Darby, William J. 1962. "Silence, Miss Carson." Chemical & Engineering News (Oct. 1): 62-63.


Silence, Miss Carson

Silent Spring. Rachel Carson. 368 pages. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2 Park St., Boston, Mass. 1962. $5.00. Reviewed by Dr. William J. Darby.

Dr. Darby is professor and chairman of the department of biochemistry and director, division of nutrition, at Vanderbilt University school of medicine; member and past chairman of the Food Protection Committee, National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council' and a member of the NAS-NRC Food and Nutrition Board.

"Silent Spring" starts with a bit of dramatic description which the author then acknowledges does not actually exist. It then orients the reader to its subject matter by stating that "only within. . .the present century has man. . .acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world." It identifies as irrevocable and "for the most part irreversible" the effects of "this now universal contamination of the environment [in which] chemicals are the sinister and little recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world, the very nature of life itself." Man has, according to Miss Carson, now upset that ideal state of "adjustment and balance" of life on this planet through "synthetic creations of man's inventive mind, brewed in his laboratory, and having no counterpart in nature." These products, the reader is told, are "staggering in number," have "power to kill," have "incredible potential for harm," represent a "train of disaster," result in a "chemical death rain," and are being used with "little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself." She further warns the reader that all of these sinister chemicals will not only extinguish plant life, wild life, aquatic life, and man, but they will produce cancer, leukemia, sterility, and cellular mutations.

There are 297 pages devoted to reiteration of these views. There then follows a 55-page "list of principal sources" designed to impress the reader with the extent of support for Miss Carson's views. This list uses an extender and is artificially colored and flavored. Its apparent bulk is made one third greater through devoting a line of type to identify each page on which a source bears, and by repeating in full the title of each source in relation to recurrent pages. Its bulk will appeal to those readers who are as uncritical as the author, or to those who find the flavor of her product to their taste. Those consumers will include the organic gardeners, the antiflouride leaguers, the worshipers of "natural foods," those who cling to the philosophy of a vital principal, and pseudo-scientists and faddists.

The flavor of this product is indicated in part by the source list. She refers frequently to testimony given at 1950, 1951, and 1952 Congressional hearings, seldom to later years, and to the opinions of Morton S. Biskin and W. C. Hueper.

The author ignores the sound appraisals of such responsible, broadly knowledgeable scientists as the President of the National Academy of Sciences, the members of the President's Scientific Advisory Committee, the PResidents of the Rockefeller Foundation and Nutrition Foundation, the several committees of the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council (including the Food and Nutrition Board, the Agricultural Board, the Food Protection Committee) who have long given thoughtful study to these questions, and the special advisory committees appointed by the governors of California and Wisconsin. The latter committees were chaired by two distinguished scientist-presidents of universities, Dr. Emil Mrak and the late Dr. Conrad A. Elvehjem.

All of these groups of scientists have recognized the essentiality of use of agricultural chemicals to produce food required by the expanding world population and to sustain an acceptable standard of living and health. They have recognized the safety of proper use of agricultural chemicals and, indeed, the benefits to the consumer which accrue from their proper use in food and agricultural production.

Miss Carson's book adds no new factual material not already known to such serious scientists as those concerned with these developments, nor does it include information essential for the reader to interpret the knowledge. It does confuse the information and so mix it with her opinions that the uninitiated reader is unable to sort fact from fancy. In view of the mature, responsible attention which this whole subject receives from able, qualified scientific groups, such as those identified in the foregoing (and whom Miss Carson chooses to ignore); in view of her scientific qualifications in contrast to those of our distinguished scientific leaders and statesmen, this book should be ignored.

Logically, it should be possible to terminate this review here. Unfortunately, however, this book will have wide circulation on one of the standard subscription lists. It is doubtful that many readers can bear to wade through its high-pitched sequences of anxieties. It is likely to be perused uncritically, to be regarded by the layman as authoritative (which it is not), and to arouse in him manifestations of anxieties and psychoneuroses exhibited by some of the subjects cited by the author in the chapter "The Human Price." Indeed, the author's efforts at appraising the psychologic evidence concerning the effects of substances reveal a remarkable lack of competence as a psychiatrist, even as great a lack as in the area of toxicology or even knowledge of existing regulatory controls. The obvious effect of all this on the reader will be to aggravate unjustifiably his own neurotic anxiety.

There thesis is revealed by the dedicatory quotations: "Many has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth." (Albert Schweitzer) "Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially." (E. B. White)

Such a passive attitude as the latter, coupled with the pessimistic (and to this reviewer, unacceptable) philosophy as the former, means the end of all human progress, reversion to a passive social state devoid of technology, scientific medicine, agriculture, sanitation, and education. It means disease, epidemics, starvation, misery, and suffering incomparable and intolerable to modern man. Indeed, social, educational, and scientific development is prefaced on the conviction that man's lot will be and is being improved by a greater understanding of and thereby the increased ability to control or mold those forces responsible for man's suffering, misery, and deprivation.

The author's motivation is not quite so evident, but the emotional call to write the book is revealed by her acknowledgment that "In a letter written in January 1958, Olga Owens Huckins told me of her own bitter experience of a small world made lifeless, and so brought my attention sharply back to a problem with which I had long been concerned. I then realized I must write this book" (italics are the reviewer's).

So impelled, Miss Carson has effectively use several literary devices to present her thesis and make it appear to be a widely held scientific one. She "name-drops" by quoting or referring to renowned scientists out of context. A statement divorced from it original meaning is then approximated to an opinion of the author or else a question posed by her with an implied answer. The reader is led to conclude thereby that the authority mentioned is in accord with the author's position. Nobel prize winners are recognized as especially useful names for such a purpose.

Another device used is that of confusion of the reader with (to him) unintelligible scientific jargon or irrelevant discussions of cellular processes.

Miss Carson's failure to distinguish between occupational and residue hazards is common to almost all popular writers on this subject. The occupational hazard associated the manufacture and application of agricultural chemicals is similar to that of other work and can, should be, and is being reduced. That accidents have occurred is well known, but this is no more reason to ban useful chemicals than is the lamentable occurrence of preventable automobile or airplane accidents reason to ban these modern modes of transportation. Despite all of the implications of harm from residues on foods, Miss Carson has not produced one single example of injury resulting to man from these residues.

Miss Carson is infatuated with biologic control and the balance of nature. Despite her statement that the really effective control of insects is that applied by nature, one must observe that the very ineffectiveness of such control is the raison d'etre of chemical pesticides.

She commits the scientifically indefensible fallacy of considering that any substance which in any quantity is toxic must per se be a poison. By such a definition almost everything--water, salt, sugar, amino acids, minerals, vitamins A or D, etc.--is a poison. She gives the reader a mistaken concept of tolerances. Tolerances are not ill-defined levels of maximum quantities which can be ingested without acute harm. They are maximum amounts of substance which should exist as a residue when the chemical has been employed in good and proper beneficial practice. They are based on extensive use data and toxicologic testing in animals and frequently metabolic studies in man. They include a very wide margin of safety, usually being set at 100 times the minimal amount of the substance which produces any physiologic effect in the most sensitive of at least two species of animals for lifetime or two- to four-year periods.

The benefit of use of chemicals, charges Miss Carson, is for the producers. She ignores the requirement that under the Miller bill that a chemical must be effective, which means benefit the consumer. She fails to recognize that "the consumer" includes the producer, farmer, wholesaler, retailer, equipment manufacturer, their families, and even the scientists who evaluate the chemicals. The toxicologists in industry, in the Food and Drug Administration, in our universities and research institutes have, as consumers, equal stake in protecting the nation's health as does Miss Carson--and are, I believe, better qualified to make those judgments necessary to assure this protection.

Her ignorance or biases on some of the considerations throws doubt on her competence to judge policy. For example, she indicates that it is neither wise nor responsible to use pesticides in the control of insect-borne diseases. The July-August 1962 World Health (WHO publication) reports that a malarial eradication program in Mexico has since 1957 reduced the malarious area from 978,185 sq. km. with 18 million inhabitants to 224,500 sq. km. with 1.5 million inhabitants. "In most areas the simple technique of indoor spraying of houses proved effective. . ."; where bedbugs were resistant to DDT, an insecticide mixture was used. "As a result of the campaign, the Mexican government is expanding its agricultural programme, distributing land, and undertaking irrigation and hydro-electric schemes." It is most doubtful that Miss Carson really is ignorant of these and other facts which any objective appraisal of this subject demands. Instead, it seems that a call to write a book has completely outweighed any semblance of scientific objectivity.

The public may be misled by this book. If it stimulated the public to press for unwise and ill-conceived restrictions on the production, use, or development of new chemicals, it will be the consumer who suffers. If, on the other hand, it inspires some users to read and heed labels more carefully, it may aid in the large educational effort in which industry, government, colleges, and many other groups are engaged (despite Miss Carson's implication that they are not).

The responsible scientist should read this book to understand the ignorance of those writing on the subject and the educational task which lies ahead.