Science is not what it Seems

     I have been a true believer in science, and found the science courses I took as an undergraduate very exciting and inspiring, especially genetics and evolution. I was kind of in love with the idea of Pure Science, which, as I understood it , was the seeking of knowledge about the world and the Universe for its own sake. This was at a time (the 60s) when many of the Big Ideas we now take for granted were just coming into their own: things like the Big Bang, DNA and the double helix, and plate tectonics.  It seemed that knowledge was the aim, and science the method to gain it. Hugely important to me, too, was how the new science was showing the world is dynamic, ever–changing, ever-becoming—this in contrast to the world as I had all my young life been told it was: fixed, static, just the way God made it. So science, it seemed to me then, was a very positive, good thing with no real downside, except for maybe the atom bomb—a product of scientific inquiry—which was poised to deliver assured mutual destruction. Global annihilation.

     What I have discovered since is that pure science is a mythical creature with just about as many sightings as there are of unicorns. This is not to denigrate the work of individual scientists, who often are seeking knowledge just for its own sake. It is what happens to the knowledge after the scientists uncover it that I find objectionable. What others call applied science I would characterize as science indentured to capitalism. To understand how Western science works, you have to follow the money trail. First of all, what doesn’t get funded doesn’t get studied. So right away you have self-serving capitalist incentives determining what will, and will not, be looked at. Here is one example: mere anecdotal evidence tells us that various chemicals (including pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, and a vast array of toxins) interact with one another—sometimes synergistically—and can produce debilitating or even deadly effects. It is, of course, in the public interest to know something about these interactions and their effects, but there is no public money for meaningful long-term studies, and industry has no incentive to prove that its products are causing harm. Science, as it is practiced in America today, is neither independent nor objective—and seldom has been anywhere.

     When scientific research turns up evidence of corporate industrial harm, you can count on it that that evidence will be suppressed. Look how the industry and its professional hacks went after Rachel Carson when she exposed what DDT was doing to songbirds, and even (shudder) to our national bird, the bald eagle. This sort of thing happens all the time, and especially within public institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thanks to the revolving door, our regulatory agencies are staffed by executives from the industries they are supposed to be regulating, and these people are placed precisely where they are so they can suppress any findings not friendly to the favored corporations. Ever notice how the Endangered Species Act is implemented, or stalled, based not on science but politics? There are all sorts of threatened and endangered species whose listings should have been implemented long ago, but somehow never quite make it to that stage. There are, I know, scientists within these organizations who are doing good science, but whose science is quashed by management. In theory, science is independent and objective; in practice it is suppressed, controlled, and manipulated by those in power.

     The scientific method is one thing; the Scientific Establishment is something else. Institutional Science, looked at as a social institution, resembles both an exclusive social club, to which you must know all the passwords (or shibboleths) to gain admittance, and a religious order to whose doctrines you must subscribe. As an ideology, science has a number of different sects. Prominent among these is scientific materialism, which is based in classical Newtonian physics; it has several tenants of belief, including that matter itself is inert, and possesses none of the properties found in humans–such as intelligence, sentience, interiority, and volition—and that inert (“dead”) matter is acted upon by external material forces in predictable ways. This school of thought also believes that the world can be understood by examining its individual constituent parts, and the essence of the whole grasped thereby. This doctrine is known as reductionism. Based in an historical antagonism with Institutional Religion, Institutional Science of this school sees Life on Earth as something that happened by pure chance, in a Universe that is indifferent or hostile to us, and to Life itself. This particular piece of dogma has not been demonstrated by the scientific method, but is simply a tenet of faith, and is promulgated by such high priests of science as Laurence Kraus.

     Another prominent figure in the priesthood of science is Richard Dawkins, who applies these principles of classical physics to the study of biology and evolution. A neo-Darwinian, Dawkins sees life on Earth as a struggle for survival, characterized by violent competition, and driven by a fiercely self-centered genetic determinism. This version of neo-Darwinism is embraced and encouraged by the Capitalist Establishment because it makes their predatory and parasitic enterprise seem based in our biology, and therefore inevitable. 

     About a hundred years ago, quantum mechanics came on the scene, and changed the way a few in-the-know scientists saw the world. So much of what is known about quantum mechanics is so counter-intuitive that even those who study its phenomena find its truths to be baffling. Quantum physics is now generally accepted as scientifically sound, even though many of its findings seem irreconcilable with classical physics.

     In the 1960s the historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, introduced the concept of paradigm and paradigm shift. Since that time several new scientific disciplines have come on the scene. Chaos theory, complexity theory, and systems theory have each introduced new perspectives on the world. In the biological sciences, epigenetics is changing our understanding of genetic inheritance and how evolution takes place. A few interdisciplinary thinkers, like Fikret Berkes, author of Sacred Ecology, recognize the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of Native peoples as science—and, unlike Western science, it is based on the intimate knowledge of a particular place, as experienced by a rooted people, over generations. TEK is close observations taken in the laboratory of life and subject to the peer review of the elders and ancestors, and of Mother Nature herself. He and other systems thinkers have sought ways to incorporate TEK into Western science, and have found it most compatible with holistic systems thinking.    

     Western science is overdue for a paradigm shift, but so far inertia has favored science of the status quo.  Mechanistic, reductionist, and deterministic thinking continues to hold sway in many scientific circles, including in academia. One of the hallmarks of approved academic science is peer review, with the purported (and actual) purpose of cross-checking and verifying findings. This is partly as it should be, but peer review also tends to have the effect of inhibiting creativity, and thinking (even in small ways) outside the dominant paradigm. The need for peer acceptance, and employment within hidebound institutions, acts as a censor and suppressor of “unacceptable” conclusions, hypotheses, or experimental design. Go along and get along manifests in the Scientific Establishment just like it does everywhere else.   

      My critique of science does not end here. It goes all the way back to the beginnings of civilization and the Big Lie that the human being is separate from Nature. So many of our institutions, and ways of thinking about the world, are based upon this manifest untruth, and that includes Western science. Our cultural memes—human centered from beginning to end– tell us that we are the subjects, and everything else in the world, including all other life forms, are nothing but objects. It makes it so much easier to abuse, enslave, and exploit our relatives within the Community of Life if we can just pretend that they are nobodies. The chimpanzees, dogs, and mice we study, the frogs we pith in the name of science, don’t share our human qualities of sentience, intelligence, selfhood, or volition, and so it is okay to violate them. Descartes has assured us that they are nothing but unfeeling machines, automatons, and so it must be true, and we can build a world around ourselves that is all, and only, about humans. The science of ecology is leaking information to us that might suggest otherwise, that really we live in a world based upon webs of interdependence, and that the Community of Life that we see as Other is really the larger manifestation of ourselves. We are part of a much larger whole, not the whole itself. And until science catches up with this fact of our existence, and starts seeing what indigenous peoples have known all along, science is just another word for hubris.


Ideal Future Scenario

     Everyone seems pretty convinced that we have a big shake-up ahead, and given all the converging crises, it is likely to be cataclysmic. Just how cataclysmic is open to speculation, but I am going to assume very, for the sake of this thought experiment.

     My ideal future scenario would involve no more than a million, and as few as ten thousand, survivors—scattered around the planet, in small groups, where the conditions for life still remain somewhat functional. Since this is an ideal scenario, I am going to assume that it is not the dregs of humanity, nor the corrupt super-rich that have survived, but ordinary intelligent people who are alert to the many snares that entangled those who went before, and are mindful that they themselves represent the last best chance for their own species’ continuation on planet Earth. Thus it is that when they walked away from the wreckage of civilization they brought no artifacts with them, understanding, finally, that every artifact of civilization, every technology, carries with it a Pandora’s Box of exponentially multiplying problems. They might not have read Lewis Mumford’s paper on “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” but they know the gist of it. Democratic technics are human-centered, and although not all basket-makers or flint-knappers are equally skilled, these are technologies open to anyone who might want to practice them. Authoritarian technics is hierarchical, not egalitarian, by its nature—and comes as a kind of trap. It is invariably system-centered, which means that humans serve as interchangeable functionaries within the system, and that these functionaries are compelled to serve the system’s own agenda and imperatives, not their own, even though the system ostensibly exists to serve humans. One of the more insidious imperatives is that the system must always continue to grow. In order to serve this system imperative, the human population is compelled to expand at rates well beyond what the natural economy can support. Our descendants, these People of the New Story, want no part of this.

     The Neolithic Revolution was our wild ancestors’ first introduction to authoritarian technics. They almost certainly didn’t see it coming, but with settled agriculture came private property, and with private property came the social hierarchy of a class system. The storage of agricultural surpluses required guards, and the guards readily morphed into a permanent military class, which soon came in handy after topsoil was depleted in one place and it became necessary to move into new territory. With the advent of emperors and kings, with their armies of workers and armies of warriors, authority grew ever more centralized, and the systems of control became correspondingly totalitarian. One thing led to another…led to another…in tangles of system complexity, from pyramid building to empire building to industrial globalization, with a relentless progression that in hindsight looks like programmed inevitability. This is another pattern our People of the New Story don’t care to repeat.

     Of all the living arrangements attempted by humans, one stands out above all the others for its long-lived success. That is the small band of twenty to thirty hunter- gatherers living as nomadic, egalitarian, animists of the immediate return variety. Their technics were, of course, of the democratic kind: bows and arrows; stick-and- grass baskets; and shelters that could be built or dismantled in minutes or hours. When you are regularly on the move you don’t collect any more possessions than you can conveniently carry. When all your wealth is in your relationships, and in your day-to-day life, there is no booty to entice possible raiders.  Moving from place to place, living lightly as you go, allows the land to recover from any small insults inflicted in passing.

     Having neighbors within travelling distance for occasional socializing and trade, and to keep the gene pool diverse through intermarriage, might have its advantages, so long as there was no real contention over territory. The paradigm of unrestrained growth that governed the Old Story of civilization will forever remain taboo within the New Story. Of course the physical resources that fed the endless growth paradigm will not be available to our descendants, and that should be deterrent enough. But beyond this there is the issue of personal freedom. Under the old system, all of humanity was enslaved, and had no choice but to live their lives as their systems required. Free humans– which means wild, undomesticated humans–will have no desire to step into that Progress Trap ever again. They have seen where that leads and how it stunted the full humanity of their ancestors.

     Life could flourish on this basis pretty much indefinitely provided these hunter-gatherers followed two strict, interrelated, imperatives. Zero population growth is one. The other is that they live within the natural means of their land base. Fully understanding what is at stake, I don’t see why ordinary humans, living in a New and better Story, couldn’t just pull this off.   

     What do you think?


A Deeper Human Field of Being


     Certain myths of our culture hint at a time of greater innocence and deeper knowledge when humans had developed a form of consciousness and a way of relating to each other unavailable to us today. The subtext suggests that with the rise of civilization came a fall, a loss of something valuable. Science tends not to credit this kind of cultural myth, but rather to discount or discredit it, and instead supports the view that civilized man is the absolute evolutionary pinnacle, and that our wild ancestors were benighted lesser beings. For instance, books like Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and offers a Path to a Safer World, by Malcolm Potts, and The World until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond, portray indigenous tribal people as excessively violent, and ascribe this violence to a kind of genetic determinism. This view is consistent with the doctrines of both scientific materialism (with its roots in mechanistic physics) and the brand of Neo-Darwinism espoused by the likes of Richard Dawkins. I call these views doctrines because that is what they are: non-science posing as science. They are based on assumptions held by some scientists, but the assumptions themselves will not hold up to scientific scrutiny. Or so it appears to me. Fortunately, theirs is not the only view available on this subject of human potential, and how it has been observed to manifest among unconquered Natives.

     The anthropologist Richard Sorenson worked for many years among the lesser contacted peoples of south New Guinea, and for many of those years didn’t quite register what it was he was witnessing. Like virtually all anthropologists, he was a captive of his own culture, and was unable to see his subjects in their own terms. Eventually, though, their reality penetrated his preconceptions, and he became witness to a phenomenon seen by few outsiders: a culturally developed way of achieving small group solidarity, empathy, and mutual understanding, little recognized in the West. He states that: “Preconquest groups are simultaneously individualistic and collective—traits immiscible and incompatible in modern thought and languages. This fusion of individuality and solidarity is another of the profound cognitive disparities that separate the preconquest and postconquest eras. It in part explains why even fundamental preconquest cultural traits are sometimes difficult to perceive, much less to appreciate, by postconquest peoples.”(p.4) The problem with conquered peoples being studied by their conquerors, and calling it science, shows up again and again in the field of anthropology. The concept of objectivity is open to serious question in any of the sciences, but in paternalistic anthropology (coming directly out of the White Man’s Burden, as it does) the pretense is ridiculous.

     Of all the anthropological works I have read, the very best ones have invariably been written by anthropologists who have cast aside all pretenses of objectivity and have allowed themselves to feel empathy, acceptance, affection, and respect for their informants. The Forest People by Colin Turnbull and Make Prayers to the Raven by Richard Nelson are two notable examples. Sorenson has gone through a similar process, and finally begins to understand his “subjects” on their own terms. “In the real world of these preconquest people, feeling and awareness are focused on at-the-moment, point-blank sensory experience—as if the nub of life lay within that complex flux of collective sentient immediacy. Into that flux individuals thrust their inner thoughts and aspirations for all to see, appreciate, and relate to. This unabashed open honesty is the foundation on which their highly honed integrative empathy and rapport become possible. When that openness gives way, empathy and rapport shrivel. When deceit becomes a common practice, they disintegrate.” (p.4) The empathy and rapport that come so readily in this circle of trust are highly sensitive to any breach of integrity. But how is this honest and intimate way of relating nurtured in the first place?

     Not surprisingly, it begins with how people are treated from the day of their birth. “In the isolated hamlets of the southern forests, infants were kept in continuous bodily contact with mothers or the mother’s friends—on laps when they were seated, on hips, under arms, against backs or on shoulders when they were standing. Even during intensive food preparation, or when heavy loads were being moved, babies were not put down. They had priority.” The effect of this physical closeness creates not only a sense of inclusion and belonging, but a physical and emotional sense of well-being. “Very quickly [the infant] began assembling a sophisticated tactile-speech to transmit desires, needs, and states of mind. They didn’t whine or cry to get attention; they touched. While babies everywhere are liminally aware,  the constant empathetic contact required to produce a sophisticated type of preverbal communication is rare—except among preconquest peoples.” (p.5) This is true not only in New Guinea but also among tribes in South America, as documented in Jean Leidoff’s ground-breaking book, The Continuum Concept. Presumably, this way of childrearing and group interaction was once general among tribal peoples everywhere.

     The kind of group closeness and cohesion engendered by this way of relating to one’s intimates apparently worked quite well in a world that was sparsely settled and not subject to colonization by outsiders. In a world of overcrowding and power politics , where duplicity and force are the norm, these preconquest groups have proven highly vulnerable. When postconquest groups—who had themselves been transformed by their conquerors– began to impinge on preconquest groups, the mindset and feeling –space of the latter could change quickly and radically. ”In the face of sustained powerful exposure to anger, deceit, or greed, preconquest mentality collapsed. In the traumatic existential period that caused, instinctive compassion gave way to savagery, generosity to greed, and heartfelt harmony to basic sexuality. A ‘savage-savage’ arose from the ashes of the ‘noble savage.’”(p.16) Much of the anthropology that has been conducted—and almost all in the twentieth century– has taken place under these traumatic transitional conditions, when the people were not themselves.

     I find all this information relevant both to the present and to the future. To the present, because it helps us see how preconceived ideas, and a failure to empathize with peoples of other cultures, impels us to draw false conclusions. Also, these cultural insights could prove relevant to the future, in case a few humans might actually survive the multiplying crises we are bringing down on ourselves. Small isolated groups of mobile hunter-gatherers might have a chance to not only hold their own, in a world made hostile by us, but do so in this fully recovered, highly adaptive old/new way of being fully human.