Is human happiness the driving force behind scientific innovation?

From the dawn of human civilization, science and technology has been a way to improve human life. One of the first inventions, the spear, was made in order to give early man an easier, more efficient, way to gather food. The wheel, which paved the way to modern cars, created an easier way for us to move heavy objects over long distances, or to travel more quickly.  I do not believe that either of these inventions was crucial to our survival, but more a way to make our survival easier.  For numbers of years, almost all inventions were made with the intention of making our lives easier. Others were made as devices to wage wars, and to have a better way to defeat our enemies. Some of our inventions, like the spear, are eventually used as an effective means of hurting members of our own species.  It is with this notion that I would like to outline the main thesis of this article, that science and technology serves two clear purposes: one, to make our lives easier, two, as an effective means to wage war. More specifically, that much of the technology that comes to pass makes our lives easier, yet, was first devised to make someone else’s life more difficult.

It is obvious that almost all forms of technology that reach the consumer market are geared towards making our lives easier: the dishwasher, the television, the computer, for example.  All of these technologies came from a scientific discovery that made them possible, and the end result of all that research was for someone to not have to wash dishes by hand, or have an easier means of obtaining the news. It should be known however that many sciences and technology that we have so fondly become used to using every day in our home are direct derivatives of military sciences, sciences developed for the sole purpose of “defending” our land, from our own kind. It is only after they have been used, or attempted to be used, in the military realm, that some usefulness for the consumer was discovered.

The first true computer, the ENIAC, was built for one reason, to calculate launch trajectories of projectiles. This led the forefront of a revolution in science which in turn gave rise to home computing. It is still the military and the government which leads the driving force of computer technology. It could still be argued however, that no matter what the use, even military science is used strictly as a means of making someone’s life easier, and thus happier. Weather it is easier to calculate the distance to a target, or easier to do your taxes. It could also be argued that even though being able to blow up a city from half way around the world, makes us happy, it doesn’t make all humans happy. With inventions designed to wage war, I would feel safe saying that human happiness is not the goal.

Another military derived technology is the satellite. The idea of an earth orbiting object is what started the space race, and once it was achieved the first purpose of one of these objects was merely research, but then the idea of military spy satellites was born, then military defense/attack satellites. The space race, in the beginning, had no real purpose; it was simply a pissing contest with Russia. The benefits we have reaped from this research are insurmountable however. Today, we have navigational satellites, communications satellites, weather satellites, and many other types. These allow us to use cell phones, watch television, and know the weather a week early. All of these technologies are clearly devised at making our lives easier. While satellites have proven quite useful as a military technology, and most research on them is driven by the military, aside from more effective reconnaissance and targeting, it is my opinion that there are far more benefits to people all around the world then there are risks.

There are many sciences and technologies that have no roots in the military. Some of the more significant ones include the cotton gin, the plough, or the printing press. These not only made human life much easier, and happy, but they also paved the way for the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution gave way to countless inventions with little military use, but much domestic use. Even the musket gave the people on the frontier a means of survival, through hunting or defense. One of the most prime examples of a non-military rooted science is that of medicine and pharmaceuticals. This industry has lead to the development of more useful science and means for survival than any other since the dawn of time. Medicine is geared strictly toward human happiness. Anti-depressants, pain killers, cures, vaccines, treatments, all of these are created to either make us happy, or to help us stay alive longer.

I feel like I am letting my point wander a bit right now, but I also feel that in doing so I am forming a strong basis for my thesis. DuPont formed the saying “Better Living Through Chemistry”. DuPont is actually the perfect candidate to make my point very strong: The E.I. DuPont Company was formed in 1802 as a gunpowder mill on the Brandywine River in Wilmington Delaware.

DuPont later evolved into one of the world’s largest chemical companies, and in the 20th century led the polymer revolution by developing many highly successful materials such as nylon, Teflon and Kevlar. Today, DuPont is a multi-national chemical, paint, and health care company with 2002 revenues of $24.5 billion. This company encompasses everything. It has roots and current strong interest in military technology. It has been on the forefront of almost any significant development of the 20th century. However, many of its developments have made our lives much easier in the strictest sense. Nylon – has made it possible for us to go out in the rain without getting wet, and is much more comfortable to wear then rubber or plastic. Teflon – has made it possible for us to cook almost anything, and burn it to a crisp, and literally be able to wipe a pan clean with a sponge. Kevlar – one of the strongest pliable materials ever devised can make a lightweight, wearable vest, which even a bullet cannot penetrate. DuPont has made paints that change color in different types of light for us to use on our cars, or paints for the home that are stain proof, all of which make our lives incredibly easier, and thus make us all much happier. However, DuPont also has had its hand in chemical warfare development, nuclear weapons, and many dangerous, unpopular military technologies.

To go in the opposite direction briefly, I also believe that too much technology has put us in a mindset that all things should come easily, and things that were devised to make us happier are actually doing the opposite. Good examples include cell phones, or the internet. Cell phones obviously make our lives easier, and make us happier in many ways, but they are also a heavy burden. In classrooms, people are taking calls, we allow ourselves to become distracted at inopportune times, and we rely on the ability to use the phone rather then to have physical contact with other people. The internet has all but replaced books for most modern students. Barely anyone checks out a book from the library anymore, or does good old fashioned research. We have become lazy. Online chatting has replaced even talking on the phone for many people. We have isolated ourselves from human contact in many ways. While many people think they are happy because of these things, many eventually realize the drawbacks. Many technologies have given way for much of today’s youth to have no idea of the benefits of good old hard labor, or crafting something with your hands. Almost no one today has the goal to work in a factory, or on a construction site, jobs that are required to help build the world around us. To put it bluntly, reliance on science and technology has made us lazy. While we all seem to be happier, we are not, we just haven’t realized it yet.

In conclusion, I feel that, yes, all science is geared toward making our lives easier, and making us happier, one way or another. It is the main reason for doing anything. Anything we do today is in an effort to someday have an easier way of doing it. We even have easier ways to eat food. Even the military sciences are, when you boil it down, made to make life easier. Without the overall goal of an easier more effective way of doing, most science would not exist. There are only a handful of sciences that are purely in the pursuit of knowledge, and even those have bi-products which turn into happiness. Science is happiness, in the modern world; science is the only thing that makes us happy.

One thought on “Is human happiness the driving force behind scientific innovation?

  1. I like to think of invention as being a “scratching of the itch” of the inventor. Inventions happen because a need is there. Discoveries happen generally by chance.

    Sure war is and has historically been a great source of invention. Because war provides us with the greatest itch of all – the need to survive, and thus we need to create better tools/weapons than our enemies.

    It has always been this way and probably always will.

    Let me pose you a question: If human happiness is the driving force behind scientific innovation, isn’t it ironic that we may well be inventing ourselves into extinction? (see: http://mindstalk.net/vinge/vinge-sing.html)

    Is it inevitable that our scientific progress will bring to an end the human race AS WE KNOW IT? I see a few possible futures here:

    1) We are well on our way to creating our own replacements (AI, cybernetics, etc.) – ie. our inventions outgrow us
    2) We will destroy humankind with a global war – ie. our inventions destroy us
    3) We will destroy our planet with our eco-unfriendly lifestyles (or perhaps with the Large Hadron Collider – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider) – ie. our inventions destroy our planet or our live-giving ecosystem

    Of course we have many possible futures and many of them are not this grim! 🙂

    Whatever happens though, we’ll not stop the inventors, the chemists, the philosphers… homosapiens natural curiosity will keep on driving us. We will always quest for more, that’s our nature.

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