The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan
(Ballantine Books, 1997)
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
The scientific progress and technological advances of today are collapsing our anthropomorphic conceits and forcing us to ask deeply personal questions about what it means to be human. We will soon share the Earth with clones, chimeras, cyborgs, genetically-enhanced humans, artificial intelligences, and other beings right out of science fiction. To some people these beings will be demons. The conflicts that could arise from this sort of thinking are as chilling as their historical precedents. To discern true scientific breakthroughs from the fantasies of pseudoscientific wishful thinking and to avoid rampant xenophobia when faced with our intelligent creations, we will need “skeptical thinking and an aptitude for wonder,” two skills Carl Sagan repeatedly highlights in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
Skeptical thinking is absolutely necessary in a world where science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact. The advent of mammalian cloning in the 1990s took the world by surprise. The science then took an unfortunate turn in 2002 when Clonaid alleged the birth of the first human clone. Raelians, the religious sect behind Clonaid, immediately promised to provide evidence of their breakthrough, but two years later the group has still not provided evidence to the scientific community.
Carl Sagan has said extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In Demon he tackles topics of the paranormal ranging from alien UFOs to magic. Respectfully, he dismisses many claims of paranormal phenomena for lack of any evidence. There often exists a more prosaic and simpler explanation. Applying this reasoning to Clonaid’s claims, it is not entirely unlikely that a religious sect (or any organization outside the scientific community) could make use of advanced biotechnology and produce a clone, but science on the fringe requires the same adherence to documentation, independent reproduction of data, and peer review required of any scientific pursuit. Requiring less would threaten the fidelity of science. Few people doubt that human clones will eventually be brought to term, but it is doubtful that Clonaid has succeeded to do so given their reluctance to present their work for review.
In marked contrast, the efficacy of a controversial cloning procedure developed by a South Korean team was recently confirmed by a team at the University of Pittsburg who originally had their doubts about the procedure. They successfully used the procedure to produce the first primate clone embryos to progress to the blastocyst stage of development.
Recognizing this strict adherence to scientific procedures will help individuals separate reality from fiction. Dealing with this reality will require use of Sagan’s second recommended skill, an aptitude for wonder. In Demon, Sagan details the superstitious practices, beliefs and fears in Europe during the Dark Ages that lead to the death of thousands if not millions of alleged “witches.” Unfortunately, some of us will likely react the same way to the new creations of science. Already some have labeled clones as soulless monsters. That innocent human children conceived through means other than sexual reproduction could be met with this unwarranted discrimination is inexcusable. What we need instead of fear is a sense of wonder for the accomplishments of humankind, including our creations, no matter how strange and unique.
Xenophobia must be nipped in the bud prior to the emergence of human clones and other new types of beings. These beings are not demons. They warrant the same respect and humane treatment that we humans, at our very best, grant other humans. By using the skills articulated by Carl Sagan in his book, we can avoid turning the coming disruptive future into hell on Earth.
- Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.
- University of Pittsburg Medical Center News Bureau. “Efforts to Clone Primates Move Forward.” UPMC New Bureau. 6 Dec 2004.