Albert Jacquard was born in Lyons in 1925. After his studies at the Polytechnical School and the Institute of Statistics, he worked first for SEITA, then for the Ministry of Health. He then turned toward a scientific career, taking up the study of population genetics at Stanford University. Returning to France, he became head of the Genetics Service at the National Institute for Demographics Studies (INED), where he stayed till 1990. As genetics expert with WHO from 1973 to 1985, he taught at the University of Paris VI (1978-1992) as well as the University of Geneva (1973-1992) and was a member of the National Committee of Ethics from 1984 to 1988.
A scientist of the first order, Albert Jacquard is the author of numerous popularizations of science, as well as essays in which he seeks to spread modern humanist thought in order to help the collective consciousness evolve. Often likened to a secular version of France’s public service-minded Abbé Pierre, Albert Jacquard takes part in all battles he considers to be just, such as fair housing policies (he is president of a housing-rights group), social justice, and the fight against racism.To his way of thinking, what are largely at stake in the 21st century and the real driving forces for change are, more and more, education and finance. It was with these two ideas in mind that he sponsored the School of Advanced Studies of Namur (the Albert Jacquard School of Advanced Studies) in Belgium.
Albert Jacquard, having been decorated as Officer of the Legion of Honor as well as Commander in the Order of Merit, has also been the recipient of numerous scientific and literary prizes. He has also received honorary doctoral degrees from several Belgian and Canadian universities.
1. SCIENTIFIC CONCEPTS AND THE DEFINITION OF THE HUMAN
The 20th century was among the most flourishing in terms of conceptual revolutions. Most of the words we use to describe the world around us and which, in turn, describe and define us have changed their meaning. Since Einstein and the publication of the two Relativities, in 1905 and 1915, time is no longer what it had been; since Hubble and his description of the expansion of the universe, the cosmos can no longer be considered stable; since Crick and Watson and their understanding of the role of the DNA molecule, life has lost its sense of mystery. After such changes our vision of what we ourselves are had to be radically revised.
We have to readily admit that we are nothing more than “dust in the wind,” created out of the wide cosmos, but we need to be able to differentiate ourselves from that. What, then is this remarkable nature of ours? Maybe the answer lies in our twofold definition: We are both the result of natural processes that we attribute to our genes and the result of all those we have ever met, which includes us in the whole of humanity.
It is as a function of this twofold definition that we must design projects which acknowledge the set of limited conditions that is the finite aspect of our planet.
2. FINITUDE OF THE PLANET
Up until the 20th century humans were able to behave as if the space given to them, Earth, was practically without limits. The explosion of their numbers—quadrupling between 1900 and 2000—and the incredible increase of powers which they had at their disposal destroyed this illusion. “The time of the world’s ending has started,” Paul Valéry wrote in 1945; humanity entered a new era, one marked by finitude: every solution to the problems we encounter must from now on take into account this set of limited conditions.
It is of no use getting upset over it; on the contrary, this observation can have a dynamic effect in that it constrains us to explore new avenues in order to satisfy our search for something in the “plus” column. The increase in consumption can only provide a temporary benefit, and provoke, like a drug, catastrophic consequences in the long run (even a modest annual increase in growth rises to gargantuan proportions over the course of a century). It is to the development, then, of economic activity which leaves national resources intact that we need to turn our attention in search of a future worthy of our potential.
3. INCREASED POWERS AND ETHICS
The powers that we, humans, have given ourselves, just increased by a few orders of magnitude. This is true, too, in areas where we are in league with death: at Verdun it took several dozen shells to kill an enemy soldier; 30 years later a single bomb could kill 100,000 people; today everything is in place to be able to kill a billion at once. This increase in capacity of power is also true in areas where we are associated with life. We have won the battle against the smallpox virus, infant mortality is down, but we can also handle embryos and undoubtedly one day will be able to clone humans.
Can these technical successes be considered human advances? The answer is not as clear as it was in the times of philosopher Francis Bacon, when he allowed that the goal of science was to bring about all that is possible. We should now, on the contrary, be attentive to Albert Einstein’s reaction after Hiroshima: “There are some things it would be better not to do.” But who will decide? We are no longer in the Middle Ages when princes could ask religious authorities if use of the crossbow was morally acceptable. We have to assume a collective responsibility for our actions. From all this appears the necessity of a new form of democracy whose goal will no longer be management but, rather, ethical behavior.
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