Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization.
- There is a great disconnect between the sciences and the humanities.
- Solutions to most of our real-world problems need both ways of knowing.
- Moving beyond the two-culture divide is an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
For the past five years, I ran the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, an initiative sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. Our mission has been to find ways to bring scientists and humanists together, often in public venues or — after Covid-19 — online, to discuss questions that transcend the narrow confines of a single discipline.
It turns out that these questions are at the very center of the much needed and urgent conversation about our collective future. While the complexity of the problems we face asks for a multi-cultural integration of different ways of knowing, the tools at hand are scarce and mostly ineffective. We need to rethink and learn how to collaborate productively across disciplinary cultures.
The danger of hyper-specialization
The explosive expansion of knowledge that started in the mid 1800s led to hyper-specialization inside and outside academia. Even within a single discipline, say philosophy or physics, professionals often don't understand one another. As I wrote here before, "This fragmentation of knowledge inside and outside of academia is the hallmark of our times, an amplification of the clash of the Two Cultures that physicist and novelist C.P. Snow admonished his Cambridge colleagues in 1959." The loss is palpable, intellectually and socially. Knowledge is not adept to reductionism. Sure, a specialist will make progress in her chosen field, but the tunnel vision of hyper-specialization creates a loss of context: you do the work not knowing how it fits into the bigger picture or, more alarmingly, how it may impact society.
Many of the existential risks we face today — AI and its impact on the workforce, the dangerous loss of privacy due to data mining and sharing, the threat of cyberwarfare, the threat of biowarfare, the threat of global warming, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the threat to our humanity by the development of genetic engineering — are consequences of the growing ease of access to cutting-edge technologies and the irreversible dependence we all have on our gadgets. Technological innovation is seductive: we want to have the latest "smart" phone, 5k TV, and VR goggles because they are objects of desire and social placement.
Are we ready for the genetic revolution?
When the time comes, and experts believe it is coming sooner than we expect or are prepared for, genetic meddling with the human genome may drive social inequality to an unprecedented level with not just differences in wealth distribution but in what kind of being you become and who retains power. This is the kind of nightmare that Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Jennifer Doudna talked about in a recent Big Think video.
CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com
At the heart of these advances is the dual-use nature of science, its light and shadow selves. Most technological developments are perceived and sold as spectacular advances that will either alleviate human suffering or bring increasing levels of comfort and accessibility to a growing number of people. Curing diseases is what motivated Doudna and other scientists involved with CRISPR research. But with that also came the potential for altering the genetic makeup of humanity in ways that, again, can be used for good or evil purposes.
This is not a sci-fi movie plot. The main difference between biohacking and nuclear hacking is one of scale. Nuclear technologies require industrial-level infrastructure, which is very costly and demanding. This is why nuclear research and its technological implementation have been mostly relegated to governments. Biohacking can be done in someone's backyard garage with equipment that is not very costly. The Netflix documentary series Unnatural Selection brings this point home in terrifying ways. The essential problem is this: once the genie is out of the bottle, it is virtually impossible to enforce any kind of control. The genie will not be pushed back in.
Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization
What, then, can be done? Such technological challenges go beyond the reach of a single discipline. CRISPR, for example, may be an invention within genetics, but its impact is vast, asking for oversight and ethical safeguards that are far from our current reality. The same with global warming, rampant environmental destruction, and growing levels of air pollution/greenhouse gas emissions that are fast emerging as we crawl into a post-pandemic era. Instead of learning the lessons from our 18 months of seclusion — that we are fragile to nature's powers, that we are co-dependent and globally linked in irreversible ways, that our individual choices affect many more than ourselves — we seem to be bent on decompressing our accumulated urges with impunity.
The experience from our experiment with the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement has taught us a few lessons that we hope can be extrapolated to the rest of society: (1) that there is huge public interest in this kind of cross-disciplinary conversation between the sciences and the humanities; (2) that there is growing consensus in academia that this conversation is needed and urgent, as similar institutes emerge in other schools; (3) that in order for an open cross-disciplinary exchange to be successful, a common language needs to be established with people talking to each other and not past each other; (4) that university and high school curricula should strive to create more courses where this sort of cross-disciplinary exchange is the norm and not the exception; (5) that this conversation needs to be taken to all sectors of society and not kept within isolated silos of intellectualism.
Moving beyond the two-culture divide is not simply an interesting intellectual exercise; it is, as humanity wrestles with its own indecisions and uncertainties, an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
A revolution of the mind must occur in order for humanity to succeed on a finite planet.
- President Biden's energy summit is emblematic of an emerging mindset that is set to redefine our relation to the planet.
- 150 years of unchecked industrial and economic growth have changed humanity in profound ways but at a high and untenable environmental cost.
- We must move from the plundering mindset that sucked our prosperity from the bowels of the Earth to one that collects the energy that the skies serve us.
Rarely, if ever, do we stop to think about how remarkable certain everyday comforts are: to flick an electric switch and have light inundate a dark room; to turn on a faucet and have drinking water; to take a hot shower; to live in a home that is cool in hot days and warm in cool days; to step into a metal box and move wherever we want; to go to a store and buy food; to talk to someone across the world; to dump dirty clothes into a machine and have it wash it all. The list is endless.
Now, go back 150 years to 1871. Life was completely different. Energy was scarce; animals pulled plows and carriages; steam engines were beginning to flourish; technology was very primitive compared to today; medicine had yet to understand disease and sterilization. There were no telephones. Cars and airplanes were not invented yet. Light bulbs were still a laboratory curiosity. People drank crude oil as medicine. The first gasoline-fueled combustion engine car was still five years away, invented by Carl Benz, in Germany. The world population was about 900 million.
The pros and cons of technological progress
But look at us now! Fossil fuels transformed the world. Technology transformed the world. Life expectancy in the U.S. went from 39.4 years to 78.8 years. The world population grew to 7.8 billion, and well over 200,000 cars are built per day.
It's an amazing story of success for our species. And of catastrophic environmental devastation.
Even if technological innovation has its roots in basic research, the driver for the transition from the lab to the marketplace is money. Growth is measured by sales, and sales generate profit. In the past 150 years, the gross domestic product per capita in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (known collectively as Western Offshoots) grew from $4,647 to $53,757 (corrected for inflation and measured in international 2011 prices).
What feeds these fat pockets? Fossil fuels, deforestation, mining, the depletion of the oceans, industrialized agriculture. The obvious truth is becoming clearer to a growing number of people: we live on a finite planet, with finite resources, and with a finite capability of cleaning the mess we make. The time of treating the oceans and the rivers as giant sewage dumps, the atmosphere as an endless sponge for noxious fumes, and the forests as inconvenient obstacles to be removed for expansive cattle grazing and agriculture is over.
I'm glad to be alive to witness our reinvention.
The essential question, then, is what can be done? Is it possible to maintain the current growth rate based on a profoundly different worldview, one where the fuel that feeds growth is not unchecked environmental destruction but a symbiotic relationship between our species and the planet we inhabit? Can the economy adapt to a new worldview before we inflict even more irreversible damage to the planet?
The first point to keep in mind is that we are not separate from the environmental devastation we perpetrate. If the environment goes, we go. We need clean air, clean water, and clean energy to survive. The more of us there are, the more urgent this obvious fact becomes. The inventiveness and resourcefulness that we have traditionally applied to industrial and warfare innovation must now be applied to our own survival on this planet. We need to reinvent how we relate to the world. We must move from the plundering mindset that sucked our prosperity from the bowels of the Earth to one that collects the energy that the skies serve us.
A revolution of the mind
Credit: Jason Blackeye via Unsplash
This change in mindset represents a reversal from an aggressive relation to the environment — the metallic machines that dig holes to suck fossil fuels from the underground — to one that embraces what is already here: the sun, the wind, and the carbon-fixing capabilities of forestlands across the world.
Last week, President Biden convened 40 world leaders to discuss our collective energy future. The current administration clearly represents the new mindset. We must change the way we think about economic profit being averse to renewable energy. The old worldview, based on the past 150 years of the industrial growth motto — that is, let's consume the bowels of the Earth to get rich — is dead. It's unviable. It's unsustainable. It's self-destructive. It's immoral.
The changes to come will be as world-changing as the ones that exploded during the early 20th century with rampant industrialization: An economy based on the passive extraction of renewable energy from the skies; vast reforestation programs for carbon fixing; a complete overhaul of the auto industry toward electric and hydrogen-cell vehicles; a retraining of the workforce to adapt to the growing automation of production and to the need for versatility in the marketplace due to the new jobs of the digital age; a redesign of school curricula to retell the story of our relation to the environment to raise awareness among younger generations; and an emergent new ethics of life that embraces the planet and all living creatures we share it with as partners and not targets.
A decade or so ago, these views would be dismissed as utopic or at least naïve. But not anymore. The new worldview is taking root, and foolish is the country that won't embrace it quickly. I'm glad to be alive to witness our reinvention.
Skepticism has a place, but it's optimists who decide the future, says Kevin Kelly.
The news certainly doesn't portray it this way, but every year the world becomes a better place, says Kevin Kelly. There is currently an imbalance in our optimism and pessimism levels, because we feel that things are catastrophic, despite most scientific evidence pointing the other direction. In this inspiring stream of thought, Kelly reminds us that society is constantly making progress, and that innovation is the direct result of optimism. Civilization is not a sweeping, heroic enterprise, he says, it’s a constant creep forward, and you only have to look behind you to see how far we've come.
This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.
Kevin Kelly's most recent book is The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.
Professor Patrick McGovern, a world authority on ancient alcoholic beverages, describes how alcohol had a profound effect on early societies.
Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has one of the coolest jobs in the world. Some have called him “the Indiana Jones of Alcohol” or “the beer archaeologist”. What he does is recreate the world's oldest drinks by finding and utilizing organic material at archaeological sites. A world authority on ancient alcoholic beverages, he’s found humanity’s oldest drinks and re-made some of them, like a beer from the legendary King Midas's court and a 9000-year-old Chinese rice and honey drink from the Neolithic period.
In a recent interview with National Geographic, McGovern shared his insights on the importance of alcohol in creating our civilization.
McGovern thinks humans were drinking alcohol from the very beginning, with different human groups around the world figuring out how to create fermented beverages from barley, wheat, and rice. In fact, McGovern proposes that beer was made before the first bread.
And due to its nutrional value and mind-altering effects, alcohol provided "incentives for hunter-gatherers to settle down and domesticate grain". So to drink that beer, they set up villages and new societies. They would also use alcohol in religious ceremonies and as medicine. As such, according to the scientist, "The beginnings of civilization were spurred on by fermented beverages."
One specific reason that alcohol became a key part of religious ceremonies is due to the process of fermentation. McGovern thinks it would have appeared very "mysterious" to the early humans, with its bubbling and mind-altering properties likely making people feel as if there's "an outside force communicating via this beverage".
Dr. Pat and Sam Catagione of McGovern’s collaborator Dogfish Head Craft Brewery discussing the recreation of an ancient Scandinavian ale.
Another reason why alcohol was used it because paradoxically it's healthier (of course, if used in moderation). It kills bacteria and could have been a safer drinking choice than "raw water".
Historically, alcohol was also used as medicine until relatively recently. Romans and Greeks used wine within their medicines and, certainly, even today we keep hearing about studies that speak to how a glass or two of wine a day is likely to add to your health.
How does the biomolecular archaeologist create the ancient drinks?
He describes the process this way:
"When analyzing something, I work from a minuscule amount of chemical, botanical, and archaeological data. I look for principal ingredients: Does it have a grain? A fruit? An herb? Then I take bits of information from texts or frescoes and re-create the process, replicating pottery or collecting local yeast. Some methods carry on for thousands of years. In Burkina Faso they still mash carbs into sugar exactly how the ancient Egyptians did in 3500 B.C."
Want to learn more about ancient beer? Watch this talk with Professor McGovern: