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Some Possible Discoveries

The present time is harvest home for the prophets. The happy speculator
in future sits on the piled-up wain, singing "I told you so," with the
submarine and the flying machine and the Marconigram and the North Pole
successfully achieved. In the tumult of realisations it perhaps escapes
attention that the prophetic output of new hopes is by no means keeping
pace with the crop of consummations. The present trend of scientific
development is not nearly so obvious as it was a score of years ago; its
promises lack the elementary breadth of that simpler time. Once you have
flown, you have flown. Once you have steamed about under water, you have
steamed about under water. There seem no more big things of that kind
available--so that I almost regret the precipitance of Commander Peary
and Captain Amundsen. No one expects to go beyond that atmosphere for
some centuries at least; all the elements are now invaded. Conceivably
man may presently contrive some sort of earthworm apparatus, so that he
could go through the rocks prospecting very much as an earthworm goes
through the soil, excavating in front and dumping behind, but, to put it
moderately, there are considerable difficulties. And I doubt the
imaginative effect. On the whole, I think material science has got
samples now of all its crops at this level, and that what lies before it
in the coming years is chiefly to work them out in detail and realise
them on the larger scale. No doubt science will still yield all sorts
of big surprising effects, but nothing, I think, to equal the dramatic
novelty, the demonstration of man having got to something altogether new
and strange, of Montgolfier, or the Wright Brothers, of Columbus, or the
Polar conquest. There remains, of course, the tapping of atomic energy,
but I give two hundred years yet before that....

So far, then, as mechanical science goes I am inclined to think the
coming period will be, from the point of view of the common man, almost
without sensational interest. There will be an immense amount of
enrichment and filling-in, but of the sort that does not get prominently
into the daily papers. At every point there will be economies and
simplifications of method, discoveries of new artificial substances with
new capabilities, and of new methods of utilising power. There will be a
progressive change in the apparatus and quality of human life--the sort
of alteration of the percentages that causes no intellectual shock.
Electric heating, for example, will become practicable in our houses,
and then cheaper, and at last so cheap and good that nobody will burn
coal any more. Little electric contrivances will dispense with menial
service in more and more directions. The builder will introduce new,
more convenient, healthier and prettier substances, and the young
architect will become increasingly the intelligent student of novelty.
The steam engine, the coal yard, and the tail chimney, and indeed all
chimneys, will vanish quietly from our urban landscape. The speeding up
and cheapening of travel, and the increase in its swiftness and comfort
will go on steadily--widening experience. A more systematic and
understanding social science will be estimating the probable growth and
movement of population, and planning town and country on lines that
would seem to-day almost inconceivably wise and generous. All this means
a quiet broadening and aeration and beautifying of life. Utopian
requirements, so far as the material side of things goes, will be
executed and delivered with at last the utmost promptness....

It is in quite other directions that the scientific achievements to
astonish our children will probably be achieved. Progress never appears
to be uniform in human affairs. There are intricate correlations between
department and department. One field must mark time until another can
come up to it with results sufficiently arranged and conclusions
sufficiently simplified for application Medicine waits on organic
chemistry, geology on mineralogy, and both on the chemistry of high
pressures and temperature. And subtle variations in method and the
prevailing mental temperament of the type of writer engaged, produce
remarkable differences in the quality and quantity of the stated result.
Moreover, there are in the history of every scientific province periods
of seed-time, when there is great activity without immediate apparent
fruition, and periods, as, for example, the last two decades of
electrical application, of prolific realisation. It is highly probable
that the physiologist and the organic chemist are working towards
co-operations that may make the physician's sphere the new scientific
wonderland.

At present dietary and regimen are the happy hunting ground of the quack
and that sort of volunteer specialist, half-expert, half-impostor, who
flourishes in the absence of worked out and definite knowledge. The
general mass of the medical profession, equipped with a little
experience and a muddled training, and preposterously impeded by the
private adventure conditions under which it lives, goes about pretending
to the possession of precise knowledge which simply does not exist in
the world. Medical research is under-endowed and stupidly endowed, not
for systematic scientific inquiry so much as for the unscientific
seeking of remedies for specific evils--for cancer, consumption, and the
like. Yet masked, misrepresented limited and hampered, the work of
establishing a sound science of vital processes in health and disease is
probably going on now, similar to the clarification of physics and
chemistry that went on in the later part of the eighteenth and the early
years of the nineteenth centuries. It is not unreasonable to suppose
that medicine may presently arrive at far-reaching generalised
convictions, and proceed to take over this great hinterland of human
interests which legitimately belongs to it.

But medicine is not the only field to which we may reasonably look for a
sudden development of wonders. Compared with the sciences of matter,
psychology and social science have as yet given the world remarkably
little cause for amazement. Not only is our medicine feeble and
fragmentary, but our educational science is the poorest miscellany of
aphorisms and dodges. Indeed, directly one goes beyond the range of
measurement and weighing and classification, one finds a sort of
unprogressive floundering going on, which throws the strongest doubts
upon the practical applicability of the current logical and metaphysical
conceptions in those fields. We have emerged only partially from the age
of the schoolmen In these directions we have not emerged at all. It is
quite possible that in university lecture rooms and forbidding volumes
of metaphysical discussion a new emancipation of the human intellect and
will is even now going on. Presently men may be attacking the problems
of the self-control of human life and of human destiny in new phrases
and an altogether novel spirit.

Guesses at the undiscovered must necessarily be vague, but my
anticipations fall into two groups, and first I am disposed to expect a
great systematic increment in individual human power. We probably have
no suspicion as yet of what may be done with the human body and mind by
way of enhancing its effectiveness I remember talking to the late Sir
Michael Foster upon the possibilities of modern surgery, and how he
confessed that he did not dare for his reputation's sake tell ordinary
people the things he believed would some day become matter-of-fact
operations. In that respect I think he spoke for very many of his
colleagues. It is already possible to remove almost any portion of the
human body, including, if needful, large sections of the brain; it is
possible to graft living flesh on living flesh, make new connections,
mould, displace, and rearrange. It is also not impossible to provoke
local hypertrophy, and not only by knife and physical treatment but by
the subtler methods of hypnotism, profound changes can be wrought in the
essential structure of a human being. If only our knowledge of function
and value were at all adequate, we could correct and develop ourselves
in the most extraordinary way. Our knowledge is not adequate, but it may
not always remain inadequate.

We have already had some very astonishing suggestions in this direction
from Doctor Metchnikoff. He regards the human stomach and large
intestine as not only vestigial and superfluous in the human economy,
but as positively dangerous on account of the harbour they afford for
those bacteria that accelerate the decay of age. He proposes that these
viscera should be removed. To a layman like myself this is an altogether
astounding and horrifying idea, but Doctor Metchnikoff is a man of the
very greatest scientific reputation, and it does not give him any qualm
of horror or absurdity to advance it. I am quite sure that if a
gentleman called upon me "done up" in the way I am dimly suggesting,
with most of the contents of his abdomen excavated, his lungs and heart
probably enlarged and improved, parts of his brain removed to eliminate
harmful tendencies and make room for the expansion of the remainder, his
mind and sensibilities increased, and his liability to fatigue and the
need of sleep abolished, I should conceal with the utmost difficulty my
inexpressible disgust and terror. But, then, if M. Blériot, with his
flying machine, ear-flaps and goggles, had soared down in the year 54
B.C., let us say, upon my woad-adorned ancestors--every family man in
Britain was my ancestor in those days--at Dover, they would have had
entirely similar emotions. And at present I am not discussing what is
beautiful in humanity, but what is possible--and what, being possible,
is likely to be attempted.

It does not follow that because men will some day have this enormous
power over themselves, physically and mentally, that they will
necessarily make themselves horrible--even by our present standards
quite a lot of us would be all the slenderer and more active and
graceful for "Metchnikoffing"--nor does surgery exhaust the available
methods. We are still in the barbaric age, so far as our use of food and
drugs is concerned. We stuff all sorts of substances into our
unfortunate interiors and blunder upon the most various consequences.
Few people of three score and ten but have spent in the aggregate the
best part of a year in a state of indigestion, stupid, angry or painful
indigestion as the case may be. No one would be so careless and ignorant
about the fuel he burnt in his motor-car as most of us are about the
fuel we burn in our bodies. And there are all sort of stimulating and
exhilarating things, digesting things, fatigue-suppressing things,
exercise economising things, we dare not use because we are afraid of
our ignorance of their precise working. There seems no reason to suppose
that human life, properly understood and controlled, could not be a
constant succession of delightful and for the most part active bodily
and mental phases. It is sheer ignorance and bad management that keep
the majority of people in that disagreeable system of states which we
indicate by saying we are "a bit off colour" or a little "out of
training." It may seem madly Utopian now to suggest that practically
everyone in the community might be clean, beautiful, incessantly active,
"fit," and long-lived, with the marks of all the surgery they have
undergone quite healed and hidden, but not more madly Utopian than it
would have seemed to King Alfred the Great if one had said that
practically everyone in this country, down to the very swineherds,
should be able to read and write.

Metchnikoff has speculated upon the possibility of delaying old age, and
I do not see why his method should not be applied to the diurnal need of
sleep. No vital process seems to be absolutely fated in itself; it is a
thing conditioned and capable of modification. If Metchnikoff is
right--and to a certain extent he must be right--the decay of age is due
to changing organic processes that may be checked and delayed and
modified by suitable food and regimen. He holds out hope of a new phase
in the human cycle, after the phase of struggle and passion, a phase of
serene intellectual activity, old age with all its experience and none
of its infirmities. Still more are fatigue and the need for repose
dependent upon chemical changes in the body. It would seem we are unable
to maintain exertion, partly through the exhaustion of our tissues, but
far more by the loading of our blood with fatigue products--a
recuperative interlude must ensue. But there is no reason to suppose
that the usual food of to-day is the most rapidly assimilable nurture
possible, that a rapidly digestible or injectable substance is not
conceivable that would vastly accelerate repair, nor that the
elimination and neutralisation of fatigue products might not also be
enormously hastened. There is no inherent impossibility in the idea not
only of various glands being induced to function in a modified manner,
but even in the insertion upon the circulation of interceptors and
artificial glandular structures. No doubt that may strike even an
adventurous surgeon as chimerical, but consider what people, even
authoritative people, were saying of flying and electric traction twenty
years ago. At present a man probably does not get more than three or
four hours of maximum mental and physical efficiency in the day. Few men
can keep at their best in either physical or intellectual work for so
long as that. The rest of the time goes in feeding, digesting, sleeping,
sitting about, relaxation of various kinds. It is quite possible that
science may set itself presently to extend systematically that
proportion of efficient time. The area of maximum efficiency may invade
the periods now demanded by digestion, sleep, exercise, so that at last
nearly the whole of a man's twenty-four hours will be concentrated on
his primary interests instead of dispersed among these secondary
necessary matters.

Please understand I do not consider this concentration of activity and
these vast "artificialisations" of the human body as attractive or
desirable things. At the first proposal much of this tampering with the
natural stuff of life will strike anyone, I think, as ugly and horrible,
just as seeing a little child, green-white and still under an
anaesthetic, gripped my heart much more dreadfully than the sight of the
same child actively bawling with pain. But the business of this paper is
to discuss things that may happen, and not to evolve dreams of
loveliness. Perhaps things of this kind will be manageable without
dreadfulness. Perhaps man will come to such wisdom that neither the
knife nor the drugs nor any of the powers which science thrusts into his
hand will slay the beauty of life for him. Suppose we assume that he is
not such a fool as to let that happen, and that ultimately he will
emerge triumphant with all these powers utilised and controlled.

It is not only that an amplifying science may give mankind happier
bodies and far more active and eventful lives, but that psychology and
educational and social science, reinforcing literature and working
through literature and art, may dare to establish serenities in his
soul. For surely no one who has lived, no one who has watched sin and
crime and punishment, but must have come to realise the enormous amount
of misbehaviour that is mere ignorance and want of mental scope. For my
own part I have never believed in the devil. And it may be a greater
undertaking but no more impossible to make ways to goodwill and a good
heart in men than it is to tunnel mountains and dyke back the sea. The
way that led from the darkness of the cave to the electric light is the
way that will lead to light in the souls of men, that is to say, the way
of free and fearless thinking, free and fearless experiment, organised
exchange of thoughts and results, and patience and persistence and a
sort of intellectual civility.

And with the development of philosophical and scientific method that
will go on with this great increase in man's control over himself,
another issue that is now a mere pious aspiration above abysses of
ignorance and difficulty, will come to be a manageable matter. It has
been the perpetual wonder of philosophers from Plato onward that men
have bred their dogs and horses and left any man or woman, however vile,
free to bear offspring in the next generation of men. Still that goes
on. Beautiful and wonderful people die childless and bury their treasure
in the grave, and we rest content with a system of matrimony that seems
designed to perpetuate mediocrity. A day will come when men will be in
possession of knowledge and opportunity that will enable them to master
this position, and then certainly will it be assured that every
generation shall be born better than was the one before it. And with
that the history of humanity will enter upon a new phase, a phase which
will be to our lives as daylight is to the dreaming of a child as yet
unborn.

H.G. Wells