A Word Or Two From Edmund Leach – A Runaway World 1967 – BBC Reith Lectures – Past Daily Weekend Gallimaufry

Edmund Leach in 1934 -  Selfie before there were Selfies.
Edmund Leach in 1934 – Selfie before there were Selfies.

. . . or click on the link here for Audio Player – BBC – The Reith Lectures – Edmund Leach – A Runaway World – November 12-19, 1967 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection.

It is always fascinating to listen to assessments of life and society as viewed from many years ago. How much changed, how much has remained the same. How much of the feared nightmare became true. How much didn’t. Was the perceived future really going to be as bad as it was made out to be? Did it all happen according to plan?

Leading Social Anthropologist of the 20th century, Edmund Leach has been described as “was and still is difficult to match among the English speaking Anthropologists of the world”.

This talk, part of a series done for the BBC as part of its Reith Lecture series in 1967 was entitled A Runaway World. These first two parts; Men and Nature and Men and Machines were aired on November 12th and 19th in 1967.

Leach talks about the changing world, as it was in 1967. The dawn of new technology and science:

Edmund Leach: “The marvels of modern technology fill us with amazement but also with dread. All the time we are haunted with nagging anxiety. Isn’t the gadgetry getting too clever? Moon rocketry is all very well, but Dr Strangelove was too lifelike to be funny. If the computers take over, where do the human beings come in at all?
But the anxiety goes deeper than that: where do I come in at all? It was all right when the surgeons just fitted us up with artificial arms and legs, but now that there are people going around with plastic guts, battery-controlled hearts, dead men’s eyes and twin-brother’s kidneys, there begins to be a serious problem of self-identification. What is there left of me as a human being if all the different parts of my body can be treated like spare parts to be bought over the counter of a bicycle shop? Am I just a machine and nothing more?
But surely there is a muddle here. We love our machines. Machines are what we desire most in the world. A car, a telly. a fridge, a washing-machine, the very latest thing in cookers—what would we do without them? Technical wizardry is just what makes life worth living, it is the badge of civilisation, the marker which separates off the educated man from the poor benighted savage who lives in a grass but and cooks his food over an open fire. So what is there to be afraid of? Where’s the worry?
I think the worry is that all of us are haunted by three very big ideas which somehow ought to fit together but won’t The first is the idea of nature: the world as it is ‘out there’ before human beings start messing about and turning forests into cities and broad valleys into airstrips. But nature includes the whole animal kingdom, and we are animals. It was on that account that some 18th-century philosophers maintained that the original primeval man must have been ‘a noble savage’, an ignorant creature of nature inspired by sensual poetry long before he became a rational human being. It is this uncontaminated nature which modern science is now exploring with such great success.
The second big idea is the opposite to the first: civilisation as opposed to nature— what the anthropologists refer to as culture —everything about our environment or about our behaviour that is due to human intervention or to learning as distinct from instinct, our roads, our houses, our tidy fields, our manners and customs, our laws, our language and above all our machines, the gadgets on which modern civilised life depends. The third big idea, which ought to bridge the other two, but somehow doesn’t. Is much the most difficult: it is the idea of the conscious self, the I. Am I a part of nature or a part of culture? Well, both, but how?
The trouble here is that each of us feels capable of ‘acting intentionally’: that is to say, we think we have free will; we think we can make choices. But where does choice fit into the total pattern, the grand combination of nature, culture and the human self? We met this same puzzle last week when I was talking about scientific detachment. The scientific observer can’t ever admit the possibility that the stuff he is looking at might be changing in an intentional way. For change of this sort would produce events which could not be predicted, either as the outcome of mechanical rules or as the outcome of probability, and all scientific investigation would become futile. Nature must be orderly, and we have the same feeling about the man-made part of our environment. The machines are all right as long as they behave in a predictable way; what terrifies us is the idea that somewhere along the line they might start making choices on their own: they might start to think, they might begin to act like us. And that would mean that we are no different from machines”.

Edmund Leach was around until his death in 1989.  The Internet was just starting to gain prominence in our society and Social Media was just beginning to take shape. But I don’t think Leach could have imagined the new age of 3-D printing.

Sometimes the future is more vast than we imagine, even in our most outlandish dreams.

But in 1967 Society was still a mystery and in the grips of change. This one-hour segment gives some idea what we were facing 48 years ago.

And while you’re listening and absorbing, and staring open-mouthed at the speaker, listening to the world as viewed from 1967, please consider how you are hearing this, and realize this is part of an archive that is making all of this available to you every day, all-year long.

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