Governments and religions should not fear air pumps and electrical machines themselves, but rather what they symbolize: the forward march of scientific progress. In his book Observations on Air, Priestley states this forward march is “challenging the explanatory models of religion” and he also links the march to political change. (Johnson, 148) The march of scientific progress brings forth a new understanding of the workings of the world, as well as new technologies that change society in many ways. Johnson states this poignantly as he discusses the introduction of coal power to England in the 1700s. “When those technologies arrived, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the social transformation they unleashed was swift and violent.” (Johnson, 167) Yet as the rest of English society was changing with the march of science, the English government stayed the same, “like a fossil in a swirling sandstorm.” (Johnson, 167) The march of science also challenged established religions. Priestley’s publication History of the Corruptions of Christianity was fueled by this march. The book challenged the long-established views of the Church, and it was an attempt to return the religion to what Priestley believed were the proper values of Christianity (Johnson, 171). Of course, these ideas were viewed by the English Parliament and Church not as progress, but as attempts to usurp power and sow civil unrest. The air pumps and electrical machines signified change that the authorities of England despised. And so, despite the benefits the march of science brought to England, the challenging of authority would ultimately lead to Priestley’s ousting from the country at the hands of an angry mob.
In light of a recent lecture in my biotechnology class, I believe Johnson’s work can help shed some light on a rather controversial scientific research topic: genetic modification. More specifically, the genetic modification of humans. Genetic modification of humans could lead to the elimination of some genetic diseases. However, it also holds the potential to change humans in even greater ways. We could alter our physical traits; not just things like hair or eye color, but potentially things such as muscle mass or cognitive ability. Genetic modification in the food industry is already wrapped up in both social and political debate, but the potential modification of humans is even more controversial. How would the government regulate gene modifying, or how might they take advantage of it? How would religious groups react if we suddenly began creating “perfect” humans, as if we were gods? Just as Priestley’s creations and radical religious views sent waves through seventeenth-century England, the idea of “designer humans” can create a disruption in modern society. Johnson’s work examines how the march of science can disrupt established governmental and religious ideologies. It also demonstrates the deep connection the three have, despite many people of the modern world believing the three could not be more detached. It is from The Invention of Air that I draw the question, “How far may science go?” I think Johnson’s work could help us examine the social and political implications of not just GMO’d humans, but every scientific advancement this world makes.