Updated 9 June, 2003
Garrett Hardin Oral History Project
RUSSELL: This is tape number nine in the Professor Garrett Hardin interview. The date is the 22nd of June, 1983. The time is 3:10 p.m. The place of the interview is Professor Garrett Hardin's residence. All right, Professor Hardin, I thought today we could briefly kind of give a philosophical vignette of maybe your point of view toward certain things. And we'll place this on the record, and if you want to put it in the final transcript, you can; if it's something that you want to deep-six until twenty-five years after your death, or whatever, you know, we can. But I thought maybe we would get your viewpoints on two major points. First of all, religion and morality. And maybe we could start off with getting you to analyze what role religion played in your life, maybe from family background? Whether you feel that religion is an important thing, or, as I used to teach humanities, I said religion can be taught as a convenient social vehicle, through which people have been able to keep themselves away from each other's throats. How would you view religion?
HARDIN: Well, in the beginning, I may sound like I'm trying to evade the issue entirely, but I don't think I am. In the first place, when anybody says either of these words, "religion" or "morality," I am very uncertain as to what either one of them means, because I think people have all sorts of meanings for both of them, of which they are largely unaware. For many people, religion is a certain group of polite and gracious gestures, putting on special clothes and going to church on Sunday, and having especially, sort of a sweet, almost simpering way of speaking to people on Sunday. And I know some very fine people to whom that's all it means. It means absolutely nothing else. And that's so utterly different, say, from what religion, say, meant to Kierkegaard, or someone like that, for whom it was--whatever he meant by religion--it was a matter of torment, a matter of dealing with the deepest questions. And yet both of those go under the name of religion.
In my own case, my religious background was, I would say, not intense. It was pervasive, but not intense. I was raised by parents, both of whom thought religion was a good thing. In my mother's case, I think she was genuinely religious in sort of the conventional, middle-American style. When she, in her early married years, was taken to Dallas, Texas, by her husband, she very much fell under the spell of a man named George Truett, who was the minister of the Baptist Church. This was a Southern Baptist. These are the "dunking" Baptists. And she joined the church, was baptized, and so on. He was a very successful minister at the time. This was one of the big Baptist churches.
Now, just to jump ahead a bit, near the end of her life, by which time she had known for many years that I really had very little contact with conventional religion.... She understood it. Though, by this time, I had joined the Unitarian Church, but that's something utterly different. But, by this time, she had, without saying anything about it, I think she really had no belief in the religion she had believed in when she was young at all. So this didn't bother her at all. In her old age, it just meant nothing to her. She never said anything about it, critical of it, but nothing. Now, my father never said a word all this time. I suspect he didn't believe in any of this, but he kept absolutely quiet. He was technically a Presbyterian, so that, as we moved around from place to place, sometimes I would go to a Baptist church, sometimes to a Presbyterian, depending on which one was closer, more convenient to us. But it was all right with them, whichever one we went to.
And during the course of this--not to church, it was going to Sunday school, of course--during the course of this, I accumulated a good many bibles, which has been a subject of humor in the family ever since. These bibles with my name on it, often inscribed in the front, you know, "To Garrett Hardin for perfect attendance." As my wife said, it was my mother who had the perfect attendance--she got me to church every Sunday. Because, really, nothing much that was said in church had any effect on me, really. And I can remember very distinctly when I was quite young--and I think I was not more than six years old--when, thinking about this matter, who made the world?, God made the world, and then I immediately asked, who made God? And I remember one of my elders indicated considerable displeasure. I think it was an uncle. You know, you just don't ask that question. Well, this didn't satisfy me.
Why don't you ask that question? And I could see this was going to be an infinite regress, and I think from about that age--about age six, when I discovered this infinite regress--from then on, really, I didn't believe any of it. Was that exceptional? I don't think so. I think a number of children discovered the same phenomenon. Usually learned to inhibit it and maybe even to forget it. I may be wrong. But, at any rate, I went to Sunday school because I was supposed to, and this continued on, oh, to age eleven or twelve or something of that sort. And then, I think my mother got so tired of making me go to Sunday school, she gave up.
Though once in Chicago, I remember that we had a dear friend who was a Christian Scientist, and she persuaded my mother to "persuade me" to go to Christian Science school. I think my mother's belief was, well, maybe it'll help, because after all, I had this physical disability. I was crippled. And who knows? Try anything. So, I went to Christian Science church for about six months, and I was absolutely fascinated with it. I thought, what a superb system for squelching heresy at the root, that in the Christian Science church, there is no sermon. There is merely reading from the Bible; there's reading from Mary Baker Eddy; and nobody is to comment on this at all. And they have a rule that, whenever three or more Christian Scientists are together, they are never to discuss the affairs of the church. This came about as a result of schisms in the early church, and Mary Baker Eddy learned her lesson and set down that law. It's absolutely superb. So I sat there listening. Now, they had a sort of a Sunday school, in which there was some discussion. It was a little different from church. And we would read Mary Baker Eddy and then comment on it, and so forth.
And I could see that actually, all they were saying was very logical,
provided you accepted the premises. But, if you didn't accept the
premises, that was it. And again, I was fascinated by the logical
consistency of it and, as sort of a budding biologist, just appalled
by the sense of it. So that was about my last experience with formal,
conventional religion. I think, as far as serious questions of religion
and morality, I've always taken these seriously, but seldom been
able to have anything to do with conventional...
HARDIN: I didn't accept his points of view. What I got out of Adler...I only took two quarters of his.... It went on forever, just sort of on and on; then they'd go around and start again. I only took two quarters. The first quarter, which was largely the Greek and maybe through Lucretius--I believe we got through there the first quarter--and this I thought was absolutely superb, and the way he taught you how to read a book. Really marvelous technique. Then the second quarter, I think we started--I can't remember whether--well, at any rate, we were working our way up to Thomas Aquinas. And I was appalled. I mean, it was like the Christian Science thing. Sure, if you took certain premises, accepted those, then the rest of it followed very well. He had a very logical mind. But the whole structure--the basic premises--I couldn't accept, so I just quit. I mean, I thought, this is silly. How he could accept it, I don't know. And, of course, the rumor always was that he either had joined the Catholic church, or he was on the verge of it, or he was thinking about it, and so on, simply because there was a great attraction to Thomistic philosophy, and so on. I think, as I understand it, he never did join, but he was certainly sort of what you would call a fellow traveller, in a different context.
RUSSELL: So, from the standpoint of religion and morality, this has not been something that you have just dismissed. But from the standpoint of a biologist, and from the standpoint of a scientist, it just does not fit within the...
HARDIN: Yes. The usual way of dealing with it, and I was very much influenced at Chicago.... One of the other things I did when I was taking philosophy courses, I took a course with Carnap, who had come there recently. So here I got acquainted with the Vienna circle of logical positivists. And Carnap and Helmers, I believe his name was--a student of his who was also dealing with the students some--and this appealed to me a great deal as being a very hard-headed thing and something I could accept. For instance, one of the general pictures that they painted was that there was, at the beginning, something that could be called philosophy, which was a great hodge-podge of everything. Well, it meant "love of knowledge," that's true. And then, gradually, one thing after another, when certain tendencies and premises became clear, dropped out of the hodge-podge and developed as a separate thing. And the sciences dropped out early. Astronomy dropped out and was no longer part of philosophy. And so on. So that what you had at the present day in what's called philosophy now is a residual hodge-podge, or this sort of meta-subject in which you talk about the ways of dealing with everything else. There are two different ways of looking at the present content of philosophy. And this seemed to me to make a great deal of sense, and it seemed to me that the same sort of reasoning, same sort of procedure, could apply to much of what we call religion and ethics. That initially, it's a great confused hodge-podge, and then, as certain things become clear, it's almost as though they drop out of that and you don't need that approach. For example, the whole idea of uncleanness. You read the Bible about the reaction towards lepers, and so forth. Well, when we finally got clear what was involved there, we ended up with the science of bacteriology and the applied aspect of it, rules of hygiene, and so forth and so on, which do not need any divine sanction, or anything of this sort. They just make very good sense. And the original idea of uncleanness--there's no longer any need for it. This seems to me to be the pattern that I would say probably applies to most of what we call religion: as it becomes clear, you no longer need divine sanctions or divine reasons for doing things. You just do it because you can't think of a more sensible way of doing it.
RUSSELL: How would you deal with these people that would disregard the theories that have been proposed, in reference to try to curb population explosion, as being amoral or irreligious or anti-religious? What would you say to appeal to them, to correct that point of view?
HARDIN: Well, I really don't have a good answer to this. I've been spending all my life looking for it, and I still am trying to find arguments that will appeal to them. But the best I can do at the present time is to--with them--present the same thing that appeals to me. Even though initially they reject it, but, at least if I can get them to listen, I figure that they may eventually be affected by it. Now, that may seem rather naive, but I don't think it's entirely naive, and it's based on my own experience with my own life. I can remember several crucial times in my life--most of them extremely personal--I mean, even though there's nothing shameful involved or anything--but they're so personal I don't want to talk about it to other people. But several times when something happened, and I suddenly changed a really important belief in my life. And then I thought, well, how long have I known this? And I'd look back and I realized that I had all of the facts and arguments that I needed about five years before. And it's taken five years for this to vegetate, or ferment, or whatever it does inside before, finally, the necessary changes could be made inside, and I could accept this. In other words, I knew now no more than I had known five years earlier, but something else had happened. Well, this has lead to my proposing at one time what I modestly called "Hardin's Rule": it takes five years to change your mind about anything important. And it's simply because it takes me five years, and I work on the assumption that everybody else is as stupid as I am.
RUSSELL: There's a genesis. There's a process.
HARDIN: That's right. And so, as a result of that... Now, I've put it in a very egotistical way. But, it actually has a good effect in that, namely, it makes me tolerant of other people's errors. Errors as I see them. Because I say, well, okay, I'll present the argument as best I can, and if I've done a good job--and that's all I can do--and then I've got to wait five years for them to change their minds. So I'll do the best job I can, then be patient.
RUSSELL: Just hope that they come around?
HARDIN: Yes, that's right. And, of course, recognizing the fact it may be the other way around. I may come around to their point of view five years from now. See, it may be that I will discover the weakness of my argument doing this, but it will take me five years to admit it. So that's the only way to pursue arguments, I think. So, with respect to the question we started with, how do I appeal to other people, actually I take the biological point of view in almost every case, because, it seems to me that there are examples from other organisms, even though my opponent may make a far greater difference between humans and other animals than I do.
Even so, I think he should be moved somewhat by these examples from other organisms, of what they do, and say, yes, that is relevant to the human situation--even though there are important differences, but there's some underlying thing that's relevant. For example, one of my favorites to illustrate the relative value of different moral practices--and I mean particular practices--I like to talk about the European swift and the way it deals with it's problem. The European swift lays, typically, three eggs in the nest. Now the swift is one, which you'd guess by it's name, lives on the wing, gets all of it's food on the wing--flying insects. And it nourishes it's young with the insects it has caught on the wing. So it's flying many miles a day, swooping back and forth, scooping up insects, carrying the regurgitated mess back to the nest, regurgitating it into the mouths of the young, and so on. Well, if after laying these three eggs, if the weather becomes cloudy and stays overcast for several days--as it often does in Europe--after a certain number of days, the mother will kick one of the eggs out of the nest. If it continues for a few more days, she kicks another egg out of the nest. And a few more, she kicks the third one out of the nest, and that's it. When the sun comes out, she mates and lays eggs and starts again.
Now this is a very close correlate to the practice of abortion in human beings. The reproductive thing is somewhat different, but the egg is immature--it corresponds to the fetus inside a human mother--and the animal is acting as if it understood that it is foolish to have a child at a time when it can't take care of it. If those eggs hatched during cloudy weather, she couldn't feed them. She'd be working herself to the bone. She and her husband would be just working like everything and still might not be able to keep them alive. And so they might invest a lot of effort in them for several days, or several weeks, and they'd finally die anyway. They would have lost all that time, and now they have to start over again.
Well, by kicking them out early, corresponding to abortion, and waiting until the time is favorable, they actually improve the chances of having offspring--or, to put it another way, they actually maximize the number of lives that they can produce, the number of living offspring. So, on the one hand, you might say there is an underlying principle that is the same, no matter what the weather--whether it's sunny or whether it's cloudy: namely, to maximize the lives of the birds.
On the other hand, with respect to the particular practice--whether to save the offspring or whether not--it looks like a contradiction. In one case, they take care of the offspring; the other case, they kill it. And yet, those are both consistent with a deeper principle, so that, with respect to this argument about moral relativism, I think that very possibly there are deep principles that are absolute and are never violated. But, at any moment, we may not know what those are. We usually assume that whatever particular practice we have is directly connected with a deeper principle. It may not be.
And I think this is what people are having trouble recognizing in the case of abortion. They aren't recognizing that abortion is for the greater good in the long run. And they're thinking, no, that killing or not killing a very immature life--that that's the thing about which there must be absolute rules. And this is where I differ. So this is the kind of approach I take, you see. And I say, sure, the birds are different. Cloudy weather doesn't have that effect on us, but there are other things that do, and this is what a woman thinks of when her marriage is breaking up, she's losing her job, her husband maybe threatens to commit suicide, nobody else to support her, and she finds she's pregnant. She thinks, my gosh, if I have a child at this time, I won't be able to take care of it. This corresponds to the cloudy weather. Yet, if I can get on my feet again, and I ought to be able to in two or three years, if I kill this embryo, I may be able then to have a child in two or three years and take good care of it. Whereas, if I don't kill this embryo, I will invest so much in that, and I will drag myself down through trying to do the impossible, I won't be able to take care of another child two or three years from now. So, really, the reasoning, I think, is the same in the two cases.
RUSSELL: When you compare that with, probably what, let's say, a Catholic theologian would say, it's really illogical, his answer, isn't it?
HARDIN: Yes, but it's because he has stopped the search for fundamental principles at too superficial a level. He's stopped at the level of merely saving the individual life, instead of looking at the whole life span of the individual, plus his or her possible offspring, and saying, what we want to do is to maximize the number of lives, the number of good lives, in the long run. That's a deeper principle.
RUSSELL: Do you see any form of Christianity that could be viewed as a potential ally?
HARDIN: Oh, yes. I think it's always capable of reinterpretation, and this has happened in all religions as time has gone on. At the moment, when a reinterpretation is proposed, it's always opposed, of course, by many people who figure they're losing something very precious. But, in the end, I think the adjustment is made. Take such a thing as, until very recent times, you couldn't be a good Christian unless you hated the Jews. I mean, this was a real basic part of Christianity. Well, no Christian that I know of now says that is a basic part of Christianity. They say that is for historical reasons, and we understand why that took place, but it's no longer part of it. We've reinterpreted Christianity and we've reinterpreted that right out of the religion.
RUSSELL: I agree with you. Most Catholics today that I know of, their point is that they know what the Pope's stand is on abortion, but they also know what theories there are, and theirs happens to be very...
HARDIN: Yes. The polls show that there's only a slight difference between Catholics and Protestants on this issue, and there's a tremendous gulf between both of them and the Vatican.
RUSSELL: That's right. I'm probably throwing you these curves, but when I was sitting there, I said, these are certain things that I think it would behoove us to get down on the tape, you know--whether it be now or later. That would be, if you could define basically for us your political philosophy. And I'm not asking what party you stand for, but how you view politics in the world.
HARDIN: Well, the politics is kind of like the religion. It's a thing that I haven't had much to do with in the conventional sense all my life, although I think I've been deeply concerned with the fundamental issues. And the simplest summary of my position--I've recognized this for many years--is that I am, in I think a very real sense, a conservative, but at a very deep level. I often find myself at odds with many other people who call themselves conservatives, but I say that's because they're not really conservative. They haven't thought this through. I also find myself at odds with people who call themselves liberals. So, I'm sort of an oddball. I have a foot in both camps, which means I don't have very strong support from either group. But I am semi-welcome among economic conservatives. I have a number of friends; I have connections with some of those organizations. And I'm semi-welcome with the liberals. I mean they don't quite understand why I don't join them, and so on. They think I have some very peculiar beliefs, you know, in some ways.
RUSSELL: You're looking for more or less answers that would fit with their ideology.
HARDIN: Yes. So I would have to identify myself as a conservative. As far as the superficial thing is concerned, I registered as a Republican in either 1940 or '42. I've been a registered Republican ever since, but mostly, I've defended that in saying that I felt that the Republican party was even more in need of my advice than the Democrats. I very seldom voted for a Republican candidate for president. But it just seemed to me that, in some sort of vague way, it should stand for conservatism, so, if I have to identify myself.... But that doesn't mean very much. I'm a registered Republican, and that's about it.
RUSSELL: How do you feel about them? I was trying to get more at the idea of your political philosophy vis-a-vis--you know, when we talk about exploring new ethics for survival--as the political arm of society, providing a solution to the population problem. Do you think we're going to have to move away from this conservative-liberal point of view that we and the world today are divided up against, or the socialist versus the capitalist form? Is there some new political ethic, let's say, on the horizon that we might point to?
HARDIN: When it comes to population, I feel very discouraged because I do not see any answer to the population problem within what most of us would regard as an acceptable political system. And the reason there is because, as I see it, the greatest barrier to a solution is the same among both conservative and liberals, namely it's the excessive building upon the idea of individualism. Both of them, in somewhat different ways--as what's called a conservative is typically an economic conservative and he builds on sort of an Adam Smith, laissez faire, type of thing, you see--but again, it's individualism. Let each individual pursue his business as he wants to, and it will be best for everybody in the long run. Whereas the person who's called a liberal emphasizes more individual rights, civil rights, and things of that sort, but the result is the same, that both of them do not want the state interfering in the decision how many children you have. And I do not see how we can solve the population problem when there's this amount of individual freedom in this area. You can have freedom in all sorts of areas, but not this area. This has to be subject to community decision, I think.
RUSSELL: So looking at this aspect, which I want to talk about a little later on, about moving from the private to the public concept of ethics, that we would have to at least have some aspect of license here--in the area of, you can't stand up in a theater and yell "Fire!" The same thing would apply to this concept.
HARDIN: Yes. That's right. And this just goes against everything. The whole history of the development of America, for example, has been in the other way, and this is why I think we have a particularly difficult problem. Difficult as it is, it would be much easier for the Chinese. I think they may make it. They're trying now to do this, but notice the way in which they do this. The particular mechanism that they use is that the individual decision-maker, the woman--always focus on the woman, rather than the man--the individual woman is part of a very small working group, much less than a hundred, and her colleagues put pressure on her, say, you're not entitled to a child this year, and that's that. And see, she reacts to that. Well, you see, we have nothing comparable to that. Our women are not part of a working group in that sense--people who sit down in their weekly meetings and so forth and put pressure on each other. It just doesn't happen at all, so it's an individual matter. And we're a long way from that. For various reasons, we don't want to get into that kind of a bind, if we can help it. But with respect to reproduction, I don't see how it can be done any other way, I'm sorry to say. Well, I do see, if we'd be willing to--if we could imagine all sorts of other things, such as taxes, sort of reversed from the present, that the more children you have, the higher you get taxed, and so forth. But, you see, I can't imagine passing those taxes in the first place.
RUSSELL: It would be very, very difficult to deal with. Okay. I wanted to go with those two major points there, because I thought that someplace in the interview we'll want to plug those in, and I thought that was a good time to deal with it. Now, before getting to the book that we wanted to discuss today, I had a couple of other questions. I think this will probably take two tapes, this book, you know, because I'm really enjoying it and I think there's a lot there. One thing I'm very interested in as a scholar, you're talking about yourself being a scholar, talking about your reading habits, if we could get some idea about the breadth--I'm really amazed at some of the quotes that you'll pull out and, obviously, a very well-read man. What about your reading habits today?
HARDIN: I have a very funny, sort of wild method of reading and doing research, and so on. If something interests me, I follow it up. And this often means that I subscribe to a new journal. For instance, I can remember there was a time when I subscribed to ETC (which meant belonging to the society) which is the journal of the General Semantics Society. And I was sort of active in that area for six or eight years--wrote several articles for ETC. I went to a couple of conventions, and so on. And I did this until I felt I had milked it dry; I had gotten out of it all the essential wisdom to be gotten there. And then I dropped it--dropped my membership, don't read that material any more. I figure I know what it's about now. And it's left me with certain things that I discovered. For instance, the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, who affected me immensely. This was worth all of that effort, you see. But I dropped it.
Similarly, I got interested in psychiatry, did quite a lot of reading in psychiatry, subscribed to the journal, Psychiatry, read a number of the others, and so on. This went on for six or eight years, then I dropped that. Philosophy of History, also, a similar story. The latest one that I've dropped is Ethics. I figure I sort of see what they do. I think much of it's ridiculous, but I think I see now why it's ridiculous, and so I'm dropping that. So I just pull out of it what I want, so it's a very eclectic sort of thing.
But it results in my following literature out in some very strange ways that you'd never suspect, and I discover some remarkable things, usually, before I get through. Maybe not things at the center of that field, but some that some people there know, and I find it, too. I don't know what else to say, except that, as I go along, I take notes.
My standard practice is that I mark brackets around the passages that I want and put a note on a piece of paper, give it to a typist, and these are typed up on notes. Then on the first copy, I indicate on the bottom the categories I want this classified under, duplicate cards are typed with those various categories, and then I put it away in my files. So here I have some thirty-five thousand cards that are my working mind, so to speak. And, oh, by the way, these are under various very broad categories. "Justice" is one of the categories. "Method," meaning methods of science. Under "Truth," I have three: "Truth #1," "Truth #2," and "Truth #3." "Terminology," I have about ten categories under "Terminology." When I'm called upon to give a speech or write a paper about something, I pull out these cards and I sit down and start reading them over. And it's a little bit disconcerting to see these cards--in some cases, the older ones, which are in my own handwriting or my own typing, I read the card and I say, "Well I didn't know that."
Quite obviously I did, since I put it in there myself, but I'd forgotten it completely, which shows the advantage of cards. So, one thing, it's better than my own memory, which certainly isn't very good. And the other thing is, seeing them together, I then see juxtapositions and connections that I would not have seen at the time, because I read one paper in 1954 and another in 1968. And I had forgotten the 1954 paper by then. And it wasn't until I was called upon to put them together, that I finally see the relations between them. So, in a sense, the paper almost writes itself, just working with these cards.
RUSSELL: Are these abstracts of...?
HARDIN: No, they're never abstracts. They're all quotes, so that from any one book, I may have, you know, many cards from one book. I figure seminal passages that are very characteristic that somehow summarize some point of view very aptly, and that's what I put in there.
RUSSELL: So that would be like a working concept. I'm interested in your interest in psychology, and what did you pull from that?
HARDIN: Dear me. I took a number of courses in psychology at the University of Chicago. Some of them were rather good, but I wasn't too impressed with them. Of course, I had what anybody has--he wants to know himself better, and I was interested in that.
RUSSELL: Did you get any insights? I was thinking of people like Jung, or Freud, like human sexuality versus the problem of population control, that might be applicable to shedding some light on this problem. Do you think either one of those really understood it?
HARDIN: No, I don't think so. Now Jung I've read very little of--I merely have indirect knowledge. I've read a lot of Freud and admire him in some respects a great deal; in other respects, I think he was just very sloppy. But, on the other hand, I think he made the best summary of himself. He said one time,"I am not a man of science, I am a buccaneer." I think that's exactly what he was. And like a buccaneer, he conquered a great deal of territory--for the moment. A buccaneer doesn't hold the territory, you know. But a very useful man. A number of things that he said just stuck with me, as with many other psychiatrists, I got a great deal from. Just isolated insights, and so on, but read largely against a background of biology, I would say. But as far as the population thing is concerned, no useful insights at all, I'd say. They don't have any direct bearing. I mean, what we do there I think has to be decided on other grounds--on essentially political grounds or political problems of control of one human being by another.
RUSSELL: As a discipline itself, would you dismiss the behavioralists as people remiss, as philosophers, basically, were remiss--whereas they have to move to the concept of biochemistry as to the make-up, let's say, of psychological disorders?
HARDIN: Oh, I wouldn't dismiss them. I think these are, to a certain extent, they're alternate and they fit into each other. Each one sort of fills in a space left by the other. I mean, on the biochemical side, insofar as we can get direct evidence of what's going on, that's fine. And we do have a number of things where we know, you know, you plug this chemical into a person, you sure change his behavior. There's no doubt about it. That does not give you any direct insight into, you might say, ordinary psychological problems, that I can see. So I think you have to--in spite of the fact there's a latent contradiction here--I think you have to pursue two paths simultaneously. Let those who are adept at making the biochemical investigations do so, and those who are adept at dealing with this--the human being as a black box--they don't know what's happening, but they just poke it here and poke it there and see what they can control. That's another approach. Whichever one succeeds in a particular case, okay. I mean, eventually, maybe we can reconcile all this. For the moment, I don't think one should worry too much about the contradiction.
RUSSELL: We're a very complex organism, so to speak. I was interested in some of your quotes, like using William Blake from the book that I read this week: "God us keep from single vision of Newton's sleep." How important has literature been?
HARDIN: It's been very important, though my approach to literature would not please most serious literary scholars, because it's terribly eclectic and self-centered. I approach literature as a mining field, and I mine out of it what I can get, which means I miss a tremendous amount. In other words, I do not read Blake to try to understand all that's in Blake. I read Blake looking for things that immediately make sense to me, which means I pass by probably nine insights for every one that I get. But that's one for which I'm prepared, and so I get that. And the other nine just pass me by completely. That's what I do. I'm sort of a buccaneer there. I just try to steal what I can from it.
RUSSELL: Who are your favorite authors that you enjoy?
HARDIN: Oh, dear, dear, dear, dear. Well, curiously, A. E. Housman. I feel that his personality I dislike intensely. I don't think he'd be a friend of mine if we were together. But his point of view, with which I often disagree intensely, I think is expressed so beautifully. I just love the way he does it. And then another one--and again, a great conflict in persons--is Hopkins. Gee, I think he's just a master of words and expressing his type of personality so beautifully. So, very fond of that. Who else? You know, so much of the poetry I haven't read in years, and I might not like it at all. I mean I used to be fond of Poe, but I don't know if I've read Poe in twenty years. Anyway, actually, in terms of recent times, I've gotten some of the keenest enjoyment from things that are considered peripheral to literature, I'm sure. But Dorothy L. Sayers, and Josephine Tey. I have a theory that the only people who can write good mystery stories these days are women. Emma Lathen and another I've now forgotten. Emma Lathen isn't in the same class. Although she writes a good mystery story, it doesn't approach the literary quality of the others. Whereas, for instance, Dorothy Sayers, something like The Nine Tailors, I mean that's real literature. That's as good as anything Dickens ever did, and better. I've read that several times, and her delineation of character and place--you can really feel it. I love it. So, I read very little in the way of novels, and it would be very difficult to persuade me to read a new novel by a man. I'd feel ahead of time, there wasn't a chance it would be any good. If it's by a woman, I'll give it a try. It may be good. I've got a real sex prejudice here. I just don't think men are any damned good at writing novels.
RUSSELL: That's good. Well, anyway, I found that, as I was sitting down preparing this, I had so many brilliant questions in my mind that I wanted to ask you, and where we plug them into the interview is immaterial, or whether you would actually really want to do that. Let's move now to the book--what we can get out of it--for the rest of the tape: that's Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle. The first question that I had as I was reading it was, why was it structured the way that it was? I found that as I was reading it, I was saying, "This is two books." And it could very easily be two books. How would you respond to that?
HARDIN: I haven't the foggiest notion of what the answer to that question is. It certainly--when I first started writing it--wasn't part of my plan, but somehow, very quickly, I realized this is the way it had to be. And then it became very exciting because, as I was working along on the non-fiction parts of it, I would sort of see where, when I got to a certain point, I was going to have to have another fiction chapter. And I was just anxious to get to it because I wanted to know what was going to happen. I didn't know what was going to happen. And the fiction parts I wrote just sort of free association. I didn't know what was going to happen either, but it just all came out automatically, and wasn't much changed. There was not much edited. The other parts, the non-fiction, was edited a great deal, changing things around. But the fictional parts were just sort of written directly and completely, in my personal ignorance of what was going to happen.
RUSSELL: As I was reading that, I was thinking of Plato's Republic with the philosopher-kings versus the individuals that would be controlling the environment from above. No connection there in your mind at all?
HARDIN: No, except that, of course, anything like this, where you're talking about controlling people, leaves the question: who controls? You know, that's the key question and that's the thing that often puts a hole in the bottom of the boat.
RUSSELL: So, the actual writing of it was, that when we look at the book, it was really simultaneously written at the same time, one helping out the other.
HARDIN: That's right. Yes.
RUSSELL: Which one did you enjoy the most?
HARDIN: Oh, well, I enjoyed the fictional writing most. I mean, that was real fun. I said that I wrote the fiction parts just off the top of my head, but that wasn't true for one of the chapters, in which I said that the scene--this is the last thing--the scene was very much like that of the boating party. Now that one I very definitely, you might say, did research. I decided, I've got to find out who these people were in that. So I went over to our art library and found a book that told me who almost all the people were in the boating party. And I used them in constructing the personalities that I had there, changing the names, but, in many cases, having a family resemblance. For instance, I mean, this one, which is Renoir, I called him "Pierre." That was one of his names, you see. And this guy, whose name is Riviere, I called him "Rivers," and so on. Well, this guy was a baron, who was just back from Saigon at this time. This is the woman who became Renoir's wife. This woman is the daughter of the man who owned the restaurant, you see. She was sort of a hanger-on. And this woman, Ellen, she later became an actress. And she was very shrewd, and she saved her money and invested it in imperial Russian bonds. And so on. And this fellow, Gustav, he was a nut on population, and so on. This one, however, this is pure fiction. I said, St. John, this I modeled after somebody that had nothing to do with them, but St. John Stevas, the English...he's in Parliament. He is a very religious man, a Roman Catholic; and all the sentiments with which I disagree most strongly, I put in the mouth of St. John. But there's no indication of who this person is with his back to the camera. I don't know. I can't find anything about him. But these, you see, I actually did research. And they became very living people to me, and I had this to remind me of who they were as I was writing it.
RUSSELL: That's very interesting. That's enjoyable. That must have been a lot of fun.
HARDIN: Yes. And that happens to be a picture of which I'm inordinately fond. It's in the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., and about every other time when I go to Washington, I go to see it. I regard it as my picture. I'm letting them keep it for me. When I see it, I'm just so fond of it. It is all the things.... Well, Renoir painted this--it was sort of his swan song for his life as a student artist in Paris. And after that he got married and went out into the country to live there the rest of his life. And somehow, there's just everything that's lovable about this, you know, semi-irresponsible, joyous life of the student. You know, before things settle in on him. And he has all this in his picture, it seems to me. It's the end of an era.
RUSSELL: Do you feel a kinship with artists, from the standpoint that a lot of people have shown that the artist--with his curiosity, with his observations of life--there's a keen kinship with science?
HARDIN: Oh, yes, I think so. You know, they do it so utterly differently, but they do it uncritically. And this means that, in many cases, they see things that simply could not be seen critically at their time with the abilities, and so on. It's just what you call intuitive. Now, that means, of course, a lot of them are completely wrong, but here and there, one of them is just superbly right. He has no idea why he's right, but he really captures it.
RUSSELL: I was thinking of Newton dealing with light at the time of the Baroque artists. The whole concept of Baroque artists--where light is and the various sources of light.
HARDIN: Yes. Now I don't know, I simply know nothing about that, how strong that connection is. I don't know. I do think the artists need to be paid attention to, even though nine out of ten of them are just completely wrong. But then, nine out of ten scientists are completely wrong, too, so what's the difference?
RUSSELL: Is there any other insight that you would like to bring to the fictional side of the work that would be of interest this way?
HARDIN: Not anything that I can think of. I think we've said everything.
RUSSELL: Okay. I'd like to move now into the idea of dealing with various concepts I think of as the major concepts of the book. I thought that that would be part one. And then part two, maybe we could deal with the book in another concept.
RUSSELL: The idea of mutual coercion. How would you respond to that, from the standpoint... What I would like to do here is to, not so much go over the ideas again as they were treated in the book, but to have you give more or less a genesis of this concept, and as you use it. You know, how you came about, what you intended to...why was it placed in the book? And, do you feel that we, as readers, have really understood your intent?
HARDIN: Well, I think I said some of this in telling how I'd come about to write The Tragedy of the Commons--that it was my daughter, my older daughter, her questions lead me to this. I'd been using simply "coercion" and, since she objected, then I said, "oh, mutual coercion," which she agreed upon. And then, about five years later, I realized that that is merely the operational definition of any law passed in a democracy. Well, notice I used the word "operational." A key element of my thinking is to ask what's the operational meaning of this? Now, when I was taking courses in philosophy, I was influenced by some of the philosophers who used operationalism and introduced me to the works of Bridgeman. And I think this is absolutely key. And once you get in the habit of doing this, you are no longer so much the slave of words. Most people have knee-jerk reflexes to words. You say the word "coercion," and they immediately react. You say the word "racism," they immediately react. They have a standard reaction to each one of these things. And once people have knee-jerk reactions, on the one hand, those who want to control them can do it just by poking the right buttons. And on the other hand, they themselves are incapable of working through a difficult area of thought because of the interference of all these knee-jerk reflexes. So, when the word "coercion" comes up, my immediate question is, well, operationally, what does it mean? If you want to start approaching it that way, then it ceases to be so horrible, because I discover that everybody is coerced at all times. Sometimes a coercion is gentle; sometimes it's very severe. So this is a word that stands not for an extreme, but for a continuum. And the question is, where on the continuum are you talking about?
RUSSELL: The next one--I feel we'll just move right down through--the idea of private morality versus public morality, and how do we bridge that gap?
HARDIN: Yes. Well, when people are sparsely distributed over the face of the earth and have relatively few contacts with other people--and those usually with the same people, members of their own family or something--then I think it's largely a matter of private morality. And there are no particular problems. I mean, not ones that create any difficulty. But the more we become crowded together, the more we rub elbows with people we wish we didn't have to, but we do. And then we have to modify our actions in the light of the fact that they are influencing other people so much. It's like the old business of if I live ten miles from the nearest house, it doesn't matter if my furnace is smoking. I can only harm myself by it. But if we have a bunch of houses all crowded together and I have a smoking furnace, then I get the clothes on the clothesline next door dirty and it's very definitely part of their business what my furnace is doing. Well, that's the public morality. And this is a consequence of population and population density.
RUSSELL: One of the questions that is raised, I guess, in the book itself, and that I would like you to respond to from the standpoint of the fictional side, seeing that the ladies finally did get up into the sphere: who shall watch the watchers?
HARDIN: Oh, I see no answer to that, and that was why I dealt with it that way. In other words, to show that here we are up against the same problem again. There really is no answer to that. No.
RUSSELL: You think, then, dealing with this... Well, this goes on a little bit further on, I had this question dealing with the concept of mutations, and that if we were able to come to a statutory point of view, with one for one as far as population, would we in essence be introducing really a mutation, as far as the biological community would be concerned? And what effects would that have? What I'm saying is, would it last? Would this concept last? Or is it a problem that if one generation did achieve our goal, would the next generation do...?
HARDIN: Oh, that's a good question. I would put it in somewhat different terms, partly because I'm a biologist and I tend to think of the word "mutation" in a narrow biological sense, which is change in the DNA, you see. And I don't like to use it for other situations. I'd rather say "change," rather than "mutation." But, a thing that seems to me to be a real problem in human political affairs is created by the Oedipus process. And, as I read the meaning of this--this is perhaps not the original meaning with Freud--but I think what has come out of this is, the simplest way to summarize the meaning of the Oedipus process is that a man has to kill his father. That is, there has to be some point at which a person--now it doesn't always come, of course, but there's potential there at which he has to, in some sense, kill or reject or grow away from his father in order to stand on his own two feet. Now, if his father is wrong, then that's good. He may get closer to the truth. But suppose his father is right on most things. Then, that means the only way he can reject his father is by doing a worse job than his father did. So that if I imagine a perfect society, then I'm afraid the only direction for that society to go would be to become worse as the younger generation rejected what the older generation believed in. And so, because of the Oedipus process, I think it's doubtful that there can be any final stability, and this worries me a great deal. The fact that just always turmoil, and each new generation, if it's run out of old errors to repeat, has to invent some new ones of it's own.
RUSSELL: Within the same context, maybe we could discuss social evolution versus biological evolution, and then maybe what genetic engineering might do to alter the inevitable.
HARDIN: The connection between social and biological evolution I think is very, very tenuous. I've thought about this for a long time, as have many others. Many people have had the idea. Alfred Emerson did one about forty years ago of their being some sort of social elements that corresponded to genes, and a social process that corresponded to mutation, and so on. Recently, Wilson and a colleague have brought out a book about this, and there have been others, and so on. And I just don't think they'll hold water because, from a mathematical point of view, you can deal with the biological process. It's rather a beautiful theory, which Sewell Wright, for the most part, worked out. So it gives something in the way of predictions. They are only statistical predictions, but they are predictions. But I see nothing of this sort in the social realm. There is no...you can't put any figures to this at all, so the processes are only in a vague literary way analogous--not in any precise way. So I just don't think the insights we get from biological evolution help the social, except the general idea that you get what you pay for. I mean, the selective system determines which gene survives, and the same way, the socially selective system determines what kind of behavior people do. If you pay people for being dishonest, they'll be dishonest. If you pay them for being honest, they'll be honest. So the question is, what are you selecting for? What kind of behavior? And that's the only connection I see between the two.
RUSSELL: So if we're going to deal with biological evolution, let's say we do get to the state where we do find some stability, would there be any answer to our problem by maybe genetic engineering? Where the individual--this is really far away--accepts the status of his father's world?
HARDIN: Well, the genetic engineering cannot do anything, so far as we can see now, that cannot be done just by straight selection. And the curious thing is that ours is a generation which, for the most part, strongly rejects all ideas of eugenics, which merely proposes that we human beings have a conscious choice in what we select for, and then use standard techniques. We reject that and, at the same time, we've suddenly fallen in love with genetic engineering, which presents exactly the same problem. Sure, suppose you grant that we can make the gene we want, but what gene do we want? Which is the question we refuse to deal with when we said, what gene do you want to select for? So it's a fraud.
RUSSELL: It's a catch-22. How do you think... Well, obviously, you've probably answered it, but I'll ask it again anyway, because obviously I'm going off on a wrong strain here. How do you think genetic engineering and the way that the biologist today would work in the lab has altered--or has it altered--Darwin's model?
HARDIN: The answer is no, it hasn't, really, just as the discovery of Mendelian genetics didn't alter Darwin's model, except in one important area. Namely, because Darwin didn't understand this, he became sort of a Lamarckian toward the last of his life, in spite of the fact he didn't...he couldn't see how it could work, but he couldn't see how it could not work. This is sort of a technical question, that because he thought of the idea of heredity being a melting process, he almost had to become a Lamarckian in part. But it actually made his theory much stronger, once the Mendelian scheme came along.
RUSSELL: Do you feel that this concept of genetic engineering maybe has harmed the study of biology, from the standpoint that it has more or less emphasized the engineering aspect, and maybe put within the scientist, the biologist, the concept of, you know, your quote about solving small problems today, tomorrow we will definitely take care of everything?
HARDIN: Well, I think it has greatly encouraged the science fiction
sort of mentality, which, in part, is not a good type of mentality
to encourage. I think this is probably not good. I would know more
if I were still in contact with students, which I'm not. Maybe this
is not a serious matter, but it potentially could be. But I think,
if they get at all deeply into it, they'll outgrow this science
fiction mentality. And it may not be too bad to get people interested
to come into it as freshman, if they get educated along the way
and then drop that. And that happens, after all. Science fiction
got a lot of kids into science. Now some of them never quite escape
it and they say some silly things...