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Science under Siege

Three centuries after the Enlightenment first linked human freedom with the progress of science and technology, both are under growing attack--despite their spectacular triumphs. Fundamental discoveries about nature expanded our creative power over the structure and transformations of the inanimate and living world. Breakthroughs in physics and chemistry enabled the extraordinary development of electronics and materials that dramatically shortened time and distance, ushering in an information age of fast, secure communication and transport. Advances in biological sciences and technologies, meanwhile, are increasing our ability to control disease and aging, boost food production, and manage pollution.

In short, scientific research--and its implementation through new technologies--made possible new freedoms, new ways of life, and new means of practical human action. But more and more we hear that our ability and willingness to manipulate natural processes is itself unnatural --an indictment that reflects our ambivalent relationship with nature. We are, as the French writer Jean Bruller-Vercors put it, animaux dénaturés , or "denatured animals," living in nature but simultaneously able to observe, investigate, and question it from a distance, conscious of our separateness.

This ambivalence gives rise to a diffuse anxiety: there are certain things that should not be touched, basic mysteries in nature that we tamper with at the risk of unleashing uncontrollable forces. The birth of electricity and automotive power was accompanied by this apprehension, and it has grown stronger the further science has penetrated the natural world, unlocking the secrets of the atom and of our own genetic makeup. Indeed, fear of our own awesome power explains the appeal of environmentalism, with its vision--particularly in its fundamentalist, quasi-religious variant, so-called "deep ecology"--of an intrinsically "pure" Nature whose harmony is supposedly disrupted by man.

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