An on-line book about the natural world and our attitude towards it, to be published blog-by-blog in irregular instalments
PROMETHEUS AND ICARUS – A TALE OF TWO GREEK HEROES
Biology is my thing. I’ve been engaged with it for more than 70 years. It’s what I focused on at school and in my cold and ancient university, and I’ve been writing about aspects of it for a living ever since. In that time I’ve learnt a lot and seen the subject transformed – it’s very different now in content and in tone from what it was in the mid-20th century, and indeed that is true of all science. Now as old age creeps on I feel a great urge to write it all down – the essence of what I’ve learnt and what I think is really important, and to describe some of the ways in which biology (and science in general) have changed over the past few decades, and why all this matters.
The shifts have been profound. Science in general and biology in particular have been transformed not simply in content but radically, down to their roots — although, alas, many at least of the policy-makers and indeed many scientists don’t seem to realise this. Science in the 1960s at least at my university was still steeped in scientism. The belief prevailed or at least was widely accepted that the material world is all there is and that if we only did enough science we could understand the material world exhaustively, and hence (since the material world is all there is) we would become omniscient. It was widely supposed too that omniscience in turn would naturally lead us on to omnipotence. Thus it seemed at least to many that with enough science, we would in effect become gods. Many a solemn documentary of the mid-20th century told us with sublime confidence that soon we – humanity, also known portentously as “Man” — would “conquer” space, and disease, and indeed all Nature. We would eliminate whatever was inconvenient and build whatever our architects and engineers could come up with, for our own ease and delectation. This we were assured in many a voice-over, delivered basso profondo, raised to Stentorian heights by Hollywood echo, was “Man’s destiny”.
There have indeed been some truly remarkable successes since the mid-20th century including not least the eradication of smallpox from the wild by 1980 and the swarms of informative satellites high in the sky and the rise and rise of IT (which ought to be a great force for good), and so on and so on. But there have also, all too obviously, been a great many drawbacks including huge, undesirable, and largely unpredictable side-effects. And although the successes may be wondrous and transformative, it is more and more obvious that they leave us far short of omniscience, and always must, just as many a philosopher and theologian in the past warned must be the case. Always we are condemned by our own physical limitations to see the world, in St Paul’s words, “through a glass darkly”.
But although scientism with its god-like pretensions more or less died a death in the 1970s, at least as a formal philosophy, the essence of it is with us still, not least or especially in high places. Some scientists including some in positions of great influence still believe the rhetoric of the old euphoric documentaries – which indeed may still be echoed by those whose job it is to promote the latest gizmo on behalf of some corporate. Many a politician clings to the old euphoria too, including or especially the kind who shunned science at university in favour of “the humanities” but now equates the insights of science with the wisdom of Prometheus, which he so generously bestowed on humankind. Others of coarser cut see science simply as the source of high-tech – which is the kind of technology that emerges from scientific theory, like lasers and GMOs, as as opposed to the kind that emerges from craft, like pots and weaving. High tech in turn they see as the golden path to wealth and dominance – which, they take to be self-evident, must be the natural Goal of all humankind. Some scientists know that the Promethean myth is just a myth but rely on governments and increasingly on corporates for their income and feel obliged to pander to their fantasies, whatever their own misgivings. The art of government after all is not necessarily to deliver but to promise good things in the future, and to go on promising.
More on all this later. Suffice to say here that more and more thinking people these days acknowledge that although science is wondrous, and indeed has conferred huge powers and benefits upon us, and has huge spiritual as well as practical import, and everyone should be introduced to it, it also has profound limitations – partly innate within science itself, and partly reflecting the limitations of our own brains. And in the end, as Karl Popper in particular pointed out, all our big ideas including those of science are conjectural. None lives up to the ideal that is demanded in courts of law – “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” – and no idea ever can, no matter how much research we do or how many referees vet the conclusions before publication.
In short, at least among the people who think about such things, science as a whole seems far less confident, far less cocksure than we were commonly led to believe in the 1950s and ‘60s. On the whole it seems to me that science these days is — or should be! — a far nicer subject than it was in my days of formal learning. It is, or should be, altogether more modest, more humble; and Humility, together with Compassion and a sense of Oneness, is one of the most fundamental and among the most widely acknowledged of the necessary virtues. The antithesis of humility is hubris, and the folly of hubris is demonstrated wonderfully by another character from Greek mythology, Icarus: who flew too close to the Sun and fell from the skies.
Alas, though, many and perhaps most people in positions of most influence in science, politics, and commerce, do not take a serious interest in the philosophy of science or the philosophy of technology, and seem hardly aware that such subjects exist. So scientism lives on in influential circles and with it comes what I have been calling “uncritical technophilia” – a love of high tech for its own sake, and a faith in its capabilities that overrides all doubts. It’s clear too that high tech can make spectacular changes quickly: rapid increases in the yields of crops (at least for a few years); high-speed rail-links; the destruction of cities in countries that are perceived to be a threat. So it is that high tech astutely applied brings huge profits and has bestowed on us a new wave of instant billionaires. Even the destruction can be highly lucrative – the destruction of cities boosts the building trade no end. In general, as former president Richard Nixon observed, the modern economy operates largely by making a big mess and then clearing it up again. High tech helps with both, and indeed to a large extent is the driver of both.
So it is that despite our ever-increasing technological know-how, and to some extent because of it, the world is in a shocking mess, which may indeed prove to be terminal. Often I feel that I and my generation have seen the best of the Earth, and I’m increasingly aware of how lucky and how privileged we have been. At least in the foreseeable future no generation ever again seems likely to experience the long period of relative tranquillity that reasonably solvent westerners have enjoyed since World War II, protected by their wealth and history from most of the strife and chaos that have been all too obvious in the world at large.
But we must never give up hope; and one reason for hope – a small but significant serendipity – is that science in general and biology in particular, which play such crucial roles in our own lives and the lives of all life on Earth, are much improved in attitude as well as in content since I was at school and university. They are giving rise to a new worldview that is far closer in spirit to the spirituality of the Middle Ages than to the hard-nosed, hard-edged, scientistic materialism that prevailed through most of the 20th century.
In particular, in my days of formal education, Tennyson’s view of life – of “nature red in tooth and claw” – was taken more or less self-evidently to be true, and the strife that divides people from people and humanity as a whole from the rest of nature seemed simply to be the way things are. To do good, it seemed, we had to override our own nature. But now it’s becoming clear as it should and could have been all along that reality is far more nuanced than this. Now it seems fair to say that although competition and conflict are inescapable facts of life, the essence of life is cooperativeness. If it were not so, there could be no life at all. In other words we don’t need to swim against the tide of nature to achieve the harmony that most of us desire. We need simply to find time to become our true selves.
Anyway, over the coming months or as long as it takes I want to write a series of blogs to outline all these ideas – the “paradigm shifts” that I have seen emerging in the life sciences over the past 70 odd years. Some of those mindshifts have already been absorbed into the Zeitgeist while others are still marinating. All that’s certain is that the transformations will continue. In another 70 years (if people continue to do good science – if the conditions allow this!) the subject will surely be as different from the present as the present is from the 1950s and ‘60s – and as different as the 60s were from the 19th century. As is true of all knowledge, the new insights could help us to solve our horrendous problems and make the world a better place. Or they could just as easily or perhaps more easily be hi-jacked and corrupted and hasten our own and the world’s demise.
The subjects of my proposed blogs will doubtless change and change again as the series unfolds but here is the possible list of contents as I see things right now:
I see the thesis emerging under five main headings:
I: A Flourishing Biosphere
II: How Diverse is Diversity?
III: The Changing Face of Biology
IV: A Matter of Attitude
V: Where do we go from here?
In more detail:
I: A FLOURISHING BIOSPHERE
>> Convivial Societies, Personal Fulfilment, and a Flourishing Biosphere
What is our Goal? What are we trying to achieve – and why?
Then the three main ingredients of “A Flourishing Biosphere:
How diverse is diversity?
“The play’s the thing!”
II: HOW DIVERSE IS DIVERSITY?
>> So many goodly creatures
— how many species are there?
>> Keeping track
The science and craft of taxonomy are being advanced by leaps and bounds thanks to new insights from:
— molecular biology
— millions more fossils
— and computers that can make sense of masses and masses of data
>> From Two Kingdoms to Three Domains
— and goodness knows how many kingdoms!
>> The Eukaryotes
Creatures like us, with what John Maynard Keynes called “proper cells”
(The eukaryotic cell is a master-class in cooperativeness).
>> A modern view of Mammals
Why whales are now classed as ungulates and Africa’s Golden Moles are closer to elephants than they are to European moles
III: THE CHANGING FACE OF BIOLOGY
— and of all science!
>> What Science is and what it isn’t
Science is no longer seen in avant garde circles as a permanent ziggurat of irrefutable truth built stone by stone. Instead it has emerged as an ever-changing, ever-expanding and self-correcting palimpsest; a vast impressionist painting worked on by many thousands of contributors (and subject from time to time to “paradigm shifts”).
>> The changing face of biology
New or newly fashionable ideas that have been developed and sometimes entered the general worldview since the mid-20th century range from plate tectonics (which was still highly conjectural when I was at school!) and the whole of molecular biology – which has already transformed medicine and is showing its worth not least in taxonomy and in many aspects of ecology.
Very significant points of detail include a new appreciation of ecology – why it matters and what it entails; the rise and rise of cladistics; the emerging science of epigenetics with all its implications; a perceptual change (at least in some circles) of the science of nutrition – no longer seen merely as an exercise in chemistry but truly as a biological phenomenon which, among other things, cannot be understood without reference to ecology and evolution (as in the rising appreciation of “cryptonutrients”); a rapidly expanding knowledge of exoplanets and their significance re the origins and possible ubiquity of life; an ever increasing appreciation of mind and consciousness; growing interest in the idea of “universal mind”; the importance and the limitations of evolutionary psychology; the decline of behaviourism (thank goodness) and a new appreciation of the minds, sensibilities, and communicative powers of animals; and the new and very promising science of quantum biology which could shake up the subject as profoundly as quantum physics in general has transformed our understanding of the whole physical universe. A key point of a metaphysical kind is (or should be) the realization that life is not one great punch-up, a struggle for goods and dominance. Life as a whole is innately cooperative. To be good we just have to be true to ourselves.
All these ideas (and the above is just a sampling of the whole) are in the realms of what Thomas Kuhn called “paradigm shifts”. Each has implications that extend far beyond their immediate contents to affect all our understanding of life and the universe and our place in it (which are issues of a metaphysical kind). Most encouragingly, these ideas should again help us fully to appreciate how wondrous life and the universe really are, and how far beyond our ken. Only fools and mountebanks now believe that human beings (known portentously as “Man”) can achieve omniscience, and “conquer” the rest of nature and attempt to re-structure the Earth entirely for our own benefit (or rather for the benefit of those who can afford to take advantage). Indeed only fools and mountebanks now think it is sensible or in any way acceptable even to try to “conquer” the natural world, or to take nature by the scruff and turn in to a commodity. But then, alas, as discussed elsewhere on this website, there is no shortage of fools and mountebanks in high places, or indeed of out-and-out gangsters.
As I see things indeed we should re-conceive the point of science. The point is not simply to understand and control the world for our own material ends. It is to help us to appreciate the world more fully than we otherwise could. In the 17th century science was widely seen as a spiritual pursuit, act of worship. It would be good to reinstate some of that feeling, and the feeling for the meaning of the word sacred.
The ultimate goal is not conquest, but harmony – as indeed the leaders in all the great religions have been emphasizing these past N thousand years.
IV: A MATTER OF ATTITUDE
>> What do we really know?
The profound shifts in understanding we have been throughout history – and particularly it seems in the last 70 years – have led to the realization (which indeed some theologians and philosophers realised many centuries ago) that all our ideas in the end are uncertain, or as Karl Popper said, “conjectural”, and that it’s a huge mistake (hubris indeed) to assume that we know more than we do.
In truth it’s a fine line we tread. Since our understanding can never be complete and precise prediction is always impossible (or at least we can predict precisely but can never be sure that our predictions are accurate) to some extent we must always be acting in the dark. Physicians and engineers are very aware of this. They know they can only do their best – with no copper-bottomed guarantees of success. The Hippocratic oath requires physicians to “abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm” (my italics). It does not require them to promise that no harm will be done. If we always wanted only to be safe we would do nothing at all – though that is not an option since we are obliged to do something in order to stay alive.
The depths of our own ignorance are made apparent whenever we try to investigate anything in depth. Good science always raises many more questions than it can answer.
But also, in the end, our capacity to understand is limited by the limitations of our own brains (as Immanuel Kant discussed in the 18th century).
>> Why should we care
— about the fate of the natural world?
The answers are in part anthropocentric and practical. In the end our own survival depends absolutely on the wellbeing of the natural world (as our destabilization of climate is now demonstrating).
But mere anthropocentricity will not do. The ultimate reasons why we should care about planet Earth and our fellow creatures are moral and spiritual; and the attitude we need is not anthropocentric but biocentric or ecocentric or – best of all perhaps – Gaiacentric.
In particular we need to cultivate the sense of oneness— which deserves a chapter to itself
>> The vital concept of Oneness
John McMurray; Satish Kumar; Bede Griffiths; ubuntu; etc.
V: WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
I keep coming back to the point that we need a complete re-think; to re-think everything that we do and take for granted in the light of everything else; that this amounts to nothing less than a global Renaissance; and that this Renaissance must be led by us –people at large.
We cannot leap into the Renaissance in one step, however. First we need to establish a global movement – to promulgate the realization that the world is horribly off course (if that is not obvious); but that it can still be rescued – at least, enough of it to be worth rescuing; and to define the kinds of things that really need to be done (as I tried to outline in The Great Re-Think);and to see that we, humanity at large, must lead the charge. Actually in essence the necessary movement is already in train. There are reasons to think that billions of people worldwide feel the need for radical change and that many millions are already on the case. The task for all of us is to contribute to what exists already. The self-imposed task for this website is to help to develop and refine the necessary ideas so as to make the endeavour more coherent.
Among the requirements is —
>> A new kind of Education
** To bring the Renaissance about we need a new kind of cross-the-board education. In particular, everyone should be introduced to the big ideas of science. But science as a whole should be taught not as the means to generate more high-tech (with high-tech conceived as a way of grabbing a bigger “market share”. Science should indeed be taught as one of the “humanities” – of huge spiritual as well and intellectual and practical import.
** Science should never be taught without the philosophy of science. The subject of science itself should introduce the wondrousness of science and of its insights. But the phil of sci is needed too to point out the limitations of science, and hence of our own knowledge of the material universe. Otherwise we fall all too easily into the hubris of scientism.
>> What are our chances?
It is still just about possible to rescue the world and at least a fair proportion of our fellow creatures – and to look forward realistically to a life of harmony for the next million years (for starters).
In practice, given the way the world is run and the ideas that prevail and the people in charge (or a least the people with power) the chances of long-term success are very slight.
Still, though, partial success is better than total meltdown and we should never give up hope. (Hope and optimism are not the same thing).