“It is the whole business of a university teacher to induce people to think,” noted geneticist J.B.S. Haldane. In 1923 he gave a talk to the Heretics of Cambridge which has kept people thinking ever since because of his praise for scientific advancement and interesting predictions about what science could bring us in the future.
His talk was later published as a longer essay, titled Daedalus, or Science and the Future. Daedalus was the Minotaur keeper and Greek tinkerer who invented strap-on wings and taught himself and his son Icarus how to fly. Haldane glosses over the tragic outcome of that experiment and instead accentuates the gifts that science and technology have to give. He offered some predictions:
- He regarded it as “axiomatic” that coal and oil fields will eventually be exhausted and that we will have to tap those intermittent but inexhaustible sources of power, the wind and the sunlight. He saw an England lined with windmills.
- Surplus power will be used for cleavage of water to hydrogen and oxygen, the former to be liquefied and stored underground, because it is “weight for weight, the most efficient method for storing energy.”
- Sugar and starch, converted from cellulose, will become “as cheap as sawdust.” New nitrogen fixing organisms will double wheat yields and lead to abundant cheap food, collapsing agricultural economies.
- The first “ectogenetic child” will be born in 1951, he predicted, leading to a society where reproduction is separated from sexual love. By “ectogenetic,” he meant born from a uterus kept in organ culture, a la Brave New World. In fact, Haldane’s discussions with his friend Aldous Huxley inspired the novel.
Haldane turns out to be a decent but imperfect prophet. Peak oil is already in sight, wind and solar energy have seen dramatic development in recent years, and the hydrogen fuel cell exists but is not yet a commercial entity. Cellulose is looked at now as more of a feedstock for ethanol production than actual food. The first “test tube baby” was born in 1978 but came to term within a normally-situated uterus. Birth control has done much more than ectogenesis to separate sex from reproduction.
But Haldane was not a total optimist, either. “In the next war,” he wrote, “no one will be behind the front line. It will be brought home to all whom it may concern that war is a very dirty business.” Certainly they agreed in Hiroshima at the end of World War II.