Two views of the power of man

Summary:  Two views of man’s worth and scope of choice are contrasted.  One view holds that nature is immensely powerful and humbles man.  The other holds that man, while of course subject to the laws of nature, has the power to reshape nature to valuable ends, achieving results nature could never accomplish.  This power of man is the result of his reason and choice.  Which of man’s achievements would you judge as most exemplifying his power?

By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us. 1

This view is virtually the motto adopted by the environmentalist movement (of which its author is a prominent member).  It represents a strain of thought about man and his capabilities that is increasingly common in our culture.  This view emphasizes the power of nature and belittles man by contrast.  It urges man to become modest and jettison what it considers his unwarranted sense of importance.

In fact, however, man’s power is far greater than the mountains he is asked to be humbled by.  With the faculty of reason, culturally unleashed since the Renaissance, man has used nature to accomplish life-enhancing tasks that nature, by itself, did not and could not accomplish.

Consider one example, from a biography of a great scientist:  A mold can grow penicillin.  This fact of nature lay unknown for the entire 200,000 years of man’s life on earth prior to the time it was discovered by science in the 1920’s.  By itself, however, even this discovery wasn’t sufficient to make it useful.  To be beneficial required, first, investigation by scientists to understand penicillin’s properties and medical applications.  Second, an enormous scale-up effort was required to take this research from laboratory to widespread medical use.   At the beginning of World War II, with soldiers injured on the battlefield in desperate need of antibiotics, penicillin was extremely limited in supply: The soldiers, after receiving a dose, had their urine collected so the rare commodity could be re-purified from it and used for another dose.  By the end of World War II – with the industrialization of the penicillin process, most notably by the drug companies Merck and Pfizer – penicillin supplies were adequate to provide doses as needed for the Normandy invasion.  In Britain alone, from 1930 to 1960, the number of people dying from infection decreased from 115,000 to 24,000 per year, while population grew (some of this was due to hygiene and other medical advances, but most is attributed to penicillin and its derivatives).

A mold (“nature alone”) can grow infinitesimal amounts of a useful chemical.  It takes man’s reason to recognize the chemical’s beneficial properties, and to develop the scientific understanding and production processes necessary to make it available for widespread use.

With regard to mountains, yes, the building of them by the earth involves massive forces, blind consequences of earth motion, heat and gravity.  The moving of mountains, to achieve something of great value, requires man’s mind and focused choice.  Few achievements illustrate that more clearly than the building of the Panama Canal.

The Canal was first conceived and proposed seriously in the 1850’s, as a way to reduce the months-long journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.  Decades of planning and work resulted in very little, as the first efforts failed and went bankrupt.  When American industry and medicine got involved, in the 1900s, Panama was still a pestilential, disease-ridden jungle, with a few skeletons of the earlier work remaining.  The task seemed, and had proven, impossible.  First, man would have to find a cure for yellow fever and malaria so that it was possible to work in Panama.  Then, the enormous task of slicing a waterway through a continent had to be accomplished.

There were political factors at play in this vast effort, but that is not the subject of concern here.  What matters is what a combination of science, engineering and business accomplished in merely 11 years.

David McCullough’s excellent history of the building of the Canal details the extent of the accomplishment.

  • The American effort at Panama started in 1903, after a 20-year French effort had ended in failure both technically and financially, and a 10-year lapse in construction had occurred.
  • Before work could begin, a medical team had to assemble all that was known about yellow fever and malaria in order to reduce or eliminate the almost unheard-of death rate (12 of every 1,000 employees) in Panama. This team, led by William C. Gorgas, conducted a war against mosquitoes (whose role in yellow fever and malaria had been recently discovered).  This campaign consisted of drainage, brush and grass cutting, killing larvae (by a crude larvacide they had to invent), prophylactic quinine for all employees, screening, and killing adult mosquitoes. The result of this four-year effort was the eradication of yellow fever and a dramatic reduction of the malaria hospitalization rate (from 10% to 2%).
  • Culebra Cut was the heart of the canal, a massive man-made canyon with vertical rock walls subject to progress-reversing mudslides.  96 million cubic yards of material were removed from the canyon, by around 100 “monster” machines and 61 million pounds of dynamite.  All the types of work – blasting, drilling, shoveling, material removal – had to be coordinated so as not to have one interfere with or delay any other.
  • A large dam was built at Gatun in order to control the flow of water in the canal. The dam bridged a mile and a half waterway, and was fifteen times as thick at the bottom as it was high.  A daily concrete pour for the dam was 3400 cubic yards.
  • The Canal, once operational, would function by at least 1,500 electric motors, designed by General Electric.
  • Pittsburgh steel mills produced all the needs of the Canal.  Special steels were used in the construction of the locks, which needed to be high strength and corrosion resistant.  Allegheny Steel had invented the new Vanadium steel alloy.

McCullough provides an eloquent summary of all these technical achievements:

“The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort … The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished.”

Among the many elements of free will highlighted in the Panama Canal story, one stands out:  the difference between the characters of the leaders of the failed attempt and those of the successful one.  Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French builder who had become famous for the Suez Canal, tried to apply the same techniques used in building Suez to the Panama region.  Ignoring the overwhelming evidence that methods suitable for a desert climate were not working in a muddy jungle, de Lesseps’ effort collapsed.  His successors, American medical personnel and engineers, by contrast were open to the facts and did not evade them.  Under the leadership of two engineers – George Goethals and John Stevens – they devised methods appropriate to the particulars of Panama.  It was no accident, for example, that Stevens was an expert railroad engineer:  Building the Canal required innovative railroad solutions to the problem of deploying equipment and materials at dispersed sites.  Nor was it an accident that Stevens had trained under the legendary railroad builder James J. Hill, whose management philosophy is summed up as follows:  “Intelligent management . . . must be based on exact knowledge of facts. Guesswork will not do.”  A determination to have exact factual information vs. stubborn evasion and wishful thinking – those are the contrasting approaches adopted by the two men whose exertions had such different outcomes.  This fundamental difference in character (not anything related to nationality) explains how the later effort to build a canal at Panama resulted in success, despite the enormity of the task and all the setbacks along the way.

For those who love to visit and view the mountains, either as a rest from a productive life or a vocation (such as a tour guide), nothing said here should be considered as a suggestion against it – as long as one considers the full context of the situation.  Don’t adopt the anti-man viewpoint of the environmental movement.  That movement promotes a poisonous package deal combining your enjoyment of nature with a denigration of man’s power and choice.

Man’s reason allows him to move mountains, and to choose to slice pathways through continents.  It also gives him the power to read those mountains, understanding their geologic history though that history extends for epochs before man inhabited the earth.  Reason allows man to grasp possibilities on extra-terrestrial bodies and choose to travel there.  Reason makes possible eliminating disease.  But reason is a power that has to be exercised by choice – requiring focus on reality, effort and perseverance in the face of failure.  Rather than be humbled by the sight of nature, or be overawed by its power, man may legitimately experience an earned pride in his choice to comprehend and make use of it.

  1. Robert MacFarlane, Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit, 2003

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>