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Does Science Unite?


Austin Dacey

June 16, 2009

It was a time that needed poetry—the fall of 1945, and with the liberation of the Nazi death camps, the world had discovered that the only thing more inexhaustible than our humanity might be our inhumanity. The war was over, but with it somehow a world had ended. Yet in that selfsame instant, Archibald MacLeish must have felt, a new one had begun.

Several months earlier in San Francisco the American poet and playwright had crafted the preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, which declaims, “We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” In November, MacLeish, who had volunteered as an ambulance driver in World War I and gone on to serve as Librarian of Congress and assistant to the Secretary of State, was in London serving as the United States delegate to a conference of 44 nations that had gathered to create a new UN institution. It would later come to be known as the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.

They met in the Institute of Civil Engineers, one of the few buildings unscathed by German bombs, and on November 16, 1945 adopted a Constitution that opens with MacLeish’s line, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” It goes on to declare that

a peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world, and that the peace must therefore be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.1

The parties to the Constitution, affirming their commitment to “full and equal opportunities for education for all,” “the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth,” and “the free exchange of ideas and knowledge,” created UNESCO

to develop and to increase the means of communication between their peoples and to employ these means for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other's lives;

with the ultimate purpose of

advancing, through the educational and scientific and cultural relations of the peoples of the world, the objectives of international peace and of the common welfare of mankind for which the United Nations Organization was established and which its Charter proclaims.

Viewed from the vantage point of today, the hope radiating from this document is almost blinding, the distance of the intervening years making it seem only more improbably bright. Somehow the delegates’ optimism burned more powerfully than Oppenheimer’s “thousand suns” that just months before had incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki—they too begun in the minds of men.

Julian Huxley and the universal culture

Science almost didn’t make it, along with education and culture, into the organization’s name and mandate. The ‘S’ in UNESCO was thanks in large part to the urging of the British biologist Julian Huxley (grandson of T.H.). After MacLeish declined the post of Director-General in order to return to academic life, Huxley went to Paris to take up the task. In a 1946 essay entitled UNESCO, Its Purpose and Its Philosophy, he boldly maintained, with the smoldering globe in full view, that what the world needs is more, not less, science. The philosophy of UNESCO, in his vision, is in essence the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment:

Science . . . is by its nature opposed to dogmatic orthodoxies and to the claims of authority. . . . Science, however, on the basis of its fruitful experience, asserts with confidence that a priori reasoning is inadequate to arrive at truth, that truth is never complete and explanation never fully or eternally valid.2

The purpose of the organization, Huxley thought, is to encourage the spread of this philosophy everywhere:

Anything that [UNESCO] can do to satisfy these needs through promoting education, science and culture, will be a step towards a unified way of life and of looking at life, a contribution to a foundation for the unified philosophy we require.3

The scientific enterprise itself, Huxley observed, is “already the most international activity of man,” and so provides our best model of a new kind of polity for a new kind of world, a cosmopolitan community that transcends frontiers to collaborate for the betterment of humankind. In the first report of the Director-General of UNESCO he spoke of a “universal culture” that will grow from the global cultivation of free, critical inquiry.

One need not share Huxley’s enthusiasm for “evolutionary humanism” (to say nothing of eugenics) to resonate to his call for science as a cultural commons, a buffer against sectarianism and nationalism. Contemplate the Large Hadron Collider, its subterranean vaults glittering, deep enough to house the nave of Notre Dame. The design and construction of this marvel near Geneva brought together funds and specialists from 60 countries, including military rivals like India and Pakistan. If they find the God Particle, it will belong to all of them, all of us.

The politicization of “culture”

The one thing that Huxley did not anticipate was the rest of the 20th century: the tectonic effects of the collapse of empire and the emergence of the Third World. Decolonization and the rise of non-western nationalisms radically altered the political realities at the UN and the discourse among the so-called international community. As developing countries asserted their equal dignity and autonomy on the world stage, they pressed in the international legal order for “cultural rights” and the right of peoples to “self-determination” even at the expense of universal values—now conceived as the values of one particular culture, “the West”. Meanwhile, post-colonial and multiculturalist academic theories elevated cultural membership to the preeminent source of personal identity.

With these political and intellectual shifts came a shift in the meaning of “culture” in international discourse. In 1945, it denoted cultural productions—the works of art and letters, architecture, cuisine. Throughout the 1950s, the Director-General reports classified cultural activities as “the preservation and protection of art, heritage, and artists . . . .”4 But in the post-colonial landscape, culture increasingly came to stand in for peoples, particularly those who hadn’t (lately) run an empire. Culture went from a What to a Who.

By 1982, UNESCO’s Mexico Declaration on Cultural Policies could define culture as “the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group,” and it paired each culture with a people:

  1. Every culture represents a unique and irreplaceable body of values since each people's traditions and forms of expression are its most effective means of demonstrating its presence in the world.
  2. The assertion of cultural identity therefore contributes to the liberation of peoples. Conversely, any form of domination constitutes a denial or an impairment of that identity.5

Culture-as-people recalls the German romantic notion of the Volk, a community bonded by blood and distinguished by its language, religion, and customs. And as Johann Gottfried Herder would have it, Volk comes first. States must recognize “the right of each people and cultural community to affirm and preserve its cultural identity and have it respected by others” and should “foster the assimilation of scientific and technological knowledge without detriment to each people’s capacities and values” [italics added].

In the context of this discourse, Huxley’s thesis of a universal, science-enriched culture must be either irrelevant or false. For if it means culture-as-production, then the thesis concerns something that no longer concerns most of the international community. If instead it means culture-as-people, then the thesis is ludicrous. Scientists are decidedly not a community bound by blood or soil. And no one—not even a fan of world government such as Huxley—supposes that a world culture would or should entail one world people.

Instead, science itself has been dismembered by culturist politics, exemplified by the Vedic science movement in India, with its ties to the Hindu Right. The Indian experience suggests that a society can adopt the modalities of science without fully absorbing the Enlightenment culture that in European history accompanied it. Making the irony complete, in 1982 a coalition of Islamic states launched its own brand of UNESCO that replaces the “United” with a particular “culture”: the Islamic Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It promotes science “within the framework of the civilizational reference of the Islamic world and in the light of the human Islamic values and ideals.”6

An unclinical trial

Of the founding of UNESCO, one member of the British delegation said it was “the most underrated conference in all history.”7 And it was either that, or the most overreaching. We still do not know which. Before it could be truly tested, Huxley’s vision was abandoned by the United Nations. Quite independently, however, the world’s scientific institutions themselves embarked on a vast unintentional experiment, an unclinical trial of the idea that science will bring people and peoples closer together. Is there in fact a universal culture of science? If so, what is it? The experiment is now running, and it will be examined in subsequent installments of this series, “Circumnavigations.”


  1. Available at (PDF)
  2. Julian Huxley, UNESCO: Its Purpose and Its Philosophy (Preparatory Commission of UNESCO, 1946), 34.
  3. Ibid., 62.
  4. Katérina Stenou, ed., UNESCO and the Issue of Cultural Diversity: Review and Strategy, 1946- 2004 (UNESCO, 2004); (PDF); accessed on June 2, 2009.
  5. Mexico City Declaration on Cultural Policies, World Conference on Cultural Policies, Mexico City, 26 July - 6 August 1982; (PDF); accessed June 2, 2009.
  6. ISESCO Charter, Article 4(a);; accessed June 2, 2009.
  7. Stanley Meisler, United Nations: The First Fifty Years (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), 223.

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey's photo

Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.