Saturday, July 07, 2007

What Do We Know About Life?

I just watched scientist E.O. Wilson on Bill Moyer’s TV Show ( Wilson has been instrumental in starting the Encyclopedia of Life Project ( and is one of the world’s experts on ants and biodiversity. Wilson said during the show that scientists only know about 10% of existing species on Earth. 10%!!! We think we know so much, but really we know so little. And not just about biology; we know so little about so many important things: human psychology, cosmology, physics, chemistry, sociology, ecology, etc. etc... When you read or talk to the “experts” in each of these fields, they all admit that while we have learned a lot, what we know is a tiny fraction of what there is to know.

We know a lot as humans. I am greatly impressed with the things we humans have managed to learn and figure out. But I believe we are at a precocious and dangerous stage of human development: we are like the clever 8-year-old who can take Grandfather’s radio apart, be does not know how to put it back together again. We can burn ants with our magnifying glass, but we don’t know how ants communicate or organize themselves. We can throw rocks and damn up the creek behind our house, but we don’t know what diverting the water will do to local fish, amphibians, and such.

We are so proud of what we do know (or think we know) that we are making huge changes to the environment that we live in. And we don’t know what effect it is having on us and the other creatures that live on this planet. And we don’t know how to put the environment back together again. All our agricultural and industrial technology can quite easily be seen as being a result of humans knowing how to take nature apart. Creating a wheat field is really taking apart a forest or a grass land, taking that ecosystem apart and allowing only one organism to grow where there used to be thousands. Our great industrial accomplishments are really the result of our skills at taking things apart. We break the geology of an area and release oil. We break the oil into parts and use the gasoline, diesel, and plastics that result. We break the oil and break the oil until it becomes free carbon, which then rushes to bond with oxygen and form carbon dioxide. Then we wonder why it is hotter this summer than it was when we were younger.

Most 8-year-olds eventually grow out of their stage of taking everything apart and leaving them broken. Most kids grow up and want to start building things: relationships, families, children of their own, careers, communities. But as a species, I really do believe we are stuck in a stage of development that, while necessary, we need to grow out of quickly. The evidence of our destructive curiosity are all around us: raw sewage, garbage dumps, plastic trash that lasts forever, clear-cut forests, disappearing species, dirty air and water. We need to admit that our great human knowledge and technology is mostly of the simple and deconstructive/destructive type.

We need to put more concentration and effort into developing knowledge and understanding that will at a minimum allow us to understand how to keep things working and hopefully allow us to begin to understand how to put things together. And I am not talking about our puny projects so far. I am talking about maintaining and building ecosystems and environments for life, human and other, to grow and flourish in. I think we have the seeds of this kind of intelligence. And if we can imagine it, if we can tease out the facts and the patterns that support life, we can grow as individuals and as a species. Hopefully we can do this quickly enough to halt the destruction we have already done, before we lose too many species, before we lose all the life giving components of our planet that we know so little about.

I think a little humility is called for. Oh, and Grandpa, I’m sorry about your radio.
Credit: That is a photo of E.O. Wilson from Bill Moyer's Journal, and a collage by Me called Individual Collective.

No comments: