By John Brockman
Brian Goodwin looks on biology as an exact science, and sees the “new biology” less as a historical science than as an enterprise similar to physics in its emphasis on principles of order. He represents the structuralist approach, which resonates with D’Arcy Thompson’s idea that evolutionary variation is constrained by structural laws; not all forms are possible. These ideas are now connected with new principles of dynamic emergence from complex systems, as developed within the sciences of complexity. Goodwin is strongly opposed to the reductionist view of the ultra-Darwinians, and much more comfortable with the complexity ideas of Stuart Kauffman and with Francisco Varela’s holistic approach to biology. In this interview he explores the need to develop ways of perceiving and understanding wholes that are required within a science of qualities.
JB: What have you been up to?
GOODWIN: Let me preface it by saying that I’ve just left the Open University, and I’ve taken a new job down in Devon, at a place called Schumacher College. E.F. Schumacher is the guy who wrote Small is Beautiful, and this college is dedicated to education for the 21st century. It’s developing concepts and methods appropriate to the issues of sustainability, ecological sensitivity, and the participatory world view. Instead of the traditional science of control we are involved in the science of participation, which is where complexity leads us, involving sensitive participation with nature. This requires cultivation of intuitive ways of knowing about wholes as well as analytical ways of knowing about parts, which takes into what mat be called a science of qualities.
For me, a lot of the ferment that’s going on in science is around this problem of how we deal with the subjective and the intuitive. Everybody knows that the subject is primary. ‘Objectivity’ is something that comes out of consensus between subjects who have agreed methods of practicing science. Scientific objectivity is a democratic consensus between practitioners of science that such and such is the case, based upon experimental method and modeling. If there’s no consensus in science, there is no agreement about facts and hence no ‘truth’.
There’s another important component of science, and that is what’s philosophers refer to as realism. Scientists virtually all agree that there’s a real world that’s being investigated by science. Science itself, and the tools of science, are social constructs. But the methods of science address something that is real and independent of human beings. I believe in such a world. The knowledge you get from science is real knowledge about the real world. It’s not absolute truth, which is never attainable; it’s an approximation to it. So there’s this strong element of social construction in science, but I’m not a relativist.
JB: So define yourself.
GOODWIN: I’m a pluralist. I believe that there are different ways of getting reliable knowledge about the world. But because they refer to the same world we can compare them and decide which is more appropriate for particular forms of action. This implies that knowledge and (ethical ) action are connected, unlike the usual assumption in current science that facts and values are quite separate.
JB: But it sounds like you may fit in with the debunkers.
GOODWIN: I am certainly critical of many aspects of science, but I remain a believer in our ability to gain reliable knowledge about a real world. Consider the difference between this and the position presented by John Horgan in his book The End of Science, for example. In this he describes a crisis he had when he was an English major and suffered an overdose of literary criticism. He suddenly realized that everything was relative, every viewpoint valid in its own terms, so that there was no firm foundation of understanding. He decided to concentrate on science, to find out the truth, something solid about reality. Then, in his middle age, he had a second crisis, which is that science doesn’t deliver this truth that he was looking for. He decided that much of contemporary science is just untestable story-telling with the same characteristics as literature. He seems to feel that he’s been betrayed by science, which has become nothing but literature again for him.
That’s his own psychological journey, and he’s quite frank about that in his book. But nobody seems to have made much of it. He describes these experiences at the beginning and at the end of the book, and that for me brackets the whole thing. That’s his own testament of two crises in his life, which seem to have given rise to his book. I don’t for a moment buy his notion that string theory and modern astrophysics won’t tell us anything about reality because we can’t do experiments on them.
I remember going to the Scientific American offices in New York to meet John when I was promoting my book (How The Leopard Changed Its Spots) and we had a great talk. He’s a very interesting guy. I really enjoyed our conversation ÷ it seemed to me he was onto something important, but I don’t think he got there in his book.
John is caught by an incredibly effective journalistic style. He knows what sells well, and he’s got this wonderful way of capturing vignettes of scientists, characterizing them, but I feel the book is ultimately superficial. There’s a deeper problem about science which is the involvement of the subject in the acquisition of knowledge. As described above, ‘objective’ knowledge comes from consensus between subjects who agree on particular methods of getting knowledge, as scientists do in acquiring quantitative knowledge about parts of the world by measurement procedures. This gives us a science of quantities, a Galilean science. But we experience more than quantities; we also experience qualities such as color, texture, pain, joy, health, beauty, coherence, and a host of other properties. Science tends to dismiss these as ‘subjective’, outside the realm of scientific investigation. But people are hankering after a better quality of life ÷ not just the quality of air and water and food, but quality of experience, relationships with people, community values. Subjectivity is getting squeezed out by science, and everything’s being turned into this counter-intuitive objective way of looking at the world.
JB: Is this a reason for a backlash against science?
GOODWIN: I think so ÷ people have tuned into a real malaise in our culture. These movements aren’t there for nothing; they’re telling us something quite important. For me, one of the things they’re pointing to is that science is contributing to this illness, in that people are not allowed to acknowledge their own subjectivity, and their own intuition. Consider medical practice. Somebody gets ill, they go to a doctor, the doctor analyzes it in terms of some causal agent such as a virus or other pathogen. Or a blood sample is taken and analyzed ÷ everything is done objectively. Of course this is useful information, but in general we don’t pay attention to the subject, don’t do what a really good practitioner does ÷ including a good western general practitioner: listen to the person, and give a holistic diagnosis that comes from both knowledge of ‘facts’ and intuitive insight. Now what does this mean, intuitive insight? Well, it’s a way of somehow organizing into a meaningful whole the knowledge you get from looking carefully at the history of the person together with an analysis of pathogens and body parts. That’s the essence of subjectivity: taking in relevant aspects of your environment and turning it into something that has meaning for you in relation to your experience and intuition.
There’s a bit of this in my Leopard book, in the last chapter called “A Science of Qualities”. I believe that there is a whole scientific methodology that needs to be developed on the basis of what is called the intuitive way of knowing. It’s not something that’s vaguely subjective and artistic, it’s a definite way of knowing the world. In fact, it’s absolutely essential to creative science. All the great scientists, Einstein, Feynman, you name them, would say intuition is the way they arrived at their basic insights, their new ways of putting parts together into coherent wholes. The famous guys are allowed to say this. The rest of us have to pretend that we’re really basing everything on hard fact, proceeding to generalize by induction as Francis Bacon told us to, not seeing a new whole intuitively. What really interests me is the possibility of systematically cultivating this way of knowing. Now this is part of traditional cultures. In our own culture, one of the first to develop it was Goethe, towards the end of the 18th century. Goethe had his own way of doing science, and people didn’t understand it; it seemed to be completely opposed to the dominant scientific method which came from Galileo and Newton. Goethe had a long conflict with Newton’s way of understanding color because he was proceeding systematically with his experiments in quite a different way. Only in the past 20 years or so has the reason for this conflict become clear, as discussed in books that examine carefully the difference between Goethe’s way of science and that of Galileo and Newton: he was developing a different way of understanding the world of phenomena, a way of studying wholes and their relation to parts that can be called a holistic science. It seems that Goethe’s time for recognition as a scientist has come. His novels, his plays, his poetry are well known, and for these he is recognized as a genius of the first rank. But Goethe said that what he really valued was his scientific work ÷ his theory of color, and his theory of form ÷ plant and animal form, i.e. morphology. He actually introduced the term morphology into biology.
Goethe as an artist knew that intuition was terribly important for organizing the data that we accumulate through sensory perception. We need a balance between the analytical way of knowing and the intuitive way of knowing, both of which can be cultivated systematically. In our educational system today, we focus on the analytical, and we just leave the intuitive alone. In fact we tend to deny or ignore it. Just as we’ve been kicking shit out of Nature for 400 years, we’ve been doing the same to that part of our nature that we call subjectivity or intuition. In order to get a purely objective, reliable view of the world, science has denied subjectivity, and yet you can’t do science without intuition, as discussed earlier. Goethe developed ways of cultivating intuitive, holistic knowledge. I’ve tried this with students, and it works remarkably well. It requires going on a somewhat different journey than that pursued in present science and deliberately include all the qualities that Galileo left out of science, including the feelings.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot of darkness associated with this territory. In our present educational system, we split every student in two. When learning science, they use the senses and learn to think analytically, separating systems into parts and measuring them with great precision. When doing art, they use their intuitive faculties and their feelings. Don’t let feelings get into science, don’t let intuition get into science ÷ it’ll mislead you.
This is a self-inflicted wound. We’ve invested in this particular way of knowing, the analytical mode, for 400 years, and we’ve developed it to a very high degree. But of course there’s an enormous sacrifice that’s made ÷ the other half of our nature. That’s why people are now, I feel, very suspicious of science, because it is fundamentally wounding, splitting scientists in two and alienating people from nature by turning it into an object. People have an instinct to heal this separation. They want to add holistic medicine to the analytical tradition, they want holistic styles of living. You don’t hear much about holistic science, but that’s in fact what we’re exploring and developing.
JB: Brian, if I didn’t know you better, I’d say you’re beginning to sound like a quack.
GOODWIN: Holism has a bad name because it has been associated with a rejection of precision and the disciplines of science without anything systematic to put in its place. But I believe that a science of wholes and their qualities can be developed as systematically and reliably as our science of quantities. When Galileo came along and showed people how to measure things precisely, and how you could get intersubjective agreement on quantitative matters, people said, What the hell are you trying to get us to do? We don’t understand what this is all about. It took a long time for that way of thinking about the world, that degree of precision, to actually get into peoples’ heads and actions, resulting in our present-day science. It still needs a lot of training. The same slow process will be required to develop a precise science of qualities, which requires a different way of relating to the world.
JB: What’s the scenario that would lead to great discoveries and experiments ÷ how would it change the way a theoretical physicist thinks?
GOODWIN: It’s not with theoretical physics that the 21st century lies. Theoretical physics is a beautiful structure, the essence of the intellectual adventure that characterizes current science. But now what we face is crises of the environment, crises of health, crises of community. These are the problems that we now face and we need a science that will actually address these issues and give us ways of being in the world that will allow us to live a life of quality.
The steps as I see it will be to have an integrated educational system, in which children as they learn about the world are encouraged to use all their senses, their feelings, and their sense of beauty. Everybody knows that biologists are attracted to nature because of the incredible beauty of natural phenomena. And yet when they become scientists they’re told to put that aside and just pay attention to the quantitative aspect. Now what a more integrated approach can do is to open the door to a way of relating to the world that heals our relationship with nature. We’ve been alienated from nature by turning nature into an object. Restoring the whole person will allow us to relate to organisms, to trees, to flowers, to squirrels, to badgers, to coyotes, whatever ÷ as beings with their own intrinsic nature. That means recognizing their subjectivity as well as ours ÷ in other words, recognizing them as subjects that have a sense of quality in their own lives, acknowledging that in order for a badger to be a badger, it’s got to be able to live its life in a particular environment in a particular way.
It’s the same thing with a cow, or indeed domestic animals. Here we are busily manipulating farm animals, and farm plants, with genetic engineering. According to current biology, genes determine organisms, and organisms are simply accidental collections of genes that are functionally useful, allowing organisms to survive in some environment. Therefore it’s perfectly legitimate to change the genetic composition of an organism to fit into a new environment, for example, the environment we define. It’s just an extension of evolution. So we can create chickens or turkeys with enormous amounts of breast meat, even though they can’t reproduce, they can’t actually function properly, can’t live a normal life. But we can create an environment in which we can bring about their reproduction, so it’s OK to change them in this way.
Such things are deeply wounding to our relationship with the natural world ÷ and with each other ÷ because it means turning everything in life into a commodity. It encourages me to think of you as just a bunch of commodities ÷ your blood cells, your skin, your genes. These are all just commodities that have potential commercial value. As far as I’m concerned, that’s suicide. A lot of people share that intuition. This is where science is going too far. I don’t want to stop science; I just want to balance it. One of the things I love about science is its self-correcting quality, which is really a property of human activity. We always go to extremes and then we reach a brink, reach the edge of the cliff and say, oh shit, we didn’t intend to come here! so we turn around, if we can, and go off in another direction. We’ve reached one of these brinks, and so it’s time to re-balance ÷ to get this other part of our natures back into functioning order.
People are very distressed about this, and quite rightly so. People in Europe and the States are very concerned about genetically engineered food. Industrialization of food has actually had incredible effects on our health. There’s the recent outbreak of mad cow disease, bovine E. coli contaminating cooked meat and causing human deaths, and rapid spread of antibiotic resistance. Human fertility is dropping fast, and the viability of human sperm is pretty perilous at the moment because of the effects of environmental contamination from chemicals. And now we’ve got a whole new level of possible contamination, genetically engineered organisms in agriculture, some of which will cause serious ecological damage and food allergies. We are dealing here with an unpredictable science because of the complexity of genomes. You simply cannot predict what will happen when you move a gene from one organism to another, so this technology has to move very slowly and carefully if we’re to avoid disasters.
I’m not against biotechnology. It can function responsibly and serve important needs, like inserting the human insulin gene into bacteria so that you get a more plentiful and cheaper source of insulin than by previous methods.
JB: You’re proposing a new science of qualities.
GOODWIN: It will take time, involving a growth and learning process.
JB: How will things change?
GOODWIN: I honestly can’t predict in detail, John. My experience in this area is very limited. This is what I’m doing now at Schumacher College, which, by the way, is now seven years old. It is a place where this kind of educational innovation can be explored. This month we are running a course called “Living Science Creatively” and it’s precisely on this issue of balance. On one hand there is the new set of ideas about complexity, health as a balance of order and chaos, dynamical disease, emergent phenomena, the nature of self-organizing systems and so on. That’s still within conventional science ÷ the third person, objective perspective. But complexity and unpredictability invite a move into a participatory way of being in the world. This takes us on an inner journey as we call it, where you cultivate your intuition and holistic ways of understanding yourself and the world.
You can do that in systematic ways ÷ you can follow for example some of Goethe’s procedures in respect to experiencing light. When people do Newton’s experiments with prisms they do them in a particular way and they come up with Newton’s formulae, his correlations between color and wavelength. This is a consistent way of describing certain aspects of light, but it doesn’t actually give you the experience of color itself. Goethe was primarily interested in investigating light in such a way that the process of color production in experiments with prisms, and our experience of the qualities of the color produced, result in a coherent whole that provides an understanding of the phenomena as a self-consistent unity. This is a rather different goal and method from the analytical procedure that seeks to describe light in terms of quantities such as the wavelengths of the colors. They are not actually in conflict with one another; they are different.
Goethe also worked with organisms, particularly with plants. As a biologist I find this work very interesting and revealing. Goethe’s goal was to understand the relationships between the parts of the plant (leaves and flower organs) and the whole plant as a dynamic process; and at the same time to understand the intrinsic (organizational) principles that connect all plants as an expression of a type of dynamic living order. I have found that my own work on the organizational principles of plants and animals comes quite close to Goethe’s in many ways, but there is a dimension missing which is the experience of the particular qualities expressed by plants of different species. This is where things begin to sound rather strange to the scientifically trained person. But the experience of wholeness and coherence carries with it a quality of meaning that refers to something quite precise. I believe that one aspect of this is understanding what qualities of healing particular plants have ÷ i.e., their herbal properties. Traditional cultures have developed this capacity to read plants to a high degree, and it is an area where it is possible to make some systematic studies on the relationships between holistic and analytical ways of knowing.