WANTED: A different attitude to science

Linnaea floribus geminatis = Linnaea borealis in Flora Svecica… (1745, Stockholm) by Carl Linnaeus

The Linnean and other learned societies might soon be priced out of their prestigious headquarters in London’s Piccadilly – and this, says Colin Tudge, reveals a deep flaw in our attitude to science

In our materialist, neoliberal society in which money is the measure of all things science is construed, and taught, almost entirely as a materialist pursuit — as the source of high technologies that can “compete” in the world market and make us all rich. (Or at least make some of us rich — those who are deemed to matter. Who, broadly speaking, are the ones who are rich already). Science is supposed to achieve this by helping us (humanity; known in Parnassian vein as “Man”) to control or indeed to “conquer” nature, roughly as recommended by Francis Bacon at the start of the 17th century, when recognizably modern science first got decisively underway. The immediate aim was and is to adjust the otherwise hostile natural world to our needs: “conquer” disease, keep us well fed, and generally make us more comfortable (and indeed richer).

The 18th century, the climactic age of the “Enlightenment”, saw the rise of capitalism and forged the grisly alliance of science and money that is with us still. Science provides the material understanding that gives rise to bigger and smarter technologies that in turn are geared to the perceived compulsion to maximize wealth – measured in money. William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” captures the thinking admirably. Conventional thinking has it too that all human endeavour is driven by our innate human desire to acquire and to dominate. These are not attractive characters, many might feel, but they are perceived nonetheless to be the defining features of human nature, shaped over aeons by natural selection, which has required us above all to compete, wax fat, and multiply our own particular kind, or at least to multiply the genes that ultimately underpin our urge to acquire and dominate. Or that at least has been the prevailing view these past few decades. The desire to be rich and dominant is therefore perceived to be natural and therefore to be right.

All of the above is dubious biology (which sadly misrepresents Darwin), and very bad moral philosophy, for as many a philosopher and Christian saint has pointed out, what is natural is not necessarily what is morally right. Much more to the point, though, is that there is no good reason to assume that greed and acquisitiveness are the prime features of human nature – or of any other creature, come to that — and there are many reasons to suppose that they are not.

Then again, the materialism of science and the spirituality of religion are often seen to be at odds. They seem to lead us to quite different worldviews. At least, again, that seems to be the received truth. Yet the great scientists and philosophers of science who launched the age of recognizably modern science in the 17th century were all devout: Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, John Ray. All saw their research as a form of worship – seeking to understand the mind of God and hence to draw closer to him. To be sure, they could be very practical too. Newton pursued astronomy partly as an aid to navigation. Hooke’s microscopy had very obvious relevance to medicine. All in all though those fathers of modernity felt the same way about science as J S Bach, some decades later, felt about music; that it was for the glory of God. For them, science was a spiritual quest.

I can’t myself claim to be a bona fide scientist but I wanted to study biology from the age of six (nature study we called it at that innocent age) and it was the aesthetics and the sense of mystery – the thrill — that drew me into it: the world of nature pervaded by a sense of what the German theologian Rudolf Otto called “the numinous”; of an underlying intelligence; an underlying divinity. Later I earned a living by writing about science and met and talked to many hundreds of scientists and medics and I know that many of them feel that way too, even if they don’t necessarily express the thought in the language of Christian theology. Science, they feel, at its roots, is an aesthetic and spiritual pursuit. That is what it is really for, and why it deserves a special place in our culture. And that, I suggest, without dumbing down, is how it should be taught.

Such thoughts have now been brought to the surface by news in The Observer (February 18, 2021, p 3) that our dyed-in-the-wool neoliberal government wants to charge the five learned societies that lodge in London’s Burlington House an “economic rent”: the same amount that an oil sheikh or a Russian oligarch or Donald Trump might be prepared to pay to dwell amongst such real estate. I’m sure the super-rich could get permission to park their helicopters in Green Park (or anything else they might want to do) and then it’s just a brief stroll across Piccadilly. With cops to hold up the traffic and their personal bodyguards they’ll be safe enough. Obviously the learned societies should pay the going rate. Stands to reason, doesn’t it? And what trumps reason? And what is reason, but calculation? And isn’t money the universal calculus, and hence the ultimate measure of worth and of value?

The five learned tenants of Burlington House include the Society of Antiquaries of London; the Geological Society; the Royal Astronomical Society; the Royal Society of Chemistry; and the Linnean Society. The sixth inhabitant – the Royal Academy of Arts – is not apparently affected by the rent hike. The Linnean Society is close to my heart. I was a Fellow for some years before I foolishly allowed my fellowship to lapse when we left London. But I visited the library a lot when I wrote my book on taxonomy, The Variety of Life (which I would love to update, incidentally. Though not as a solo turn this time round, if anyone out there is interested). I also went to quite a few meetings, though not enough, and they were, and still are, splendid.

Much or most of the Linnean Society’s work is of direct relevance to everyday life, contributing directly to the wellbeing of humanity and the natural world. But also – and for my money of even greater significance – the Linnean has been and still is a guardian of “pure” biology, of scholarship for its own sake, not simply to control nature for our own material benefit but to enable us more fully to appreciate the world we find ourselves in. There is still a strong emphasis on taxonomy but the overall vision of the society is far broader, as recorded on its website: to contribute to “a world where nature is understood, valued, and protected”. Absolutely.

Among much else the Linnean houses some fine collections – not least of original illustrations by Beatrix Potter, who was a wonderful observer of the natural world as is evident not simply from her magical depictions of fungi but also from Peter Rabbit and the rest. Peter wears a blue blazer but he’s still a very rabbity rabbit. Perhaps the Linnsoc’s greatest coup was the paper by Messrs Darwin, C, and Wallace, A R, which was read in their absence in 1858, on their parallel insights into evolution by means of natural selection – although the society secretary, in his annual report, famously or infamously recorded that nothing much of interest had happened that year. Wallace wasn’t there because he was in darkest Brazil and Darwin was holed up in darkest Kent or perhaps was taking noisome waters in some sulphurous spa. Darwin published Origin of Species just a year later, in 1859. Origin of Species was a rushed job. Darwin intended to write the definitive work later but never got around to it. Often the rushed jobs are the best. You never can quite “recapture that first, fine careless rapture”.

The Linnean was founded in 1788 and was granted its Royal Charter in 1802. It is named of course after the Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). The Swedes liked to Latinize their names in those days. Linnaeus was truly the founder of modern taxonomy. He divided all living creatures (or all the ones he knew about) into two kingdoms, animal and plants (in which he somewhat waywardly included fungi. Surely he knew they are not plants?). Nowadays all living creatures are divided into three “domains” (Bacteria, Archaea, and Eucaryota) and the eukaryotes are split into about seven kingdoms including Animals, Plants, Fungi (which in truth are closer to animals than to plants) and a miscellany of seaweeds, slime moulds, and single-celled “protists”. But the basic hierarchical structure is still much the same as Linnaeus proposed.

He also bequeathed the modern way of naming living creatures – in Latin binomials, the generic name followed by the specific, as in Homo sapiens and Bellis perennis. He wasn’t quite as original as he may seem, however. Nobody ever is. All stand on the shoulders of giants, as Newton acknowledged, and depend on the labour of lesser lights (which Newton surely would not have acknowledged). Thus Linnaeus derived his Latin binomials largely

from the Latin herbals of earlier centuries and John Ray had made a very good fist of classification in the 17th century (though this is less well recognized than it should be). Linnaeus himself was a wonderfully flamboyant character, who led the local citizens on botanical rambles – with all of them kitted out in special livery and accompanied by a brass band. Presumably when and if he went bird-watching he left the brass band at home. But plants can’t run. (I like brass bands. But there’s a time and place.)

The Linnean Society moved to Burlington House in 1856. Sandra Knapp, now president of the society, told The Observer that the three buildings that surround the main courtyards of Burlington House “were built specifically for the use of the learned societies by Queen Victoria as a cultural hub in central London”. But although Britain’s governments in the mid-19th century were pretty hard-nosed, today’s neoliberals are even harder. Like Hermann Goering, when they hear the word “culture” they reach for their collective revolver. Thus in 2012 the Linnsoc paid £4000 in annual rent – peppercorn for such a place, but appropriately so. Then neoliberal ideology took over and by 2020 the rent had ballooned to £130,000 – a 3000% mark-up. “If this continues at this rate”, says Dr Knapp, “we will have to relocate”.

Where to? One wonders. Some big shed in, say, Slough? (Only 30 minutes to Central London by train. Even quicker by HS2, if it stopped there, which it won’t. Or anywhere else, apparently.) Surroundings matter, enormously. I personally was lured into biology partly or largely by visits with my pa to London’s Natural History Museum, its arches festooned with terracotta pterodactyls, grand and mysterious and other-worldly – yet not sci-fi but our own world as it once was. And what will happen to London’s “cultural hub”? The Victorians were into commerce, too, big time – it was, in the end, the point of the Empire – and they loved technology too. Both came together triumphantly in the Great Exhibition of 1851. But although orthodox Christian theology was losing its grip in England (receding, wrote Matthew Arnold in Dover Beach, in a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”) the Victorians very obviously retained a sense of values apart from those of razzmatazz and money. Broadly, they still very obviously had a sense of the sacred and of the divine. It’s that, above all, that seems to have gone missing. Only money counts these days, at least with the people with the most power, like our present government. The possible exodus of the Linnean and the others is a symbol of the materialist shift. The melancholy roar continues – to leave, so Arnold went on to say, only the “naked shingles of the world”.

For science, for humanity, and for our fellow creatures and the fabric of the Earth, this – essentially the loss of the sacred – is the most damaging blow of all.

Colin Tudge expands these ideas in The Great Re-Think.

Illustration of Linnaea floribus geminatis (Linnaea borealis) in Linnaeus’s Flora Svecica (1745, Stockholm). Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


Two weeks after its article on The Linnean The Observer brought news of the government’s “reckless” cuts to UKRI – the UK Research and Innovation agency, which controls science funding in Britain: from £245 million to £125 million (14 March, p15). For alas, the plight of the Linnean is but a symptom of a far greater malaise – the deep philistinism of the present government and all it stands for, which is or are the very worst qualities of the Right: opportunistic, materialist, self-centred, dedicated above all else to tangible wealth and personal advancement. Everything that is necessary and most worthwhile in this country and is dependent on public support is starved of funds: science; the arts; agriculture; education; housing; transport; and, most immediately, the National Health Service which, our government has the effrontery to claim, is closest to its heart. All are threatened with privatization – takeover by the highest bidders. Instead of the things that matter we have short-term putative earners and vanity projects including the fifth Heathrow air-strip, HS2, and Boris’s absurd proposal for a (literal) bridge to Ireland. All will waste money, damage the biosphere still further, detract from the things that really matter, and lead us deeper into the mire.

The Tories and its splinter group UKIP affect to be patriotic, not to say chauvinistic. They also claim to be fiscally wise. Yet in their twelve years in power the succession of Tory governments (with noises off briefly from the Lib-Dems) has contrived to turn what they perceive to be Great Britain into a banana republic, selling off whatever is saleable (which seems to be all of it) and increasingly dependent on foreign capital and whim – the very opposite of the sovereignty that they claim to hold dear. Britain’s very palpable decline is not their fault of course. They blame the Left, the Russians, Iran, the EU, or whoever else may swim into view, and now Covid. But they are the government after all, and they have been for a long time. They do have a lot of real power. Surely a little bit of the buck must stop with them.

To put things right it isn’t enough just to vote for somebody else at the next election. Keir Starmer is the most plausible alternative and is surely a good man and this alone would be a pleasant change but it’s not enough. Neither Labour nor any other existing political party can do the things that really need doing. Indeed, probably, no mere political party of any conceivable kind can do what really needs doing. Government of one kind or another is surely necessary (societies need some kind of central organization, and someone has to take the decisions that affect the whole world) but governments alone can and should do only what the people at large want them to do. What’s most essential is that people at large should want the right kind of things and should have enough influence to ensure that those things happen.

As I argue in The Great Re-Think, to put things right – or at least to point the world in the right direction – we need first of all, the sine qua non, to spell out what it is we are actually trying to achieve: something more substantial than “Take back control” or “Put America first”. Our goal, I suggest, should be to create or at least to work towards “convivial societies – with personal fulfilment – within a flourishing biosphere”.

To achieve this, we need to re-think everything we now take for granted from first principles: what we value and why; what kind of government and economy we really need; what in practice we need to do, to create the kind of world we really want. Crucially, in the above, “we” means everyone. The change we need must be led by us. People at large.

High on the agenda is democracy. Democracy is difficult – indeed it can never be perfect. But we have to make it work. Most countries now claim to be democracies (some even have the word “democratic” in their title – often those with least claim to it) but in most countries, including this one, democracy at best is a travesty. Overall, the breadth and depth of the changes required amount to nothing less than a Renaissance, which literally means “re-birth”. But the Renaissance we need now must be people-led. Then, with the goal agreed and the appropriate structures in place, we can begin where necessary to re-structure. Not everything needs to be re-structured – some of what we have, including the NHS, is just what’s needed (at least in principle) and there are plenty of good models to build upon in other fields including agriculture and education; and there are even some good up-and-running economic models out there (including community ownership and various forms of cooperative). In practice the Renaissance we need can best be led by an Agrarian Renaissance – a re-think of farming and food. These in the end are the most important of all human pursuits, affecting everything else and affected by everything else. Serendipitously too, and despite appearances, they are the most amenable to a people’s takeover.

In short, what’s happening in the world at large in many countries including the biggest and most influential, is infinitely depressing; and for the most part the world’s most influential people are either wicked (it’s not too strong a word and in some cases is not strong enough) and/or ignorant and incompetent (often staggeringly so). Yet the present is exciting too. To borrow a phrase from the gung-ho neoliberals, “There are no problems – only opportunities”. Despite the best efforts of the people who now run the world we, people at large, do have an opportunity to set out and enact a new agenda: ideas and ways of life that really could keep humanity and the natural world in good heart in effect forever, starting with the next million years. Let’s go for it.

The Great Re-Think by Colin Tudge is published by Pari Publishing.