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Monday

26.10.2015

Science is dead

I'm still working on my Ph.D. thesis, and in that vacant state between being and becoming I read a lot of papers on ecology and evolution. This morning I read a paper that reminded me how puny my "career choice" really is. Here is the introduction to the paper:
"Interest in natural diversity has risen in the public conscience recently with concern over the imminent extinction of thousands of species as a result of pollution and habitat destruction. Ecologists are unable to calculate the consequences of this havoc for natural resources of use to mankind and for the intrinsic stability of natural systems. But many consider these consequences to be potentially disastrous. If we are to predict change in system function after depauperization, we need to understand processes responsible for generating and maintaining diversity in biological communities. Indeed, the diversity issue may have two faces: Can one comprehend the ruin of natural systems without understanding how they are built?" [Ricklefs, R.E. (1987): Community diversity: relative roles of local and regional processes.? Science, 235(4785):167-171.]


What bothers me about Ricklefs is that he sees the destructive power of humankind, and uses it as a reason for describing his little research program, completely ignorant of the futility of his academic labour. Ricklefs is not alone in this, but stands representative for almost every humanoid on this planet: everyone can see how much people are harming this planet and all its inhabitants. But not the destruction of this complex environment is mourned, only our inability to predict destruction's outcome. The act of destruction is no longer of any importance; it is something we learned to live with. Much more relevant is our ability to prognose the losses for our mischievous humanity - the virtual losses of a digital economy. Those are the concerns of a world based on virtues of financial growth, capitalistic development, and globalised consumption. A world that is so human, so self-centered, so ignorant, that it rather finds new ways of estimating the extent of its problems than of solving them.


People say science has changed the world - that science is a big advancement from religion, because it shifted our investigative focus from a search for meaning in the world, to that of meaning of the world, a shift from "Why" to "How" - a glorious adventure, set forth to explain the complex physical interactions between all things natural. But this shift in purpose is meaningless, as it is still based on our puny human quest for purpose. The focus has shifted from explaining our misfortune with "the will of god", to a deeper understanding and quantifiable estimate of our misfortune. After millennia of living in "intelligent" societies we are still unable to move from conclusion to action. It is certainly good to know at what rate we are destroying this world, but now that we know - maybe we should stop doing so.


The problems that we face as humanity - disease, starvation, violence - are not caused by a lack of understanding, but by a lack of empathy. We don't actually care about our negative impact; we just want to put a really reliable number to it. Or why else do industrialised countries spend billions of dollars every year to examine phenomena of climate change, distribution of wealth, and declining biodiversity; compared to barely noticeable amounts that are spent on conservation efforts? When a company tries to drill an oil well into a unique ecosystem, the government merely adds up a few inconsequential numbers and decides that economic growth is more important than any environmental concern, thus putting the exploit of limited mineral resources over the preservation of unique natural conditions.


I don't want to live in Ricklefs' world - a world that is heavily classified, categorised and understood. A world that is conserved in vials and jars, preserved for future generations to look at; pictured and documented. A world that is completely digitised, wrapped into cellophane, and stuffed into a display cabinet. Mere remnant of a world that was driven out of existence by a destructive ignorance; a mind that was so focused on documentation that it put its academic search for knowledge before its empathetic self.

Humanity is dead. Long live the formula that explains our human shortcomings.

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