor shows are possible, we should need a planet with a total population of, say, one million people, all of them being the equivalents of multimillionaires. It is not really thinkable that resources will be so unequally divided that a million multimillionaires will be living at the expense of a million million slaves.
Mr. Taylor is much concerned with the ethical aspects of all the changes he foresees, and in his final chapter comes down to consider such primary issues as the responsibilities that scientists must bear for the consequences of their work, and question what sort of world it is that we must imagine our descendants will want to inherit. Perhaps one primary principle might give us some guidance: that we should aim consistently for the great st possible variety in the range of natural environments and in the range of biotypes that inhabit them. The opposite to that is the poverty of uniformity, and that is the biological slum to which Mr. Taylor sees us making our way.
Man is the measure, he concludes. But this is far too narrow. I would follow Fraser Darling in thinking our loyalties should embrace our entire world of animals and plants, landscape, air and water. We would be happier and wiser if we were lest anthropocentric, and if we took seriously our duty as the dominant mammal on the face of the earth, "the clever one", to keep our world clean and to serve the lesser creation.