The Admission of Necessary Ignorance (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

citizen scientist
image licensed cc-by-2.0: NOAA National Ocean Service via flickr

The title of this article comes from an interview earlier this year with the distinguished biologist and philosopher Richard Lewontin. Richard has fought for years (often alongside his more famous colleague Stephen J Gould) with scientific absolutists of every stripe, from genetic determinists like Richard Dawkins to the neo-phrenologist pop neuro-“scientists” who would have us believe that we will soon understand what it means to be human (and accordingly understand and be able to modify all human behaviour) by deciphering the patterns of coloured lights in brain scans.

Richard, now in his mid-80s, begins the interview by asserting “You can’t be overly humble.” We all want to know the truth, to have something we can believe (and believe in) with certainty, but Richard is here to tell us the limitations of science and the dangers of believing we will ever know more than a tiny fraction of the whats, hows and whys of our lives and our world.

And while the new cult of scientism produces louder and louder assertions of grand theories of everything and promises of immortality and singularity, scientists and philosophers who know “you can’t be overly humble” marvel at the mystery of how the more we know and learn and examine with a critical and open mind, the more mysteries and inextricable complexities we discover and the faster absolute knowledge of anything retreats from our grasp. As Marshall McLuhan famously said: “Learning creates ignorance.”

Richard’s work is steeped in an appreciation of complexity. In his book The Triple Helix he argues that attempts to determine causality in complex systems fail to acknowledge the difficulty of separating causality from agency — stress, for example, is an agent that appears to trigger many auto-immune diseases and other increasingly-prevalent modern chronic illnesses. But stress is not the cause. Determining the possible causes requires a more nuanced, patient and holistic study of the entire system and all its inter-dependent parts.

He explains, for example, that 90% of the drop in rates of infectious diseases between 1830 and 1960 occurred before 1910 — before the emergence of understanding of germs or the use of isolation procedures, and long before the development of modern antibiotics. Why such an astonishing drop in the rates of these diseases? Nothing to do with science or medicine at all, he says:

The most plausible explanation we have is that during the nineteenth century there was a general trend of increase in the real wage, an increase in the state of nutrition of European populations, and a decrease in the number of hours worked. As people were better nourished and better clothed and had more rest time to recover from taxing labor, their bodies, being in a less stressed physiological state, were better able to recover from the further severe stress of infection. So, although they may still have fallen sick, they survived. Infectious diseases were not the causes of death, but only the agencies. The causes of death in Europe in earlier times were what they still are in the Third World: overwork and undernourishment. The conclusion to be drawn from this account is that the level of mortality in Africa does not depend chiefly on the state of medicine but on the state of international production and exchange.

Still, today’s scientists pore over the model of the human genome in the unquestioned belief that most if not all human diseases will soon be cured by finding and fixing the “defective” genes. It is perhaps not surprising that brain scan images look much like modernistic crystal balls.

Richard’s appreciation for complexity comes from the realization, as he explains in his book Biology as Ideology, that science’s — and notably biology’s — modus operandi is to disconnect, separate, and study things “in isolation”. When you study biological systems you discover that they are inextricable — there is no clear and functionally distinct boundary between genes, the organisms they seemingly comprise, and the environments within which we imagine them located and moving about as discrete things. Genes, organisms and environments co-evolved. Early living creatures exuded an oxygen-rich environment which then evolved other living creatures (including, unremarkably, humans) that thrived as part of that environment and evolved it further.

Likewise, the study of permaculture teaches you about succession, and that in order to create the most abundant garden you may have to encourage some plants that are ultimately of no use either in our diet or in the “mature” garden that evolves from these intermediary agents. Alas, even many permaculturists lack the patience and humility to spend decades studying and learning about the local ecology before they can understand how to intervene effectively, starting from today’s desolated soils, the legacy of ubiquitous catastrophic agriculture and, carefully following nature’s own sometimes convoluted and inexplicable pathways, yield an edible forest garden that — surprise! — thrives without further human intervention in precisely those ecological areas humans evolved to thrive within.

What complicates the role of the scientist in the 21st century is that they are tethered to the modern ideology of progress. Just as politicians and economists would have us believe that life is, on the whole and over the long haul, getting better and better, scientists have now been sucked in to believing and asserting that human knowledge, and hence our ability to apply that knowledge to solve problems, is getting better and better.

As Richard’s friend and colleague Stephen J Gould spent a lifetime demonstrating, there is no evidence for evolution being a “progressive” process. Evolution, we are learning (slowly) is a process of experimental adaptation and exaptation — full of the emergence of unexpected consequences of random variations that could never have been predicted or even imagined.

Evolution is not from lower to higher, or from less advanced to more advanced, or even from simpler to more complex. There is nothing progressive or intentional or foreordained about it. Humans are not the crown of creation or the culmination of any inevitable and extraordinary evolution — we are just one tiny new branch in the tree of life, a species whose only remarkable feature has been our inability to appreciate the necessity of living in balance with the rest of life on Earth, and our commensurate large-scale destruction of the very environment of which we are a part.

Of course, science doesn’t like to acknowledge that. That would require humility. It would require acknowledging that for all our learning the most important thing we’ve discovered is how staggeringly little we know and how unlikely it is we will ever really understand anything beyond the absurdly simplistic models of reality we have cobbled together so far. It would require admitting that we aren’t progressing, and aren’t likely to. It would require an admission of necessary ignorance.

What might happen if we were to emulate Richard Lewontin’s complex-systems approach to scientific exploration, discovery and appreciation?

What if we were to look at our feeble scientific models of reality with humility, and appreciate that we can’t hope to fully understand anything we study? What if we took a nuanced and holistic approach to complex phenomena, the type of analysis that leads to the discovery that the best approach to eliminating devastating diseases is probably political and economic, not medical?

What if we were to give up trying to control our genes and our people and our environments and instead sought to increase our adaptability and resilience and mobility, and to liberate ourselves from dependence on large centralized industrial systems — including the health-care, pharmaceutical, agricultural, educational and high-technology systems that currently fund, employ and draw their value from the scientific community?

Sooner or later, we are going to have to face the fact that our economic, energy and ecological systems are unsustainable and will, unevenly but inevitably, collapse, probably sometime in this century, in the lifetimes of our grandchildren if not our own. The Union of Concerned Scientists has already said this, and you can read it on the faces of climate scientists, even if they dare not say it in front of their employers, or to audiences not ready for the truth.

How might scientists shift their role from servants of a bankrupt industrial civilization to scenario planners, teachers of complexity, imaginers of possible ways to adapt to extreme and unpredictable change? What if we could put all those minds together, not to plan an escape from the planet or to conduct some reckless adventure in geo-engineering, but rather to look as cultural anthropologists at the collapse of past civilizations, and help us discover how to bravely, intelligently, creatively and even joyfully embrace and adapt to the hard road ahead. As a journey in humility. For our grandchildren.

We should ask them.


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