The Old Future, by Gregory Benford & Michael R. Rose

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

Gregory Benford has published over twenty books, mostly novels. Nearly all remain in print, some after a quarter of a century. His fiction has won many awards, including the Nebula Award for his novel Timescape. A winner of the United Nations Medal for Literature, he is a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, was Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, and in 1995 received the Lord Prize for contributions to science.

His 1999 analysis of what endures, Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia, has been widely read. A fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences, he continues his research in both astrophysics and plasma physics. Time allowing, he continues to write both fiction and nonfiction. Recently he began a series on science and society with biologist Michael Rose, published on the Internet at Amazon


Michael R. Rose is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine. His main area of work has been the evolution of aging. In 1991, his Evolutionary Biology of Aging appeared, offering a view of aging that was a complete departure from the views that had dominated the aging field since 1960. Evolution described the field of gerontology as having become “after Rose.” In 1997, Rose was awarded the Busse Research Prize by the World Congress of Gerontology. His most recent book is The Long Tomorrow: How Advances in Evolutionary Biology Can Help Us Postpone Aging.




Tangent Online is pleased to offer our readers the following essay by Gregory Benford and Michael R. Rose. Original to Tangent Online, Dr. Benford’s Foreword explains the rationale and purpose behind the essay and why this scientific “manifesto” is vital to 21st century thought. We are grateful to Dr. Benford for permission to reprint the essay, as well as his explanatory Foreword, and extend our appreciation. It is hoped that the vision presented here will give rise to thought-provoking, meaningful discussion, as it asks us to re-examine the crucial role of science in today’s world. 




Gregory Benford

Already, the futuristic thinking of the 20th Century looks rather dated. The forecasts for the 21st Century which we used to read in newsweekly journalism and the emanations of professional futurists have hardly been borne out. A very different beast has emerged — a new future at once more rapaciously cold in its capitalism, more dominated by moral or religious issues, and less certain of further technological progress. Yet there resounds a keening note of hope that can be dimly heard, high-pitched above the tumult. Where do we go from here?

To address this, Michael Rose and I – both professors at UC Irvine — began in 2006 to write essays on major issues confronting humanity. Those are sold on, and have found a pleasingly large audience. We also founded a biotech company to carry out some of the agenda we proposed. Its manifestation now is Genescient, a rapidly growing company committed to extending human lifetimes with vigor. We’ll have products by early 2010; consult

The role of science in our future has changed enormously, and that is our particular interest. We are both much influenced by the culture of science fiction, which we believe is how the scientific/technological culture thinks about itself.

Politicians of all kinds used to think that natural science would magically solve problems like the economics of energy, the burgeoning numbers of elderly, and the conquest of outer space. Science sat on a pedestal. Jeremiads like The Limits to Growth shocked many in the mid-1970s. Few realized that such dysphoric publications would soon become a dominant fashion. The Future has changed from technocratic playground to theatre of conflict. Science has had its gleaming white coat splattered with the blood and feces of various disgruntled groups.

We bring a tough-minded attitude to the ongoing squabbles. We debunk the irrational, the sanctimonious, and the posturing. We will focus on four major theaters of conflict that revolve around science and give them a solid going over.

We hope to produce a full book for sale on Amazon’s Kindle sometime in 2010. We have a manifesto:

We assert the right, and the responsibility, of scientists to offer well-considered opinions about the major issues of the new century. We offer a cool view of our future, as opposed to the hysterical distractions that the media often spew. Conventional wisdom will fail, because it seldom can envision the future. The great lesson of the 20th Century is that imagination is crucial. But imagination without science is blind.

Here is a draft of our opening ideas.

The Old Future

No, our time is not the end of history, just the end of old illusions about our journey through history. What we had thought of as our future did not arrive with the dawn of a new millennium. Whether religious, ideological, or merely pragmatic, all the old systems of futurist thought have become irrelevant, disposable, confusing more than helpful, Procrustean more than enlightening.

Some have reacted with vicious negation to this loss of illusion, from Islamic radicals to Biblical fundamentalists to neo-Marxist academics. For such people, clinging to a fossilized set of beliefs is crucial to their psychological health.

We can feel sorry for them, while fending off their assaults on our cities, our universities, and our culture with a steadfastness that should grow more obdurate as the obvious futility of their cause becomes clear. They are the cultural dinosaurs of our time, still destructive in their death throes, but as irrelevant to our future as Jove was in the early centuries of the first millennium A.D. Islamic radicals will be killing people by the thousands well into the 21st century. Our new future is too much for them.

In OECD countries, most people have simply given up on ideology. They are bombarded with the fading rhetoric of the media, the edicts of bureaucrats, the spittle of Texas preachers, and the fulminations of antique radicals from Ralph Nader to Noam Chomsky. College students swim in the fetid sewage of political correctness during the day, but at night they will dance to misogynist hip-hop, play gratuitously violent video games, and get ripped on alcohol or drugs before fumbling toward ill-considered sex. They party to forget the day.

Given the confusions and irrelevance of their professors, it is hard to criticize their opportunistic alternation between careerism and hedonism. Their parents have generally given up on all but the small satisfactions of middle-age, having lost the hormonal surges of youth and the need or ability to prove themselves in new careers. Their world is adrift.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, “In the future,” as we always used to say. In the future, we would all wear the same clothes and have some mythic figure to lead us, whether benign or malign, a new Gandhi or another Big Brother. The future, as imagined from 1848 to 1989, was supposed to be some kind of collective transcendence.

The paragon of the collectivist vision was the brief Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia from 1975 to 1980. In that brief spasm, Rousseau, Thoreau, and Marx received their ultimate homage in the creation of a society that lacked almost any trace of freedom, civilization, or humanity. The Khmer Rouge suppressed education, destroyed medical care, demolished transportation infrastructure, and banished currency. Instead, they sent everyone to countryside collectives to lead lives uncorrupted by capitalism– lives of starvation, indoctrination, malaria, torture, and dysentery. Everyone who could have contributed medical or technological expertise they killed outright.

All to escape modernity, to escape from freedom. Soviet-style communism was thin gruel compared to this grand celebration of the pernicious ideologies that descended from Rousseau and Marx. So it was natural that another scorpion in the bottle of post-American southeast Asia, Vietnam, destroyed the Khmer Rouge. The Maoist killers of Cambodia were too perfect to last. As the French intellectuals (particularly Sartre) announced in 1975, the revolution supplied by the Khmer Rouge was the purest of all communist revolutions.

The moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Left is now complete. Only university faculty in Europe or the United States have the fatuity to believe in that ideological nightmare.

While for many on the Right this collapse seems to make way for the triumph of the God-fearing faithful, their collective vision too is but an ugly echo of history. The most successful theocracy of modern times is that of Iran, where the mullahs wield ultimate power. There we have religious thought-police and dress codes. Yet the younger people, some of them now in middle-age, lead lives of sexual promiscuity and drug abuse. Once the great mass of the Iranian people was delighted with their religious leaders. Certainly they were in 1980. Now they are mostly weary and cynical.

The only thing that keeps the Religious Right in the United States from the same fate is the fact that they don’t get to run the country in quite the manner that they want, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, and the Patriot Act notwithstanding. We can all thank James Madison’s Constitution for that.

Ironically, even science fiction perpetuated the old myth of the future, the utopian vision. From Ursula K. LeGuin’s anarchist fantasy in The Dispossessed to Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World, the future of science fiction often involved collectives of one kind or another. There might be a few renegades bravely fighting against the collective machinery of society, but that collective machinery was usually there. The shadows of Rousseau, Marx, Lenin, Hitler, and Mao have been too long, blocking out the vision even of the writers who were professional visionaries.

Cracks in the Edifice

No matter how many people the revolutionaries of the Left or the Right kill, no matter how mightily the politically-correct universities and publishers suppress the news about the new world being born, the Old Future is dead.

Life at the start of the 21st Century is messy. People want the freedom to consume what they like, to sell their services at the highest price they can get, to say what they like in private, and to brandish their opinions on the internet. Regardless of the fascinations and fashions of religious fanatics, academics, journalists, or commercial writers, the lives of ordinary people have pursued similar goals throughout history. Most people want a happy family life, material comfort, and the opportunity to do what they like.

These goals often conflict, most obviously for the indulged youth of the West and the Middle East. For them, choice and its conflicts often confuse. In turn this provokes the comforting abdication of freedom that political or religious zealotry provides. It feels so good to stop thinking, choosing, deciding!

Notably, alienated youth often become pragmatic parents and retirees. An exception is university faculty–among the most temperamentally youthful, not to say petulant and self-indulgent, of the middle-aged.

None of the pragmatism of the ‘silent majority’ should be confused with virtue, civic or otherwise. The heroic and the altruistic appear in large human populations, but they are exceptional. For every gentile who harbored Jews at the peak of the Third Reich, there were hundreds and thousands who did not. Many disapproved of Hitler’s holocaust, but were unwilling to risk their lives, families, or position to save even a few of the millions destined for extermination. We do not wish to idealize everyday pragmatism; it can be frighteningly callous.

But fierce ideologies and intemperate faiths do not purchase the loyalty of the great mass for very long. Perhaps the most obvious sign of the decay of ideology is that most people are now tired of it. They only want peace, affluence, and fun.

While Marxism is still the state religion of the People’s Republic of China, just as Shiite Islam is the monolithic doctrine of revolutionary Iran, the Shanghai apparatchiks and Tehran mullahs are cutting deals on the side. Not only do most Chinese and Iranians just want to be better off, the cynicism of their rulers is also palpable.

Only North Korea remains as a monumental Inferno of ideology. If it weren’t for the risks inherent in its acquisition of atomic weapons and the vast suffering of its victims, it might be worth preserving it as a museum exhibit of the follies of collectivism. Not the least of its charms lies in its conversion to monarchical despotism, with the son of the previous ruler inheriting absolute power.

Journalists deplore the corrupt leaders of such regimes, missing the point that corruption is one of the most positive features of such societies. Violation of rigid ideals can mitigate the intimidation of the absolute state. The Khmer people of Cambodia knew that their rulers had feet of clay when the Khmer Rouge elite started to wear Rolex watches and fine silk scarves along with their revolutionary black garb. At that point, the fall of the Khmer Rouge from power was only months away.

But now these small cracks have widened, bringing down (in the case of the Soviet Empire) or radically compromising (in the case of the PRC) most of the significant collectivist regimes. The sullen demeanor of ideologues, East and West, is now palpable. Perhaps the only substantial redoubt of insanely absolute faith is among Islamic terrorists.

Ironically, their tradition of assassination and religious bloodshed is entirely authentic, dating back before the Christian Crusades. The term assassin itself is Arab in it origins, alluding to crazed fanatics who purportedly used hashish to fuel their deadly work. [A dubious notion, given the pacifying effects of hashish, but inappropriate derivation is common in etymology.]

Whether modern nation-states will have to continue killing these people, or educational reform will cause them to wither away, is not decidable at present. Islamic terrorists seem to aspire to become the most rabid vermin of modern civilization, so perhaps they deserve little more than extermination. In any case, they hardly have the cachet that communists and anarchists had on the Left Bank or in faculty clubs, where morally bankrupt intellectuals used to sing the praises of one or another collectivist monster in order to impress, and often to bed, the young and impressionable.

The Countervailing Tradition

There is a thoughtful tradition that has long opposed the powerful and the ideological. It is associated with Socrates, although it should be remembered that Socrates accepted the judgment of an intolerant Athens. Then his foremost student, Plato, only perpetuated Greek tendencies to absolutism. Aristotle, Plato’s abandoned protégé, is perhaps a better candidate as a progenitor of the opposition to collectivism, though more in his generally empirical curiosity than his specific political proposals.

George Orwell was the 20th Century’s most generally accepted intellectual opponent of totalitarianism, particularly in 1984 and Animal Farm. Still, he harbored some collectivist ideas. After all, Orwell was a man of the Left, and fought alongside the communists and anarchists in the Spanish civil war.

Our view is that the clearest, and historically most important, expression of this tradition came out of the Scottish Enlightenment: David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, among others. This tradition emphasizes indirect effects, the futility of government attempts to control markets and international trade, the value of enterprise, and the limits to the benign effects of concerted action.

This tradition had its most visible success with James Madison’s Constitution for the new American republic, the vastly successful state that replaced the loose confederation of colonies who started the American rebellion against the English Crown. Madison was perhaps the greatest practical student of the Scottish Enlightenment, and certainly the person who most effectively set about implementing its precepts. His design for the new state was one exquisitely, and indeed laboriously designed – see his Notes on the Constitutional Convention, contrived to prevent the imposition of domestic despotism on the American people. [Of course George Washington preeminently guaranteed the American freedom from external despotism, but that is another story.] The United States of America has since shown both the value and the limitations of political and economic freedom for modern civilization. It certainly produces economic creativity and debate, with the crass and the tawdry as perhaps inevitable accompaniments.

In the 20th Century, the themes of the Scottish Enlightenment were taken up again by such figures as Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper, and Michael Oakeshott, some of the most reviled authors in late 20th Century British and American universities. Their books, such as The Road to Serfdom, The Open Society and Its Enemies, and Rationalism in Politics, respectively, are among the foundation stones of an alternative tradition within the humanities and social sciences. Of course this tradition enjoys the marked hostility of the dominant traditions of contemporary critical theory, structuralism, deconstructionism, and the other nihilistic systems of thought in modern Western universities and colleges. For this reason, the very names of these titanic figures are often known among young people as little more than targets for passing abuse. Their names serve to wind up their professors in the advanced seminars that these pillars of mediocrity give to their benighted acolytes.

In the natural sciences and related fields the thinking of Aristotle, Hume, and Popper has enjoyed the greatest influence. Indeed, one might point to the entire edifice of modern technology as the fruition of this tradition of thought. Its empiricism and cautious speculation provide the cultural matrix for much of Western science. Charles Darwin, for example, can be seen as a child of this tradition, and indeed much of his thinking is an overt use (in his use of Malthus) or implicit appropriation (employing Hume’s careful materialistic reasoning, for example) of themes and methods from the Scottish Enlightenment.

From Darwin, 20th Century biology derived almost all of its intellectually cogent framework, which then enabled Anglo-American, reductionist, molecular and cell biologists to pursue the details of biological mechanism untrammeled by religious, idealist, or Hegelian clap-trap.

What are we about here?

We wish to recruit new adherents. Our agenda is simply the view that solutions to political and cultural difficulties can be found in the deliberate cultivation of the empirical, individualistic, skeptical Western tradition.

Put another way: We wish to drive a stake through the heart of the dominant cultural traditions of piety, correctness, ideology, and faith. Then we would like to dance on their graves.

Western civilization used to be palpably great. Now it is too often mediocre, with enclaves of greatness: the military, the computer business, and scientific research. We’re sure that you have your favorites. But it is more notable that we have been failing regularly in areas we used to dominate: spying, making cars, education, economic growth–pick your debacle.

We want the West to have another resurgence of greatness, to be seen once again as the standard against which all other societies can be judged. We make no apology for ethnocentrism: “the West” is a cultural ideal, not a form of genetic differentiation.

The cellist Yo-yo Ma is a paragon of Western civilization as much as Mikhail Rostropovich, the great Japanese geneticist Motoo Kimura as much as Gregor Mendel. And by this standard, Adolf Hitler chose to be as much an enemy of the West as Cambodia’s Pol Pot did.

“The West” is an idea, a cultural tradition, an aspiration. It has survived through good and bad times since Periclean Athens. It has been the best hope for the entire species in our known history.

Let us hope that we do not lose it as we stumble out of the dark charnel house that was the 20th Century, into the light of our new future. For we have a great future, if we will but seize it.

Copyright © 2009 by Dave Truesdale, Tangent Online, and Gregory Benford & Michael R. Rose

All rights reserved.