Title: Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy, by Yuval Levin
Completed: March 19, 2012 (#20)
Recommendation: Easily (and lamentably) overlooked in the cacophonous debates over stem cells and rising sea levels, an urbane monograph by the Right’s next Charles Krauthammer
Mr. Levin, the founding editor of National Affairs and a former Bush White House staff member, has delivered a rich analysis of contemporary American political debates over science and technology. Focusing predominantly on the ethics of biotechnology, Imagining the Future distinguishes itself by shedding more light than heat in an area of public discussion that is more frequently characterized by the latter. Readers of both Left and Right will surely benefit from Mr. Levin’s even-handed probing of the weak spots in their respective positions.
Imagining the Future is the sort of book that is so lucidly and concisely written that it requires virtually no gloss on the part of the reviewer. In short, Mr. Levin believes that science is “driven by a profound moral purpose” and that “by presenting itself as morally neutral, science sells itself far short.”
Thus, while politics may stop at the water’s edge, it need not (indeed, should not) stop at the laboratory threshold:
A great deal of science is action, and some of that action (especially when human beings are acted upon) may threaten genuine harm. Politics exists to govern action, and so at times it must govern science. This is not always a controversial point. No one contends that protections of human subjects from violations of their rights in scientific research, for instance, are illegitimate. We argue, rather, about when they are appropriate and to what extent. Because such rules normally exist to serve the cause of safety, they are not deemed to be political or moral strictures on science, but of course that is exactly what they are, and their general acceptance proves the point that the governance of science is sometimes legitimate and necessary.
We all know this to be true, however much we may desire that the scientific search for objective truth be unimpeded by “small-p” politics. Mr. Levin’s insight here is what informs all protestations against the course of technological progress, whether human cloning or the research that paved the way to the Manhattan Project:
‘We have bricks, so let us build a tower,’ we say to one another in the scientific age. This has never been a very good argument for building a tower, but it has always been a hard one to resist. As science becomes able not only to reach into the skies but also to reach into the human genome and the sources of life itself, we are in greater need than ever of the very moral powers that the success of science has made weaker.
Having thus established the case for political engagement in the project of modern science, Mr. Levin turns to the arguments of Left and Right, which for a few centuries now have parted company over a strikingly consistent set of issues. The Left, since its birth in the French Revolution, has been closely associated with the Enlightenment and more broadly science, albeit with a hefty dose of
tree-hugging Romanticism. In science, the Left sees its hopes for the progressive betterment and liberation of mankind and thus it conceives of science in terms of “future innovations.”
By contrast, the Right, as best exemplified by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, “thinks in terms of future generations” and is thus prone to greater skepticism as to certain of science’s innovations, particularly where such innovations run afoul of deeply ingrained social or religious taboos.
Myopia with respect to the ethical consequences of technology and a tendency to conflate scientific truth with its own policy preferences are the cardinal sins of the Left (see, e.g., Marx’s “scientific” materialism and certain strains of the environmental movement). For its part, the Right is tempted into intransigent atavism and the idealization of the past (see, e.g., those conservatives who argue that the theory of evolution is simply wrong, rather than the more defensible position that, as a matter of right, parents should have the ability to influence the curriculum taught to their children in public schools). According to Mr. Levin, Burke is the signpost of the via media in his conception of society as “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Our common “natality” is the key to the ethical advancement of science and technology.
Mr. Levin’s digressions on C.P. Snow’s famous “two cultures” thesis on science and the humanities and on the nature of taboos are brilliant, enlightening, and beyond the capability of this reviewer to do justice. The best course is for the curious Reader to pick up a copy in print or on your Kindle and allow Mr. Levin to explain himself directly.
Inasmuch as the success of this site rests entirely on the success of the books reviewed at enlightening, entertaining, or moving the Reader, the proprietor of A Superfluous Man takes seriously his small role as ombudsman to the Reader’s reading life. Mr. Levin has written a book of which you have probably not heard but which nevertheless is well worth your time and energy.