The Light and the dark in human nature


In his book, Peacemaking Among Primates, Frans de Waal passes on a striking story told to him by a German ethologist who worked among very primitive tribes in the inaccessible highlands of New Guinea. Two village heads were given a flight in an aeroplane. They asked for a side door to be kept open, despite being told this would make them very cold, as they were wearing nothing but their penis sheaths. Then they said they wanted to bring two heavy stones on the flight. They explained that they wanted to drop the stones on an enemy village. The ethologist realised that he had been present at the invention of bombing by Neolithic man.

The subject matter of the Iliad is a grim and protracted war with deaths and horrors often described in detail. Simone Weil was right to call it a "poem of force". The continuities with events in out own time are depressing for those of us who wonder if war and cruelty are too deeply rooted in our nature to be eliminated. But the poem -especially in the description of the shield his mother has ordered to be made for Achilles- amid the dark of war also celebrates the light. It gives a sense of the beauty and richness of life: of laden vineyards, of wedding dances, music, ploughing and harvesting.

And first Hephaestus makes a great and massive shield, blazoning well-wrought emblems across its surface…

And across its vast expanse with all his craft and cunning
The god creates a world of gorgeous immortal work.

There he made the earth and there the sky and the sea
And the inexhaustible blazing sun and the moon rounding full
And the constellations, all that crown the heavens…

And he forged on the shield two noble cities filled
with mortal men. With weddings and wedding feasts in one
and under glowing torches they brought forth the brides
from the women’s chambers, marching through the streets
while choir on choir the wedding song rose high
and the young men came dancing, whirling round in rings…

And he forged a fallow field, broad rich plowland
tilled for the third time, and across it crews of plowmen
wheeled their teams, driving them up and back and soon
as they’d reach the end-strip, moving into the turn,
a man would run up quickly
and hand them a cup of honeyed, mellow wine
as the crews would turn back down along the furrows,
pressing again to reach the end of the deep fallow field
and the earth churned black behind them, like earth churning,
solid gold it was –that was the wonder of Hephaestus’ work.

And he forged a king’s estate where harvesters labored,
reaping the ripe grain, swinging their whetted scythes.
Some stalks fell in line with the reapers, row on row,
And others the sheaf-binders girded round with ropes,
Three binders standing over the sheaves, behind the
boys gathering up the cut swaths, filling their arms,
supplying grain to the binders, endless bundles…

And he forged a thriving vineyard loaded with clusters,
bunches of lustrous grapes in gold, ripening deep purple
and climbing vines shot up on silver vine poles…

And there among them a young boy plucked his lyre,
so clear it could break the heart with longing,
and what he sang was a dirge for the dying year,
lovely… his fine voice rising and falling low
as the rest followed, all together, frisking, singing,
shouting, their dancing footsteps beating out the time…

And the crippled Smith brought all his art to bear
on a dancing circle, broad as the circle Daedalus
once laid out on Cnossos’ spacious fields
for Ariadne the girl with lustrous hair.
Here young boys and girls, beauties courted
with costly gifts of oxen, danced and danced,
linking their arms, gripping each other’s wrists…

And now they would run in rings on their skilled feet,
nimbly, quick as a crouching potter spins his wheel,
palming it smoothly, giving it practice twirls
to see it run, and now they would run in rows,
in rows crisscrossing rows –rapturous dancing.
A breathless crowd stood round them struck with joy
and through them a pair of tumblers dashed and sprang,
whirling in leaping handsprings, leading on the dance…

when the famous crippled Smith had finished off
that grand array of armor, lifting it in his arms
he laid it all at the feet of Achilles’ mother Thetis-
and down she flashed like a hawk from snowy Mount Olympus
bearing the brilliant gear, the god of fire’s gift.

Homer: "The Iliad", translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1990. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc.

In deliberate contrast, W.H. Auden's great poem on the atrocities of our modern world has a shield that portrays "quite another scene".

The Shield of Achilles.

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighbourhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude.
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No-one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes liked to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy, a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armourer,
Hephaestos hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the God had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.

W.H. Auden.




The Manicheans, and Freud's Fateful Question.

It is obvious that humans have the potential to do terrible things to each other. But we have another side too. The early Christian "Manichean heresy" saw the world as a continuing struggle between the light and the dark. When interpreted, not as a metaphysical struggle between the forces of God and the Devil, but as a psychological conflict inside us, the view is very plausible. Will the dark side prevail, perhaps destroying us all? Or can we leave war and atrocity behind us? Or will the struggle between the two never end?

Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those that come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad... and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves and will not let either part be destroyed.

Rebecca West: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.


The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.

Sigmund Freud: Civilization and its Discontents.

Some reflections on the psychological lessons that can be derived from the darker side of twentieth century history: They are linked to the project undertaken in Humanity, a Moral History of the Twentieth Century.

One was an interview on a Boston radio station, in a programme called "The Connection", notable for the wide-ranging and thoughtful questions of the interviewer Christopher Lydon:

Dr. Gwen Adshead, a psychiatrist working in Broadmoor Hospital, and I were interviewed together by Melvyn Bragg in his BBC radio programme In Our Time. One theme of Melvyn Bragg's questions was the relationship between the possible historical, social and psychological explanations I had suggested for the great collective atrocities such as genocide and what a psychiatrist such as Gwen Adshead could learn from studying her patients about the causes of murder and other violent crimes carried out by individuals.

Explanations of the great atrocities were also discussed in this unedited material for a filmed interview with David Hulme of the magazine Vision. His questions came partly from his own religious perspective. I was stimulated by the challenge of articulating what we disagree about and at the same time exploring how much common ground we have.

Ingredients for an Interview.

Terror, the "War on Terror", Atrocities and Torture.

Here are a few attempts to respond to some recent atrocities. The first is a comment on how atrocites carried out indiscriminately against groups, whether terrorist bombing or indiscriminate shelling or bombing by military forces, are justified by those who order them or those who carry them out. Often the justifications rest on an illusion of collective responsibility. I wrote about this in a Festschrift for Amartya Sen:

The Illusion of Collective Responsibility.

Especially when we are remembering some harm or humiliation inflicted on "us", we are prey to the illusion of collective responsibility. "They" (all of them!) have these bad characteristics, which were expressed in what they did to us, and so they are all responsible. They all deserve what they get as a result.

The illusion is found in the leaders. When Osama bin Laden celebrates 9/11, it is "America" whose nose is rubbed in the dirt. But is it likely that, of the some 3,000 people he killed, all were supporters of American government interventions in the Islamic world? Did the Islamic Americans he killed deserve to have their noses "rubbed in the dirt"? What about the 86 people he killed who came from Japan, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico and the Philippines? The celebration depends on belief in collective responsibility, which in turn depends on not asking these questions about the actual people who get killed.

And when President Bush targeted Afghanistan and Iraq as part of his "war on terror", he was delivering on his promise that the people who knocked these buildings down "will hear us all soon". But how many of the more than 3,000 Afghan civilians killed does this fit? Were there really more people in the 9/11 conspiracy than were killed by it? And the more than 600,000 people, according to some estimates, killed as a result of the Iraq war obviously were not all involved, and perhaps none of them were. Of course other motives were in play... But one reason for early American support of the war was that it was hitting back at Iraq's supposed implication in al-Qaeda terrorism. Among the false beliefs behind this thinking was the illusion of collective responsibility.

This illusion is found not only in the leaders, but also in those who carry out the supposed acts of retribution. It is found in the videotape made by Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the terrorist bombers who struck London on 7 July 2005. He was both British and Islamic, but his words made it clear that his chosen identity was Islamic rather than British. "You" are the people of Britain and other Western countries involved in the Iraq war. "We" are Islamic people.

He said,

our words have no impact upon you, therefore I'm going to talk to you in a language that you understand. Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood... Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetrate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.

The illusion of collective responsibility is linked to the idea that all members of the other group have shared (usually negative) characteristics. Here "you" (British people) are all impervious to the words of Islamic people and so "blood" is chosen as "a language you understand". "Your" support of governments perpetrating atrocities against Islamic people "makes you directly responsible".

With his bomb at Edgware Road Station, Mohammad Sidique Khan killed (apart from himself) six people. One question he might have asked about his potential victims is whether some of them might have been British and Islamic. Another is whether it was likely that all those he killed would be among the minority in Britain who supported the Iraq war. Another is whether the "you" he holds "directly responsible" would include those who took part in London's (largest ever) political demonstration: the one against that war just before it started. The illusion of collective responsibility does not easily survive such questions.

The same illusion helps bring about the kinds of action that fed Mohammad Sidique Khan's resentment. American troops back from Iraq have started to describe atrocities in which some of them participated. According to one report,

The mounting frustration of fighting an elusive enemy and the devastating effect of roadside bombs, with their steady toll of American dead and wounded, led many troops to declare open war on all Iraqis. Veterans described reckless firing once they left their compounds. Some shot holes into cans of gasoline being sold along the roadside and then tossed grenades into the pools of gas to set them ablaze. Others opened fire on children.

Some of the soldiers were troubled when, back in America, they thought about how they had felt and acted. One said that the general attitude was "A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi" and explained this: "The soldiers honestly thought we were trying to help the people and they were mad because it was almost like a betrayal. Like here we are trying to help you, here I am, you know, thousands of miles away from home and my family, and I have to be here for a year and work every day on these missions. Well, we're trying to help you and you just turn around and try to kill us."...

The illusion of collective responsibility behind waging open war on all Iraqis... again relies on the collective "you". Again the illusion would not survive such questions as whether the children fired on are really part of the "you" who "just turn round and try to kill us".

The cycle of humiliation and retaliation, together with the linked illusion of collective responsibility, has marked the current conflict. Prisoners of one side may be beheaded, with the atrocity broadcast to the world. Prisoners of the other side may have their religion insulted and may themselves be tortured and sexually humiliated. It is easy to understand the feelings on each side of rage and vengeance. It is less easy to see how to break out of this cycle, created by those on both sides who do not understand how it works.

From Identity, Violence and the Power of Illusion, in Kaushik Basu and Ravi Kanbur (eds.): Arguments for a Better World, Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen, Volume 2: Society, Institutions and Development, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Another response to atrocity was an article requested by the New York Times at the time of Abu Ghraib. Despite having given the impression that it would definitely be published, they decided not to publish it, preferring a (quite good) "human interest" article on Abu Ghraib as an example of how pocket-size cameras have increased the role of photography in recording atrocities.

Article on Abu Ghraib invited and then rejected by the New York Times

Another of the great moral issues of recent times has been the revival of the view that the use of torture may sometimes be acceptable. I had a chance to reflect on this when invited jointly by the Philosophy Department of University College London and by the British Humanist Association to give their annual Bentham Lecture.

Making Genocide Easier: Propaganda that Cuts Off Human Responses.

Most of us are familiar with the role of hate propaganda in helping make atrocities possible. But the general familiarity does not always deaden the shock on coming across a particular item of it. In Nuremberg, the Parteitag Building has been turned into a Museum dedicated to keeping alive the memory of how Nazi atrocities were facilitated by propaganda such as the huge rallies for which the building was created. Despite the familiarity of the rallies, the exhibition is still powerful. Some items surprise as well as shock. One item is a series of quite young schoolchildren's essays and drawings on such themes as "The Jews are our Misfortune". The contents are horrifying. The teachers have corrected such things as spelling mistakes. But they have either agreed with or acquiesced in the sentiments, which are not criticized.

The Fragmentation of Responsibility: The Nazi Genocide, Hiroshima and Global Warming.

Modern collective atrocities are greatly facilitated by the way the social and technological complexity of modern society hooks on to an aspect of our psychology.

One of the barriers to killing or torturing people is the sense people have of their own moral identity: "I do not want to be the kind of person who murders or tortures people". But because modern industrial atrocities involve large numbers of people, who each play only a small role, no-one need feel that they are responsible for what is done. "I am not a murderer. I only drove a train."

The fragmentation of responsibility creates in participants illusions that each of them is doing no harm to anyone. This is clear in the case of such atrocities as the Nazi genocide or Hiroshima. But it applies equally to issues like global warming. Most of us know that, because much electricity comes from sources that add to CO2 emissions, it is important to cut down on our power consumption. But, when it comes to switching off a light or a television on standby, nearly all of us are enormously seduced by the thought that such a small gesture will not make any difference at all, so why bother? A long time before hearing about global warming, I tried to refute the general assumption underlying this kind of thought. My switching off the light is below a discrimination threshold: it will not make a difference anyone will detect. But does this really mean that leaving the light on does no harm at all? I used a thought experiment to argue for an alternative view I called "The principle of divisibility", which says, in terms that may seem fiddly and abstract, that:

In cases where harm is a matter of degree, sub-threshold actions are wrong to the extent that they cause harm, and where a hundred acts like mine are necessary to cause a detectable difference I have caused one hundredth of that detectable harm.

Anyone who doubts this principle should consider the consequences of assigning zero harm to sub-threshold acts.

Suppose a village contains 100 unarmed tribesmen. As they eat their lunch 100 hungry armed bandits descend on the village and each bandit at gunpoint takes one tribesman's lunch and eats it. The bandits then go off, each one having done a discriminable amount of harm to a single tribesman. Next week, the bandits are tempted to do the same thing again, but are troubled by new-found doubts about the morality of such a raid. Their doubts are put to rest by one of their number who does not believe in the principle of divisibility. They then raid the village, tie up the tribesmen, and look at their lunch. As expected, each bowl of food contains 100 baked beans. The pleasure derived from one baked bean is below the discrimination threshold. Instead of each bandit eating a single plateful as last week, each takes one bean from each plate. They leave after eating all the beans, pleased to have done no harm, as each has done no more than sub-threshold harm to each person. Those who reject the principle of divisibility have to agree.

From It Makes no Difference Whether or Not I Do It, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume, 1975, reprinted in Peter Singer (ed.): Applied Ethics, Oxford Readings in Philosophy, 1986. This line of thought has been developed further in Derek Parfit's "harmless torturers" thought experiment. See his appendix on mistakes in moral mathematics, in his Reasons and Persons, 1984.

The Shape of the Twentieth Century, a symposium at a conference in Potsdam.

I was a speaker, together with Eric Hobsbawm and Robert Paxton, in a symposium on "The Shape of the Twentieth Century", which was part of a conference in Potsdam. The conference, hosted by the Einstein Forum, and by New York's Remarque Institute, looked at the similarities and dissimilarities between Nazism and Communism. Many participants were historians, but a number of people were there because, being Berliners or East Germans, they had experience of both to draw on.




The Stasi, Ethical Values and Markus Wolf.

One of the speakers at the Potsdam conference was Markus Wolf, former head of the external side of the Stasi. Earlier in the conference, he and I had chatted in English over coffee and biscuits. He was a nice looking elderly man, smiling and with twinkling eyes. He looked like everyone’s ideal great-uncle. I would never have guessed he was a spymaster, but no doubt that is how a spymaster should be.

His talk (given in German but which we English speakers heard in simultaneous translation) was an account and defence of his professional life. He started in a very sympathetic way, talking about his horror at Nazism as a young man, his ethical commitments to peace and to socialism, and how he became a communist because he saw the KPD as the only people really strongly standing up to Nazism. When the war came he went to Moscow to be trained to work against the Nazis. The bit about Moscow was a bit worrying. He said he saw nothing about the bad side of Stalin. And he made no mention of any reaction he might have had to the Hitler-Stalin pact. He went on to say that he was happy to come back after the war to work for the DDR, the first socialist state in Germany.

After the talk, the questions (given and answered in English) seemed not very probing. Perhaps people felt he had been punished by his prison sentence and that his presence at conferences should be welcomed. I felt a bit more probing was needed. Partly the problem was that the questions (not themselves filmed) were allowed to be bundled together and answered in groups, so that any particular question could if desired be answered very briefly.

In the answer given here he refers to my question, which had been roughly this: "In the early part of your talk, you spoke powerfully about your youthful ethical ideals. I want to ask about your ethical views later in your career. You say you came back to the first socialist state in Germany. But the DDR was not just a socialist state, but also a state claiming to be founded on Karl Marx's teaching. Sometimes Marx was scathing about ethical ideas (such as human rights). Could you say a bit about your ethics while you were leading the Stasi, and in particular whether there were any ethical restraints that set limits to what you were prepared to do?" The response (starting where he says "About Marx and Marxism to discuss today I think will be dificult") does not answer this. In the background you hear me calling out for a fuller response ("His views on morality?. On ethics? Ethical constraints?"). But I got nowhere.

Trapped in the Cycle of War and Violence: Humiliation and the Resulting Backlash.

Nations and other groups often respond to humiliation, especially to humiliating defeat, with a backlash that may bring about the next war. This is a striking feature of the history of the states that once made up Yugoslavia. It can also be seen in the history of German nationalism. The great philosopher of German nationalism, Gottlob Fichte, gave his Addresses to the German People as lectures, after the German defeat by Napoleon in 1807, in French-occupied Berlin.

In 1871, after the Franco-Prussian war, Bismarck insisted on humiliating France in turn by a Prussian victory march down the Champs Elysees.  

The cycle continued. After the First World War, it was the turn of Germany to be humiliated. In addition to the defeat, their leaders were forced to sign on their behalf the “war guilt clauses” that placed the whole blame for the war on Germany. One who felt the humilation acutely was Adolf Hitler. It is impossible to read Mein Kampf without noticing how the boiling rage -its dominant emotion- is linked with the sense of national humiliation. The allies were not subtle about this humiliation, as the photograph of the war memorial statue at Compiegne shows.

It is the German eagle that is hanging upside down and dead on the war memorial. Compiegne was where the railway carriage was used for the signing of the 1918 German surrender, the allies under Marshal Foch on one side of the table and the German military leaders on the other side.

The strength of Hitler’s response to this symbol of humiliation comes out in his arranging for the French surrender in 1940 to be in the same railway carriage, with the German delegation sitting where the Allies had, and Hitler sitting in the seat of Foch. For this second surrender, the memorial with the dead eagle was covered up, as shown at the start of this video clip:

As reported by the CBS correspondent William Shirer, Hitler did stand on the memorial slab on the ground:

I have seen that face many times at the great moments of his life. But today! It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph. He steps off the monument and contrives to make even this gesture a masterpiece of contempt. He glances back at it, contemptuous, angry –angry, you almost feel, because he cannot wipe out the awful, provoking lettering with one sweep of his high Prussian boot. He glances slowly round the clearing, and now, as his eyes meet ours, you grasp the depth of his hatred. But there is triumph there too –revengeful, triumphant hate… He swiftly snaps his hands on his hips, arches his shoulders, plants his feet wide apart. It is a magnificent gesture of defiance, or burning contempt for this place now and all that it has stood for in the twenty-two years since it witnessed the humbling of the German Empire.


After all this dark, some hints of light.

Freud again, this time with some cautious optimism:

We may insist as much as we like that the human intellect is weak in comparison with human instincts, and be right in doing so. But nevertheless there is something peculiar about this weakness. The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endlessly repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points in which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind.
Sigmund Freud: The Future of an Illusion.

Freud's thought is echoed by Freeman Dyson's account of the campaign against biological weapons by the molecular biologist Matthew Meselson. (I once had a conversation over dinner with Matthew Meselson when he visited Oxford to give a lecture. Having recently been reading Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene, I asked him about the beautiful Meselson-Stahl experiment. He was extremely interesting, but I wish I had known about his work against biological warfare, as I would love to have heard about that too.) Here are extracts from Dyson's account of the soft voice of the intellect not resting until it has gained a hearing.


The man who did more than any other single person to rid the world of biological weapons is Matthew Meselson, professor of biology at Harvard... He talked with army officers who specialized in biological warfare, and read their writings. He moved freely in the world of biological agents and distribution systems. What he saw there appalled him.

The most frightening of all the things which Meselson discovered... was Army Field Manual 3-10. This was a booklet issued to combat units to instruct them in the details of biological warfare. A series of graphs is presented which tell how many biological-agent droplets an aircraft should drop to cover a given area under given conditions, daytime or nighttime, for various types of terrain and various types of human target. The text is written in the same matter-of-fact prose that the army would use for a field manual on the proper method of digging a latrine. And the booklet is unclassified. It was, in 1963, widely distributed among United States units and easily available to foreign intelligence services. It carried a clear message to any foreign general staff officers who might happen to read it. It said that the United States was equipped and prepared for biological warfare, that this was the way a modern army should be trained, that every country that wanted to keep up with the Joneses must have its own biological agents and its bomblets too. After he read Field Manual 3-10, Meselson vowed that he would fight against this nonsense and not rest until he had got rid of it.

Dyson describes how Meselson easily persuaded military and political leaders of the danger of biological terrorism and that the U.S. willingness to use biological weapons could be a major factor in motivating others to acquire them. But it was harder to persuade them that there was no realistic military requirement for their use.

The biological warfare generals sincerely believed that we needed biological weapons to deter by threat of retaliation the use of biological weapons by others. He appeared to confront them when they came to argue for their programs before congressional committees. He asked them, in his quiet and polite voice, "General, we would like to know, supposing that the United States had been attacked with biological weapons and the President had given the order to retaliate, just what would you do? Where, and how, and against whom, would you use our weapons?" The generals were never able to give him a clear answer. There was in fact no answer to these questions. Biological weapons are so chancy, their effects so unpredictable and uncontrollable, that no responsible soldier would want to use them if he had any available alternative.

Dyson describes Meselson's influence on his Harvard colleague Henry Kissinger, who was one of those presenting President Nixon with the arguments on both sides.

Nixon announced the unilateral abandonment by the United States of all development of biological weapons, the destruction of our weapon stockpiles, and the conversion of our biological laboratories to open programs of medical research... It was a bold step to undertake a major act of disarmament unilaterally. Many people in the government were saying, "Let us by all means get rid of biological weapons, but let us not do it unilaterally. Let us negotiate with the Russians and keep what we have until they agree to destroy theirs too." Meselson insisted that unilateral action must come first, negotiation second. If  Nixon had begun with negotiations, there would have been endless discussions about the technical problems of monitoring violations of an agreement, with the probable result that no agreement could have been reached... Nixon's unilateral action removed all these difficulties. After announcing the American decision to abandon biological weapons, Nixon invited the Soviet Union to negotiate a convention to make the action multilateral. Negotiations were begun, with the United States negotiating "from a position of weakness", having nothing more to give in exchange for Soviet compliance. According to orthodox diplomatic doctrine, to negotiate from a position of weakness is a mistake. But in this case the tactic was successful. The Soviet political leaders were evidently convinced by Nixon's action that their own biological weapons were as useless and as dangerous as ours. Brezhnev signed the convention, agreeing to dismantle his programs, in the summer of 1972, just nine years after Meselson... began to read Field Manual 3-10. Seldom in human history has one man, armed only with the voice of reason, won so complete a victory.

Freeman Dyson: Disturbing the Universe. (Quoted by permission of Freeman Dyson.)


The victory was not quite so complete. Meselson is still a fine instance of the soft voice of the intellect not resting until it gains a hearing, and in doing so making the world a better place. But the story is complicated by later evidence. (The relations between the light and the dark often are complicated.) Those who try to do good share the world with people with different motives and with people who cheat. Sometimes those aiming at good are cheated by those others, and yet even so they may succeed in saving the world from being worse. Freeman Dyson has written to me saying:

"Unfortunately your account, like mine, does not mention the fact that the Soviet Union cheated on a massive scale, maintaining a huge biological weapons program in violation of the 1972 agreement. The scale of the violation only became clear after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In spite of the gross violation, the 1972 agreement is still in force and is still helpful in keeping the world free of biological weapons. Meselson's and Nixon's actions were courageous and in the end effective."


For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by buildingand lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. This is confirmed by what happens in states; for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them... It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics.


 SOCRATES: Societies are not made of sticks and stones, but of men whose individual characters, by turning the scale one way or another, determine the direction of the whole.

Plato: Republic.

In the dark time of the 7/7 London bombings, there were reminders that society is not made of sticks and stones but of people whose characters can make a difference. Two Channel Four documentaries bring this out:







Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, Muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
Elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.