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natural science

iprospect, august/september 2000

Scientists, Prince Charles claimed in his recent BBC Reith lecture, must learn 'to use science to understand how Nature works - not to change what Nature is, as we do when genetic manipulation seeks to transform the process of biological evolution into something altogether different'. The sentiment won considerable opprobrium from practising scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert. But it struck a chord among the wider public. Public unease about genetic experimentation, skepticism about scientific pronouncements, and the belief that scientists are too arrogant and out of touch have all grown dramatically in recent years, particularly in the wake of the BSE scandal and the 'Frankenfood' scares. As confidence about scientists has plummeted, so disquiet about their activities has risen. Science, especially biological science, is increasingly viewed not so much an answer to the problems of society as a cause of social miseries. Most people would probably sympathise with Charles' admonition of genetic revolutionaries for 'taking mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone'.

And yet, while there is immense fear about the practical consequence of biological, and in particular genetic, science, there is an equally immense interest in and support for biological theories of human nature. Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, EO Wilson, Matt Ridley, Jared Diamond - evolutionary biologists are among the literary superstars of our age, as much entertainers as scientists, writing bestsellers and packing out lecture theatres and debates. Their books dominate the science sections in every bookshop, and they are increasingly called upon to pontificate about political and social issues from a Darwinian point of view, injecting evolutionary wisdom into all manner of political and cultural debates. While Steven Pinker explains in the New Yorker why Bill Clinton shared a cigar with Monica Lewinsky, Helena Cronin debates on Newsnight whether it makes evolutionary sense for women to have toyboys as partners. From Cosmo to Time magazine, the media has become seduced by this new vision of humanness. TV producers fall over themselves to bring sociobiology to a new audience. Darwinism, as former LSE director John Ashworth has put it, has become 'an "ism" for our times'.

How are we to understand this seeming contradiction between, on the one hand, hostility to biological experimentation and, on the other, embrace of biological explanations of human nature? The answer is that both draw upon the same, almost mystical concept of nature. Both are also, in their own ways, responses to the sense of disorientation that pervades contemporary society. We live in an age of tremendous confusion and dislocation - moral, political and social - and this has helped shape the public's attitude to science.

There are few things that have more changed our world than has science. From Galileo to Darwin, from Newton to Einstein, scientists and their discoveries have helped transform material conditions and opened up new social and moral vistas. Yet it is the very notion of human-directed change that many people today find so troubling. No period has been more penetrated by science, nor more dependent upon it, than the past half century. Yet no period has been more uneasy about it, nor felt more that the relationship with scientific knowledge is a Faustian pact. Many today, especially when confronted with the revolutionary implications of the new biology, are likely to sympathise with John Donne's response to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. 'New Philosophy calls all in doubt', he wrote, 'leaving ...all in pieces, all coherence gone; / All just supply, all Relation.'

A century of unparalleled bloodshed and destruction has created a widespread skepticism about human capacities. Every impression that Man makes upon his world seems for the worse. The attempt to master nature has led to global warming and species depletion. The attempt to master society has led to Auschwitz and the gulags. We no longer believe, Michael Ignatieff observed in a Prospect essay last year, that 'material progress entails or enables moral progress'. We eat well, we drink well, we live well, Ignatieff observed, 'but we do not have good dreams'. The Holocaust 'remains a ghost at our feast'. And 'every time it slips from our mind it makes a terrible recurrence': Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo. 'In a real sense', the late ecologist Murray Bookchin noted, 'we seem to be afraid of ourselves - of our uniquely human attributes. We seem to be suffering from a decline in human self-confidence and in our ability to create ethically meaningful lives that enrich humanity and the non-human world.' The consequence is a collective form of paralysis that seems to grip humanity; it is as if humankind has placed a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on its door.

Against this background, the contrasting reactions to genetic engineering and to evolutionary psychology begins to make sense. What many people fear is a science that disturbs their moral compass, upsetting traditional ideas of humanity and nature; a science that promises new forms of control over nature, new types of mastery over human destiny. Hence the reaction against genetic engineering and the new biology. What many (often the same people) are drawn to is a science that seems to provide solace and comfort, that seems to turn an explanation about the human condition into a parable about fate. So they are drawn to evolutionary psychology. Tortured as we are by moral disorientation and self-distrust, we long for origin myths that can both explain our place in the natural order and absolve us of responsibility for our own destiny.

The common threads in a hostility to the new biology and a yearning for evolutionary stories are a debased view of what it means to be human and an exalted view of nature. In an age in which humans, and human activity, are held in low esteem, there is a tendency to deify nature. In almost every aspect of life the 'natural' is regarded as morally superior to the artificial, or human. Natural health treatments, from acupuncture to reflexology, are seen as preferable to the alienating high technology of modern medicine. Praise is heaped upon organic food as opposed to food produced by intensive farming. 'Green' energy sources are preferable to high-tech ones. As the American mathematician Norman Levitt has put it, 'The "natural" is the virtuous opposite of the degraded manifestations of humanity's fallen state.' Nature, Levitt observes, 'is the code word for the way things are meant to be rather than the way they are'.

The deification of nature has led many both to decry science that seems to defile the purity of nature and to laud science that seems to make us more natural. Biological technology that threatens to transform our relationship with nature is often seen as unnatural, and hence almost blasphemous. 'Have we the right', the molecular biologist Ervin Chargaff asks, 'to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years?' A 1989 European Parliament committee report on genetic engineering suggested that 'each generation must be allowed to struggle with human nature as it is given to them, and not with the irreversible biological results of their forebears' actions.'

The writer Brian Appleyard sympathised with this view in his book Brave New Worlds. 'We cannot impose on future generations our conceptions of biological improvement', he argued, 'because to do so represents an assault on human dignity. For it is a struggle with the givens of human nature that defines humanity, not the progressive effort to transform that nature.' For Appleyard, 'Lines are important' and 'one of the most important lines that Western culture has drawn is around the human individual.' The individual 'represents something that is "given", and this idea of a "given in our nature" - however metaphysical - suggests a distinct realm which it would be dangerous for us to invade'. Such givens of human nature 'expresses a human truth and demands, from geneticists in particular, a very cautious and humble approach'.

The idea that nature embodies certain verities, and these verities define the boundaries that we transgress at our peril, is at the heart of contemporary fear of the new biology. Jonathan Porritt, former director of Friends of the Earth and advisor to Prince Charles, worries in his new book Playing Safe that 'the "hard lines" between different organisms and species are beginning to melt away'. We can, he writes, 'now pick and choose individual genes from one organisms to introduce into a totally different and unrelated organism, crossing all biological boundaries, in combinations that nature never could and never would bring together'. There is something unnatural, Porritt seems to believe, about the way that genetic engineering dissolves the old boundaries of nature. And in an age in which social and moral boundaries appear so fluid, it has never seemed more important to view natural boundaries as solid and permanent. 'Living things are no longer perceived as birds and bees, foxes and hens', the American writer Jeremy Rifkin observes in The Biotech Century, 'but as bundles of genetic information. All living things are drained of their substance and turned into abstract messages.' In this new science there is no sense of 'sacredness or specialness'. How could there be, Rifkin asks, 'when there are no longer any special boundaries to respect?' In this new way of thinking about evolution, 'structure is abandoned': 'Nothing exists in the moment'. There is more than an echo here of Donne's lament about the New Philosophy leaving ;all in pieces, all coherence gone; / All just supply, all Relation'. The demand by thinkers like Rifkin and Prince Charles that we rediscover a sense of the sacred in our relationship with nature is really a plea to restore a degree of structure and order to our lives. A strong God makes for firm boundaries.

There is one boundary, however, that Rifkin, Porritt, Appleyard, Chargaff and Prince Charles, far from wishing to preserve, are eager to smash down: that between humans and nature. They are appalled at the idea that humans can see themselves as standing above nature, and that they seek to exploit nature for their own ends. 'In this technology-driven age', Prince Charles claimed in his Reith lecture, 'it is all too easy for us to forget that mankind is a part of Nature, and not apart from it, and that this is why we should seek to work with the grain of Nature in everything we do.'

According to the critics of the new biology, then, we should respect nature's time-old boundaries while dismantling the 'artificial' division between humanity and nature. Yet if there is one thing that makes us human, one thing that defines the 'essence' of our humanity, it is the very opposite of this. As a species we have become human not by respecting nature's dictates but by challenging the 'way things are' in the natural state of affairs. The contrast that Prince Charles drew in his Reith lecture between 'developing genetically manipulated crops' which he believed was an instance of 'working with the grain of Nature', and 'traditional systems of agriculture, which have stood the all-important test of time' because they are 'working with the grain of Nature', is a spurious one. All agriculture, like all human activity, works against the grain of nature. If it did not, we would still be living in the wilderness. The cultivation of crops, the domestication of animals, the breeding of new varieties, the transformation of the landscape - one cannot imagine an agriculture that does not cut against the grain of nature. One can, however, imagine a Neolithic Prince of Wales lecturing his neighbour who is sowing a field of barley, 'This is unnatural! We should stick to our traditional ways of hunting mammoths and foraging for berries.'

This process of bending nature to suit our needs - of transgressing 'nature's boundaries', as the ecomystics would have it - is also the process by which we carve out a boundary between ourselves and the rest of nature. No beings aside from humans can transform nature in this fashion. Certainly birds build nests and bees make honeycombs. But birds never wonder if they could invent a better material from which to build nests, nor bees think to themselves, 'Perhaps eucalyptus pollen would make tastier honey than juniper pollen.' Humans do. And that's why we've moved from being hunters and gatherers to being genetic engineers.

Critics complain that contemporary science treats nature simply as an object to be manipulated. 'The prevailing approach', Prince Charles observes, 'seeks to reduce the natural world to the level of nothing more than a mechanical process'. But that is exactly what nature is. Natural organisms are machine-like, not because they operate like a car or a computer, but because, like all machines, they lack consciousness, foresight and will. They are objects or natural forces, not potential subjects of their own destiny. They act out a drama, not create it.

Humans are unique because, alone among organisms, we are both objects of nature and subjects that can shape our own fate. We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, traits the possession of which allow us to design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws. We are, in other words, both inside nature and outside of it. In trying to dissolve the line between human and animal, ecomystics deny this special quality of being human. Disillusioned with human capacities, they seek to make humans more natural and nature more human, imbuing it with sense and purpose, a fount of wisdom and knowledge. 'The human move to take responsibility for the living Earth is laughable', suggests the microbiologist and co-founder of the Gaia hypothesis Lynn Margulis. 'Our self-inflated moral imperative to guide a wayward Earth or heal our sick planet is evidence of our immense capacity for self-delusion. Rather, we need to protect us from ourselves.'

Faith in the wisdom of nature, disenchantment with human rationality and a belief in the 'givens of human nature' have led many to oppose the new biology. They have also drawn many to evolutionary psychology. Unlike ecomysticism, which relies upon 'intuition' and the sense of the sacred for its arguments, evolutionary psychology is rooted in real scientific innovation, which, over the past three decades, has helped us better understand the character of human behaviour. Much of its popular appeal, however, rests upon the same sense of social and moral dislocation as that which fuels ecomysticism. These wider social developments have also pushed some threads within contemporary Darwinian thinking in more irrational directions.

For many people, Darwinian explanations of what makes us human seem to map the givens of human nature and to show how evolutionary wisdom has made us what we are. 'Can a Darwinian understanding of human nature help people reach their goals in life?', the writer and populariser of evolutionary psychology Robert Wright asked in his book The Moral Animal. 'Indeed can it help them choose their goals? Can it help distinguish between practical and impractical goals? More profoundly, can it help in deciding which goals are worthy? That is, does knowing how evolution has shaped our basic moral impulses help us decide which impulses we should consider legitimate?' The answers, he believes 'are yes, yes, yes, yes, and finally, yes.'

For thinkers like Wright, evolutionary explanations seem to help locate us in the world, and give us ready made moral answers. The philosopher Michael Ruse, for instance, believes that 'our moral ideas are thrust upon us... as a function of our biology', rather than 'being things needing or allowing decisions at the individual level'. Ruse believes that Kant was right 'in arguing that the supreme principle of morality is categorical - it is laid upon us, without any ifs and buts. We are not free to choose what right and wrong are to be. Where freedom comes, if it is to come at all, is in working within the given bounds of right and wrong.' Freedom arises out of our being 'conscious agents, aware of the dictates imposed by out epigenetic rules – aware of the prescriptions of morality'. His is an argument similar to the old Christian belief that reason and morality are created by God and that freedom lies in becoming conscious of God’s will. The main difference is that, for Ruse, God has been replaced by Nature.

Evolutionary psychologists, as much as ecomystics, are attracted to the idea of fixed boundaries. Boundaries, EO Wilson suggests, 'limit the human prospect - we are biological and our souls cannot fly free'. We cannot follow any path we wish to, Wilson argues. There are certain things we can do, certain things we are compelled to do and certain things we are constrained from doing, either because our minds are not so designed or because to do it would be psychologically costly. The meaning of such constraints upon human life has been furthest explored by Robert Wright. In his new book Nonzero, Wright argues that human history is destined to follow a certain path given by human nature. 'The directionality of culture, of history', he writes, 'is an expression of our species, of human nature'. Only particular cultural forms and a particular historical path are viable for humans.

To illustrate this, Wright compares human development to that of a poppy seed. Not all poppy seeds become poppies. Some may end up on a bagel, for instance, or perhaps just rot in the soil. Nevertheless, Wright believes, there are three reasons why we should consider that the destiny of every poppy seed is to be poppy. First, it is 'very likely to happen under broadly definable circumstances'. Second, 'from the seed's point of view, the only alternative to this happening is catastrophe - death, to put a finer point on it.' And third, 'if we inspect the essence of the poppy seed - the DNA it contains - we find it hard to escape the conclusion that the poppy seed is programmed to become a poppy.' According to Wright we can conceive of human destiny in a 'roughly analogous' way. There is a particular historical route that is best suited to human nature. Not all human societies follow that route. But such societies, by ignoring the claims of nature, are inevitably courting catastrophe.

Few biologists go as far as Wright in speaking of human destiny. Most accept that humans possess free will, and see the possession of agency as distinguishing ourselves from other animals. And yet the main elements of Wright's argument are not that different from those of many evolutionary psychologists or behavioural geneticists. Wright's belief that only certain cultural forms fit human nature is accepted by virtually every evolutionary psychologist. Most believe, for instance, that attempting to engineer a society that abolished the family as the basic unit of organisation would be pointless. We are naturally inclined to love and protect our closest relatives. Thwarting this desire would be costly both to the individuals and to the society. According to Matt Ridley, communism failed because it attempted to frustrate the basic human instinct to put family above others. Marx 'designed a social system that would only have worked if we were angels; it failed because we were beasts'. 'Universal benevolence', Ridley concludes, 'evaporates on the stove of human nature.'

Many contemporary Darwinists also accept the idea of human history being constrained in the paths it can follow. 'Each society', EO Wilson believes, 'travels along one or other of a set of evolutionary trajectories.' As our knowledge of human nature grows and 'we start to elect a system of values on a more objective basis', so 'the permissible trajectories will not only diminish in number, but our descendants will be able to see farther along them.' In other words, the trajectories of human history are already mapped out in our genes; all we can do is ensure that we follow the ones best suited to our innate nature.

But if thinkers like Wilson and Ridley believe that nature shows us what we cannot do, they also believe that it shows us what we can do, too. As a result evolutionary theory is giving rise, not just to notions of the limits of human achievement, but also to visions of what might be possible. The east African savannah has become not simply the place where the first humans emerged; it is also the place where new politics is evolving. Evolution is now the terrain of political debate.

For Matt Ridley, evolution reveals why governments are bad and markets are good. Socialism doesn't suit human nature, he argues (though chimpanzees, with their highly authoritarian social structure, would apparently take to it like Marx to the British Library). But markets are written into our genes: 'Man the hunter-gatherer, man the savanna primate, man the social monogamist - and man the exchanger. Exchange for mutual benefit has been part of the human condition at least as long as Homo sapiens has been a species.' Socialism is for chimps; real Men barter. The moral of Ridley's evolutionary story is that governments should stop meddling in our lives. 'If we are to build back into society the virtues that made it work for us', Ridley writes, 'it is vital we reduce the power and scope of the state.'

Peter Singer disagrees. He wants to reclaim Darwinism for the Left, and suggests that 'a readiness to cooperate seems to be part of our nature'. Opposing Ridley's desire to leave it all to the market, Singer claims that 'an evolutionary view of human psychology can show us the potential social costs of writing off those labour might, in purely economic terms, be worth employing.' Marek Kohn similarly suggests that evolutionary psychology has 'already identified as key themes fairness, co-operation, differences of interests between the sexes, and equality. Those who want a fairer, more co-operative and less unequal society should gain confidence about what is possible as they become used to handling tools that sociobiological studies make available.'

Francis Fukuyama stands somewhere in between Ridley and Singer. Like Ridley, he wants to dispense with government as far as is possible; like Singer he pines for greater civic virtue. In his book The Great Disruption, Fukuyama bemoans the destruction of social life brought about by the break-up of the postwar order. The transition from an industrial society to an information one, he believes, has led to increased crime and social disorder, the decline of the family, a collapse of trust and confidence in social institutions and the weakening of social bonds and common values. The solution to these problems, he argues, lies as much in human nature as in social policy. 'Human beings by nature are social creatures', Fukuyama writes, 'with certain built-in, natural capacities for solving problems of social co-operation and inventing moral rules to constrain individual choice. They will, without much prompting, create order spontaneously simply by pursuing their daily individual ends and interacting with other people.' Natural selection, he believes, has already designed the solution to our social problems. If governments only leave us alone, people will naturally recreate communities and social bonds.

Homo thatcherus, Homo equalitas, Homo communitas - all, apparently, have emerged from the savannah. Evolution allows us to dream it all. In Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, the prophet Mahound receives in revelation from the angel Gibreel the rules by which humans should live. Gibreel 'spouted rules, rules, rules, rules about every damn thing... It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free.' Mahound's scribe, Salman, who takes down Gibreel's words 'got to wondering what manner of God this was that sounded so much like a businessman:

This was when he had the idea that destroyed his faith, because he recalled that of course Mahound himself had been a businessman, and a damned successful one at that, a person to whom organisation and rules came naturally, so how excessively convenient that he should have come up with such a very businesslike archangel, who handed down the management decisions of this highly corporate, if non-corporeal, God.

There's more than a whiff of this in evolutionary stories of human politics. How excessively convenient, as Salman might say, that on the African savannah of 100 000 years ago we should find the tools to remake the politics of today. And how even more convenient that these tools should match exactly one's own political inclinations. Over here we find evidence that humans are, by nature, freetraders, over there that they are naturally inclined to fairness, and round the corner we find that stitched into their souls are the necessary means to heal the great disruption. It's almost as if evolution designed human beings' political nature as a tabula rasa on which can be impressed any variety of political attitudes.

We should not be too surprised that political debate has been transposed back into the Stone Age in this fashion. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of Marxism, the blurring of the distinctions between left and right, the disintegration of working class and other oppositional organisations - all have transformed the nature of political debate and, in the eyes of many people, made politics irrelevant to their lives. In its stead, natural selection has become a new agency of change. If humans cannot do it for themselves, many people feel, then perhaps nature will give us a helping hand. Moreover, in an age of uncertainty, when many people feel a sense of alienation both social institutions and from each other, evolutionary theory provides a form of anchorage. It gives people a sense of who they are, where they have come from and where they are going. Just as social uncertainties have made people eager for tales of nature's innate wisdom, so it has created a space for evolutionary stories.

Where the new genetics seems to exacerbate our sense of impermanence by blurring traditional boundaries, the new Darwinism seems to establish a new set of constraints and hence to provide a sense of certainty in a time of turbulence and disruption. It creates a new myth about what it means to be human. No one has pursued this idea more fully than EO Wilson. 'People need a sacred narrative', he argues in Consilience. 'They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or other, however intellectualised.' Such a sacred narrative, he believes, can be either a religion or a science. 'The true evolutionary epic', he writes, 'retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic':

The continuity of the human line has been traced through a period of deep history a thousand times older than that conceived by the Western religions. Its study has brought new revelations of great moral importance. It has made us realise that Homo sapiens is far more than a congeries of tribes and races. We are a single gene pool from which individuals are drawn and into which they are dissolved the next generation, forever united as a species by heritage and a common future. Such are the conceptions, based on fact, from which new intimations of immortality can be drawn and a new mythos evolved.

For Wilson, then, humans need a myth that allows them to transcend the present, and have sense of both their past and their future. Where Prince Charles wants to restore a sense of the sacred in our dealings with nature, Wilson desires to naturalise the idea of sacredness. The result is not so much evolutionary psychology as evolutionary theology: a new (or, perhaps, New Age) religion for mankind. This is ironic because Wilson, like most evolutionary biologists, is deeply hostile to religion. But in trying to replace God with Nature, Wilson has turned science into faith. Like ecomysticism, what we might call evomysticism has also become a means of setting limits to human accomplishment, of providing solace in anxious times, of discovering a non-human source to arbitrate on human actions.

There are few things more human than science. To be human is to disturb the universe, to humanise it, to bend it to our will. Only through controlling nature, and of transcending nature, do we begin to realise ourselves as human beings, as creatures who make our history, rather than simply act it out. As the most effective way that we have of understanding, controlling and transforming nature, science is the crowning achievement of our humanity.

There are few things more dispiriting than turning science into faith. Faith disempowers humans, snatching from their hands the responsibility for their fate. It sets up limits to human actions and possibilities. Making a faith of science is particularly invidious as it turns the party of reason into the high priests of myth, transmuting an open-ended, quizzical view of the world, into a narrow, closed dogma. It is this about which we should be truly worried.