Commencement Address -- Christopher Chyba '82
June 1, 2003
Honorary Degree Citation
Good morning. It was about 20 years ago that I was here in Scott Amphitheater at my own commencement, and I have to say that even then, it was clear to me that senior week, the week between the end of senior exams and right now, was a humane and brilliant college tradition. Humane to have this last week to enjoy the beauty of this place, and the warmth and intelligence of one's friends — and to recover from the grim experience of exams. Brilliant on the part of the college to ensure that graduating seniors left feeling warm and happy and ready to go, rather than exhausted and shaken. In that sense I suppose you can think of this past week as representing your first experience with the Swarthmore College alumni office.
President Bloom, college faculty, students and families, let me begin by thanking you for the honor of being asked to be part of this day. Given my deep respect for Swarthmore's faculty and students, I can hardly imagine a greater compliment than to be asked to come here and speak on this occasion.
I have only a few minutes. I would like to use them by suggesting what it is you've been doing here for the past few years, and emphasizing how directly on point those years have been for facing the challenges and opportunities of the coming decades — that is, the decades of the class of 2003.
What you've done here, it seems to me, is simply to try to understand the world and how you are to live in it. You've come at this from many different perspectives, from Plato's Forms to molecular reductionism, but I suggest that a common goal has been to apprehend how the world actually is, so that your commitments may be grounded not in propaganda, but in reality. The challenges of the decades to come are many and diverse, but they will only be met with that kind of respect for knowledge.
I want to make this concrete with just one example, for which new thinking is badly needed. It will have to stand in for all the rest.
I am especially concerned by the challenges posed by the worldwide explosion of certain technologies, biotechnology now, and others a bit farther on. We are entering an era in which greater and greater power resides in the hands of smaller and smaller groups of the technically competent.
For powerful reasons, because it is so important to public health, food production, and the economy, genetic engineering is spreading rapidly and is ever easier to implement. China, for example, already has 20,000 people working in 200 biotechnology laboratories, much of it dedicated to genetically modified crops. Many countries around the world are following suit, or are further ahead. But genetic engineering techniques also appear to allow one, say, to engineer the smallpox virus to subvert the human immune system so that the virus is impervious to existing vaccines. Analogous experiments with the mousepox virus have already been done — unintentionally, so to speak — by a small group of scientists in Australia, who then published their methods in the Journal of Virology in 2001.
This biological challenge may not be greater than the nuclear challenge we already face, but it is very different. The important point is that we don't have any good models from cold war bilateral arms control or multilateral nonproliferation for how we are going to live in this world, where so much power resides in the hands of small groups. I have a number of colleagues, several of them extraordinarily able biologists, who believe that the only approach to this future is a kind of defensive arms race, in which biological techniques for protection — next generation antibiotics, new antivirals, new vaccines — are developed faster than bad actors can develop new means of destruction. Their view seems to be that our future is a kind of unending arms race of extraordinarily high stakes against that tiny fraction of society that has no conscience.
Is this now really the best vision of the human future that we can hope for? I don't know the answer. I am confident that their view is in fact part of what the future holds, but whatever the full answer will be, it will by necessity be devised in the next few decades. You and your peers will be at the forefront of those decisions, and their consequences.
What tools do you and your society have to bring to this effort, or to the others that you will face? Individually, you have your perspective, conscience, and knowledge grounded in respect for truth. I have no fears in this regard. That's why you've been here. But nationally and globally, your tools are inadequate.
Again, just one example. It should amaze you that as we face the coming decades, the U.S. government at its highest levels is remarkably poorly equipped to incorporate scientific knowledge into its decision-making. On Capitol Hill, in a breathtaking kind of self-lobotomy, Congress in 1995 eliminated its Office of Technology Assessment. What had been Congress' internal body for producing scientific and technical analyses of key issues was no longer deemed worth its $20 million annual cost.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the President's science advisor has, with some exceptions, played a decreasing role ever since the Kennedy Administration. Under the current President, the science advisor has been demoted in rank and had half his portfolio, including his office's former National Security Division, simply stripped away. So even as we confront a future whose scientific and technical challenges are unprecedented, the U.S. government has rendered itself less capable of addressing them.
But you are going to be the new staffers in, then members of, the House and Senate, you are going to be the new Cabinet officers, and above all you are going to continue to be voting and committed citizens of this or your home country. As you've worked so diligently to forge your own intellectual tools in your time here, I hope that you will also now help forge the tools that your society needs to address the challenges that we all must face.
Well, I've dwelled so far this morning on just one of those challenges. Perhaps you'll grant me just a moment to conclude with a word about the opportunities and accomplishments to come. One of my favorite poems is by Wallace Stevens; it's called "Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself." We search for apprehension of how the universe actually is, not how it merely appears. We strive to see the sunlit world beyond the cave that we still inhabit. I've implied today that we may face our greatest challenges right at the cave's threshold. Nonetheless, we can glimpse beyond that threshold a future civilization that would give scope to the best that human beings can be. Personally, I find examples of this in solar system exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life, but we can just as well see it in advances in public health, or in the pursuit of justice, or in any of a myriad of other human achievements. Stevens glimpsed it in something as simple as a sunrise beyond his window, a sunrise that was, as he said, "like a new knowledge of reality." It is your task, and the task of your brothers and sisters, to help us navigate these coming decades honestly — not naively — and to pursue a vision of the future that is worthy of the best of humanity.
Congratulations and thank you, class of 2003.