The Charles Darwin Syndrome
Science is Not the Business
Alastair McIntosh looks at the Government’s policy on the links
between science and business.
This article was published in The Herald, Glasgow, 1-10-96, p.
15 on the day after Edinburgh University closed down the Centre for Human
Ecology. It is similar to the version also published
by New Scientist, but with inclusion of the fascinating Charles
Darwin material at the beginning and end, and it is based on a full research
paper published in Environmental Values.
Why should Edinburgh University have wanted, reluctantly, to close down a centre
undertaking work so consistent with the values of academic freedom? Well, who
knows, but an insight might be gained from the New Scientist's leader
about the closure, and from one of several letters that came in to university
associates from people who believed their vested interests were threatened (click
here to view).
THERE is a sad passage in Charles Darwin’s autobiography. It says:
“But now for many years I cannot
endure to read a line of poetry; I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and
found It so intolerably dull that It nauseated me. I have also lost any taste
for pictures or music
me come back to that later. First, I want to address British science policy and
its educational implications. In 1993, William Waldegrave produced Realising Our Potential, the Government’s White Paper on science
and technology. Senior dons lauded him as academia’s “thinking man” in the
Cabinet. But with academic freedom challenged by cuts and commercialisation, few
openly questioned its ethics.
the fiasco unmasked by the Scott Report on the export of arms to Iraq, in which
Waldegrave was implicated, it is worth looking again at the paper’s underlying
values. Put bluntly, it is a business executive’s charter. And since senior
academics have described it as “a metaphor not just for science, but for what
the Government wants in education generally”, it is worth reflecting how it
might affect our children.
The paper states its aim as being “to achieve a key cultural change
between the scientific community, industry, and government departments”. The
“modern world was made possible by our great engineers” and “in a world
where ever fiercer competition prevails, history’s lessons are highly
main thrust of science policy is, therefore, to intensify “interaction between
scientists and businessmen involved in the day-to-day business of selling in
competitive markets”. Enhancement of quality of life is important, but
contingent upon “above all the generation of national prosperity”.
paper devotes a whole chapter to the centrality of science to the
military/industrial complex. In contrast with the traditional justification of
“spin-off”, military research should now look to benefit from
“opportunities for ‘spin-in’ from the civil to the defence sector.
a pluralistic society such statements might be acceptable in balance with other
points of view. But other than occasional tight lip-service to cultural
dimensions and the pure research value of “mega-science”, no other outlooks
are presented on what science is for, or should not be for.
is any consideration of the classical view that science helps us know ourselves
better. Gone is any acknowledgment of science as being to stimulate awe,
creativity, service to others, and respect for nature. Only profit counts Profit
from an accelerating “hell’s merry-go-round” racetrack of world economy,
where you either run faster and faster or get trampled from behind.
Implicit to this is post-colonial recognition
that wealth can no longer come from ruling other people’s countries. Instead
we’ll take out TRIPs – neocolonialism’s Trade Related Intellectual
Property rights - with sanctions. Globalised patents and copyrights are now
colonising knowledge itself
compete, the world’s farmers have to cash crop with industrial seed varieties,
pesticides, and fertilisers that do little for soil conservation. We’ve seen
the space race. And the arms race. Now it’s technofix race with profit as the
this is where education comes in. The paper calmly states that “the Government
… has embarked on a radical agenda of charges in the education and training
system, including changes in the school curriculum … for the whole of
compulsory schooling”. It goes on: “More young people … must see the value
of developing the entrepreneurial skills which will help businesses exploit more
effectively the results of research, science, and technological development.”
is tragic that something as potentially beautiful, honest, and important as
science has been disfigured in this way. Our children deserve better. They
deserve a science that respects their “wow” of wonder as they look down a
microscope or up a telescope. They deserve holistic as well as reductionist
deserve participation in a non-destructive economy. In short, they deserve an
education that draws out the full faculties not just of the head, but also of
the hand and heart.
brings us back to Darwin. He concludes: “My mind seems to have become a kind
of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact, but why
this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which
the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive… The loss of these tastes is a
loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more
probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our
children deserve better than educational policies that naturally select for loss
of happiness. Britain has a 20% share in the world arms trade. It’s a pity we
seem intent on training emotionally enfeebled geniuses to maintain it.
nearly seven years Alastair McIntosh has directed postgraduate teaching at
Edinburgh University’s Centre for Human Ecology. The university closed the
Centre yesterday. A new Centre for Human Ecology will re-open with an autumn
public lecture series on Politics of the Real World — details from P.0. Box
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