Wednesday October 04, 2017

Therefore Choose Life: The Lost Massey Lecture by George Wald

Detail from the book cover "Therefore Choose Life", the 1970 CBC Massey Lectures by George Wald, published by House of Anansi.

Detail from the book cover "Therefore Choose Life", the 1970 CBC Massey Lectures by George Wald, published by House of Anansi. (House of Anansi)

Listen to Full Episode 54:00

In 1970, outspoken Harvard biologist George Wald became the first natural scientist to give the CBC Massey Lectures. The Nobel Prize winner championed diversity—biological and philosophical, as well as the value of both life and death. He also spoke out about long-term negative consequences of social inequality, and environmental pollution; and he took a public stand against the war in Vietnam. Wald's Massey broadcasts were a huge success. But he never got around to publishing them as a book. Now Lewis Auerbach, who produced the 1970 Wald lectures, has recovered the typescripts and tells the remarkable backstory of Wald and his Massey talks, which have only now been published.


"All men, everywhere, have asked the same questions: Whence we come, what kind of thing we are, and at least some intimation of what may become of us . . ."

George Wald 1970 CBC Massey Lecturer

George Wald presented the 1970 CBC Massey Lectures, "Therefore Choose Life".

"What would be the touchstone of the best society? I think it's much more than calories although I want the people to have calories. It's something more than clothing and housing, though I want those things for all people. But I want something more. I think the touchstone of a good society should be more than just to feed and clothe and take care of people. It would be that society which is most productive of good science and good art.  That would be a good society for children—constantly unfolding, constantly surprising. It would be a busy world, always with good things to do, new things to learn…. A world for children; a world in which one need never cease to be a child."  

"It's curious that anyone would think this organic view of man and his ways demeans him. It's curious that anyone would consider it nobler to think of man as a technological product, albeit one made by God. The organic or evolutionary view seems to me to accord man the highest dignity: made of the stuff of stars, gathered over vast ages of time from the remotest corners of the universe. All the history of the universe has gone into him and ended in making this thing, man."

"The closest realization of natural selection working in the political process would be democracy, and the indispensable element in democracy is its open-endedness. When it is working properly, it is endlessly experimental—trying everything, keeping what has been found to work somewhat better and discarding what has been found to work less well. Our problem is to achieve that degree of democracy."

Harvard University biologist George Wald was awarded the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Haldan Keffer Hartline and Ragnar Granit.  His 1970 CBC Massey Lectures were called Therefore Choose Life.

Lew Auerbach

Emeritus IDEAS producer Lew Auerbach

Several decades after George Wald delivered his Massey Lectures, Lew Auerbach dug through Wald's papers in the Widener Library at Harvard University, and discovered the typed transcripts. Wald himself had been working on them at the time of his death in 1997. Lew painstakingly photographed hundreds of pages, and forwarded the pictures to House of Anansi. After forty-seven years in a dusty archive, Therefore Choose Life has recently been published, with an introduction by Lew Auerbach. This is the first time they have been been broadcast.

Emeritus IDEAS producer Lew Auerbach originally proposed George Wald as the 1970 Massey Lecturer (as he had suggested Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, and he produced the original broadcasts.

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**This episode was produced by Paul Kennedy and Mitch Thompson.