Galactic gadgetry

Haldane's Daedalus Revisited
June 16, 1995

During the 1920s the London publishers, Kegan Paul, commissioned a series of slim booklets (2s 6d each!) by leading pundits about various aspects of the future. Most of these Today and Tomorrow essays are now forgotten: like all works of futurology, which are not wisely placed a few thousand years ahead, they have been swiftly bypassed by history. Yet some of them still make fascinating reading.

Inevitably, the predictions made by the distinguished authors of the series are often hilarious reading today: giant 20-engined flying boats will cross the oceans at a top speed of 100mph; physics will reach its limits and atomic energy will be impossible; films will remain silent; fleets of helicopters will commute into the cities; and the decline in cruelty over the past 100 years will continue, creating a happier and less violent society.

The most remarkable and far-seeing of these volumes was J. D. Bernal's The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which went on to inspire legions of science-fiction writers: it was reprinted with a new foreword by the author in 1968. But the two books which had the greatest impact at the time were probably J. B. S. Haldane's Daedalus; or Science and the Future and - I quote the publisher - "the essay which should be read as a companion volume: Bertrand Russell's Icarus: or The Future of Science".

Doubtless to the delight of the 31-year-old author (and his publisher), Haldane's Daedalus resulted in considerable controversy, and even cries of outrage. It advocated - or at least outlined as possibilities - such shocking ideas as birth control, test-tube babies, genetic selection, and psychedelic drugs. A few years later all these concepts were presented to a much larger public by Haldane's friend, Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World.

Today we take them for granted, as part of the background of everyday life. Commenting on Huxley in his foreword to this new edition of Daedalus, Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg makes a chilling prediction: "A 'safe' soma may be the most devastating of the biological technologies on the horizon - matched only by the promise of indefinite life-extension, at infinite cost."

My own first contact with Haldane was on April 7 1951, when I persuaded him to give a talk to the British Interplanetary Society on "The biological problems of space flight". (He gallantly accepted this at very short notice, saying it was his duty as Bernal had just let us down.) Thereafter we kept up an extensive and not always serious correspondence; after I had received the 1962 Kalinga Prize, Haldane wrote that he would like to see me awarded a prize for theology "as you are one of the very few living persons who has written anything original about God. You have in fact written several mutually incompatible things . . . if you had stuck to one theological hypothesis you might be a serious public danger." Haldane's own views on religion were as might be expected from a sincere but not bigotted communist (he resigned from the party in disgust, when Stalin's crimes and Lysenko's lunacies were revealed).

Although in Daedalus he proclaims: "There can be no truce between science and religion", he did pay a back-handed compliment to Christianity: "Jesus's . . . moral precepts are so different from those of everyday life that no society has ever made any serious attempt to carry them out, as was possible in the case of Israel and Islam. But every Christian church has tried to impose a code of morals . . . for which it has claimed divine sanction. As these codes have always been opposed to those of the gospels a loophole has been left for moral progress such as hardly exists in other religions . . ." Touche!

Daedalus Revisited is made even more valuable by its having an introduction written by Haldane's colleague Krishna Dronamraju and commentaries by eight distinguished scientists. The essay by Freeman Dyson has an opening that it would be hard to beat: "My copy of Daedalus once belonged to Einstein."

Mine bears the inscription "Evelyn D. Plumpton 31.5.24" (any information would be appreciated), and reading it again after many years reinforces my opinion that Haldane possessed the finest and most wide-ranging intellect I have ever encountered. How many of today's scientists could quote Boethius in the original Latin - and, incredible dictu - Snorri Sturluson in Old Norsk?

In 1957, Haldane emigrated to India, and founded the Genetics and Biometry Laboratory at Bhubaneswar, Orissa. Three years later I had the privilege and pleasure of showing him around Colombo when he addressed the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science. Unfortunately, our mutual illnesses prevented me from accepting his invitation to visit him in Orissa, where he was anxious to show me the great erotic temple carvings at Konarak.

Our last encounter - if one can call it that - is so strange that I would not have believed it without documentary evidence. In January 1964 Haldane was operated on for cancer in University College Hospital, London, and woke up "aware of three tubes which had been inserted into him . . .". As he wrote soon afterwards, "To judge from some S.F. this is a foretaste of the future. What little is left of our natural bodies is to be attached to a variety of gadgets." (Letter quoted in J. B. S. by Ronald Clark, 1968).

In 1991, I too was operated on in University College Hospital (fortunately for a less serious cause) and returned to consciousness in almost the same condition as J. B. S. though I cannot vouch for the precise number or placement of the tubes. A minor coincidence, you may say, and not a very remarkable or interesting one. Agreed: except for the fact that the letter Haldane wrote a quarter of a century earlier had been addressed - to me.

Arthur C. Clarke's prediction of satellite communications was made in Wireless World 50 years ago this year. His latest book, The Snows of Olympus, envisions man's colonisation of Mars.

Haldane's Daedalus Revisited

Editor - Krishna R. Dronamraju
ISBN - 0 19 854846 X
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 147

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