Amol Rajan: The awe-inspiring power of science to end suffering

FreeView from the editors at i

Share

In the past week, two astonishing face transplant stories have been in the news.

Richard Norris of Hillsville, Virginia, was shot in the face in 1997 and lost his nose, lips and most movement in his mouth. On 27 March, surgeons from the University of Maryland Medical Centre detailed what is widely thought to be the most comprehensive face transplant ever, while revealing Norris to the world. The before and after pictures were stunning.

Yesterday, independent.co.uk carried a very moving news clip of a press conference given by Dallas Wiens (above),  another American, who was terribly burnt and blinded in a freak accident while painting a church. "By all accounts Dallas should not have survived the devastating injury that took his face", said Dr Bohdan Pomahac, his plastic surgeon. "But he did." Mr Wiens described how he cried when his four-year-old daughter, who he will never see again, kissed him for the first time in years.

When your pride in humanity is shaken – by war, crime, Samantha Brick, George Osborne, BBC3, and other such horrors – look to science, the engine of progress. Because our society has spent three decades living beyond our means, and created illusory economic growth which mostly favours the rich, progress is currently unfashionable in the West. That is why it has never needed defending more.

There are those, like the magnificent polemicist (I stop short of calling him a philosopher) John Gray, who are applauded when they tell us progress is a delusion, that the growing knowledge given by science will only be mobilised for conflicting ends, and that we now seek in science little more than salvation from ourselves.

But those who buy this argument fail to distinguish between two aspects of human progress. The first is moral; the second, material. Because moral knowledge isn't cumulative, like scientific knowledge, it can be lost just as easily as it has been gained. There has, overall, been great moral advancement among humanity, usually where religion has lost its monopoly on organised violence, and given way to a system of rights; but we will always retain the capacity to do wrong. Science cannot erase human error.

Yet the gains in knowledge made by science can be used for a most noble material end, which is to reduce human suffering. Across the world, the cumulative efforts of generations of scientists are achieving that on an inspirational and life-affirming scale.

Science provides the most exciting evidence of the possibility of progress. Those who believe that the latter is merely the latest secular myth – "that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade, created to pretend we never die" as Larkin said of religion in Aubade – should be acquainted with Norris and Wiens, two men whose recent smiles once belonged to the realm formerly known as science fiction.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Provisioning Specialist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Provisioning Specialist is required to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Support Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Support Engineer is required to join a well-...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Administrator - Swedish Speaking

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

What Lord Myners tells us about the Royal Mail sell-off shows just how good the City is at looking after itself

Chris Blackhurst
Police are called to Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney's Martin Place, a busy plaza in the heart of the city  

After the Sydney Siege, would Australia be safer with American-style gun laws? The answer is simple

Neil Brennan
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum