A Design for Fighting


ONCE upon a time recently there was a great nation in a mess. The nation’s ills were everywhere obvious. A great many poor people were hungry, while other citizens destroyed their surpluses; more than ten million were unemployed; the desires of the laborers for greater pay and prestige were doing badly; the women without higher education were submerged by custom and lack of opportunity; the people had no thrifty desires to accumulate savings — indeed they had nothing much to save; the young men and women received little systematic training in health or in patriotism; they had little opportunity to travel.

In this economically and spiritually confused country, diseases like measles, pneumonia, and syphilis were badly controlled, if at all; mosquitoes and flies were destined to be eternal pests and carriers of disease; the airplanes were relatively slow and weak (we continue to list the nation’s ills); the researches in the physical sciences throughout the country were listless; the art of ship-building and ship-sailing had practically disappeared; and worst of all, there was little zest for life and liberty, no driving principle or policy to make the citizens from all the corners of the country proud to be citizens of that nation and brothers under a sun that might illuminate a hopeful future.

If I had, at that time, ventured to offer a remedy for all these ills, every one of them, by advising the afflicted nation to take active part in the greatest and bloodiest human war ever conceived — a war that destroys more property and brutally butchers more innocent people than the worst human butchers have ever enjoyed in their most gorgeous dreams; if I had recommended that mad procedure, guaranteeing the almost complete cure of all such ills within ten years, and the practical attainment of all the high goals I have implied, it is quite likely that both my advice and I should have been (to understate it) deplored. Naturally, I did not make such a recommendation.

Nevertheless, this nation did get into just such a war, and all those happy desiderata and many more have come about.

Probably never in the history of this country have its people, as a whole, eaten so well as during the past three years. There is practically no unemployment. The soldiers and sailors are the best paid and fed in the world. The nation is healthier. The people have rather willingly adopted healthful restraints, constructive collaboration, unified determination, a national spirit of worthy sacrifice.

Sensational advances in the treatment of certain diseases, new knowledge of food, new accomplishment in a million new home gardens, new and widespread instruction in world geography — all these have come also. Without the war, most of them would yet have been totally missing, and the others of slow maturing. The women in the offices, factories, and armed services have discovered abilities and self-assurance heretofore unrealized. Elementary applied sciences have been taught to about a million young men who would otherwise have been deprived of a practical training that is important in a civilization highly dependent on applied science. The political and social prestige of labor has increased remarkably in three years of war; and millions of citizens have billions in savings — establishing a policy heretofore unknown, unpracticed, or impossible.

With such manifold blessings to the majority of individuals and groups in America, and with such apparent social gain for the nation as a whole, who could sincerely regret this world war and who would take steps to prevent another one? Should we not praise those who precipitated it ? Or is there a counteracting Design for Not Fighting— some substitute for Beneficent War?

War was long ago recognized as a good tribal business by certain savage and primitive people, but they fought for food, women, loot, and the joy of personal combat. These are not our American motives. We have food; we have, if anything, too many women; our individual property averages the most and best in the world; and the lust for personal combat has been pretty well bred out of us. (Even if it has not, modern war provides little opportunity for personal bloodletting, since it is about nine-tenths fought on the draftsman’s board, in the machine shop, and by the remotely located ground forces.) Fewer than a tenth of our mobilized warriors in battlefields, factories, and farms ever smell the human enemy or grapple with him. The poetry and romance, the snorting rush of the foaming charger and the savage clash of sabers have been machined out of modern and future wars. Most of the thrills for most of us are vicarious. At the height of a hard-pressing crisis, we may work at the lathes some fifty-four hours a week — with timeand-a-half for overtime, of course.

Our material gains in war are therefore not so elemental as those which made war a national business for earlier tribes. It is now not so much for food, loot, and glory that we fight, as (if we judge by our successes) for the great social gains: for widely distributed prosperity, the education of the masses, large wealth for a new set of capitalists, the provision of work for everybody, and good pay for good work. Socially uplifting is this war, as well as materially profitable, for more than 100 million Americans.

Up to this point, it sounds as though it would be folly not to adopt world war as the national policy. The amazing advantages and dividends must be balanced somehow, or even written off in some way; otherwise we are at a loss to understand another equally amazing situation: namely, that practically everyone wants this beneficent war to end immediately, and fervently hopes, apparently, that there will never be another such war.

Undoubtedly there exist a few friends of war, scattered among the officers of the armed forces, the politicians and government officials, the magnified personalities of press and radio, and especially among profiteering businessmen — a considerable number altogether, who secretly hope that this war will continue and that others will come. These people must be watched, but I choose to consider them as low moral perverts, and not as a part of the American citizenry.

Why Not War as a National Business?

To enumerate briefly the chief objections to war, we note first that it is making nearly all our regularly trained army and navy personnel important, and perhaps overweeningly arrogant. The same is true for hundreds of Washington bureaucrats. It may be pretty hard to demobilize the pride and spirit and habits of many of the war-enriched, glory-inflated citizens.

The war is building a much greater American Legion — again, a two-edged sword, disadvantage and advantage.

The war has decreased the normal care of children, and probably their morale. The bull-market boom of the late twenties, of course, tended to do the same.

The usual type of college education has been interrupted for a few years for many boys. Presumably that should be listed as a disadvantage.

Although the war has improved the business of newspapers, of the radio, of manufacturers, of the transportation and communications industries, and of most small businessmen the country over, there were some enterprises temporarily ruined by the war (although the corresponding businessmen themselves have landed on their feet elsewhere). And the whitecollar classes have, as usual, suffered disproportionately, because the take has lagged behind the increased outgo.

Some would list “the economic waste of war” as a frightful price to pay for our full employment and full stomachs and purses.

Finally, taxes have become atrocious; but hardly any of us regret that others pay the government heavily, to meet a part of the costs of the war and to help in moderating the inflation natural to the existence of prosperity. In fact, we almost cheerfully pay our own taxes as a part of the healthful national discipline.

It is obvious that I am reaching around desperately to find sufficient disadvantages of war; it must be discredited somehow.

As I see it, there are two major comments to be made on our aversion to adopting war as the best national or international business. One is obvious; the other leads toward hope.

We in America are on the winning side of this war, and from the first we have known that we are winning; also the war is not on the home grounds. Those obvious factors explain much. Practically none of the war advantages cited above have been available to the French, Dutch, Norwegians, Czechs, and other conquered states. Only a few temporary advantages (like full employment and perhaps unity of spirit) have been available to the now defeated Axis countries; and by no means all of our advantages have come to Great Britain and the Dominions. This time we have kept a winning war at a distance. It is relatively very profitable, and not all the profits are temporary. We have reasons to suspect, however, that a future war might eventuate otherwise.

It remains to make the hopeful comment that the basic reason why 130 million Americans and untold hundreds of millions of others want an end of this war, and of all similar world struggles, is that war is immoral. The moral values in the situation more than balance the immediate material and social advantages, more than balance the prosperity, the glory, the excitement,— even for us, a winning nation. This is a fact of highest encouragement to all who are solicitous for the further evolution of the human race. It is inspiriting that we, who are temporarily gaining so many worth-while social and personal advantages, are neverthless conscious of the cosmic error of it all.

We owe our present consciousness of the long-range tragic penalties of war to two widely different causes. One is the remarkably dramatic news coverage by press and radio, which has not concealed from Americans the bitter blood and tears. The other is the religious and secular education of past centuries, which has gradually built an intellectual heritage and a universal ethics that link peace with social justice, international good will, and human progress. Through moral education, peace has become an inherent human desire; it is almost an instinctive good, for educated men, and war an instinctive evil.

Possibly there are other important factors that tend to cancel or minimize the social and material gains of successful war at a distance — mass anxiety and regret over economic waste, for instance. But we also had deep pre-war anxieties. Personally I am content to accept the contention that the moral gain of abolishing war is the best reason for such a policy. The arguments based on economics and demography are too often specious and circular; usually they involve merely postponements and short-term compromises. The inherent moral antipathy, moreover, is a factor most clearly associated with the mental and spiritual development of mankind. I am gratified that we can rate it highly.

As the current strife draws to a conclusion that seems to be satisfactory for the continuance of a Western culture, we may profitably turn our thoughts first toward post-war peace plans. And when the world gets stabilized politically and economically, or even before then, we should begin planning for the next war. In the remainder of this article I hope to incite my readers to consider plans for new martial activities. It will then become clear why I have taken time to consider both the advantages of successful war and the moral and material costs thereof. We shall have standards of comparison.

Our Recent Inglorious Defeat and Humiliation

In 1918-1919 more than four times as many Americans were killed by Influenza as by our enemies of the First World War. Twenty million human beings perished of that ruthless disease. The economic loss in the world-wide battle with the influenza organism was also tremendous. Moreover, sad and shameful to say, we lost that war. Only when it became satiated with its successes did the savage foe recede into the invisible realms where it normally dwells, and from which it has at times made further minor forays with murderous and economically destructive results. Even yet, that adversary is not defeated; our defenses against it are permeable and insufficient.

Clearly we have right here a dangerous enemy for our next war. Why are we not all arming ourselves against this treacherous foe that does not hesitate to make sneak attacks and has no respect for armistice? There were several millions of us engaged in those influenza battles of 1918-1919; we are the casualties who recovered. I now wonder why in heaven we who returned from those battlefields did not form an American Flu Legion, don our old face masks and march in parades, brandish our voting strength, and influence Congressmen.

With our political power, under the leadership of General Doctor, Captain Laboratory Technician, and Lieutenant Nurse — all who fought valiantly with us millions of private sufferers in the great influenza war — we might have got the government to fortify research laboratories munificently, drill the citizens in epidemic prevention and control, enforce the care of body and mind, and turn the powerful mass psychology into a fervent patriotic assault on the enemies of mankind that have always been more deadly than the soldiers of European fanatics and tyrants. So prepared, when the next attack comes along, we should be ready for it. We could sell Health Bonds, pay taxes luxuriously, work like the devil, and perhaps, this time, win the war, conquer our great enemy, and keep him subjugated for as long as man remains civilized and sanitary.

But, alas, we did not organize. Medical investigators and public health officers continue to do their best, without much government or public support, while the undertakers year after year continue to tuck us away prematurely.

Selecting Enemies for Coming Wars

But the Design for Fighting I want to sketch here is not so simple and obvious as would be a defensive war against some major decimating epidemic. To fight defensively means admission of intellectual defeat. I want to go deeper. We should remember that it is only the bodies of men and women that the gravediggers inter and the cremators oxydize. Our influences, our contributions to knowledge and to the art and beauty of human living, — our spirits, if you will, — escape the mortuary. Our works live after us.

Let us, therefore, seek out some of the enemies that assail those human qualities that we group loosely under the term “civilization”; let us look up the opponents to the evolution of those human characteristics that seem to differentiate men from other animals and plants. We may discover that an enthusiastic warfare against such opponents, even if only partially successful, is a fair substitute for warfare against fellow men. At least it would emphasize the absurdity of world wars or national wars where life and property are wildly squandered, while these greater enemies — the enemies of the soul, mind, sometimes body — are almost completely ignored.

Instinctive and acquired human morality, as we have noted, opposes the promotion of man-kill-man war; but I believe this same inherent morality must unquestionably be vigorously pro-war, war to the death, if we define our enemies as those that obstruct or challenge the social and intellectual growth of man and of human society.

We could, of course, betray this innate evolutionary struggle, deliberately refuse to grow, and go turtling through the ages, dull and static; we could even regress, like a petered-out biological species, by way of recurrent world wars and social degradations. But it will be better cosmic sportsmanship to go to the top, to the limit of our abilities and aspirations; for there may be something at that rainbow’s end that will make even the galaxies look incidental.

Whatever the postulates in which we clothe ourselves, whether our tailors are religious prophets, pagan philosophers, modern scientific cosmogonists, or the still striving spirits of jungle-born curiosity, the majority of Americans are already amply dressed for the uphill climb. This readiness of the citizen-soldiers is a challenge to those who venture to make plans. No boastful pacification of a restless island will suffice, no capture of a distant market for the enriching of a few traders, no gloating superiority in armored flying battleships. Those are goals unsuited to human dignity in this time of a New Renaissance.

No, it has to be good, this set of plans; and those whom we have trained to be the long-range social thinkers should heed well the ways and means, the details of joining battle with the real enemies. These new conflicts, moreover, must not be local wars, for a few scientific laboratories, or for one country or one county. The fight must be at least nation-wide. Perhaps over the borders are potential allies, willing, well-armed, and similarly star-bent.

As a simple preliminary, I shall mention four national or internalional problems the resolution of which seems to lead in the right direction.


Education, as we know, is well spoken of. Although it is perverted at times and in places into antisocial channels, it is by and large both good and necessary. It is indeed indispensable if democracy is to prevail and the dignity of the individual man is to be respected and enhanced. Literacy is basic for it. Notwithstanding the rapid rise of auditory education by way of the radio, and of pictorial education by moving pictures and oncoming television, there is no reasonable escape from the general necessity of knowing how to read and write. Even a tabloid requires a modicum of literacy, and the comic strips carry printed materials.

The point I am driving at is that Illiteracy can and should be wiped out. The basic equipment (reading and writing) for general and special education should be universally provided. It is not a job for schoolteachers alone. It is a national job, for the public and the local governments. Ten years from now the existence of illiteracy between the ages of ten and sixty should be reckoned as a community disgrace. The shame should be on the community, and not on the unfortunate individuals. In many communities volunteer teachers, performing a sympathetic rather than a patronizing task, could take care of this business without difficulty.

In Mexico, the enlightened president, General Manuel Avila Camacho, has requested educated adults to undertake, as a part of their national service, the elementary education of at least one unschooled neighbor. Must we lag behind in social progress? Must we wait for a presidential order? A command from the conscience of the community should suffice. The people can do this work with pleasure and with justifiable pride. And once the first battle for universal literacy has been won in the community, city, county, or state, the level can be raised and a further step taken toward an enlightened citizenry. The second goal might be: “Eighty per cent of those older than fifteen years to have a completed grammar school education"; and there should be a ceremonious bestowal, on the successful community, of an “E” for Excellent, or Education, or Evolving.

There may be, of course, an irreducible minimum of illiteracy of perhaps one per cent, because of the existence of insurmountable physical disabilities and the presence of illiterate transients. But the occurrence of foreign-language elements in a community should be no excuse for not undertaking or solving this problem; rather it should be a challenge — and an opportunity, by the way, for mutual education.

Premature Senility

As a second martial enterprise, let us organize ourselves and declare war on Premature Senility. The more we study the life span and the death causes of Americans and Europeans, the more we realize that a few maladies and a few bad habits cut off too many useful people prematurely. Most of us say that we should dread the prolongation of useless old age; but who can object to the adding of ten years to the active lives of men and women to whom the years have brought augmented wisdom, and in whom experience has produced nobility of character?

I look forward to the time, perhaps in a century or so, when an adult caught with a communicable disease will be heavily fined, and one indulging in afflictions like cancer, tuberculosis, arthritis, and neuroses will be branded as a social pariah and put in jail. I hope that the names of some of those diseases will become so little known that one would find them only at the bottom of the dictionary page — “cancer: a rare disease, rampant in the dark ages, when, about 1940, it was killing 150,000 Americans annually.” But my hope is perhaps loo wild. Certainly there will need to be some hard fighting and heavy expense and further education before that Utopia dawns.

The Western world is not too crowded; there is useful work to be done, there are joys to be shared, fine thoughts to be meditated, sunsets for everybody. The proper balance for a diminishing but healthfully controlled birth rate could be the prolongation of adult life. Already the medical and health sciences have done astonishing work on the diseases of infancy. The average age has risen spectacularly in America and elsewhere. But mature men and women will live and work happily half a generation longer when, as the result of a sincere and widespread war, we conquer or control arthritis, cancer, nephritis, and diseases and disorders of the circulatory system, the respiratory system, and the brain. These six are the chief disablers. There is reason for the high hopes of continued advance against all of them.

The battles must be fought, to be sure, largely by the specialists, but in three ways the public can contribute notably; and without this public help, complete victory is impossible. We can inspire brilliant young scientists to enlist, preferably as volunteers, in this great war in the interest of human life and happiness. We can provide directly by gift, or indirectly through influencing governmental support, the necessary funds for the hospitals, research laboratories, and field studies. We can coöperate in controlling some of these scourges by care of personal health and by seeing to it that our communities are provided with appropriate health programs.

Let me comment briefly on each of the six: —

1. In the United States five million people suffer from the various forms of arthritis, and hundreds of thousands are prematurely disabled thereby. Yet, with minor exceptions, there are no appreciable funds for the basic study of this disease, and no specific research army or institution. Arthritis rarely finishes off its own victims; it prepares them painfully for the kill by some more lethal assailant. The average mildness of the malady is probably the reason it is commonly overlooked as one of man’s great enemies.

l2. Some further comments on the cancer war. The first eleven days of the critical and bloody invasion of Normandy took an average of three hundred American lives a day; cancer killed an average of four hundred Americans on each of those days. And it does not stop; it offers no armistice. In the next twelve months there will be the customary 150,000 deaths in America from this one source, preceded in general by great suffering, sorrow, and expense. Why are we not doing something about it? But we are! Yes, we spend annually in cancer research in all the universities and medical research institutions (not including the National Cancer Institute) a little less than the receipts of one major football game! For the current “War of the Tyrants” we spend 300 billion dollars of public money. For the war against cancer, the greater manenslaving enemy, one-millionth as much!

Of course we need more research men and more ideas for the fight on cancer, but both will be forthcoming if ample funds are supplied for numerous full-time research positions in leading hospitals and medical schools. The cancer investigators must also explore the possibilities in neighboring fields, and the public should no more worry about efforts and money wasted in following faint trails than it now worries about the expense of exploratory scientific researches for the present war. Four hundred American lives a day justify an expensive fight.

3. Hard arteries and the associated consequences stop in mid-career too many important workers in business, in the professions, in public service. A career of high nervous pressure is tough on the circulatory systems of those men who respond too generously to the call of duty and opportunity. As yet we have no real defense — only worried sermons from harassed wives and family doctors. More than half a million Americans die each year from diseases of the circulatory system; and of the people who are over ten years of age, more than half will die of these maladies unless something vigorous and drastic is done. How much do we spend in basic research on the ravages of this enemy? Practically nothing at all!

4. Tuberculosis is still a deadly enemy to those important people between the ages of twenty-five and forty years, notwithstanding modern progress in care of the afflicted; and also unsolved as yet is that other respiratory affliction, the expensive common cold.

5. Nephritis buries nearly 100,000 Americans a year. We lose the lives, but save a little money, for again there are negligible funds earmarked for research on kidney diseases.

6. But perhaps our greatest enemy among the major maladies is the group of physiological and psychological factors that disorder and spoil the human mind. Some of the many forms of mental diseases are already yielding to the various therapies. Epilepsy is pretty well under control. The depressions are better understood than formerly, and that new knowledge is a necessary preliminary to successful treatment.

The plight of the schizophrenics is no longer a hopeless mystery. The alarmingly large number of neuropsychiatric cases coming out of the armed forces — approximately one half the total discharges for disability — emphasizes dramatically the great importance of fighting this ruthless enemy; fighting hard for the sanity of the race; fighting, also, for the prolongation of mental power. With the mind senile, a virile body is rudderless; the centenarian’s closing days should be bright, but not balmy!

Without further documentation, let us acknowledge the need for a concerted national attack on the recognizable causes of premature senility— the ailment that sooner or later will be of personal interest to practically all of us. Would you like to have a tenth of one per cent of your future Federal income tax devoted to the elimination, or at least the great diminution, of the ills that prematurely weaken and destroy? That’s all the cash it would require. There is a highly sponsored National Science Fund with committees that could administer grants for medical research.

Would you participate in a national “one meal fast” to pay for research on the major maladies? If all took part, and contributed the equivalent, about 15 million dollars, we should win both happiness and years, because several deadly diseases would die.

Cultural Uniformity

Universal literacy is a goal the average citizen can help attain; longevity is a problem chiefly for the specialists to handle. I should like to isolate another conflict in which everybody can take part. We can name it the Fight Against Cultural Uniformity. It would take long to elaborate the need for this movement, and longer to specify sample procedures in detail. A brief summary must suffice here.

Life, I have found from experience, is the dullest thing one can live; and it would be vastly duller but for variety among the people one meets, diversity in their habits, manners, and intellectual reactions. To maintain and increase the diversity, to the end of enhancing the degree of satisfaction with life and the opportunity for intellectual and artistic growth, requires immediate fighting against real foes.

I assume people realize that a world state is in prospect for the near future — geologically near; perhaps not in this decade or generation, but soon. By world state I mean the organization of practically all terrestrial men. The quality and degree of the internationalism of the coming world state should be examined. Aviation and radio, and similar modern arts, force the unification. A world-wide economic association that encompasses all states that do business seems so inevitable, ultimately, that one wonders why we go ahead trying halfway substitutes.

And the unified political organization that will include all the present nations is also rapidly developing, notwithstanding some stubborn and perhaps bloody resistance, and in spite of the temporary dominance by political cartels of major powers. Some would probably predict that the political unity will be obtained and stabilized before the end of the present century; and others may hold out for a thousand years of sirife and political individualism. But we all should probably agree, if put to it, that we either sink to savagery or rise, perhaps slowly, to a world unity, however drab this last prospect may appear.

But is a world-wide common culture an inevitability of the new order? I believe not. A political internation and a universal economic agreement need not lead to a sterile uniformity in the cultural world. Local languages perish slowly; and many local customs can persist because they are linked with local geography. Hills, valleys, deserts, mountains, the seashores, and the various belts of latitude will remain, notwithstanding the ingenuity and deviltry of man. And the climates, soils, waters, and scenery in these various types of geographical localities can and will have a basic effect upon the folkways of whatever inhabitants choose to remain, or are permitted to remain, in such relatively specialized domains.

That localized cultures change slowly (whether of man, plant, or animal), and with some care might be made almost permanent, is demonstrated in nearly all the large countries of the world by the present social and domestic differences in contiguous groups. Only if the world maintains these cultural human varieties, these endemic cultures, will it provide natural opportunities for evolution. I mean evolution in taste and art, as well as growth in industry and natural science. For it is well known to the biologist that a uniform population changes but little.

We must therefore oppose, if I am right, those tendencies that are working toward standardization and cultural homogeneity. We must strive against chain thinking and acting. As one contribution to this objective, the small community must continue to live, to play, and to think by itself. It must be our fervent hope that the local American community will grow in cultural self-sufficiency, not only for the delight of the people in being doers rather than in being done for, but also because of the importance of endemic cultures to general welfare.

We are quite willing to give over to international organization the responsibility of the larger political and economic management, if such delegation means peace, efficiency, and progress. But let us work toward a colorful new world through the development and maintenance of local customs.

And it is high time we got started on a program of deliberate cultivation of community life. For we must admit that much of our thinking and feeling has now been delegated to others through the predominance of chain newspapers, broadcasting syndicates, and motion picture theaters. It is alarming to realize how many of us hear the same news commentators, the same comedians and music analyzers; and to realize how many of us read the same comic strips, eat the same food, announce the same observations on passing events.

All this standardization and mental goose-stepping has gone so far that escape seems impossible. Chain thinking has linked our brains. The radio serves simultaneously ten million of us parrots. Originality of thought and expression has been sold down the river for the joy of hearing a hot gag.

Possibly we cannot retrace and start over; and most of us would not want to; we are mentally lazy, and too willing to follow leaders. But can we not counteract a little the deadening effect of this national centralized domination by emphasizing the activities and the contributions of localized natural communities?

Some of us have cheerful hopes about the more methodical encouragement of craftsmanship in country, town, and city. Already much is done, and it has been tremendously worth while. Art and science often blend in the craftsman. Local group work in the sciences is an entering wedge for community collaboration. In less than two years, the membership in Science Clubs of America has increased 600 per cent, and now we have some five thousand active groups that are doing things, with a maximum of inspiration and a minimum of centralized direction.

Much of the work of the Science Clubs, in the schools and among the adults, deals with the biology, topography, and archaeology of the community. Such interests foster pride in the community. Before long, many counties or valleys are going to be proud, for instance, that the herbarium of the home county valley is well known and has been related to the flora of larger regions and to the community’s horticultural and agricultural problems.

The rise of small symphony orchestras and choruses, and the growth of amateur musical performances, are signs that we can develop loyalties to the home folk, and really enjoy their performances, notwithstanding the superior excellence that could be ours by the turning of a dial. These musical movements, especially when they can be related to the folk songs and folklore of the community, are a challenge for all of us who recognize the importance of the independent life of the community, and the heightened likelihood of the evolution of taste and intelligence if homogeneity is opposed.

In the contest against deadening centralized manipulation of the minds and mores of the people, we have a happy fight that all can join; and, paradoxically enough, nationally working artists and scientists can help to incite diversity and direct the development of local cultural projects; the radio and press syndicates can assist in spreading the gospel of community self-sufficiency.

The Tyranny of the Unknown

I come now to the fourth scheme for combat. I cannot escape the feeling that the human mind and human curiosity are significant in this world — even perhaps in the cosmos of geological time and intergalactic space. With this impression (or illusion) that the mind is the best of us, and the best of biological evolution, I cannot escape the feeling of a responsibility to glorify the human mind, take it seriously, even dream about its ultimately flowering into something far beyond the primitive muscle-guider and sensation-recorder with which we started.

It is, possibly, naïve to deduce that the acquiring of knowledge and sensations, and the judging and correlating of such knowledge and sensations, are a human necessity; and also rather elementary to observe that in the short time that the race has had for reasoning about things, it has been impossible to learn much. But pointing out such fundamentals gives us background, and perhaps modesty. Relative to the total surmisable extent of knowledge, we have advanced very little beyond the level of wisdom acquired by many animals of long racial experience.

We are, to be sure, no longer afraid of strange squeaks in the dark, or completely superstitious about the dead. On many occasions we are valiantly rational. Nevertheless, we now know “how much the unknown transcends the what we know.”The unrevealed seriously oppresses us as men of mind. We are tyrannized by the unanswered more than by governmental restraints or social taboos. This tyranny shadows the brightness of the explored realms of nature and of man. To use again the battle cry of the cornered, the war slogan of the ardent social fighter, “Let’s do something about it!” Let’s exorcise these tyrannical spirits of the surrounding darkness. Let’s declare a methodical and elaborate war on the Tyranny of the Unknown.

Already, in our quiet way, most of us are mildly opposing this tyranny. We do it in our spare time, sometimes apologetically, and sometimes with rather brave and hopeful sanction by our institutional chiefs. But, of course, except when we have war-urgency assignments, we do not let the fight get in the way of comfortable living, routine duties, and our ordinary neighborliness.

Now please do not get the impression that I have, with large words, simply advocated the continuity of research. That is not at all what I have in mind. I said “a methodical and elaborate warfare on the Tyranny of the Unknown.”

It is lime we quit treating the acquisition of new knowledge as the luxury of a special class, or as the precursor to profit-making new gadgets or nostrums. It is time we quit leaving the explorations beyond the horizons to the long-haired professors and the workers in a few government bureaus. The contest against the tyranny of the unknown is a job for the people of America, if they are going to keep up in the competition with other countries. It is their job if they are planning to participate in either the practical or the idealized progress of mankind. It should be the concern of the businessman, the labor union, the fruit grower, and the farmer. This war can be an affair for the Popular Front, if the proper leaders properly blueprint the campaign.

Practically every community in America that can produce an ensign or a sergeant could produce a boy or girl who could be trained to effective, even if modest, service in these new armies. Once the attack is briefed and the skills are sharpened, finding new facts and checking old interpretations are no more difficult than making an automobile from blueprints, or managing intership communications, or unraveling the mysteries of an income tax form. Yes, certainly the increase and spreading out of scientific and other research is a national concern, and, in making this a national issue, respect for fundamentals need not be sacrificed to the utilitarian. But how far we now appear to be from an aggressive governmental interest in this particular fight!

Over a year ago (on April 19, 1944), the British House of Commons debated “Sir Granville Gibson’s motion calling for a bold and generous Government policy towards research. . . . The debate itself ranged over a wide ground, and no scientific worker could desire to have so many of his points made more effectively or trenchantly than was done in its course. The case for adequate remuneration of the scientific worker was pressed even more forcibly than in the House of Lords debate [the preceding July], and the arguments on this point . . . would have seemed incredible in a Parliamentary debate ten or twenty years ago. The credit for this change of outlook must be attributed in no small measure to the work of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, the reports of which have done much to prepare the ground for the debate.” I am quoting from Nature for May 6, 1944. To me it seems that that particular session of Parliament was epochal, not only for science in Western civilization, but for the British Empire.

Can you imagine our own Congress sympathetically and understandingly considering research as a national issue of high importance? Almost inconceivable, you would say; and unfortunately there are smug scientists entrenched in Washington who would say, “Thank God, Congress is keeping out of this.” And I fancy that many others would say, “Nonsense — this enlisting of the common people in a war against the unknown! They can’t understand research, to say nothing of doing creditable creative work. They would only mess up the profession.”

But fortunately only a few scientists feel that the increase of knowledge is for the elite alone. To the rest, I go on to say that we are not yet ready to open the systematic national or international campaign against Enemy Number One. There must be several preliminary preparations, all of which take labor, thought, and time: —

1. The crusade must be sold to the average citizen, through skillful propaganda (or education, if you prefer that term). We must discover appeals to the imagination and the emotions. We need systematic research on the methods of creating understanding and sympathy for research. We must discover the way to make the fight against the tyranny of the unknown a national issue, like good government and individual freedom.

2. Local and national governments must be convinced of the merit of this cause, and of the importance of increasing official support for the mobilization of appropriate forces and resources.

3. The schools and colleges must recognize the importance of producing critical scholars and creative thinkers. They must see that one man fired with curiosity is worth much more than two solid and stolid citizens.

4. The Design for Fighting must be prepared. It must be outlined and published to the collaborating workers. It may require the leadership of a new institution—an Academy of Intellectual Exploration.

Among the citizens of America are several thousand who are the special agents of the people and of the civilization they compose. These agents or servants of society have been trained, mostly at the expense of the public, to know what is known and what is not.

It is to these several thousand servant-thinkers that I now put the question I set out to ask: Would it be advisable and possible to list in extenso for each of scores of special fields of knowledge the unsolved problems immediately before us?

The question requires elaboration. The proposed listing would be for technical specialists chiefly — and less directly, or only incidentally, for the non-specialist. Probably in all fields there are many able workers who for one reason or another do not have a grasp of neighboring areas, or even a full picture of their own subject. These workers may be young and as yet inexperienced, or they may be isolated scholars, away from discussion groups or large laboratories and libraries. Important fields often are thoroughly comprehended by only a few intense workers who have favorable temperaments and opportunities, and for such fields even highly competent investigators in adjacent areas are unacquainted with the problems solved and unsolved.

Everybody gains when the obstacles to enriched research — namely, the unclear pictures — are removed. Would not such detailed clarification through problemlisting be worth doing, for the benefit of beginner and professional? What are the immediate unknowns, practical and theoretical, which might be subdued if they were fully recognized and if there were an abundance of thinkers and resources available, in, for example, mammalian anatomy, in atomic structure, in the amelioration of insanity, in regional planning, in pre-Cambrian stratigraphy, in the history of printing devices, in the phylogeny of the anthropoids, in aeronautics, group tensions, meteorology, and the use of leisure?

I visualize a great impetus to research through the methodical listing of the problems. Several biologists and physicists have told me that the project should be both feasible and highly profitable in their own fields. No doubt in economics, sociology, administration, philology, and the like, it would be possible to prepare essays on the detailed problems that should be attacked. The evaluation of the unknowns would perhaps become more personal, and possibly less valuable, the farther one goes from the physical sciences. But surely, in almost any field of the humanities or the social sciences, there would be gain from an attempt to tell the world which unknowns (that time and intense study might liquidate) now seem most to bedevil the advance of knowledge and constructive theory. The various surveys could not well be homogeneous in formulation or presentation; and they need not be, to attain the desired end.

In practice, there would be the danger of narrow or personal views of the major and minor problems. And another handicap is the natural one that a scholar, forgetting his social responsibility, might hesitate to show his cards; he might want to reserve the brightest battles for a test of his own personal valor. He might be selfish. In the natural sciences a worker’s connections with industrial research might stop him from presenting in detail some problems that have commercial value.

The campaign to list systematically, and with bibliographic reference, the visible problems in a special field will require the judgment and ingenuity of a leader in that area. Of this I feel sure. The work cannot be done by popular science writers. The big question then arises: Is the light worth the candle? Are the survey of the field, the guidance and acceleration of other investigators, worth the time and effort of the expert? Are we in America still young-minded enough, and socially-minded enough, to work in this way for a common national and human good? Or should we leave dreams such as this to those national groups where there is no hesitation in making five-year plans, social, economic, scientific — and where the plans are carried out and progress made premeditatively toward the transformation of a national culture?

The necessity has come to American scientists and other scholars of taking an active part in searching for intelligent substitutes for war. America and Americans will never retreat to the pre-war sociology and economics; need we retreat to the pre-war indifference of the academic specialist to the national social problems? To me that seems impossible, especially for scientists. There is not an officer or private, among the ten million in the Army and Navy, who does not know that we are winning this war, not alone through personal valor, but very largely because of our superior engineering and scientific activities.

We should be devoid of vision if we did not take advantage of these new contacts with practical science and of the new respect for it.