Friday, October 4, 2013

A Couple of Nudges from Tudge

I am thoroughly enjoying Coiln Tudge's Why Genes are Not Selfish as much for the erudition he brings to the subject as his writing voice. Here's the final couple of paragraphs from the end of chapter two.

     We could say that the emphasis on competition that lies behind the metaphor of the 'selfish' gene is Darwinian but we need not assume (great as though Darwin unquestionably was) that it therefore correct. The descriptive 'selfish' is a shameless piece of anthropomorphism -- and although I will argue later that anthropomorphism has an important place in biology, this is not where it belongs. In practice the rhetoric springs not from science (science qua science doesn't do rhetoric) but from an assortment of pre-conceptions of a philosophical, political, sociological, and poetical nature (of the kind that influenced Darwin himself). There's the Enlightenment belief, first of all, that it is good to think mechanistically -- that an explanation based on molecules must trump any other kind of explanation. There's the built-in conviction, etched deep in western culture without Darwin, that life is one long struggle for personal supremacy -- summarized in Tennyson's all too resonant phrase, 'Nature red in tooth and claw'. There's also a belief, never made explicit but always present in academe, that intellectuals know best: that ideas must trump intuition; and ideas with maths behind them must be best of all.

     Biologists are said to suffer from 'physics envy', and some do. They want to deal in irreducible fundamentals, summarized in maths. But the biologists who think like this are envying the physics of two hundred years ago, which dealt in certainties and straightforward cause and effect in a perfectly predictable universe -- all of which now seems naive. Worse, biologists who envy physics have misconstrued the nature of their own subject. For while physics deals with fundamentals of matter and energy, biology looks at the world as those fundamentals interact, which they do in an infinity of ways. In truth biology has more in common with literature than with physics. In great novels or indeed in soap operas a host of sub-plots interweave -- and so it is with life. The competitiveness of life is only one theme among many. It just happens to be the one that Darwin lighted upon -- and is easy to express mathematically.

     All this is illustrated in the next few chapters: that although competition is an inescapable theme of life the essence of life is cooperation. Life is not a punch-up. It is a dialogue -- and a constructive dialogue at that. If it were not, there would be no life at all. (pp.70-71)

Fast word to a summary report from his web page

 from a couple weeks back on a recent UNCTAD review of agriculture --  Wake up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate.

Taken from UNCTAD's Trade and Environment Review 13 (TER13) a single paragraph of the summary might give a flavor of this UN Council on Trade and Development's assessment.

TER13 highlights that the required transformation is much more profound than simply tweaking the existing industrial agricultural system. Rather, what is called for is a better understanding of the multi-functionality of agriculture, its pivotal importance for pro-poor rural development and the significant role it can play in dealing with resource scarcities and in mitigating and adapting to climate change. However, the sheer scale at which modified production methods would have to be adopted, the significant governance issues, the power asymmetries’ problems in food input and output markets as well as the current trade rules for agriculture pose considerable challenges.

We are not condemned to pass along to our children and theirs a world bereft of hope, opportunity, and flourishing for all. But if we don't redirect our fundamental systems as suggested via the insights Tudge brings to light, that's likely our legacy...

Time for all of us to enroll in the College of Enlightened Agriculture....