Printer Friendly

The legacy of Isaac Asimov.

He has died, but so very much of what he was and believed and valued will five as long as there are people to read and think and wonder. This is largely because, during his lifetime, Isaac Asimov made a major contribution to solving one of the most serious problems facing humankind in this century. For Asimov, it was a matter of grave concern that the scientific approach to knowing was still foreign to the general world culture. He saw that, although science had revolutionized the course of history and opened up the universe for intelligent perusal, it was seldom applied to the social realm and had scarcely dented the world views of most human beings. He recognized the danger posed by the fact that, conceptually speaking, the majority of Earth's people inhabit a world defined by Bronze Age tribalism. Isaac Asimov devoted his life to changing this alarming situation.

Armed with a uniquely creative imagination, plus a gift for explaining difficult ideas, he assumed a remarkable dual role: that of science,fiction writer and futurist, and that of public educator and interpreter of science. Asimov is most widely celebrated for his science fiction. Not so well known, however, are the goals he sought to achieve through that popular vehicle. He believed that good science fiction has two important functions: to warn us about what the future will bring if we continue in our present practices; and to provide young readers with the background of information and the vision of future possibilities necessary for intelligent doubting and scientific creativity.

In his chosen role as educator, Asimov wrote on the subjects of the evolution of human culture in general and science in particular. He published over 400 titles, including nonfiction essays on scientific and philosophical topics, general history, and annotated works on the Bible and other literary classics. He traced the development of Judaism and Christianity by analyzing biblical accounts of human origins and prehistory in the light of what science and historical scholarship have taught us since the Bible was written. He presented the Old Testament as a literary masterpiece, much of it put together around 500 BCE, during the period of the Babylonian exile, and representing the collective knowledge of the most learned members of the Judaic culture. Although he loved and respected the Jewish tradition growing from those roots, he always emphasized that he did not value it above those of other groups. As soon as any one tradition is thought to be superior to others, he said, the way is paved for destroying them all.

Perhaps Asimov's greatest talent as an educator was his ability to articulate for his readers the basic conceptual framework of each of the established disciplines with which he dealt in his books. Like all good teachers, he was well aware that simply transmitting bits of information does not lead to understanding. In addition, he assumed a responsibility for organizing and simplifying new knowledge in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and ecology as it became confirmed and established, and for identifying the connections among these studies and their implications for the future of humanity. Most of the essays in his various collections are concerned with these matters.

As if all that were not enough, Asimov attempted to do the same thing for history. In his 1991 book, The March of the Millennia, he related the evolution of civilization to the development of technology, beginning with the discovery of fire by early hominids. His premise was that it was this crucial technological breakthrough that first distinguished our ancestors from other primates and gave them their evolutionary advantage. As with all subsequent technology, fire made greater demands on primitive communication skills as well as expanding opportunities for their practice. It also increased the food supply of the upright animals who mastered it and made it possible for their range and numbers to increase. As Asimov explained it, from then on natural selection would have ensured that humans developed the intelligence to become master tool designers and this, in turn, led inevitably to a new and faster kind of change: the evolution of culture.

That new kind of evolution was accelerated considerably with the next great technological revolution: the domestication of plants and animals and the more stable form of social organization that farming required. For Asimov, it marked the achievement of civilization. From about 8000 BCE, he said, there was no turning back, although the myths of all cultures have expressed a yearning for some dimly remembered golden age before the advent of agriculture. Many of these myths reveal, as well, a deeply embedded resentment and scapegoating of women. Asimov related this to the probability that it was the female of the species who initiated seed-planting and the caring for animals and, thereby, the more organized, responsible, and labor-intensive existence that such practices required.

Asimov analyzed subsequent human terms of technological advance generated by the demands of recurring warfare - sparked, in turn, by population expansion. He claimed that, at every stage of the resulting increase in intellectual and organizational complexity, humanity was faced with only three choices: abandon, endure, or advance. He further noted that no society has ever voluntarily given up the improvements in quality of life made possible by the current technology. The second option - to endure - is simply to be buffeted about as helpless victims of change, with no corresponding social or cultural adaptation. Asimov claimed that the successful societies at every juncture of history have been the ones that chose to advance. According to him, this move has always involved attempts to solve, by more appropriate social organization and the invention of even better technology, the problems of adaptation - including those problems created by previous advances in technology.

This led him to suggest that the concept of world government has been made possible and workable for the first time in history by the very technological innovations that have rendered it imperative. The advent of instantaneous worldwide communications systems and the prospect of open access to the products of global surveillance, along with the technical capability to annihilate all life on Earth, have made human social interdependence a fact rather than a distant ideal. He said that it is time we forgot the myth of "less than all" - the siren call of tribalism in all its ethnic, religious, and nationalistic forms.

He also wared against the foolish idea of abandoning technology in our search for solutions, referring to the population explosion as an example of an overriding challenge. We could, he conceded, forget medical science and allow unbridled plague to decimate our numbers. Spurning the use of agricultural implements, irrigation, and fertilizer would accomplish the same end through wholesale famine. Abandon? He maintained that the natural-food trend is not the wave of the future. Endure? Or advance? He noted that evolution (cultural as well as biological) has only a forward gear.

Asimov predicted the end of sexism, as equality of the sexes has been shown to be associated with the freeing of women from extended responsibility for childbearing. In a world where population expansion means destruction of the biosphere, only a relatively few people will raise children. The end of war will come about, he said, not because of any change of heart on the part of the majority but because access for the "barbarians without" to the tools of mass destruction will mean suicide for the human race unless the world organizes to prohibit and contain the use of violence to achieve political ends.

Asimov was convinced that the great legal problem of the twenty-first century will be the establishment of a strong world government, combined with regional control wherever global welfare is not at stake. He thought that the end of racism will necessary result not only from world government in action but from the need for the people of Earth to cooperate in the collective use, colonization, and protection of space.

The underlying message in all of Asimov's writings is one of thoroughgoing humanism. Not for him were mystical quests for meaning above and apart from the strivings of humanity. In his view, the universe can have meaning only insofar as its magnificent interconnections can be sensed, interpreted, and analyzed by human intelligence.

He confronted the issue of supernaturally based religious claims in his typically direct fashion, noting that no evidence has been uncovered by science that in any way points to divine guidance in the workings of the universe. Nor is there evidence of the existence of a soul or any other immaterial essence that sets humans apart from other animals and departs at death. While admitting that this does not amount to proof that such entities do not exist, he reminded us that the same applies in the case of Zeus, Marduk, Thoth, and a myriad other supernatural beings. He claimed that it is against all the rules of logic to demand proof of a negative and to accept the positive in the absence of such proof.

Asimov discussed the tenacity of the "strong anthropic principle" in human culture: the notion that the universe was formed for the benefit of human beings according to the design of an omnipotent observer. A currently popular revival of this takes the form of an argument (sometimes even presented by accredited scientists) that, because only Earth seems to be conducive to life, these uniquely perfect conditions could not have come about by accident. They forget that the entire evolutionary process is the ongoing, cumulative result of a series of fortuitous accidents. Asimov pointed out that we find our universe perfect because it is the only one that could have brought us to our current form and function.

He explained that the anthropomorphism behind the strong anthropic principle is a remnant of the geocentrism that dominated civilized thought from the time of Ptolemy to that of Copernicus and Galileo. He claimed that, even today, most people are geocentric, anthropocentric, ethnocentric, and egocentric. Intellectually they may know better, but emotionally the old infantile self-absorption and tribalism still predominate. The other,world religions, with their myths about authority from on high, cater to these primitive emotions and the fantasies that feed them. Asimov sounded a stark warning concerning the need for a this-world focus. He argued that humanity can no longer afford to seek refuge in the false security of supernatural fantasy, for continued reliance on heavenly solutions could kill us all. Just as it is human beings alone who are destroying the world, he said, so it must be we alone who save it.

During the twentieth century, humanism has not always maintained the core of reason and commitment to disciplined inquiry that was its trademark in earlier times. Sometimes the worst enemies of science have been experts in the subjects usually termed the humanities. Asimov reminded us that the humanities have traditionally represented secular learning - the accumulated product of human intelligence. Certain scholars in the humanities seem not to have noticed that, since the Renaissance, science has become an overwhelmingly significant aspect of the universal culture. This means that, today, people can no longer claim to be humanists and yet remain ignorant of science, for, in so doing, they have deliberately isolated themselves from one of humanity's most important concerns. Similarly, no one can claim to be a humanist in the late twentieth century while refusing to acknowledge the primacy of reason and evidence in the search for knowledge. Here, Asimov's only source of optimism was the fact that there is always a new generation coming along with fertile minds as yet unencumbered with the rust of age-old myths and prejudices.

Perhaps the most compelling argument ever made for scientific humanism is contained in Asimov's introduction to his 1978 book, Life and Time. He began with Alexander Pope's famous couplet from An Essay on Man: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man." He then proceeded to analyze it in the context of current scientific knowledge, identifying the real nature of the antithesis posed by Pope as being between matters subject to the laws of nature and those assumed to be bound by no laws of any kind. Pope was presenting humanity's two choices: scientific inquiry leading to expanding knowledge, or endless speculation leading nowhere.

But what about the emphasis on humanity as the measure of all things? How are we to answer modern critics of humanism who claim that the perspective is human-centered to the exclusion of other living things and other aspects of the universe? Asimov asked, "Is the study of humans, then, not too confining?" His answer came as a resounding "No!" He explained that such a study is inherently and necessarily limitless, for the simple reason that humanity does not exist in a vacuum. Every other form of life affects or is affected by it; every environmental condition on Earth operates to shape us and is, in turn, altered irrevocably by our activities. Humankind, like all other forms of life, is a product of the "stuff" of the universe and subject to the same laws.

Furthermore, wrote Asimov, our species is a unique part of that universe. The human brain is the result of some 15 billion years of evolution, and we may very well be the only portion of this vast process with sufficient complexity to be aware of our context and positioning in space. Indeed, he concluded, if we cannot exist without the universe, neither can the universe be observed or understood without us. To study humanity is to study the universe, and vice versa. Surely, then, we should appreciate the uniqueness and significance of humanity in the scheme of things and revere the evolution that brought us into being! No other species has developed the creative and powerful instrument of scientific inquiry - a process with the capacity to illuminate the pulse of the universe back to the very beginning and forward to the end of time. Asimov's greatest contribution to humanism may well be his recognition of all this.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:science fiction author
Author:Hutcheon, Pat Duffy
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Leap of Faith.
Next Article:Isaac Asimov: a one-man renaissance.

Related Articles
Isaac Asimov: a one-man renaissance.
I, Asimov.
Black writers bring a different perspective to sci-fi.
Renowned sci-fi writer and teacher dies at 79.
Shaping things to come: seeking to impose their global vision of a tyrannical "utopia," powerful elitists have effectively used science fiction to...
A traveling female spirit: Nalo Hopkinson takes her inspiration from the magic of the Caribbean and the strength of women.
A. E. van Vogt and the World of Null-A.
Invitation to a Private Virtual Reality.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters