The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley


Two steps forward and one step back –isn’t that  always the way with progress? Reward coupled with unintended consequences? The Industrial Revolution with worker exploitation? Nuclear power with the Bomb. Nothing, it seems, comes without a price. Even religion, the great leveller, once established brooks no rivals. Life itself, is a succession of survivors outcompeting the other contenders.

But simply to focus on the successes is to miss the important lessons to be learned from the failures. In biology the difference between winning and losing might hinge on a single change in a single gene, or more instructively, on an adaptation of an existing organ for another, more useful function in a different environment –an exaptation. Arms and hands for wings, in the case of bats, or for fins, in the cases of aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins.

In the early days after the discovery of X-rays, their ability to see through things was thought to be miraculous, and many possible uses were suggested. It was not until much later, after countless reports of cancers, burns, hair loss and worse, that the dangers of its careless use were acknowledged. Then, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of its many unwanted side-effects, grew carefully investigated treatments like irradiation for tumours, CT scans for internal visualizations, or fluoroscopy for placement of medical kit like stents, anti-embolism balloons, etc.

Unfortunately, even nowadays, the sundry complications of progress are often inadequately predicted in advance, probably because most things are multifaceted and changing one parameter has a knock-on effect on the others. Clearing forests for agriculture changes the animals that can survive in the changed ecosystem; monoculture to maximize demand for a particular variety of crop, say, increases the likelihood that the plants –previously diverse- may not be able to withstand the onslaught of a disease or infestation that would otherwise have only affected a small portion of their number. Evolution would normally have winnowed out the susceptibles, leaving only the resistant plants to reproduce. But all of this is Grade 9 biology, isn’t it?

What led me to think about this was an article in the Smithsonian Magazine discussing the effects of making friction matches on the women and children involved in their manufacture: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/friction-matches-were-boon-those-lighting-firesnot-so-much-matchmakers-180967318/ – 6ZQ6WshMH2Ghpoys.03

‘Like many other poorly paid and tedious factory jobs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, match makers were predominantly women and children, writes Killgrove [in an article for Mental Floss]. “Half the employees in this industry were kids who hadn’t even reached their teens. While working long hours indoors in a cramped, dark factory put these children at risk of contracting tuberculosis and getting rickets, matchstick making held a specific risk: phossy jaw.” This gruesome and debilitating condition was caused by inhaling white phosphorus fumes during those long hours at the factory. “Approximately 11 percent of those exposed to phosphorus fumes developed ‘phossy jaw’ about five years after initial exposure, on average”. The condition causes the bone in the jaw to die and teeth to decay, resulting in extreme suffering and sometimes the loss of the jaw. Although phossy jaw was far from the only side-effect of prolonged white phosphorus exposure, it became a visible symbol of the suffering caused by industrial chemicals in match plants.’
So much so, that by 1892, newspapers were investigating the problem. ‘“Historical records often compare sufferers of phossy jaw to people with leprosy because of their obvious physical disfigurement and the condition’s social stigma,” Killgrove writes. Eventually match makers stopped using white phosphorus in matches, and it was outlawed in the United States in 1910.’

Civilization is the steady accumulation of successes over failures. Trials and errors –mistakes which perhaps seem to have been largely anticipatable in retrospect- summate to useable compromises. It’s how a child learns; it’s how evolution learns.

But the point of this essay is not so much to highlight the exploitation of workers in the past as to suggest that there can be sociological as well as biological evolution. After all, the etymological root of the word is the Latin evolvere –to unfold.

Occupational Safety and Health -as a distinct discipline, at least- is a relatively recent development stemming from labour movements and their concern about worker safety in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. As Wikipedia explains it: ‘The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system.’

Although this provided jobs and undoubtedly improved many aspects of living standards, the driving force was production, and in its early stages, had little regard for worker safety or health. Enter the labour movements in the early 19th century, along with great resistance to their demands. In many instances they were seen as antithetical to progress –antithetical to Capitalism, for that matter. And yet, in the fullness of time, the benefits of a healthy workforce to economic success evolved from an initial, grudging pretense of acceptance in some countries to a legal framework of protection in others.

There is certainly a long way to go along this path to be sure, and exploitation still seems a default that is all too easy to overlook. Especially since it is the poor and vulnerable who are usually the victims –people with little voice of their own, and even less power to resist.

But are things actually changing? Does knowledge of exploitation make a difference? We know slavery is still practiced; we know that refugees are still being brutalized and abused in places like Libya; women are still being kidnapped and sold into prostitution despite the best intentions of agencies like the World Health Organization.

So, do the gains experienced in some areas, offset the tragedies in others? We cannot appreciate the broad sweep of History in the few years we are allotted, and evolution –even social evolution- can be deceptive and disheartening. But remember the words of Khalil Gibran:

You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps.
Yet you are not evil when you go thither limping.
Even those who limp go not backward.

I have to hope he saw something that I missed along the way…

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