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Jonas Salk Interview (page: 8 / 8)
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What mystery would you most like to crack now? What would you most like to accomplish?
Jonas Salk: Apart from the work that we are doing on AIDS, what's of greatest interest to me now is an idea that I have written about and continue to pursue -- the idea of what I call "universal evolution." I see ourselves as the product of the process of evolution, and we become the process itself. I see the continuity from what appears to be the beginning of time, when pre-biological evolution took place, and biological evolution, and then when the human mind came upon the scene and the emergence of ideas -- accumulative genes, which I see as manifestations of the process of evolution at work on the gray matter. I am interested in a phase that I think we are entering. I call it "teleological evolution," evolution with a purpose.
The idea of evolution by design, designing the future, anticipating the future. I think of the need for more wisdom in the world, to deal with the knowledge that we have. At one time we had wisdom, but little knowledge. Now we have a great deal of knowledge, but do we have enough wisdom to deal with that knowledge? I define wisdom as the capacity to make retrospective judgments prospectively. I think these are human qualities, human attributes that need to be brought out, need to be drawn upon, need to be valued.
[ Key to Success ] Integrity
How do you do that?
Jonas Salk: I think it happens by experience, by example, by recognition that we have these qualities and attributes. They have to be there to be activated. You can't put them in; it would require the equivalent to genetic engineering. What you see in living systems, and in genetic systems, is that the genes are already there, having arisen in the course of time, and when they are needed they become activated. If they had to be invented, the time would be too late. By the same token, I think that the people who are needed to help guide the future already exist. They simply need to recognize this in themselves, react to the opportunities that prevail, and also be valued and be encouraged. It's that very large, and as yet amorphous, rung that is of interest to me. I hope to articulate this, and see to what extent it makes sense to others as well.
Medically speaking, what do you see as the great frontier for the next generation?
Jonas Salk: To tell you the truth, I think the next great frontier is going to be the recognition and understanding of how the brain works. To develop, to cultivate, to maintain what I call "gray matter." We've been focusing on the molecular and cellular events of the genetic system, the immune system, the nervous system and the brain. It's that function of the brain that we associate with. I use the term "gray matter" simply to focus attention on the need to understand how our minds work, and how we can use our minds to better advantage for enhancing health, for enhancing the positive and reducing the negative.
I could speak about the advances that you could expect in surgery, or the advances in genetic engineering, and the capacity to develop new vaccines, and ways of regulating the immune system, and about the hormones and peptides, and other reagents that can be used for improving brain function. But what concerns me most is how human beings behave. If you stop and think about that, this is perhaps the most critically important consideration. Not only for how we behave in the world and in relation to each other, but from a medical point of view, in terms of individual health and well-being. The responsibility we take for our own lives, whether it's that of a drug user, or of one who is at high risk of developing HIV or AIDS, or any other consideration that requires wisdom. It's in the human dimension, as distinct from the molecular-cellular, if I could make this contrast, trying to understand the whole, which is far greater than the sum of the parts. That is where I sense the need for a new kind of mind, for individuals who are integrators, as distinct from the reductionists, or reductionists who could integrate as well.
These sound like people in the evolver category.
Jonas Salk: Indeed. That's why I'm likely to call this next book The Evolvers, to help people recognize these qualities and characteristics which they possess naturally.
What personal characteristics do you think are most important for success in any field?
Jonas Salk: The first thing I would like to point out is that each of us have a different purpose that we have to serve in the evolutionary scheme of things. We are not all equally endowed to do everything. When I speak about teleological evolution, I speak about the idea of "telos," purpose. Socrates said, "Know thyself," meaning, "Know what is the purpose of life that you are inclined to serve, that you are drawn to. Do what makes your heart leap rather than simply follow some style or fashion". Not everyone can or should be a scientists. Not everyone can or should be any one thing. People need to know what kind of purpose they can serve.
It's necessary to have a purpose in life. I would say that those who eventually end up taking drugs, that becomes their purpose, in an absence of any other purpose. So number one is to have a purpose. It can be different at different times in your life, as I see in my own life. Take good care of that purpose. Let that be your guide. This requires respecting our own individuality, our own uniqueness and that of others. The idea of being constructive, creative, positive, in trying to bring out the best in one's own self and the best in others follows from what I've just been saying. Again, I repeat my belief in us, in ourselves, as the product of the process of evolution, and part of the process itself. I think of evolution as an error-making and error-correcting process, and we are constantly learning from experience. It's the need to dedicate one's self in that way, to one's own self, and to choose an activity or life that is of value not only to yourself, but to others as well.
Some of your children are pursuing scientific research.
Jonas Salk: My three sons studied medicine. They are each doing something different with the background that they acquired. I am not practicing medicine, neither are they, but each of them is doing something that is connected with medicine. The one who comes closest to seeing patients is the youngest son, who is a psychiatrist. The other two are doing different things in research in one way or another.
You must be quite proud.
Jonas Salk: I'm pleased with them because they made these choices on their own. I tried to discourage them from going into medicine because I felt that it might not be the easiest way for them to express themselves individually. But they chose to do so. We have published work together, papers and books, and this relationship continues.
You have created this work of art in which some of the great scientists of the world come to work, and I can't help connecting that to the fact that you are married to a very fine artist. How has that bond affected your work?
Jonas Salk: My marriage to Françoise has been extremely rewarding. It provides the kind of human experience with someone who is a very highly evolved person, with many dimensions, and it's not only her artistic qualities, but her qualities as a human being and as a powerful intellect. That has been one of the great good fortunes in my life and my career. Just outside the door, there is a montage that I just hung yesterday that was made by her to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Institute. It will be a limited edition that we have made available which will be used for fund raising. It's interesting to see how she has incorporated the double helix and structures of fourteen molecules in this marvelous work of art. It's been a very integrating experience to be able to blend your life with a person who has the qualities of both a powerful intellect and a magnificent artist, wonderful writer.
Has it been difficult to balance the personal side of life with the tremendous drive of your professional side?
Jonas Salk: My life is pretty well at peace, and the profession is more of an avocation. It's a calling, if you like, rather than a job. I do what I feel impelled to do, as an artist would. Scientists function in the same way. I see all these as creative activities, as all part of the process of discovery. Perhaps that's one of the characteristics of what I call the evolvers, any subset of the population who keep things moving in a positive, creative, constructive way, revealing the truth and beauty that exists in life and in nature.
You see a very clear connection between science and art, because you are seeing patterns and designs in a creative way that no one has seen before.
Jonas Salk: Oh, yes. That's why Françoise dedicated one of her books: "To Jonas, who possesses the art of science." And one of my books I dedicated to her, as someone who illuminates all life. As I said earlier, each individual has their own telos. Each of us has an art in us, which is what we should express, practice.
What problem confronting society worries you the most right now?
Jonas Salk: I would say man's inhumanity to man. I think that this will require a bit longer in the evolutionary process, for the more humane aspects and attributes of human beings to be expressed, and the less humane to be suppressed, or not encouraged. We are our own worst enemy in that sense, and unless we cope with greed, inhumanity, and find a way to reduce those qualities and attributes and enhance the more positive, we will be fighting a losing battle. But I have the impression from the young people that I see that we may be seeing the flowering of humanity in that respect. I see weeds and flowers. I think of it in those terms, and we have to discriminate and distinguish between the two, to recognize and encourage those human qualities and attributes that are the more positive.
I judge things from an evolutionary perspective -- "How does this serve and contribute to the process of our own evolution?" -- rather than think of good and evil in moral terms. I see the triumph of good over evil as a manifestation of the error-correcting process of evolution. It is an attempt to get some distance from whence we have come and recognize that as we move into the future, it becomes necessary for us to think the way nature thinks. That's why I speak about universal evolution and teleological evolution, because I think the process of evolution reflects the wisdom of nature. I see the need for wisdom to become operative. We need to try to put all of these things together in what I call an evolutionary philosophy of our time.
Bless you for all you've done, and all you will do. Thank you.
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This page last revised on Aug 06, 2010 13:23 EDT
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