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

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London