A mysterious sense

Rene Dubos I knew for many years, a tall man with a probing mind who never quite lost the accent that revealed his upbringing in France. During the early sixties we often met at conferences and on the lecture circuit, or I would see him in the windy cold of a station platform as our paths crossed momentarily. Toward the end of the decade, at some reception in New York, he put his arm around my shoulder, and addressing me intimately said, ''Augie, I think we are winning!'' He had just returned from a tour of American colleges, and it seemed to him that the message he had been patiently bringing (and which I had echoed in my own way) was bearing fruit: a new generation of the young were suddenly alive to the importance of ecology.

It was like this man, who recently has passed from us, to associate so generously my small efforts with his own; and like him to be hopeful about the overriding issue of our time. ''A despairing optimist,'' he characterized himself. As a scientist he knew and faced the facts of man's heedless exploitation of the planet, but as a humanist he could never lose an innate, stubborn faith that men and women would see the true values and would survive. He left a highly productive and brilliant career as a research scientist in microbiology to devote his last years to writing and studying in a broader field. The scientist turned philosopher and essayist, and the mind which had explored bacteria in the laboratory showed itself movingly eloquent on lecture platforms across this country and abroad.

At his memorial service the other day passages from his writings were read, revealing better than any eulogy the character and vision of the man. One phrase has haunted my memory. Somewhere Rene Dubos had written of ''man's mysterious sense of responsibility toward the future.'' Indeed, he went on, this was the ''mark and the glory'' of the human tradition. A ''mysterious sense''? Yes, the words were carefully chosen. For it is surely amazing that so many ordinary people of all ages, each one of them faced with his or her own fate, should nevertheless feel that something beyond their individual lives shapes their thoughts and should shape their conduct.

Not always does this sense of responsibility toward the future prevail. The temptation to think only of ourselves and only of the passing moment is with us constantly. Modern techniques of the mass media seem designed to bring instant responses and the narrowest possible interpretations of events. The reporter on the six o'clock news sticks his microphone before the ''average man'' and permits him, indeed subtly encourages him, to speak in terms of self-interest crudely defined. If a wise man of the community should be found suggesting that perhaps there are remote consequences or deferred result, he gets short time on the air waves.

Nevertheless, for the optimist at least, there seems to persist some deeper strain. Man that can only pass once from this earth, nevertheless troubles himself profoundly about what may come after him and how others may suffer or be deprived. Not only his own children and grandchildren, but the inhabitants of times unborn have a reality in his consciouness. For their sake he may yet surrender some part of his inheritance or abandon a course of greed or folly.

A sense of responsibility toward the future is not only mysterious, but it is the one thing that may save us from the perils lying in a profusion of nuclear weapons. We cannot really conceive what a holocaust destroying the world would be like, and we might not care if we did not want others to live beyond us - if we did not really cherish this planet earth. Being made as we are, we think of other springtimes and other generations; and at the very bottom of our being we yearn that this human existence we have known may be handed down unimpaired.

Rene Dubos' last book, published in the autumn of 1981, was fittingly entitled ''Celebration of Life.'' It is not alone the life we live - the passing days and seasons - that is to be celebrated, but life in all its phases, the past as well as the future. So long as we keep a sense of responsibility to this future, there is hope that the present may be illuminated by some measure of sanity, magnanimity, reason - indeed by a saving grace.

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