Where the triumphs of human genius may lead

I’ve been reading my way through at a quite leisurely pace a quite instructive book by John Simmons with the title, The 100 Most Influential Scientists: a Ranking of the 100 Greatest Scientists Past and Present. What did amaze me was how many I had never heard of, including one Rudolph Virchow, ranked 17, who had discovered, if that is the right word, the biological cell sometime during the nineteenth century. Quite an amazing man (which left me wondering about my own education in that I had never before heard his name). But it was this passage by Simmons that really made me stop:

Virchow became politically engaged after investigating a typhus epidemic in Upper Silesia, home to the oppressed Polish minority in Prussia. As part of a commission formed by the government after revelations in the press, Virchow travelled to the region and issued a report which found that the fundamental causes of the epidemic were social. This was the first of Virchow’s political thrusts, and he prescribed for the epidemic “democracy, education, freedom and prosperity.” He asked rhetorically a question that resonates no less clearly today than in the nineteenth century: “Are the triumphs of human genius to lead only to this, that the human race shall become more miserable?” (Simmons 1997: 90)

It is something I have been thinking about as I work on the third edition of my Free Market Economics, since whatever else prosperity has or has not done, it has not brought happiness and contentment. Not good, but perhaps also not possible.

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