11 April 2010

Culture as the Context of Science, Behaviour as its Consequence

Paul Ehrlich, professor of population studies at Stanford, provides an interesting perspective on the connection between the gap in understanding complex science (and its effects on humanity - resource and habitat depletion, climate change, and the rest) and what he calls the culture gap in understanding the complexities of diverse, contemporary life. For example, he writes,
For most of our species’ existence, all members of hunter-gatherer bands possessed virtually the entire body of their group’s non-genetic information—its culture. But since the agricultural revolution, and especially in the past century or two, that situation has changed completely. No living person knows even a billionth of the cultural information possessed by humanity. No reader of Seed could assemble a 747 from its parts, let alone tell how each part was manufactured, where, and from what. Of course, there’s no way to close that enormous culture gap now. But critical parts of it could be filled in, so that most people would know, for example, what an ecosystem service is, the difference between ozone depletion and climate disruption, the biological significance of skin pigmentation, and the importance of the second law of thermodynamics.
His proposal is an interesting one: the social sciences and humanities should be restructured - "rebooted" as Dr. Ehrlich suggests - to be more integrative in providing an understanding of human behaviours and motivations in order to deal with practical approaches to complex, contemporary problems. He describes it like this:
Our civilization must move toward the formation of a sustainable, empathic, global family. Its members must be able to cooperate intensively to deal with global problems before it is too late.

That’s why a group of natural scientists, social scientists, and scholars from the humanities decided to inaugurate a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB, pronounced “mob”). It was so named to emphasize that it is human behavior, toward one another and toward the ecosystems that sustain us all, that requires both better understanding and rapid modification. The idea is that the MAHB might become a basic mechanism to expose society to the full range of population-environment-resource-ethics-power issues, and sponsor research on how to turn that knowledge into the required actions. Perhaps most important, the MAHB would stimulate a broad global discussion involving the greatest possible diversity of people, about what people desire, the ethics of those desires, and which are possible to meet in a sustainable society. It would, I hope, serve as a major tool for altering the course of cultural evolution.
A worthwhile proposal, I would say. Most important, MAHB recognizes the problematics inherent in disciplinary separations that emerged from the 17th century, laid the framework for modernity, and provide the constricting boxes in which we're now stuck (and attempting, often in vain, to think outside of them without falling into cliché). New, perhaps radical, models of human systems might well do the trick, since our models are generative, not merely descriptive. And from my corner of the world, it sure seems like we've generated a bit of a mess up to now.

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