Dr. Jonas Salk

Humanity's Ills

 

In the course of his life, begun in 1914, Salk witnessed the growing belief that science, in light of its modem successes, would be the answer for much of humanity's ills. Salk's own contribution – development of the first successful poliomyelitis vaccine, which was announced on April 12, 1955-was itself a symbol that through science humankind could improve on nature and to a varying extent control it for human benefit.

 

Yet Salk also perceived that humankind suffered from scientific progress when innovation conflicted with human values. In his opinion there was a growing incongruity within science, caused in part by overspecialization at the expense of integrating inquiry, and compounded by the economic forces and factors driving medical research in directions that threaten the very epistemology of science itself. For example, Salk regarded the increasing emphasis on commercial analysis, sometimes causing abandonment of research that promises tangible human benefit but holds insufficient profit potential, as one of the major failings of modem medical research and, even more generally, of society.

 

These decisions are often based on conjecture about possible statistical findings in advance of testing, to the detriment of insight that can only be gained experientially. Salk's own experience had shown that significant scientific breakthrough often occurred when the invisible, often intuitive, was made visible through the process of experimentation, or, as he liked to say, when the "invisible was made visible." This way of thinking required Salk sometimes to invert commonly accepted truths, or to imagine he was the virus he was trying to conquer.

 

In his view, such methodologies held the potential to reveal hidden truths, perhaps universalities, leading to greater understanding of the science of living systems comprising, in Salk's words, "the scriptures of nature. These scriptures offered guidance to us as humans not only for improving on nature but also for coming to a deeper sense of our selves by homology as individuals and as a species, with the promise of resolving some of humanity's most daunting dilemmas and crises, including health, peace, and sustainability.

 

Not all problems will be solved in the lab

 

To Salk it seemed that at this time in human history we are witnessing a point of inflection in which both quantitative global population numbers and qualitative human values are changing over a relatively short period. With the exponential increase in human population since the scientific-industrial revolution, projected to continue until a leveling off at about 10 billion in a hundred years or so, we as a species must by necessity adopt a shift in human values from aggressive, individual-based attitudes to more cooperative, community based rationales if we hope to achieve sustainability in the future. Within society we are witnessing an error making and error correcting mechanism with similarities to biological evolution, as the multiplicity and diversity within peoples amalgamate over time into an “evolving organism of humankind."

 

For example, we can observe how the beliefs and wisdoms of traditional Eastern religions, once integrated into the Western attitude, bring to many a deeper sense of life that, absent the Eastern exposure, might not have occurred. To Salk the question facing humanity was not limited to "Can we get along?” but extended to queries of integration and optimization. How could we improve on not only nature but ourselves as individuals and as a species so as to be able to look toward a more hopeful future for the present generation and those to follow?

 

The millennium of the mind

 

With his vision cast toward the distant future, Salk saw beyond the coming of a new century to the promise of a new millennium-a “millennium of the mind"-whose hallmark would be a new way of thinking based on the integration of knowledge with wisdom, as opposed to knowledge in and of itself.

 

Given the plethora of information on available today, much of it scientific or technological in nature, it can be said that knowledge has come of age. Yet wisdom must ultimately prevail if we as individuals and as a species are to achieve sustainable success. Wisdom Salk defined as "the ability to make retrospective judgments prospectively. Put another way, wisdom is the capacity to make decisions based on imagining the future that will result from decisions made in the present. As such wisdom often integrates intuition and reason, or as Salk liked to say, "Let intuition be your guide, keeping reason by your side.”

 

Through the exercise of wisdom a more holistic view of the world and our role as humans within it would emerge, highlighting responsibility and conscious choice as tools of the evolved mind seeking concordance with others. Through a natural process of self-selection, an "organism or humankind" would emerge. Hence, led by example, humankind would be encouraged to bring out the best in each other rather than the opposite, as manifested historically through wars and more recently through the increase of hostility and terrorism.

 

Salk believed that a deeper understanding of the human mind- its capacity and potential- coupled with an integration of knowledge with wisdom relevant to human values, would lend to positive change. Implicit within an understanding of the human mind with respect for the great diversity of minds, setting forth the need for a new way of thinking to foster a symbiotic integration of minds functioning akin to the concordant parts of a healthy living organism.

 

Accomplishing this would represent the best in what it means to be human: a challenge Salk believed the state of humanity was primed for, as evidenced by all that the human mind had achieved to date. For to Salk, the products of the human mind- ideas- were homologous to the genes of a living organism. Both mutated, for better or for worse. Yet ideas, bound only by the rate of thought processes, had the natural potential to evolve much more rapidly than genes bound by the rate of life processes. Depending on what seems to work best, ideas can be either chosen or discarded much more quickly than genes, evolving to the point today where we humans can regard ourselves as not just a species struggling to survive but a species at the point of choosing to evolve so as to establish a world of health and well-being closer to our heart's desire. Salk's greatest hope was that under such conditions a flowering of humanity would prevail.

 

A new reality

 

Salk based this hope on his experience of combining pragmatism with faith in the known, the unknown and the unknowable. He held great regard for both intuition and reason. Yet, always at the forefront for Salk were the issues of purpose and effect. What did wisdom dictate? For him there were only solutions, never problems. His was a perspective of both and, rather than either or, challenging the human mind to formulate creative alternatives to conflict based on integration rather than separation. To him, a merging of intuition and reason would witness a different way of thinking, concordant, which the world sorely needed for developing alternative methodologies of thinking about reality and the future.

 

It seemed clear to Salk that through the improvement of the functioning of the human mind we as human societies might arrive at a better way of life than to leave matters to chance alone way to become actively engaged in the evolutionary process with an awareness of what is happening within ourselves and the world. In this way, we might see an end to the wars, the killing, the disregard for human life that scientists have historically dedicated their lives to improving. To Salk, it would be up to us, as individuals and as a species, to assume responsibility for progress and innovation that are respectful of human values. It would be up to us to evolve our thinking beyond fear to courage, competition to cooperation, suspicion to trust, greed to charity, and hate to love.

 

To Salk, the conditions and circumstances for harmony were there. Yet even assuming the desire, the evolutionary impulse marked by our individual and collective sense of responsibility in this regard, the question remaining is, Can we muster the fortitude? In a world in which it is so easy to despair, to lose direction, to abandon hope, wisdom is available to the healthy, functioning mind even in the face of today's most daunting dilemmas and crises. Making wisdom operative requires that we each take individual responsibility as illustrated by Salk when, at the age of 72, he pledged the remaining years of his life to the pursuit of immunotherapeutic and immunoprophylactic vaccines to combat HIV/AIDS.

 

Salk showed by example that we as individuals can make a difference and must never give up believing so. Given that we as humans will ultimately be judged by what we do and its effects, we must now ask ourselves what can we do individually and as a species to achieve a greater awareness of our purpose in life and our role as humans in the unfolding of our collective future. Such an awareness to Salk would represent a new morality in which the wisest would endure, finding a way to pass their wisdom on to future generations. Assuming the capacity, the question remains, Do we have the will? The answer, to Salk, seemed obvious as he observed a world ripe for metamorphosis.

 

Carol Anne Bundy collaborated with Jonas Salk throughout the last five years of his life exploring the future of humanity through writings and thought.

 

 

Prospects for a More Hopeful Future

Carol Anne Bundy

 

Jonas Salk, developer of the first safe and effective polio vaccine, foresaw the coming millennium as an opportunity for wisdom to balance knowledge and empower a holistic view of human responsibility.

 

Even as a small boy of four, Jonas Salk was moved by human suffering. Watching the returned World War I soldiers march down Fifth Avenue in his native New York City, the young Salk wished be could do something to ease the pain of the wounded. In later life when asked why he had decided to pursue medicine, Salk referred to this childhood experience as seminal in his decision to become a doctor and ultimately to dedicate his life to the field of medical research, where he felt he could make the biggest difference.

 

Impelled by his sense of responsibility, Salk became one of this century's greatest scientists and public servants, exhibiting until his final days in June 1995 at the age of 80 a formidable strength of purpose with which he approached his self-assigned challenges. To many he was a living legend: Indeed, few scientists in modem times have been more revered worldwide than be. Perhaps even more importantly, few scientists have had more faith or held higher hopes for the future of humankind than Salk, a view be based on decades of observing nature through science and "the human side of nature" through his own life experience.

Facets of the Salk Legacy

 

After the success of his polio work in the mid-1950s, Jonas Salk turned his attention to the creation of a scientific research center concerned with the role that scientists and science could play in improving the health and well being of humankind.

 

To that end, in 1960 Salk founded tile Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Noted internationally for its unique architecture, a collaborative project of Salk and architect Lows Kahn, the institute has become one of the world's most distinguished scientific research centers, supporting both rigorous research and flowing dialogue across disciplinary boundaries, and attracting Nobel laureate scientists as well as other eminent researchers.

 

Salk received many honors, including the Gold Medal from Congress and a Presidential Citation (1955); Chevalier, French Legion of Honor (1955); the Mellon Institute Award (1969); the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding (1976); and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977).

 

His writings about the future of humanity include Man Unfolding (1972), The Survival of the Wisest (1973), World Population and Human Values (with son Jonathan, 1981) (all titles New York: Harper and Row), and Anatomy of Reality: A Merging of Intuition and Reality (New York: Praeger, 1985 reprint; originally published New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

 

-C.A.B.

 

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