5th November 1892. Man or Machine?

Today in 1892 J.B.S. Haldane, mathematician, geneticist, physiologist and evolutionary biologist was born.

An author of many works, one of his great essays, Daedalus and Science of the Future, was read to the Heretic Society at Cambridge University in 1923.(1)


David Low cartoon featuring Haldane’s prophecies for 1949. Text: ‘Haldane refusing to recant is denounced by Daily Worker as bourgeois pseudo-scientist’. Post war he was critical of the Communists.

Relating to the cartoon, Haldane wrote many articles for the Daily Worker on ‘being the right size’, concerning organisms, and Nationalisation which he thought ‘could only be possible in the largest of states’.

His Essay, with much reference to Samuel Butler’s 19th century novel, ‘Erewhon’ was concerned with the notion that machines were taking over: ‘Has mankind released from the womb of matter a Demogorgan [monster] to turn against him?’ ‘Is there a hope of stopping the progress of scientific research?’

This was relevant, then as now, in an age when we don’t have the stumbling block of powerful religion of the Middle Ages to hold back science as Galileo and others discovered.

Notions of  the power unleashed by machines goes back to Greek mythology when Haldane uses that of Daedelus as a symbol for the revolutionary nature of science especially in biology, saying ‘chemical and physical inventions are always Promethean’.

It was a theme used in the 19thc with Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus’ in 1818, two years before Percy Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’.(2)

However the workers,at that time, not philosophically inclined, took more direct action as reported in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal of 23rd  May 1791 which commented on a recent riot against new machinery at Bradford, Wiltshire a textile centre in which a carding machine was ‘tried’ and ceremoniously burnt.



Cover of Erewhon by Samuel Butler. Published anonymously 1867.

It said: ‘Eighteen or twenty years of experience in Yorkshire has shown that all machinery in manufactures does not lessen but increases the ability and means of employing the poor’.

The Luddite Riots of 1812 and attacks on knitting frames in Nottinghamshire led the government to send 12,000 troops to the county.

The enemy was now seen as the machine.

However not all saw the celerity or menace of change, a notion expressed in GK Chesterton’s ‘Napoleon Of Notting Hill’, in its prophesy that the Hansom Cab would be around in a 100 years owing to cessation of invention. A few years later it was in a museum.

However HG Wells in his 1902 ‘Anticipations’ was a little more prescient in forecasting ‘heavier-than-air’ machines in war, which was duly realised. The pursuit of knowledge continues.

(1) Delivered in 4.2.1923.

(2a) Daedalus regretted his device which killed his son Icarus who flew to near the sun.

(2b) Prometheus a Titan, fashioned mankind at the behest of Zeus.


singularitysymposium.com/samuel-butler/Pic of Cover.


wikipedia.org/haldane/old_low’s_almanack_prophesies_1949_JBHaldane_Wellcombe_L0073422./Cartoon.Pic of Cartoon.

bactra.com/Daedalus or Science of the Future.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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