July 11, 2021 · 5 min read
Churchill—when he wasn’t busy leading the fight against the Nazis—had many hobbies. He wrote more than a dozen volumes of history, painted over 500 pictures, and completed one novel (“to relax”). He tried his hand at landscaping and bricklaying, and was “a championship caliber polo player.” But did you know he was also a futurist?
That, at least, is my conclusion after reading an essay he wrote in 1931 titled “Fifty Years Hence,” various versions of which were published in MacLean’s, Strand, and Popular Mechanics. (Quotes to follow from the Strand edition.)
We’ll skip right over the unsurprising bit where he predicts the Internet—although the full consequences he foresaw (“The congregation of men in cities would become superfluous”) are far from coming true—in order to get to his thoughts on…
Just as sure as the Internet, to forward-looking thinkers of the 1930s, was nuclear power—and already they were most excited, not about fission, but fusion:
If the hydrogen atoms in a pound of water could be prevailed upon to combine together and form helium, they would suffice to drive a thousand horsepower engine for a whole year. If the electrons, those tiny planets of the atomic systems, were induced to combine with the nuclei in the hydrogen the horsepower liberated would be 120 times greater still.
What could we do with all this energy?
Schemes of cosmic magnitude would become feasible. Geography and climate would obey our orders. Fifty thousand tons of water, the amount displaced by the Berengaria, would, if exploited as described, suffice to shift Ireland to the middle of the Atlantic. The amount of rain falling yearly upon the Epsom racecourse would be enough to thaw all the ice at the Arctic and Antarctic poles.
I assume this was just an illustrative example, and he wasn’t literally proposing moving Ireland, but maybe I’m underestimating British-Irish rivalry?
Anyway, more importantly, Churchill points out what nuclear technology might do for nanomaterials:
The changing of one element into another by means of temperatures and pressures would be far beyond our present reach, would transform beyond all description our standards of values. Materials thirty times stronger than the best steel would create engines fit to bridle the new forms of power.
Communications and transport by land, water and air would take unimaginable forms, if, as is in principle possible, we could make an engine of 600 horsepower, weighing 20 lb and carrying fuel for a thousand hours in a tank the size of a fountain-pen.
And even farming with artificial light:
If the gigantic new sources of power become available, food will be produced without recourse to sunlight. Vast cellars in which artificial radiation is generated may replace the cornfields or potato-patches of the world. Parks and gardens will cover our pastures and ploughed fields. When the time comes there will be plenty of room for the cities to spread themselves again.
Churchill also foresees genetic engineering:
Microbes, which at present convert the nitrogen of the air into the proteins by which animals live, will be fostered and made to work under controlled conditions, just as yeast is now. New strains of microbes will be developed and made to do a great deal of our chemistry for us.
Including lab-grown meat:
With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e. the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth. We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.
And artificial wombs:
There seems little doubt that it will be possible to carry out in artificial surroundings the entire cycle which now leads to the birth of a child.
This last point is his segue from technological to social, political, and moral issues. The ability to “grow” people, he fears, could be used by the Communists to create human drone workers:
Interference with the mental development of such beings, expert suggestion and treatment in the earlier years, would produce beings specialized to thought or toil. The production of creatures, for instance, which have admirable physical development, with their mental endowment stunted in particular directions, is almost within the range of human power. A being might be produced capable of tending a machine but without other ambitions. Our minds recoil from such fearful eventualities, and the laws of a Christian civilization will prevent them. But might not lop-sided creatures of this type fit in well with the Communist doctrines of Russia? Might not the Union of Soviet Republics armed with all the power of science find it in harmony with all their aims to produce a race adapted to mechanical tasks and with no other ideas but to obey the Communist State?
In the final paragraphs, he sounds a number of themes now common in the Effective Altruist community.
More than a decade before the nuclear bomb, he also expresses concern about existential risk:
Explosive forces, energy, materials, machinery will be available upon a scale which can annihilate whole nations. Despotisms and tyrannies will be able to prescribe the lives and even the wishes of their subjects in a manner never known since time began. If to these tremendous and awful powers is added the pitiless sub-human wickedness which we now see embodied in one of the most powerful reigning governments, who shall say that the world itself will not be wrecked, or indeed that it ought not to be wrecked? There are nightmares of the future from which a fortunate collision with some wandering star, reducing the earth to incandescent gas, might be a merciful deliverance.
He laments the inability of governance to deal with these problems:
Even now the Parliaments of every country have shown themselves quite inadequate to deal with the economic problems which dominate the affairs of every nation and of the world. Before these problems the claptrap of the hustings and the stunts of the newspapers wither and vanish away. … Democratic governments drift along the line of least resistance, taking short views, paying their way with sops and doles, and smoothing their path with pleasant-sounding platitudes. Never was there less continuity or design in their affairs, and yet towards them are coming swiftly changes which will revolutionize for good or ill not only the whole economic structure of the world but the social habits and moral outlook of every family.
More broadly, he laments the inadequacy of our evolutionary legacy to deal with them:
Certain it is that while men are gathering knowledge and power with ever-increasing and measureless speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvement as the centuries have rolled. The brain of a modern man does not differ in essentials from that of the human beings who fought and loved here millions of years ago. The nature of man has remained hitherto practically unchanged. … We have the spectacle of the powers and weapons of man far outstripping the march of his intelligence; we have the march of his intelligence proceeding far more rapidly than the development of his nobility.
Which leads him, in the end, to call for differential progress:
It is therefore above all things important that the moral philosophy and spiritual conceptions of men and nations should hold their own amid these formidable scientific evolutions. It would be much better to call a halt in material progress and discovery rather than to be mastered by our own apparatus and the forces which it directs. There are secrets too mysterious for man in his present state to know, secrets which, once penetrated, may be fatal to human happiness and glory. But the busy hands of the scientists are already fumbling with the keys of all the chambers hitherto forbidden to mankind. Without an equal growth of Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, Science herself may destroy all that makes human life majestic and tolerable.
I don’t recall Nick Bostrom citing Churchill, but I guess there’s nothing new under the sun.
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