Jonas Salk

Man Evolving …

VTR Date: May 11, 1985

Guest: Salk, Jonas


VTR: 5/11/85

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner; your host on THE OPEN MIND. That’s the way I begin each of these programs and end them always as an old friend used to say, good night, and good luck. Of course, that old friend was Edward R. Murrow, and over the years I’ve been particularly grateful that knowing Ed Murrow — led me to know today’s OPEN MIND guest, Dr. Jonas Salk, whom my generation and my parents’ and my children’s will surely always revere the brilliant medical scientist whose pioneering research effectively eradicated infantile paralysis as the literal scourge of this nation. No parent could forget the fears of summer as the dreaded polio season came upon us until just 30 years ago in the Spring of 1955 when Murrow broadcast the success of the Salk vaccine. What he said to the young scientist at the time was, “young man, a great tragedy has just befallen you, you have lost your anonymity.” And so Jonas Salk had, though gaining the opportunity to have us listen so respectfully to the larger themes he would develop in the decades to follow… as his plea that we be wise and good ancestors. Dr. Salk, I really am delighted to have you here with me today. And it is, of course, a subject to examine what you really meant by being a wise ancestor, a good ancestor.

DR. SALK: Well, I’m sure that just as we look back into the past to those who preceded us, we recognize that some of those who have gone before have been wiser than others. And the question that I have been asking in recent years, amongst others, is, are we being good ancestors? And I pose that question because I believe that the future generations will look back upon us and judge us as to whether we have been wise or whether we have been profligate and wasteful and destructive of the opportunities for their future as well of the future of generations to come.

HEFFNER: And your answer?

DR. SALK: Well I think we are being both wise and unwise. And as I said in another one of my writings in which I spoke about the survival of the wisest as distinct from the survival of the fittest, I said that I thought that wisdom had become the new basis for fitness. And at a time such as the present in which the future is very much in our own hands as to whether we will destroy ourselves and the planet or whether we will use science and technology and the knowledge that we possess for better, rather than for worse, so to speak. Now I have the impression that the new generation of young people are coming upon the scene with a sense of ancestorhood and with more wisdom at an earlier age than was evident before. I think this comes about as a matter of necessity, almost as if there is something innate, something inherent in us that is destined for a longer term rather than a shorter term future. And I think that many of the things that are happening that arise in the public domain in which we are saying, intuitively, there’s something wrong. Something has to be done to correct it. We wish that our leaders would listen.

HEFFNER: Yet, it seems to me that in recent years in the past generation there has been a rejection of that concept of ancestry or ancesterhood.


DR. SALK: It seems that way. And it’s for that very reason that I think it’s emerging now with greater strength and greater force. So that it is as if evil in a sense evokes good. So that the two which we know go together… it is as if when things get bad enough then something happens to correct the course. And it’s for that reason that I speak about evolution as an error-making and an error-correcting process. And if we can be ever so much better, ever so much slightly better, at error-correcting than in error-making, then we’ll make it.

HEFFNER: But, where is it written, Dr. Salk, where is it written that this happens? Do you feel that way as a philosopher or as a biologist?

DR. SALK: Both. If you like, as a bio-philosopher, someone who draws upon the scriptures of nature recognizing that we are the product, the process of evolution. And in a sense, we have become the process itself. Through the emergence and evolution of our consciousness, our awareness, our capacity to imagine and to anticipate the future. And to choose from amongst alternatives.

HEFFNER: But you say our consciousness, and as I read the Anatomy of Reality, I was particularly interested that you say here… you write here, “there are some among us who feel or see more clearly than the rest.” They are the ones who illuminate and reveal reality for others.”

DR. SALK: Yes.

HEFFNER: And you had said a few pages before, “either because of genetic determination or though intellectual intuitive development, a sufficient number of human beings now exist who as individuals are impelled to counter the self-destructive and evolutionary influences in our society and in the world. There is a sense of elitism there. How do you identify those who do have this sensitivity that you look for?

DR. SALK: If you would ask the question without judging it as elitist then you would be speaking about something that exists in nature. In nature we see different kinds of structures, different functional elements. For example, we know in living systems about DNA and about proteins. We know about the genetic code. And we know about those structures that express the genetic code. And I imagine humankind is an organism and that some in this complex organism of humankind performed that kind of function for the species as a whole.

HEFFNER: Where does the rest of the species come in this process… quite seriously?

DR. SALK: It’s all a part of it. Think of each of us as a cell performing a different function, a different role. And if you would see it that way then you’d say there is a place for everyone. And that one is not better than the other. It is simply they play a different role and perform a different function that’s consistent with their genetic endowment.

HEFFNER: Do you feel with this notion… that I’m sure you would not put in terms of there is a bottom rung to every ladder but rather there are top rungs in different areas of concern, in different areas of work, intellectual work, the people who, as you suggest, few among us who can deal with these questions? I didn’t mean by talking about elitism to be disparaging at all. But what does happen to the rest of society when we begin to identify those who can see more clearly, those who can think more clearly, about the future challenges that you identify? And you identify so many of them.


DR. SALK: Well, I suppose that I could be autobiographical.

HEFFNER: Please.

DR. SALK: And simply say that I always felt that I did for the rest of the world what the rest of the world could not do for itself at that time; when I was doing the kind of work I was doing earlier on in immunology, vacinology. But yet I depended upon the public at large to provide the funds and the support so that work could be done. I look upon ourselves as partners in all of this. And that each of us contributes and does what he can do best. And so I see not a top rung and a bottom rung, I see all this horizontally. And I see this as part of a matrix. And I see every human being as having a purpose, a destiny, if you like. And what my hope is that we can find some way to fulfill the biological potential, if you like, the destiny that exists in each of us. And find ways and means to provide such opportunities for everyone. Now at the moment the world is suffering from large numbers of people who have no purpose in life, for whom there is not opportunity. And that’s sad. And it is in this way that I think about the problems that we have today. I don’t worry about those who have this great potential other than when it’s wasted, when it’s not being utilized, not being fulfilled. And I’m as interested in those who are ill, shall we say, and need help, and in those who have a great deal to contribute. The most creative individuals who have this vision, this foresight, with which they were endowed, there’s nothing they can do about that. Either they fulfill themselves in this respect by expressing their creativity for the benefit of all, or they are cast out.

HEFFNER: In terms of the engineering of biological bits of inheritance, what impact will that have? The manipulation of DNA… what impact will that have in your estimation on the potential, the destiny? Those are very powerful words, very important ones. What will they do to what nature hath wrought?

DR. SALK: It will provide us with ways and means of extending our survival time on the planet by developing more efficient and effective ways for providing food supply for so many more billions of people that are still to be sustained on the planet at any one time. You see we’ve become completely dependent upon science and technology for the number of people that exist. At the moment, there are about 4.7… 4.8 billion people on the face of the earth and some day there will be 10 or 11 billion people on the face of the earth. Each one is not out there hunting and gathering. In lieu of that, it becomes necessary to maintain a population of this size, to push the frontiers of science and technology as far as possible for the advantages that this will accrue to humans for maintaining a life of high quality as well as many more individuals than exists today and who will be alive for longer periods of time.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re putting your emphasis quite understandably upon technological changes or changes in the capacity to feed this burgeoning population which I know is a major concern of yours as you project it into the future. But, if we were to go back to these quotations from Anatomy of Reality, to this notion that there are some among us who are qualified in a certain way, won’t our capacity for the manipulation of genetic content enable science to create more such people?

DR. SALK: No, that isn’t the way I see it happening.


DR. SALK: That’s a very slow process. What is much more important is that we, number one, learn to live with each other. Number two, try to bring out the best in each other, the best from the best and the best from those who perhaps may not have the same endowment. And so this bespeaks an entirely different philosophy. A different way of life, a different kind of relationship where the object is not to put down but to raise up the other.

HEFFNER: But you are a good and a kind man. I know that. And you are concerned as you suggest with raising, not lowering not the combative stance but the helpful stance. Your studies of the past… do they indicate that that is a notion that is shared sufficiently for us to assume that this is what will happen?

DR. SALK: It’s altogether possible. As I indicated earlier, I see signs of this in some segments of the younger generation. I can also see other signs. And it’s the contrast between the two. And the clinical judgment, if your like, the qualitative impression that I have from those I know and those with whom I’m working with that convinces me that there’s more than a grain of hope. And that it is worthwhile to presume that this can be done. That we can increase the population, if you like, of the few to which you refer.


HEFFNER: But you say we can increase… I thought you were suggesting that there is room for that increase but that there is nothing much that we can do to increase that population, at least through genetic manipulation.

DR. SALK: I wouldn’t think of genetic manipulation as the way to do it.

HEFFNER: Why not?

DR. SALK: Because it can’t be done.

HEFFNER: I’m surprised to hear you say that of all people… that it can’t be cone.

DR. SALK: Well, it can’t be done for the following reason: that you can engage in genetic manipulation if you’re talking about a cell, but not about a human being. A human being is far more complex than a cell. If you think of a human mind… the open mind… is quite different from a cell that can be manipulated from within its universe.

HEFFNER: And yet your own writings here and elsewhere you… I have the sense of man making man. That this tremendous, if you’ll forgive me, optimism on your part in which you say we can create ourselves and our future.

DR. SALK: By shaping ourselves, not our cells. That’s the important distinction.

HEFFNER: But I wonder why you stay away from that.

SALK: From which?

HEFFNER: From shaping the cells.

DR. SALK: We are shaping the cells, but we will not change ourselves in the course of shaping our cells. Because we’re dealing with something that is far more complex. We’re dealing with the mind which is different from the cell. We’re dealing with human consciousness, which is different from human life in the strict biological sense.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you, yourself, write about the importance of shaping consciousness in such a way that we can survive the incredible challenges that we face now. So you are talking about shaping and molding, and I wonder, why you, is it a threat, a fear that…

DR. SALK: No. You do this through experience.

HEFFNER: Do we have enough time for experience?

DR. SALK: Well, if we don’t the there’s nothing to worry about. We do have enough time if we don’t waste it. And it’s for this reason that I write as I do, that I speak as I do. Because I’m convinced that we do have enough time. And we will not have enough time only after the fact.

HEFFNER: Well, this amazing sense of man creating man that you convey in all that you write. I wondered whether you saw the potential for using that sense and what it can create whether you address yourself to contemporary political social issues. Whether you see things evolving… issues evolving maybe in terms of military preparedness, maybe in terms of disarmament, maybe in terms of race relations. How do you see those thoughts impacting upon these contemporary problems?

DR. SALK: I see them very relevant to contemporary problems, and I see my thoughts arising from observations and experiences in the contemporary world, from my own life’s experiences. So that my present view, in a way , emerges from my own life’s experiences. I have for some reason the instinct, if you like, the intuition of a healer. That’s probably why I went into medicine. That’s why I chose science as a way in medicine. Now I seem to have the desire to fix things when they’re broken, when there’s something wrong. And at the moment the plant is sick, humankind is sick. We seem to be suffering from all kinds of addictions. We see drug addictions, addictions to tobacco, addictions to alcohol. We even see additions to the making of nuclear weapons, which seem to be superfluous and unnecessary. Why can’t we stop? Well, there’s something about human nature that has to be understood. And so, if you like, I’ve shifted my attention from an interest in immunity to an interest in creativity… and recognize the importance of creative approaches to the solution of these problems. Meaning unusual approaches, uncommon approaches, approaches that may, perhaps, not even as yet been recognized. And it’s for this reason that I focus attention on others like myself, if you like, who are interested in these questions and who perhaps have visions and perceptions and imagionation that allow us to look into the future.


HEFFNER: And your sense of that future now in terms of the capacity to look and to do?

DR. SALK: It is, if you like, optimistic. Positive. Hopeful, because I find enough others like myself who have the same sense, who have the same commitment. And I think that we’re driven by if you like, an evolutionary instinct. Not a survival instinct mind you. An instinct to survive through evolution through going beyond to overcoming the kinds of obstacles and difficulties with which we’re confronted. And I see also the perception of the importance of the human being, the importance of the human mind and of human creativity in all of this.

HEFFNER: Dr. Salk, if we were to turn the clock back 30 years, would you have imagined as you watched the announcement about the success, the achievement of the Salk vaccine? Would you have imagined that your own life would have taken this kind of course, follow this path?

DR. SALK: Well, not in detail. But I will tell you one thing that did happen at that time. I realize when I saw the way in which people reacted, people of all kinds, and many of them I thought inappropriately, to the availability or the prospect the solution of a problem that clearly plagued us at that time.

HEFFNER: Why inappropriately?

DR. SALK: Inappropriately? I will give you a very good example of that. There still continues to occur in the world about 500,000 cases of paralytic polio a year. Now the fact that the disease has not been eradicated from the face of the earth is testimony to me that all of the problems of man, all of the human problems if you like, will not be solved in the laboratory alone. And that was what I said at that time. And it was that that set the future course of my life. Even though I’ve continued to function as a biomedical scientist, I have continued also to develop these ideas in trying to understand these paradoxes. And in the course of this, I recognize that there is this instinct that I recognize in myself and others which is to reach into the future. And this instinct for what I call ancestorhood, a concern that we begin to be conscious of after we’ve been through the period of parenthood, we’ve been through the period of adulthood, and of childhood. There is a phase in our lives in which we seem to have an instinct and a desire to leave behind something meaningful; to have done something meaningful. And I see this in many people who have become very wealthy, very successful. But there is something gnawing in them that says that there is something more I must do. And I find this encouraging and refreshing. I see this as a sign in such people and in younger people that there is developing a force that will express itself in a very positive way and very soon.

HEFFNER: You say developing a force. Does this mean transcending the nature of human nature?

DR. SALK: It means expressing human nature. And it’s expressing the potential that exists in human nature. To save itself from itself.

HEFFNER: Always… that it has always been there.

DR. SALK: Always been there.

HEFFNER: And why, why… where do you get the optimism except from the sense of grim necessity which is not a negative, but a grim notion. Where do you get the notion that if we haven’t in all man’s history tapped those resources that they really exist?


DR. SALK: We have been. That’s how we got here. That’s why we’re here today.

HEFFNER: That, I guess, is fair enough answer. But you’re fearful that we may not stay.

DR. SALK: Well, I believe that we do have to participate actively in the process to avoid the equal probability that we can undo it all.

HEFFNER: Dr. Salk, as a physician, if you didn’t believe that that was the answer to my questions, would you take a more pessimistic note or would you as a physician still feel the need as a healer to be optimistic?

DR. SALK: Well, it’s too late in my life to ask me that question because I already see enough evidence for this optimism. And if you like in recent years, I find that perhaps what I’m seeking is a scientific basis for hope and I think I’ve found it.

HEFFNER: That’s what strikes me in The Anatomy of Reality that your quest is for a scientific basis. Why does there need to be that basis when you have become so involved, in a sense, not the antithesis of the scientific method, but creation… the sense of creativity which stands apart from the scientific pursuit to a certain extent, doesn’t it?

DR. SALK: No. It’s the essence of a scientific pursuit.

HEFFNER: In the one minute that we have, tell me what you mean.

DR. SALK: Well, I believe that I have been expressing this both in this conversation and in my life… and that my work does represent and reflect the process of creativity at work in the human realm. And it is creativity itself that’s going to save us.

HEFFNER: In the world of science or in the world of the humanities?

DR. SALK: In the world as a whole.

HEFFNER: I like that kind of optimism, Dr. Salk, and I really do appreciate your joining me today to present it. I wonder if you were to come back a few years from now, another decade from now, you think we would have achieved so much of what you want.

DR. SALK: I do.

HEFFNER: I hope so. Come back in another decade. Thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. Salk, and thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again net time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as our old friend used to say, “goodnight and good luck.”