The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann (2018) provides contrasting biographies of two influential 20th century scientists: Norman Borlaug (the “wizard”) and William Vogt (the “prophet”). Each man had a different approach to different facets of the same problem: human population growth, consumption, and resource extraction. Each had their own brush with the real world as young adults, which shaped their different life goals.
Borlaug grew up on a small, subsistence farm in northeast Iowa that had poor soil. When his family finally got a Fordson Model F tractor they were able to send Norman to high school. In Borlaug’s own words, the tractor provided “relief from endless drudgery equated to emancipation from servitude”. In college at the U. of Minnesota in Minneapolis in 1933, Borlaug came face to face with the horrors of the Great Depression—hungry, cold, homeless people, many of whom were dairy farmers whose land and animals had been sold to pay their debts when the price of milk dropped. Violence erupted across the Midwest as these dairy farmers and their families blocked milk trucks in their milk strikes, including a strike in Minneapolis that Borlaug witnessed, which proved to be a formative moment in his life. He went on to try to free subsistence farmers around the world from the threat of hunger by providing farmers with technology (plant breeding) and resources (synthetic fertilizer). He, along with an Indian scientist named M. S. Swaminathan, set out to help people like the starving Midwestern dairy farmers left behind by the US government and the starving Indians in Bengal whom Winston Churchill refused to help in 1943.
Borlaug’s graduate research dealt with rust fungus that infects wheat fields. After graduation he got a job in Mexico, where he conducted a superhuman feat of wheat breeding: high volume crossbreeding among a global collection of wheat varieties and shuttle breeding between two alternating climates in Mexico (Chapingo, southwest of Mexico City, and the infamous Yaqui Valley, on the Gulf of California). After long days, lots of hard work, some plowing by hand, frustrating his bosses, and a little luck, he managed to develop a variety that revolutionized the world. Several qualities made this wheat special: it would germinate no matter how long the day length was (i.e., it could germinate anywhere), it was highly resistant to disease (a big problem up to then), it was a dwarf (i.e., it didn’t lodge in the wind or rain) that retained the large seed head of taller wheat, and (of course) the grain stayed on the head “waiting” for humans to harvest it. That’s quite a laundry list of breeding accomplishments for 1960—recall Watson and Crick published their seminal paper on the structure of DNA in 1953.
Wheat yields tripled in Mexico, India and Pakistan, but these yields required expensive seeds, synthetic fertilizer inputs, and more water, opening the floodgates to modern day industrial agribusiness and its associated environmental harms. Borlaug helped small landholder farmers produce more food, but also enabled population growth, which required even more food, and the cycle continues. This is why many people don’t like Borlaug, the “father of the Green Revolution” who directly and indirectly set in motion a cascade of environmental degradation. But his intention was to help the farmers, which he did using cutting-edge (at the time) science, and was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. Hence, Mann designated Borlaug the wizard—he engineered a solution to the problem.
William Vogt’s life was also interesting—a child naturalist on Long Island before the Hamptons, and an American spy in Latin America during WWII. He worked for the Audobon Society, where he befriended Aldo Leopold. Mann deems Vogt a prophet because his life’s work was about restraint from resource use and reducing population growth. His formative brush with real life came during his Ph.D. when he witnessed the population crash of Guanay cormorants on a profitable guano island in Peru—the guano was exported as fertilizer before synthetic fertilizer came into use. Vogt figured out the crash was tied to El Nino, and that the Peruvian guano company could not “augment the increment of excrement”. They could only remove additional challenges to the birds created by human impacts, enabling the birds to live within ecological limits. Vogt later wrote Road to Survival, which included indirect criticism of Borlaug’s work, is considered the beginnings of the modern environmental movement, and inspired Paul Ehrlich and Rachel Carson. Vogt’s inspirational experience with the cormorants, led him to focus on how human activity led to the suffering of animals and their environment, compared to Borlaug who focused on how poverty and the limitations of the environment brings human suffering.
Borlaug’s impact on population growth and Vogt’s cry for population control, were not popular with many people. Both men struggled with, in Mann’s words, “the clash between the workshop and the world.” Often scientist’s bench top solutions don’t work so well in the real world because the bench top is, obviously, not the real world: different cultures have unique preferences for the look and taste of wheat; bureaucracy and greed prevent the seeds, fertilizer and wells from reaching the poorest farmers; unforeseen consequences emerge, such as population growth. Vogt was also seen as a disconnected scientist with condescending criticism about human reproduction. Both men could have benefited from a socio-ecological approach and some tips on science communication. This sounds like light-hearted criticism but really the stakes are quite high. Mann cites philosopher Edmund Husserl who in the 1930s wrote about how distrust in scientists and experts contributed to society following the irrational and the rise of Nazism. Socio-ecology and science communication sound pretty important today too, eh?
You can read an excerpt from the book in The Atlantic.
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