Letter to an outdated man
Atlas – Air France n°68 – February 1972
Allow me, Sir, to tell you my opinion: you are perfectly right.
I must admit that our 200’000 year old ancestor whom a prehistorian recently found petrified in the depths of a cave in the South of France was, compared to you, an unfortunate, helpless man.
He moved around on two legs. He owned neither a telephone nor a television set. He had not read Chomsky or Lacan. He even did, alas, without toilet paper.
In short, we can only feel ashamed of this ancestor. But since our essential superiority over this deplorable brute lies in our power of reasoning, let us reason for a while.
I have just perused two contemporary studies in fields as unrelated as electronics and animal biology. I checked very carefully the date of publication of all the works quoted. Much to my amazement, I found out that more than 90% of these works had only been written within the last ten years.
- What does this mean? I immediately asked the author of the biological study over the phone. Are you then implying that nothing of importance ever occurred in animal biology before 1962?
- Not at all! Many interesting discoveries were made. But then, they were exciting for the historians, I would say. As for the biologists, they could not have felt less concerned, because all they need to know is contained in the most recent publications.
- What! Are you saying that biologists never consult Pasteur’s or Mendel’s works?
The man at the other end of the line seemed thunderstruck.
- Pasteur? What for? I may as well be hanged if I know of a single biologist who has ever read an article by Pasteur. I can promise you I haven’t.
- But what will happen to your own research in twenty years’ time?
- Listen, he told me, in twenty years’ time, biology will have progressed as far as I and my colleagues have hoisted it. Do not believe those who tell you that science is permanence. Science is by essence change. Platon, Plutarque and Rabelais remain very meaningful today. But this does not apply to scientists; they remain in history only.
Such are the exact words, Sir, of this scientist. You can draw the mathematical conclusions yourself: in ten years’ time, only 10% of what we know today will still apply. In twenty years, only 1% and in thirty years, only 0.1%.
Under such conditions, what degree of relationship do you think you can claim with this primitive, cave-man ancestor? 0.1%? I could go as far as telling you Sir, with your permission: you are nothing but a prehistoric brute.■