Thursday, December 23, 2010

Traditions, Systems and Scientific Faith

We people are privileged to know the distant past, and capable of considering the future.  If other creatures have this capacity, they appear unwilling or unable to step outside their niche of sustainability, living within the limits of unyielding nature.  For our part, however, we have become more able than any other creature to flex the walls of our natural boundaries.  We have harnessed grasses to our appetites, coal to our comfort, and earth to our designs.
All of these relationships have become sanctioned by time – not completely, and not without occasional catastrophe – but enough so that our society has come to depend upon these symbioses.  Over thousands of years we have learned lessons of immense value.  Our forefathers existed only because they narrowly survived to learn lessons taught by harsh consequences of mistakes to neighbors, brothers and parents.  As we change, each new layer of complexity creates the necessity to relearn some lessons, as well as to learn others for the first time.  As the first kings arose, and their desires became law we saw catastrophes catalyzed from the demands of arrogance.  (Thanks to Jared Diamond we have strong evidence of the effects of these disastrous policies:  the statues on Easter Island that decimated the productivity and eventually, probably the soil of the island in a catastrophic collapse; the mirrored fate of the southwest tribes as they cut down their sustaining forests so that future generations, as they followed the advice of their fathers, became impoverished by degrees and eventually disappeared.)  It is interesting to think that perhaps the ancient Egyptians also squandered their productivity and ingenuity on the millstones of the pyramids and mismanaged the vast arable landscape while it slowly withered into the desert.  These examples, along with countless others (the potato famine, the black plague, the Roman Empire) give us instruction into the exponential consequences of change by small degree – the simple lack of understanding, the seemingly insignificant changes, until tipping points are reached...  The structure of nature in which we live requires that we adjust our course to subtle currents.  Ignorance or disregard of the canaries in our mineshafts is unwise.
Unfortunately, some of our traits may work against us in this, as some of them no doubt work for us as well.  Our habit is to sanction the actions of our fathers.  This strategy has made sense for thousands of years – because for most of our history we had little else to guide us.  Even today the written word is less valuable than hard won experience.  Mistakes are a part of growth. 

And yet, today, the lessons of our fathers may be disconnected from the lives of their fathers.  And the lives of those grandfathers may have been disconnected from the lives of their fathers before them.  In this country, the lives of those who created our nation were disconnected from much of the wisdom of those who came before – they were unable to profit from our ancestors’ experience of what grew best in the areas they newly colonized.  With the exception of the very few settlers who learned from the native people on the eastern shores, our knowledge was disconnected from what Alexander Pope called the genius of place.  Instead of following traditions and potentially valuable superstitions handed down from posterity, the settlers instead had to make a clean break with the past, planting the species they imported from their homelands, necessarily ignoring the logic of this new place for the experiences of their pasts.  This was to a large part at least understandable if not unavoidable, given the speed of the colonization of America and the demand to support a much larger population than the land had supported before.  And fortunately for the settlers, many of their imported grains, grasses and animals found the country well suited to their needs – deep topsoil, undisturbed for millennia, and a rich variety of experiences drawn from the diverse backgrounds of the colonists did enable the colonists to cobble together a workable solution.  Consequently, the new American land provided for the settlers remarkably well – and allowed for increase upon increase.
The agricultural revolutions powered by synthetic fertilizers and industrial farming practices also had a remarkable impact on the new landscape.  And since the new traditions of American life had not yet had time to become immortalized in ritual and legend, the old hands of the land may have been more willing to let go of their heritage than has been the case in Europe or Asia.  Now we find vast tracts of land devoted to single species of corn, potatoes, and soy.  Massive single strains – genetic clones of each other, planted within touching distance of each other for miles upon miles upon miles create deserts of genetic diversity.  This is contrary to the path that nature follows in every natural ecosystem everywhere.  To ignore the wisdom of nature in this way may place us in a precarious position, as Michael Pollan and many others have pointed out.  The corn blight of the 1970’s may remind us of our precarious position, to say nothing of the potato blight.
And so we find that our traditions, once from our fathers, are now born out of laboratories 20, 30, or 50 years old.  The traditions we cling to are constructs, often devoid of the logic of place which people have learned to consider in determining crop rotation in France, or planting schedules in Italy.  And yet, since we have let down our guard far enough to allow these massive and unprecedented changes to enter into our lives so quickly, we now find ourselves partially dislocated from our past.  Today, we cling to “traditions” just a few years old.  Farmers have become reluctant to abandon the use of pesticides because they are “tradition.”  In the absence of our grandfathers’ traditions, which hailed from his grandfather, and his before that, we find ourselves marooned on an island outside of time.  The realities of capitalism, another tradition in our lives, eventually removed from business all of the farmers who were too “stubborn” to abandon the ways of their fathers.  When they became unable to compete with the large gains in productivity, or unwilling to accept the dubious trade-offs of conformity over quality, they were handed their hats.  “The American consumer demands…”  the farmer was came to understand.  And armed with the metaphors of “survival of the fittest” and an overwhelming awe and unprecedented, unquestioning acceptance of the new marvels of science, the American culture was changed.
Some say that human beings are hard-wired to live in structured hierarchies.  They point to the fact that clans, tribes and chiefdoms gave way to kingdoms and baronies, which eventually gave way to unions, organizations, lodges, churches, governments and sports teams.  No doubt there is some truth to these ideas, but there are also many examples of human cooperation without resort to dominance or hierarchy.  Cooperatives are one example, the unfettered free-trade of one capitalist producer with another is an often forgotten, but important second example.

In the late 19th century, science began to produce wondrous and miraculous examples of marvels undreamt by the human mind.  The age of wonder, possibility and credulity was created as everywhere people looked, a new modern marvel was being touted.  And these were not the “take it on faith” miracles of the old church – no.  These were honest to goodness, in the flesh, flip a switch and the light comes on, living breathing miracles that could be repeated over and over again, and better yet, ones that for around $400 you could drive home.  No more feeding the horse every day, wasting precious grain on an animal that was only needed 6 months out of the year – just gas it up when you need it and forget about it the rest of the time.  These new technologies were, for many at that time, indistinguishable from miracles.
Could we reasonably expect that when, over and over, the public was treated to examples of these "miraculous" powers, they might begin to transfer their unquestioning belief – once reserved for religion alone, to this new field of science and progress?  When they were confronted by the unbounded optimism from the proponents of these new ways of understanding the world – when men of great learning and social standing pronounced the end of ignorance, the ascendancy of knowledge and the know-ability of all things – can't we forgive the credulous farmer and accepting laborer for their faith and belief in “Science?”  Possibly they felt uneasy with the replacement of so many time-tested beliefs – and certainly not everyone converted – but many swallowed the new orthodoxy without a second thought.  And so, perhaps, a faith in science was accepted – and some men may have begun to count on the leaders of science to deliver them from evil.  And perhaps some put their faith and their hope in a new and a better tomorrow in the hands of this new field of science.
Some scientists might be uncomfortable to hear tell of it this way.  Science, in its practitioners’ minds, is often nothing more than a search for truth.  The vast majority of her proponents, workers and theorists acknowledge freely, and for all to hear, that science is not infallible, not perfect, not a panacea.  But a few of them, perhaps driven by their own desire for certainty, or their own hope for answers, may hold on to the idea that science may be able to tell us all we need to know of the world or that science might be able to solve all problems of humanity.  And it is these few proselytizers who do the damage which is so difficult to undo – And what is the damage?  Simply this:  When an individual is given an answer to all his or her problems, there can be a strong diminishment of personal responsibility for solutions.  When a mind raised with belief encounters such certainty in a respected form, with what tools do we expect it to resist?  And once converted to a faith in science, what do we to expect will come of it?  For science has no spokesperson.  She has no tradition of reverence for guiding principles for human values.  She has no golden rule, forged in the furnaces of interpersonal and civilizational conflicts.  She has no codes of conduct that recognize the impact of a few poorly chosen words, amplified by a media desperate to sell ad copy nationwide.  She has the ethic of practicality, repeatability and a faith that all things can be described rationally.  And while this may be true, it falls far short of providing the congregations of science with a meaningful guide to their daily decisions.
“Should I spray NPK fertilizers on my crops?  I have no tradition to tell me if this is good or bad.  My religion says nothing on the subject, and most of these darned impressive scientists are all telling me to go ahead – plus old John Brown next door bumped his yield 30% last year.  Guess I’d better go ahead and do it.”
Scientists are as influenced by themselves as everyone else is.  Not only do they read their own press clippings, they are mandated to write them, and gain tenure based on how many are published.  The field of science is partially based on reputation, gained by peer-reviewed publication, and which is often controlled by a select group of individuals who largely know each other, see each other at conferences, read the same formative opinions, and attend the same lectures by leading lights in the field.  Any scientist worthy of the name should recognize the potentials for harm in these vast systems that promote conformity in thought.  Those who have become successful should consider the parallel of their situation with that of the succesfully adapted in nature:  The adaptations that worked so well in the past carry no guarantee of success in the future.  Scientists like to tout the ascendency of debate, of the idea that “truth will out.”  And yet, to the very great disappointment of some, this is not always what happens…  In science, as in so many other fields of human endeavor, fed by our innate tendencies, and the systems that nature and nurture create, we sometimes turn the field into a rivalry for reputation, significance and influence.  We may account our successes by our acclaim – and may hold on by fingernails to it.  We acknowledge this fact in the oft repeated maxim that the old-guard must die before the new ideas are accepted.  And yet, when scientists are supposed to understand the human frailties – when they are supposed to appreciate the damage that hubris and ego can cause – they may instead allow the fruits of their labor to be publicized too soon, or manipulated by a system that rewards publication or sometimes profit, above human happiness, or the alleviation of human misery.  Self-concern can sometimes inflate honest self-esteem to ridiculous proportions so that a majority of activity may become self-protection at all costs – this occasionally leads to ridiculous stances on meaningless issues.
All of us may sometimes forget that our task is to improve the human condition – and if that includes that we must deal with indefinable and difficult issues such as "human happiness” and “suffering” then so be it.  What legacy would we expect to be accorded by history if we shirk our duty, stick to the safety of easily defined fields, or avoid the most important questions of our day?  What legacy would we make ourselves worthy of by denying the critical problems created by our new human systems – disconnected from our traditions and our heritage.  How can we live with ourselves, and how will our children live a better life than ours, if we see these new behemoths, these gigantic amalgamations of human ingenuity and accumulated efforts, these eternal institutional and corporate interests, systems driven by disembodied, dismembered fragments of human desires, as too vast, to complex, to be understood and appropriately altered for the good of all?  And who will lead us to this task if not our leading men and women of science?
More than at any time in our history we live in a world we have created.  We may be insufficient to the task of understanding our world, we may be ill equipped to study what we are creating.  We may have difficulty gaining perspective on our systems and our lives.  We may be soothed into complacency by the lack of traditions and heritage to tell us otherwise.  And yet – in spite of all that – mustn’t we try?  For as far as I can tell, we have no one else to tell us the answers that will ensure our survival, and allow our well being to thrive.  We have no oracle to plot our course out of here.  As Daniel Johnston says:  Do yourself a favor, become your own savior.  Divorced of our heritage we may need to become our parents.  Lacking in certainty, we must become our own leaders.  And scientists, in these confusing times, may come to understand that they do have a constituency depending on the answers that science provides.  The fact that they may not approve of people who put their “faith” in science and the fact that many scientists would see it as “wrong” to have faith in a system that one does not understand, in no way alleviates the obligation to see the world clearly as it is, to recognize the current state of affairs, and to objectively respond to reality.
Is there a sense of concern that these ideas are somehow too big, too much, too… what?  Does any of that matter?  Or is it, perhaps, better to look at the seeds of hope contained here and around you, and focus on the big picture, throwing out a line for a better future – for your children, your species, your world?
Perhaps, as we have thrown our systems up around us, we have failed to understand their remaking of our landscape.  Perhaps, as they undertook an existence of their own, beyond the conception of a single individual, we have become overwhelmed by their emergence as a dominant characteristic of our lives.  Perhaps we have been numbed by the intricate complexity of our businesses, our companies, our government, by their seemingly bottomless expression of form, function and efficiency in their intricate existence.  Perhaps we are stunned by the speed with which they are capable of operating – perhaps we are awed by their expression of the goals of growth, or profits, or survival.  Or perhaps we are simply amazed by their ability to self-organize, replicate themselves and survive?  Perhaps we see in them some echo of nature, some reflection of our environment, or perhaps something wholly new?  Perhaps we see it as a new force of nature itself or as a new form of nature, both a part of, and apart from, the world we live on – with emergent characteristics wholly its own?  Perhaps we see the corporate or institutional character as its own thing – divorced from its history, from nature, from man, a sort of Frankenstein?  But in so seeing, we should be very careful not to over endow these creations.  For the legacy of Frankenstein may instruct us in many ways.  Frankenstein was not the name of the monster – but of its creator.  And we should be careful to instill in our creation the qualities and character we want to be remembered for.  I can think of no worse fate than being vilified by history for a legacy visited upon my progeny.
Anyone who would say that this world is perfect is probably exempted from these concerns.  The rest of us may choose to begin the monumental task of studying, cataloguing and understanding these things we, and our ancestors have wrought.  This moment of timely flexibility is fleeting – I hope we grasp its importance, and are informed by its urgency.  For those interested, the fields of System Dynamics and General Semantics may point in a productive direction, or the work of Donella Meadows.  The good work of Nicholas Maxwell likewise may be encouraging, as may the examples set by change artists all around us.

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