On the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society we reflect on how it first successfully promoted science as a sober and reasonable force serving society by dampening the prevailing apocalyptic ‘enthusiasm’ at large in Restoration England, and how the Society’s relationship to fearful prognostications was recently reversed when it came to promote apocalyptic environmentalism. This reversal is indicated by the election of the Royal Society’s current president in 2005, shortly after he had published one of the most extremely apocalyptic books ever written by a scientist.
In 2003, an eminent British astronomer published a book entitled Our Final Century with the subtitle:
A SCIENTISTS WARNING:
How terror, error, and environmental disaster
threaten humankind’s future in this century
– on earth and beyond.
It tells of how during the 20th century, humanity was first presented with the real risk of its own self-destruction through nuclear catastrophe, and how now, with so many more dangers, it is down to an even chance that our species will extinguish itself before this new century is through. Thus, the title Our Final Century refers to the likelihood of the extinction of the human species before this century is out. The message is clear: The end is nigh.
Published in the USA as Our Final Hour, this book revives the idea of the Doomsday Clock, a symbol of the cold war arms race, where a clock ticking through its eleventh hour is poised at so many minutes to midnight. At first sight the clock as a metaphor for temporal finality seems wrong. The persistent and endless motion of the clock’s hands suggests more a Buddhist sansara than the Christian teleology or eschatology. But that is the point. The hands are seen relentlessly moving towards midnight just as they have always done, as though they might be saying: However bad things might seem now, tomorrow is another day. But this tomorrow is not another day. We don’t know precisely when this will happen, but when it does happen the hands won’t pass over the top of the clock just as they have always done. The scientist’s warning is that the time-bomb is set, the end will surely come. The scope of this temporal quantification of the risk of imminent annihilation is expanded in Our Final Century (as elsewhere) beyond the cold war nuclear threat and towards a complete aggregation of all catastrophic risks to humanity. Our Final Century is a scientific summation of all these fears; and so, if the minutes-to-midnight metaphor was not already crowding out old anti-nuclear book titles, this book might well have been called Our Final Minutes.
Lurking behind the dial of this Doomsday Clock is of course the eschatology of the original Christian Doomsday – the prophesy of the Last Day revealed in the last pages of the Bible. And we should note right away that this is no casual invocation of a religious imperative. On the contrary, the Doomsday metaphor is entirely apt for the most extreme magnitude of the threat our scientist wishes to convey. Our Final Century is not speaking here of a degradation. This is not a browning out, where the living conditions get worse and worse in a degradation of the ecosystem. Nor are we to envisage a qualified disaster, where nuclear war might kill, if not ourselves, then most of the people we know or care about – as was widely experienced in the Black Death, the 30 Year War, the Potato Famine, or any number of other scourges of the last few centuries. This is not of the scale of killing and maim inflicted upon a tribe or races in the various failed attempts at genocide of the last few decades. Nor is it about our final century of civilisation; a return to the dark ages, to poverty and filth, to brutal chaos and primitive barbarity. The scientists warning is of much more than this. We are threatened with the idea of a global annihilation such that there will be no more ideas, no more knowledge, no memory, no history. Such absolute forgetting threatens the collective ego of society in the most absolute way. And, if this apocalypse does not always imply immediate extinction, then, like the nuclear winter scare, the threat is of one terrible dawn of doom, when the fate of humanity will be much like the dammed in those medieval paintings – beyond the tipping point into hell, a place of no return.
In Our Final Century these last days of humanity are painted into the even bigger picture and timescale of the modern astronomer:
If our solar system’s entire lifecycles…were to be viewed in fast forward in a single year, then all recorded history would be less than a minute in early June. The twentieth century would flash past in a third of a second. The next fraction of a second, in this depiction, will be ‘critical’: in the 21st century, humanity is more at risk than ever before from the misapplication of science. And the environmental pressure induced by collective human actions could trigger catastrophes more threatening than any natural hazards.
On this astronomical scale we are now reduced to Our Final fraction-of-a-Second. And while it is clear why the obliteration of one species is ‘critical’ and significant to that species – and perhaps significant to the history of life in general if we trigger a mass extinction – it is not clear why the demise of humanity is significant or critical to this bigger story. But this is not the apparent rhetorical purpose of this passage, which is instead to heighten the importance of our present moment. We are at this very moment poised upon a monumental cusp – the tipping point of a history writ almost inconceivably large.
The investment of a profound historical significance to the current place-time is another quintessential element of the genre of apocalyptic preaching invoked by this book, and we cannot deny what is altogether so apparent in this text, namely, that here we have yet another doomsayer in the tradition of Jewish Daniel, the Christian John and the Prophet of Florence, Girolamo Savonarola. Only this time he is uninspired, sober, reasonable, and wearing the cloak of science. What are we to make of this?
If we begin to question not so much the likelihood of imminent finality, but to question more precisely whether modern science has the means to make such a prediction, then we might question whether this scientist has departed from the rigor of science only to abuse its name with terrific fancy. Whatever the case, we should not suppose that his shift from astronomy to millenarian jeopardised his scientific career. On the contrary, it seems to have advanced it.
Following publication in 2003, our scientist-doomsayer went about promoting his prediction of imminent species annihilation in guest lectures and public forums. This provoked only muted criticism, and much applause. In 2005 he was promoted to English peerage and to the leadership of Britain’s premier scientific institution, so that there are now few scientists with more institutional authority than this man. This scientist of whom we speak is a most unlikely figure of a leader, let alone prophet-of-doom; he is the unassuming and quietly spoken current president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees.
The Apocalypse and the Society
Lord Rees is this month presiding over the 350th anniversary celebrations of what is surely the most important scientific institution in the history of modern science. It was the Royal Society of London that made the breakthrough of a state-sponsored institution to promote natural science as a distinct domain of knowledge. After centuries of conflict with the state-churches, and after many all-but-forgotten failures, it was upon this achievement by a small group of English gentlemen that other states across Europe and the New World drew the confidence to institute similar organisations upon its model, and these institutions were so successful that today’s landscape of modern institutionalised science owes more to the promotional strategy of the early Royal Society than to pretty much anything else.
For those who celebrate science there is much to celebrate here. And yet there is one disquieting disjunction between the promotion of science in those early days and the promotion of science in recent times. This is that in those early days there would have been no place for the sort of apocalyptic alarmism advanced by Lord Rees. On the contrary, the early Royal Society promoted empirical science as a sober and reasonable alternative to those speculating scary scenarios of future calamity. Natural science was promoted to calm existential fears, not to inflame them. The first break-though was achieved by marketing science not only as opposed to the apocalyptic fear-mongering but also as a remedy for it.
With this recent change in the attitude towards speculative alarmism, we see the Royal Society and its clones now aggressively promoting science in the prognosis of various self-inflicted environmental apocalypses, but most especially the one that involves runaway global warming. In the last decade the most successful mode of science promotion has been by fear, not against it. After three and a half centuries we have indeed reached an extraordinary moment in the history of institutionalised science. Whether this is an anomaly or a turning point it is hard to say, for it is still early days and science is still riding a wave of good-will driven by centuries of trusted protocol and practice. Since the beginning, the position of science in society has always been precarious, but it has been widely recognised as serving society well by drawing attention to the evidence-base so as to calm the sorts of panic arising out of superstition and rumour that we now associate with pre-modern times. On this anniversary it might pay to recall the intent and circumstances of what the Royal Society first set in train, as there may be some lessons today in the dangers of dabbling in what was then called ‘enthusiasm.’
The Marketing of Science in the Restoration
The celebrating this month marks a meeting on the evening of 28 November 1660, in the throes of the Restoration, only months after the return of the crown prince to London. It is indeed recorded that agreement was reached at this meeting to form what became the Royal Society. However, the real historical breakthrough came after the coronation of Charles II, after royal approval was achieved in 1662, and perhaps even later when in 1663 a full charter was properly set forth with the King’s Declaration of himself as founder and patron, all under the motto Nullius in Verba. And even this was not enough to establish the position of the Society. From the beginning the founders were most sensitive to misunderstandings and slander, already begun, about its antagonism of church and state, and insinuations of science covertly serving to promote sectarian dogmas or notorious atheism (of the Machiavellian and the Hobbesian and Epicurean variety). To meet the real expectations of an onslaught, as early as 1662 it was decided to draft an extensive official apology. It would be a draft of the Society’s design, in order to be shown to such as might be benefactors. To this purpose the Society engaged a writer known for his unaffected eloquence but without scientific credentials, the young Thomas Sprat. In every way that we might imagine it today, this was an exercise in marketing. Eventually published as The History Of The Royal Society, this full length book was used to carefully position the Society’s institution and practices in a domain of ideas that could not have been more fraught with division and conflict.
Since the early Renaissance, the problem of success for public science had always been about how to open a space for scientific knowledge without overly threatening the spiritual authority of the state churches, and so the keys to the early political success of the Royal Society was the way it came to demonstrate its ability to qualify this threat while nonetheless maintaining its independence. Following the first outbreak of Civil War, there had been an attempt to establish a revolutionary institution of empirical science research that was to be part of the completion of a total reformation as was the project of the apocalyptic Puritans. This model achieved a deal of attention from the parliaments of the Interregnum, and indeed involved some eminent scientists (including Oldenburg and Boyle who would be founding members of the Royal Society), but it was entirely unsuited to the Restoration. Also during this same turbulent period, the head of Wadham College in Oxford, John Wilkins, had been quietly hosting natural science meetings upon a very different model. Only with the Restoration of the Monarchy did Wilkins move to London and become the genius behind the strategic design of the society for experimental knowledge that was to prosper under crown sponsorship. With its success as a state-sanction institution, and through its championing of Newton physics, it became the model for so many other similar institutions across Europe and the New World.
Although himself a priest, Wilkins’ design was secular in every way. Firstly the Society declared neutrality on matters of religio-political import, for, as the History explains, its members openly professed not to lay the foundation of an English, Scotich, Irish, Popish, or Protestant philosophy but a philosophy of mankind. And it was indeed remarkable, considering the times, that the first members were aligned to various protestant creeds, and from both sides of the Civil War – Wilkins himself was married to Cromwell’s sister. Nor did they hesitate in electing eminent continental scientists who were Catholics. This policy allowed them to position the Society as the foremost international club for the virtuosos of European science.
The subject matter of the science was also deemed secular, for it was restricted so as not to come into conflict with the state-instituted dogmas of reveal religion. Natural science studies the world as it is created, as a sign and artefact of its creation, but it does not address the questions of its creation or the nature of the creator-God. The members of the Society meddle no otherwise with divine things, than only as the power, and wisdom and goodness of the creator is displayed in the admirable order, and workmanship of the Creatures. And the Royal Society is abundantly cautious not to intermeddle in Spiritual things nor do they meddle with introspective of the Faculties and operations of their souls. Thus, the Society proclaimed for itself an outward looking science that would not consider the generation of that which is observed, nor the nature of that which is doing the observing. By these constraints, the inner-God of the prophets and the outer-God-Creator of the state-Church were beyond permissible scientific inquiry.
In hindsight we can see that these constraints tended to produce an unchanging and objectified world as viewed by an external observer – and this would forever cause problems at the limits of science, problems that would only come into crisis much later (with Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Heisenberg etc). At the time it also exposed natural science to the accusations of atheism. For the philosophy of science that prospered within these restraints (epistemological empiricism and ontological materialism) was recognisably Epicurean, and Epicureanism was a synonym for atheism. And cop these accusations they did! Remarkably, in the fraught mood of the Restoration, in the desperation to restore the peace, this atheistic orientation of science was no longer of such a critical concern as it had been during the Renaissance. It was indeed problematic, but in the politics of the English Restoration the opening for science was just here, in the God-less practice of the ancient Epicureans – a distraction from the religio-political sphere that it left well alone.
But religio-political neutrality and diversion was not sufficient to justify the introduction of a new domain of knowledge. Science must be seen to have a positive role in the restoration peace and stability under the king. And this is where the Society proclaimed science useful to society as more than a distraction, as a remedy for the ‘spiritual vices’ of the times. Science would be a panacea for these ‘enthusiastical times.’ The timely impact of such a claim needs some explaining.
It was widely held during the Restoration that the parliamentary rebellion had been stirred up by the religious enthusiasm of fanatical Puritans, and that this not only lead to the turmoil of Civil War but to the eventual murder of the King (the father of Charles II). The enthusiasm of Cromwell’s New Model Army had a particular millenarian flavour. It was dominated by a loosely united religious sect later known as the Fifth Monarchy Men. These soldiers imagined their fight as elevated to the final battle of ‘the saints’ against demonic forces. They were saving the world from evil so as to initiating the reign of God on earth – as prophesied in the Apocalypse of Daniel. The army was enthused into battle by preachers who had received direct divine inspiration (‘enthuse’ from ‘en-theos’ means ‘god-within’ and some of these preachers look to modern eyes every bit the casebook psychotic). Once victory was attained, in the interlude of the Commonwealth, there was an attempt to institute a ‘council of saints’ with the so-called Bare-Bones Parliament – the closest England ever came to a theocracy. When this failed, the preachers turned on Cromwell and pronounced him the anti-Christ. With so much support from within the army it was hard for Cromwell to do more than contain and tolerate these attacks, and they indeed contributed to the destabilising of the precarious and short-lived periods of peace under his rule.
The other aspect of religious enthusiasm was less militaristic but sometimes just as destabilising. The killing of the English king was also the killing of the head of the English Church. Cromwell was in no position or inclination to impose some new authority, and so in the unprecedented condition of religious freedom up sprang all sorts of religious sects, many of whom were led by apocalyptic prophets. The Quakers in their early days were one such group, but there were so many more. With the social structure sometime appearing on the verge of collapse – ‘the world turned upside down’ – millenarian panics would sporadically sweep uncontrollable though towns and villages only to exacerbate this social breakdown. The ruling classes came to view the enthusiasts and their swarms of followers as a highly volatile and unpredictable threat to the social structure upon which their power rested. And with the Restoration, it was not as though these movements would suddenly disappear. Moreover, behind every anti-Royalist insurgency could always be found some apocalyptic scenario driving the rebels into mortal combat.
Nor did it help matters when apocalyptic predictions seemed to come true. From the outset of the Restoration, anonymous anti-royalist pamphlets began circulating about a predicted apocalyptic turning point in 1666. This was according to the formula ‘666,’ and under the heading Mirabilis Annus, the propitious year of wonder. When 1666 came around, Londoners at least would be forgiven for wondering if this prophesy was being realised. The Great Plague of 1665 had brought the commerce of the city to a stand still, with the fleeing upper classes returning to find 20% of the population dead. Then the following year a great fire swept across the city destroying the homes of 70,000 of the 80,000 inhabitants.
The writing of the History of the Royal Society had actually been delayed by these calamities, but it was published in 1667 amidst the heighten threat of ‘enthusiastic’ upheaval that they engendered. In a part of the book written after the Plague and Fire, the History proclaimed the power of science to quell this unrest by promoting a sober and reasonable temper, and a healthy scepticism. In support of scientific scepticism against enthusiast credulity, Sprat asserts that the incredulous temper is not a disgrace, but the honour of Experiments. He declared empirical science – called ‘experiments’ – to be…
…the most seasonable study, for this present temper of our nation. This wild amusing men’s minds with prodigies and conceits of providences has been one of the most considerable causes of those spiritual distractions of which our country has long been the theatre….it is now the fittest season for experiments to arise, to teach us a wisdom which springs from the depths of knowledge, to shake off the shadows and to scatter the mists which fill the minds of men with a vain consternation.
And science will serve to protect the Church:
The Church of England will not only be safe amidst the consequences of a rational age, but amidst all the improvements of knowledge, and the subversion of old opinions about nature.’
Sprat suggests that it is in the interests of the Church to encourage empirical science for it can be to the Church what the oak tree is to the Empire, ‘an ornament and defence to the soil wherein it is planted.’ Experimental science protects the Church against ‘spiritual vices’ which are much more of a concern right now than the carnal vices:
But this is certain that the spiritual vices of this age have will nigh contributed as much towards, it, as the Carnal: And for these the most efficious remedy that man of himself can use, is not so much the sublime part of divinity, as its intelligible, and natural, and practicable doctrines.
Sprat is saying that we should not be concerned that empirical science draws attention to the material and sensual at the expense of the spiritual, such as their critics proclaim. This is because it is the spiritual vices, not carnal vices, that are of greatest concern in these current times: ‘The medicines for religious distempers must be changeable according to the diseases’ and in this time of ‘violent spiritual madness,’ these ‘enthusiastical time’ requires ‘a more sensible prescription,’ which is ‘the contemplation of god’s visible works’ – which ‘next to the succor of divine power is the most probable way to preserve the Christian faith.’
Science, Secularism and Fear
The Royal Society was part of a bigger movement within Restoration Anglicanism which was a movement towards religious toleration, an expanding secularism, an altogether sober approach to religion, a scepticism towards fanatics and an aversion to superstition. Indeed, the sober and restrained character of the English nation, and of their national church, can be seen as arising from this movement, especially when compare to the more lively cultures and enthusiastic churches transmitted to (and still prevailing in) the new world. In the end this movement did not serve to preserve the Anglican Church, whose control over thought and practice withered in the face of science and secularism. Nor did it preserve Anglican Christianity, which is now replaced by an echo of its 17th century self in a vague humanism. What it did do was allow secular science to flourish in the increasing trust of a society that would orientate its education system in order to propagate the scientific attitude into various disciplines and departments of culture and thought.
This was how it has worked until recently. But now science has a new way of promoting support, a way that is in fact not new at all but borrowed from its near-forgotten enemy. The same motivation that caused panics to sweep across medieval towns and villages, the same old apocalyptic storyline that scared to their deaths young men in the Civil War; such terror is now being used to draw attention to science, to increase its support (and so funding) and to demand obedience to its authority (The time for debate is over, for the science is settled!). While at its foundation, the Royal Society positioned itself for success in quelling fear with science, it now uses fear to drum up support.
It is true that the Society’s president is not proclaiming divine direction and screaming fire-and-brimstone from a high pulpit. Yet behind the sober and reasonable façade there is the horror of imminent annihilation. Such works as Our Final Century deal with the problems and risks of society with an over-riding theme of fear that is useful only to this purpose of scaring people. Similarly terrifying discussions of risk are found in the speeches and writings of prominent climatologists such as Schneider and Hansen. The Royal Society and its clones support this alarmism. And their official pronouncements, although often less extreme, affect the same purpose. It remains to be seen whether this new strategy in the long run will tend to serve the advancement of science or otherwise serve its demise.