Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Whole and the Parts

All excerpts from any longer work are unavoidably only pieces of a larger whole. The accelerated speed by which information flows in our modern world, thus make seeing the whole more difficult. Context is often lost. Even so, as I select passages from things I read, I am always hopeful that the message is that the author excerpted is worthy of a closer and longer look. This is clearly case for the excerpt below from Colin Tudge's Why Genes Are Not Selfish and People Are Nice.


In the snippet below Tudge is trying to answer the question 'Why Nice People are Ruled by Nasty People'. My view is that he is trying to show how power operates, but the reader would be more enlightened by spending time with the whole book, if not the whole chapter.

     Worst of all, perhaps, is that scientists bend their efforts to support the hawkish elite [not hawkish in the militaristic sense, but in an extroverted sense]. This is most evident , and most dangerous, in agriculture; the pursuit that directly affects us all and which, in the end, will determine who lives and who dies. The current craze among the powers-that-be is for GM crops: crops shaped by DNA transfer aka 'genetic engineering'. In truth GM crops are not necessary. The risks attendant upon them are not worth taking. The whole technology has produced nothing of unequivocal value after thirty years of effort that could not have been produced more cheaply and safely by other means. The whole enterprise in buoyed by hype which to a significant extent is simply mendacious: that GM increases yields; that is essential to feed the world; that to oppose the technology is irresponsible; that science has already proved that there are no dangers. It is all untrue and most of it stark nonsense. Yet whole battalions of scientists queue up to perpetrate the nonsense. They are themselves not liars, for the most part. Many, and perhaps most of them, to be fair, believe the hype. But they are paid by rich biotech companies (or work for ostensibly publicly owned institutions including universities which nowadays  depend upon commercial funding) and if they didn't work on GM they would have no work at all. In reality, the main point of GM technology (and in the end the only point) is to increase the power and wealth of the biotech companies that make them, and of the governments, like Britain's that rely on corporate support. Specifically: governments like Britain's tot up the earnings of the corporates that operate within their shores and call it 'gross domestic product' or 'GDP'; and as GDP increases they call it 'economic growth'; -- which, in this materialist, neoliberal age, is the only measure of success that they take seriously. The means by which the wealth is produced, and whether the wealth actually brings benefit to the society as a whole, or humanity or the world as a whole, is not considered relevant. (pp.181-2)

Tudge, himself is a science geek, so his criticism of it holds more sway than from one who doesn't appreciate all that science has given us. Forty pages later he returns to both defend science and to recognize its limitations.

     None of this is intended to belittle science qua science. The rigour of its methods is truly impressive. So is the quality of thinking that frames and tests the hypotheses. So are many of the scientists themselves -- many combining enormous intelligence with personal humility and humanity. Many even this: science has shown us (at least as far as it is able to do so!) how wonderful the universe really is (which in some scientists at least, has reinforced their sense of transcendence). Finally, as a not inconsiderable bonus, science is useful. We, humanity, are probably at a point in history where we would find it hard to live tolerably without the high technologies that science so obligingly provides. Almost certainly, we could not live in such numbers.

     But still science is limited. It does not tell us all there is to know, or what we might reasonably want to know. All its ideas in the end are provisional -- because it is in the nature of science that its ideas can theoretically be disproved, or at least be shown to be inadequate, and so are always ready to be improved upon. its ideas must always be partially, because science can deal only with bits of the whole -- the bits that it is convenient to deal with. Scientific theories can never provide the whole truth -- or even if, by some miracle they seem to do so, we could not know that it was the whole truth because we cannot know how much we don't know. All in all we might sceptically suggest that scientists seem to give such precise and convincing arguments to life's problems only because they take great care to tailor the questions, and leave whatever looks too hard off the agenda.

     All in all, then, the model of science as the edifice of truth, an impregnable fortress, is nonsense. In so far as it is an edifice, said Popper, it is like Venice: impressive to be sure, yet founded not on bedrock but on stakes driven into the mud. (pp.222-3)

I have forty pages left and something tells me there will be further morsels to share, but they will fail to give the full picture of this opus of our times.