Churchill’s Grim Warning About Science, Human Nature, and the Future

By Francis P. Sempa  for RealClearHistory

The BBC reports that citizens in Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, and Croatia are publicly protesting (sometimes violently) new restrictions imposed by their governments due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The restrictions include lockdowns, vaccine passports, vaccine mandates, and broader masking requirements.

Austria’s chancellor announced that nationwide compulsory vaccinations will begin Feb. 1, 2022. In the United States, meanwhile, the CDC has recommended vaccines for young children and teenagers — ages 5 and older. And Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH — who has served as our pandemic czar for the last two years — says that babies and toddlers should be vaccinated by next spring. Fauci has in the past suggested that it is necessary for Americans to surrender individual freedom due to the health imperatives created by the pandemic, and has implied that any criticism of him is criticism of “science.”

As we make our way through the global pandemic, it is useful to remind ourselves that science and technology can be both blessings and curses. Science and technology have, in the past, cured diseases, helped feed the hungry, made life easier, healthier, longer and more pleasurable, and enabled people to travel the world over and into space. They have also produced terrible weapons of death and destruction, and enabled governments to exercise totalitarian control over their citizens. Science and technology are amoral — it is human agency that determines their practical and moral worth.

Why Citizens Of Free Countries Are Protesting

During the past two years in the name of science many of the world’s governments, including the United States, imposed draconian lockdowns, shuttering businesses, places of worship, entertainment venues, and much else. Many of those same governments, including in the United States, have imposed vaccine mandates and vaccine passports. And in support of those government imposed restrictions and mandates, big-tech social media platforms have censored what and when people can communicate about vaccines, elections, education, and other controversial issues.

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Such measures, as we learned in the 20th century, are the norm for totalitarian-ruled societies — they are part of everyday life in China, North Korea, and the few other countries where communists rule. It is the widespread use of these measures in free, democratic societies that has resulted in public protests both in the United States and in several European countries.

An admirer of the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis once explained that Lewis “feared what might be done to all nature and especially to mankind if scientific knowledge were to be applied by the power of government without the restraints of traditional values.”

In his novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis wrote: “The physical sciences, good and innocent in themselves, had already . . . begun to be warped, had been subtly maneuvered in a certain direction. Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration upon mere power, had been the result.”

Remarkably, it was Winston Churchill in 1931 who foresaw the danger posed by a scientific-technological elite that was untethered to moral tradition and political liberty.

Churchill, in the midst of his “wilderness years,” wrote an essay for the Strand magazine entitled “Fifty Years Hence.” Churchill began the essay by noting the “new prodigious speed of man” as part of “an enormous revolution in material things.” He noted the “modern conveniences and facilities” that made human existence “larger, safer, more varied, more full of hope and choice.” “We assume,” he wrote, “that progress will be constant.”

Science ‘Cares Nothing For All The Laws’

“What is it that has produced this new prodigious speed of man?” Churchill asked. “Science is the cause.” He described science as a “vast organized class-conscious army marching forward upon all the fronts towards objectives none may measure or define.” “It is a proud, ambitious army,” Churchill continued, “which cares nothing for all the laws that men have made; nothing for their time-honored customs, or most dearly cherished beliefs, or deepest instincts.” Churchill explained his purpose in writing this article: to predict by “peering through a glass darkly” the “inventions and discoveries which will govern our future,” and what the consequences may be for the “habits, the outlook and the spirit of men.”

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Churchill marveled at the advances brought forth by science and technical achievement, and predicted more startling advances in the future, including the power of nuclear energy. He foresaw scientific and technological sources of power that would enable mankind to overcome geographical and climatological limits. He envisioned “wireless telephones and television” and “excessively rapid means of communication.”

More ominously, Churchill suggested that science would enable the “breeding of human beings and the shaping of human nature,” and the production of robots. Science could make possible the “interference of the mental development of such beings who would be “specialized to thought or toil.” Churchill wrote that “our minds recoil from such fearful eventualities” and hoped that “the laws of Christian civilization will prevent them.” But, he warned, “creatures of this type fit in well with . . . Communist doctrines.”

Churchill: Government Can’t Resist Science

Churchill then warned what the future could be if the powers of science and technology are placed in the wrong hands:

Explosive forces, energy, materials, machinery will be available upon a scale which can annihilate whole nations. Despotisms and tyrannies will be able to prescribe the lives and even the wishes of their subjects in a manner never known since time began. If to these tremendous and awful powers is added the pitiless sub-human wickedness which we now see embodied in one of the most powerful reigning governments, who shall say that the world itself will not be wrecked, or indeed that it ought not to be wrecked? There are nightmares of the future from which a fortunate collision with some wandering star, reducing the earth to incandescent gas, might be a merciful deliverance.

Churchill expressed the concern that Parliamentary government was not up to the task of resisting the morally indifferent march of science and technology.

“Great nations,” he wrote, “are no longer led by their ablest men, or by those who know most about their immediate affairs, or even by those who have a coherent doctrine.” “Democratic governments,” he continued, “drift along the line of least resistance, taking short views, paying their way with sops and doles, and smoothing their path with pleasant-sounding platitudes.”

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The democratic governments, he warned, seem incapable of understanding “the changes which will revolutionize for good or ill not only the whole economic structure of the world but the social habits and moral outlook of every family.”

‘Under Sufficient Stress,’ Humans ‘Will Do The Most Terrible Deeds’

Churchill noted that while the world leaders as a result of scientific and technological advances have accumulated ever more knowledge and power, “their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvement.”

Human nature, Churchill wrote, is unchanged. “Under sufficient stress,” he explained, humans “will do the most terrible deeds.” The great danger, Churchill noted, is the “spectacle of the powers and weapons of man far outstripping the march of his intelligence,” which could result in finding ourselves “in the presence of ‘the strength of civilization without its mercy.’”

Science and technology march on, and the world’s scientific-technological elite have in our time joined forces with governments to confront their citizens with policies and measures that are at best indifferent to individual freedoms.

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Churchill in his 1931 essay hoped that “moral philosophy and spiritual conceptions of men and nations [could] hold their own amid these formidable scientific evolutions.” If not, Churchill wrote, “Science herself may destroy all that makes human life majestic and tolerable.”

In words that apply to our own time, Churchill wrote: “There never was a time when the inherent virtue of human beings required more strong and confident expression in daily life; there never was a time when the hope of immortality and the disdain of earthly power and achievement were more necessary for the safety of the children of men.”

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics, and War. He has written extensively on historical and foreign policy topics for The Diplomat, Orbis, the Claremont Review of Books, the University Bookman, the Asian Review of Books, Joint Force Quarterly, the South China Morning Post, Strategic Review, and other publications.

Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.


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