Edge 92 — October 31, 2001

(8,700 words)


THE THIRD CULTURE


ERNST MAYR: WHAT EVOLUTION IS [10.31.01]
Introduction by Jared Diamond

Now a third one of Darwin's great contributions was that he replaced theological, or supernatural, science with secular science. Laplace, of course, had already done this some 50 years earlier when he explained the whole world to Napoleon. After his explanation, Napoleon replied, "where is God in your theory?" And Laplace answered, "I don't need that hypothesis." Darwin's explanation that all things have a natural cause made the belief in a creatively superior mind quite unnecessary. He created a secular world, more so than anyone before him. Certainly many forces were verging in that same direction, but Darwin's work was the crashing arrival of this idea and from that point on, the secular viewpoint of the world became virtually universal.

THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER


AN EDGE QUESTION

WHAT NOW ?

A Continuation of AN EDGE QUESTION: "WHAT NOW?

Responses (most recent first): David Deutsch, Mark Stahlman, Richard Rabkin, Derrick de Kerckhove. (The entire project of 57 contributions to date - 46,500 words - is available at http://www.edge.org.


EDGE IN THE NEWS




New 02.2001

The Connector
By Andrian Kreye
Photographs by Abe Frajndlich

John Brockman wants to be at the frontier of knowledge. That’s why his online magazine is called Edge (www.edge.org): “What questions shall we ask today?”

English | German | French


New Nr. 41 • 8. October 2001

Der Geist zu Geld macht
By Jochen Wegner
Photographs by Tobias Everke

It is surely for this reason that the brilliant string theorist [Brian Greene], whose bestseller The Elegant Universe was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, sits somewhat confused at a wooden table at Eastover Farm on an afternoon at the end of July and asks: "What are we doing here, John?"

German original



New October 26, 2001 — Volume 7, Number 40

This feature from the nonprofit Edge Foundation, Inc. ... is an impressive collection of thoughtful words in response to the recent terrorist attacks and ensuing war..... Take time to peruse this collection of 44,000 words from 55 contributors and you'll be glad you did.



THE THIRD CULTURE


ERNST MAYR: WHAT EVOLUTION IS [10.31.01]
Introduction by Jared Diamond

When the first bird survey of the Cyclops Mountains was carried out. I found it hard to imagine how anyone could have survived the difficulties of that first survey of 1928, considering the already-severe difficulties of my second survey in 1990.

That 1928 survey was carried out by the then-23-year-old Ernst Mayr, who had just pulled off the remarkable achievement of completing his Ph.D. thesis in zoology while simultaneously completing his pre-clinical studies at medical school. Like Darwin, Ernst had been passionately devoted to outdoor natural history as a boy, and he had thereby come to the attention of Erwin Stresemann, a famous ornithologist at Berlin's Zoological Museum. In 1928 Stresemann, together with ornithologists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and at Lord Rothschild's Museum near London, came up with a bold scheme to "clean up" the outstanding remaining ornithological mysteries of New Guinea, by tracking down all of the perplexing birds of paradise known only from specimens collected by natives and not yet traced to their home grounds by European collectors. Ernst, who had never been outside Europe, was the person selected for this daunting research program.

Ernst's "clean-up" consisted of thorough bird surveys of New Guinea's five most important north coastal mountains, a task whose difficulties are impossible to conceive today in these days when bird explorers and their field assistants are at least not at acute risk of being ambushed by the natives. Ernst managed to befriend the local tribes, was officially but incorrectly reported to have been killed by them, survived severe attacks of malaria and dengue and dysentery and other tropical diseases plus a forced descent down a waterfall and a near-drowning in an overturned canoe, succeeded in reaching the summits of all five mountains, and amassed large collections of birds with many new species and subspecies. Despite the thoroughness of his collections, they proved to contain not a single one of the mysterious "missing" birds of paradise. That astonishing negative discovery provided Stresemann with the decisive clue to the mystery's solution: all of those missing birds were hybrids between known species of birds of paradise, hence their rarity.

From New Guinea, Ernst went on to the Solomon Islands in the Southwest Pacific, where as a member of the Whitney South Sea Expedition he participated in bird surveys of several islands, including the notorious Malaita (even more dangerous in those days than was New Guinea). A telegram then invited him to come in 1930 to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to identify the tens of thousands of bird specimens collected by the Whitney Expedition on dozens of Pacific Islands. Just as Darwin's "explorations," sitting at home, of collections of barnacles were as important to Darwin in forming his insights as was his visit to the Galapagos Islands, so too Ernst Mayr's "explorations" of bird specimens in museums were as important as his fieldwork in New Guinea and the Solomons in forming his own insights into geographic variation and evolution. In 1953 Ernst moved from New York to Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, where even today he continues to work at the age of 97, still writing a new book every year or two. For scholars studying evolution and the history and philosophy of biology, Ernst's hundreds of technical articles and dozens of technical books have been for a long time the standard reference works.

But in addition to gaining insights from his own fieldwork in the Pacific and from his own studies of museum bird specimens, Ernst has collaborated with many other scientists to extract insights from other species, ranging from flies and flowering plants to snails and people. One of those collaborations transformed my own life, just as the meeting with Erwin Stresemann transformed Ernst's life. While I was a teenaged schoolboy, my father, a physician studying human blood groups, collaborated with Ernst in the first study proving that human blood groups evolve subject to natural selection. I thereby met Ernst at dinner at my parents' house, was later instructed by him in the identification of Pacific island birds, began in 1964 the first of 19 ornithological expeditions of my own to New Guinea and the Solomons, and in 1971 began to collaborate with Ernst on a massive book about Solomon and Bismarck birds that we completed only this year, after 30 years of work. My career, like that of so many other scientists today, thus exemplifies how Ernst Mayr has shaped the lives of 20th-century scientists: through his ideas, his writings, his collaborations, his example, his lifelong warm friendships, and his encouragement.

Jared Diamond

[Excerpted from Jared Diamond's Introduction to What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr — ScienceMasters Series/Basic Books; October 2001]


ERNST MAYR is Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, at Harvard University. He is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the National Medal of Science, the Balzan Prize, and the Japan Prize.

Mayr is one of the 20th century's leading evolutionary biologists. His work has contributed to the conceptual revolution that led to the synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution, and to the development of the biological species concept. His theory of peripatric speciation has become widely accepted as one of the standard modes of speciation, and is the basis of the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Furthermore, his writings reflect, not only a technical expertise in biological subjects, but also a broad and penetrating understanding of the deeper philosophical issues involved.

Among his many books are Animal Species and Evolution; Evolution and the Diversity of Life; Systematics and the Origin of Species; The Growth of Biological Thought; One Long Argument; Population, Species, and Evolution; This Is Biology; and Toward a New Philosophy of Biology.

Mayr, born Kempten, Germany in 1904, began his studies of ornithology at the University of Berlin where, in June, 1926, at the age of 21, he received his Ph.D. In June, 2001, to honor the 75th anniversary of this event, the Humboldt University of Berlin awarded him a second (and honorary) Ph.D.

Ernst Mayr's Edge Bio Page


ERNST MAYR: WHAT EVOLUTION IS

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EDGE: To what extent has the study of evolutionary biology been the study of ideas about evolutionary biology? Is evolution the evolution of ideas, or is it a fact?

ERNST MAYR: That's a very good question. Because of the historically entrenched resistance to the thought of evolution, documented by modern-day creationism, evolutionists have been forced into defending evolution and trying to prove that it is a fact and not a theory. Certainly the explanation of evolution and the search for its underlying ideas has been somewhat neglected, and my new book, the title of which is What Evolution Is, is precisely attempting to rectify that situation. It attempts to explain evolution. As I say in the first section of the book, I don't need to prove it again, evolution is so clearly a fact that you need to be committed to something like a belief in the supernatural if you are at all in disagreement with evolution. It is a fact and we don't need to prove it anymore. Nonetheless we must explain why it happened and how it happens.

One of the surprising things that I discovered in my work on the philosophy of biology is that when it comes to the physical sciences, any new theory is based on a law, on a natural law. Yet as several leading philosophers have stated, and I agree with them, there are no laws in biology like those of physics. Biologists often use the word law, but for something to be a law, it has to have no exceptions. A law must be beyond space and time, and therefore it cannot be specific. Every general truth in biology though is specific. Biological "laws" are restricted to certain parts of the living world, or certain localized situations, and they are restricted in time. So we can say that there are no laws in biology, except in functional biology which, as I claim, is much closer to the physical sciences, than the historical science of evolution.

EDGE: Let's call this Mayr's Law.

MAYR: Well in that case, I've produced a number of them. Anyhow the question is, if scientific theories are based on laws and there aren't any laws in biology, well then how can you say you have theories, and how do you know that your theories are any good? That's a perfectly legitimate question. Of course our theories are based on something solid, which are concepts. If you go through the theories of evolutionary biology you find that they are all based on concepts such as natural selection, competition, the struggle for existence, female choice, male dominance, etc. There are hundreds of such concepts. In fact, ecology consists almost entirely of such basic concepts. Once again you can ask, how do you know they're true? The answer is that you can know this only provisionally by continuous testing and you have to go back to historical narratives and other non-physicalist methods to determine whether your concept and the consequences that arise from it can be confirmed.

EDGE: Is biology a narrative based of our times and how we look at the world?

MAYR: It depends entirely on when in the given age of the intellectual world you ask these questions. For instance when Darwin published The Origin of Species, the leading Cambridge University geologist was Sedgwick, and Sedgwick wrote a critique of Darwin's Origin that asked how Darwin could be so unscientific as to use chance in some of his arguments, when everyone knew that God controlled the world? Now who was more scientific, Darwin or Sedgwick? This was in 1860 and now, 140 years later, we recognize how much this critique was colored by the beliefs of that time. The choice of historical narratives is also very time-bound. Once you recognize this, you cease to question their usefulness. There are a number of such narratives that are as ordinary as proverbs and yet still work.

EDGE: Darwin is bigger than ever. Why?

MAYR: One of my themes is that Darwin changed the foundations of Western thought. He challenged certain ideas that had been accepted by everyone, and we now agree that he was right and his contemporaries were wrong. Let me just illuminate some of them. One such idea goes back to Plato who claimed that there were a limited number of classes of objects and each class of objects had a fixed definition. Any variation between entities in the same class was only accidental and the reality was an underlying realm of absolutes.

EDGE: How does that pertain to Darwin?

MAYR: Well Darwin showed that such essentialist typology was absolutely wrong. Darwin, though he didn't realize it at the time, invented the concept of biopopulation, which is the idea that the living organisms in any assemblage are populations in which every individual is uniquely different, which is the exact opposite of such a typological concept as racism. Darwin applied this populational idea quite consistently in the discovery of new adaptations though not when explaining the origin of new species.

Another idea that Darwin refuted was that of teleology, which goes back to Aristotle. During Darwin's lifetime, the concept of teleology, or the use of ultimate purpose as a means of explaining natural phenomena, was prevalent. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant based his philosophy on Newton's laws. When he tried the same approach in a philosophy of living nature, he was totally unsuccessful. Newtonian laws didn't help him explain biological phenomena. So he invoked Aristotle's final cause in his Critique of Judgement. However, explaining evolution and biological phenomena with the idea of teleology was a total failure.

To make a long story short, Darwin showed very clearly that you don't need Aristotle's teleology because natural selection applied to bio-populations of unique phenomena can explain all the puzzling phenomena for which previously the mysterious process of teleology had been invoked.

The late philosopher, Willard Van Orman Quine, who was for many years probably America's most distinguished philosopher — you know him, he died last year — told me about a year before his death that as far as he was concerned, Darwin's greatest achievement was that he showed that Aristotle's idea of teleology, the so-called fourth cause, does not exist.

EDGE: Is this an example of Occam's Razor?

MAYR: It's that in part as well, but what's crucial is the fact that something that can be carefully analyzed, like natural selection, can give you answers without your having to invoke something you cannot analyze like a teleological force.

Now a third one of Darwin's great contributions was that he replaced theological, or supernatural, science with secular science. Laplace, of course, had already done this some 50 years earlier when he explained the whole world to Napoleon. After his explanation, Napoleon replied, "where is God in your theory?" And Laplace answered, "I don't need that hypothesis." Darwin's explanation that all things have a natural cause made the belief in a creatively superior mind quite unnecessary. He created a secular world, more so than anyone before him. Certainly many forces were verging in that same direction, but Darwin's work was the crashing arrival of this idea and from that point on, the secular viewpoint of the world became virtually universal.

So Darwin really had an amazing impact, not just on evolutionary theory, but on many aspects of everyday human thought. My firm belief is that each period in world history has a particular set of ideas that are the Zeitgeist of that period. And what causes this Zeitgeist? The answer usually is that there are a couple of important books that have been responsible for everybody's thinking. The number one book in this realm is, of course, the Bible. Then for many years, the answer might have been Karl Marx's Das Kapital. There was a short period when Freud was mentioned (though I don't think he's mentioned anymore by anyone besides the Freudians). The next one — and there is no doubt in my mind that Darwin's Origin of Species was the next one — not only secularized science, gave us the story of evolution, but also produced hosts of really basic theoretical concepts, like bio-populationism and, as I showed, the repudiation of teleology. No one before Darwin had introduced these ideas or had advanced them so forcefully.

EDGE: Not even the scientific community outside of evolutionary biologists?

MAYR: No. They weren't brought up with these ideas, though scientists like T. H. Huxley probably felt, as he said, "how stupid of me not to have thought of it."

EDGE: How do you account for the fact that in this country, despite the effect of Darwinism on many people in the scientific community, more and more people are god fearing and believe in the 8 days of creation?

MAYR: You know you cannot give a polite answer to that question.

EDGE: In this venue we appreciate impolite, impolitical, answers.

MAYR: They recently tested a group of schoolgirls? They asked where is Mexico? Do you know that most of the kids had no idea where Mexico is? I'm using this only to illustrate the fact that ­ and pardon me for saying so ­ the average American is amazingly ignorant about just about everything. If he was better informed, how could he reject evolution? If you don't accept evolution then most of the facts of biology just don't make sense. I can't explain how an entire nation can be so ignorant, but there it is.

EDGE: I understand that there is a facsimile of the first (1859) edition of Darwin's Origin of the Species.

MAYR: Yes and this is an interesting story. Darwin's importance has only been gradually acknowledged. Even 50 years ago, Darwin was just one of those people's names you learned was kind of important. That was it. Nobody read him. Well I published a very successful book for Harvard University Press in 1963 and this gave me the courage to go to the director of Harvard Press, Tom Wilson, and say to him, Tom, I have a great wish, a heart's desire, and that is to see a facsimile edition of the first edition of the Origin of Species. We have facsimile editions of all the great classics, but we haven't got one for Darwin. So he said all right, all right, we'll do it for you, even though we'll probably lose money since who's going to buy it? In 1964 they published this facsimile edition. That was almost 40 years ago. and at that time, the first few years I guess they sold about a couple hundred a year but much to everybody's surprise, sales did not drop off after all the libraries had their facsimile edition, but rather they picked up. After a while, they sold over a thousand a year, and then about 6­7 years ago I was informed by Harvard Press that for that particular year they had for the first time sold 2,500 copies. The last two years I have a report that they sold 3,000 copies a year! Now this shows you how an interest in Darwin has been steadily growing in spite of the great majority of ignorant people. People are beginning to want to know what Darwin really said, which for me is an absolutely marvelous development. You know there's an interesting side note that as a publisher you might be interested in. In the first edition of the Origin of the Species there's not a single misprint. What a document of the workmanship in 1859.

EDGE: Where do you think Darwinism is going to go in the next 50 years?

MAYR: Well, Darwinism will not have to do any going, because it's already here. In the last 50 years, ever since the "Evolutionary Synthesis" of the 1940s, the basic theory of Darwinism has not changed, with perhaps one exception, that is the question of the target of selection. What's the object of a selective act? For Darwin, who didn't know any better, it was the individual — and it turns out he was right.

An individual either survives or doesn't, an individual either reproduces or doesn't, an individual either reproduces very successfully or it doesn't. The idea that a few people have about the gene being the target of selection is completely impractical; a gene is never visible to natural selection, and in the genotype, it is always in the context with other genes, and the interaction with those other genes make a particular gene either more favorable or less favorable. In fact, Dobzhanksy, for instance, worked quite a bit on so-called lethal chromosomes which are highly successful in one combination, and lethal in another. Therefore people like Dawkins in England who still think the gene is the target of selection are evidently wrong. In the 30's and 40's, it was widely accepted that genes were the target of selection, because that was the only way they could be made accessible to mathematics, but now we know that it is really the whole genotype of the individual, not the gene. Except for that slight revision, the basic Darwinian theory hasn't changed in the last 50 years.

EDGE: Where do the generation of William Hamilton, George Williams and John Maynard Smith fit in?

MAYR: Hamilton never denied the primacy of the individual. In the case of G. C. Williams, I have come to the unhappy conclusion that not many of the proposals of his best known book, Adaptation and Natural Selection (1996) are valid.

EDGE: All right, so Darwinism isn't going to change in 50 years, but the people writing about it certainly are changing.

MAYR: Every year one if not two books come out about Darwinian theory. Many of them are favorable, which is fine, and yet as many others attempt to improve or revise Darwin's original ideas, coming up with some so-called new theory that is invariably total nonsense.

EDGE: I can imagine what you think about evolutionary psychology.

MAYR: Not necessarily! To tell the truth, I don't know much about it, but I have heard there's a field called evolutionary epistemology. They use a very simple Darwinian formula that can really be stated in a single sentence. If you have a lot of variation, more than you can cope with, only the most successful will remain. That is how things happen. In epistemology and countless other fields. Variation and elimination.

EDGE: Who's notable in that field?

MAYR: Quite a few people though I can't recall their names right now. Suffice it to say that there are many more evolutionary epistemologists in Germany and Austria than in this country.

EDGE: It seems to me that Darwin is much better known in England than in the United States. Books about Darwin sell well and people debate the subjects. Here in America what passes for intellectual life doesn't necessarily include reading and having an appreciation of Darwin.

MAYR: Yet the funny thing is if in England, you ask a man in the street who the greatest living Darwinian is, he will say Richard Dawkins. And indeed, Dawkins has done a marvelous job of popularizing Darwinism. But Dawkins' basic theory of the gene being the object of evolution is totally non-Darwinian. I would not call him the greatest Darwinian. Not even Maynard Smith. Maynard Smith was raised in math and physics, and he was an airplane engineer in the last war. For the most part, he still thinks like a mathematician and engineer. His most successful contribution to evolutionary biology has been applying so-called game theory to evolution. Personally I have — and now I perhaps expose myself to a great deal of criticism, but regardless — I have always been a little unhappy about that application of game theory. What animal ever, in a confrontation, would say, now let me figure it out, would it be better to be timid or would it be better to be bold? That's not the way organisms think. You get — and somebody would have to work this out since I'm not a mathematician — exactly the same result if you have a population with every animal acting with a different mixture of timidity and boldness. Individuals at one end of the curve are very timid and have little boldness, individuals in the middle of the curve have an appropriate mixture of timidity and boldness, and individuals at the other end of the curve are very bold. Somewhere in between, in a given environment with a given set of enemies and competitors, is the best mixture of the two tendencies. You get the same results with game theory, but in my opinion, the better solution has a much more biological, Darwinian approach.

EDGE: How can the evolution of human ethics be reconciled with Darwinism? Doesn't natural selection always favor selfishness?

MAYR: If the individual were the only target of selection, this would indeed be an inevitable conclusion. However, small social groups that compete with each other, such as the groups of hunter-gatherers in our human ancestry, were ­ as groups ­ also targets of selection. Groups, the members of which actively cooperated with each other and showed much reciprocal helpfulness, had a higher chance for survival than groups that did not benefit from such cooperation and altruism. Any genetic tendency for altruism would therefore be selected in a species consisting of social groups. In a social group, altruism may add the to fitness. The founders of religions and philosophies erected their ethical system on this basis.

EDGE: What important questions have I not asked you?

MAYR: One question that is very difficult one to answer is whether the Darwinian framework is robust enough to remain the same for many years, which I think it is, yes. The real question is what the burning issues in evolutionary biology are today. To answer that you've got to get back into functional biology. Take, for instance, a particular gene. Say this gene makes amino acids that determine which side of the egg is to become the anterior end of the larva and which will become the rear. We know that's what it does but how it can do that is something about which we don't have the slightest clue. That's one of the big problems, but it's in the realm of proteins and functional biology rather than of DNA and evolutionary biology.

In evolutionary biology we have species like horseshoe crabs. The horseshoe crab goes back in the fossil record over two hundred million years without any major changes. So obviously they have a very invariant genome type, right? . Wrong, they don't. Study the genotype of a series of horseshoe crabs and you'll find there's a great deal of genetic variation. How come, in spite of all this genetic variation, they haven't changed at all in over two hundred million years while other members of their ecosystem in which they were living two hundred million years ago are either extinct or have developed into something totally different? Why did the horseshoe crabs not change? That's the kind of question that completely stumps us at the present time.

Then there are issues that no one besides a few biologists can fully fathom. Like how and why do prokaryotes, bacteria that have no nucleus, differ in their evolution from eukaryotes, organisms that do have an nucleus. Eukaryotes have sexual reproduction, genetic recombination and well-formed chromosomes, whereas prokaryotes have none of the above. So how do they get genetic variation, which they must have in order to survive according to the principle of natural selection? The answer is that prokaryotes exchange genes with each other unilaterally; one bacterium injects a set of DNA into another bacterium, which is an amazing process. Genes of course also go from one chromosome to another via this old-fashioned process that all bacteria use to reproduce. Beyond that, we don't really know how much such gene transfer occurs in higher organisms.

EDGE: A number of years ago I was talking to a German publisher about a new book on Darwinism. "I can't publish it," he said. "It's just too hot to handle." Why is Darwin so dangerous, to use Dan Dennett's phrase?

MAYR: I have a good deal of contact with some very good young German evolutionary biologists, and I'm constantly amazed how preoccupied they are with political concerns. It's just that they have gone through a series of political changes, from the Weimar Republic, to the Nazi period, Soviet occupation, DDR, and finally a United Germany, and throughout this time, everything has always been colored by politics. People got their jobs because they were Nazis, or because they were anti-Nazis, and so forth. They have to find a way to purge this from their system. In Germany, they scrutinize all leaders in a field and check all the records as to whether they had been Nazis, which Nazi organizations they might have belonged to, whether they published either papers or books that indicate that they had been Nazis or Communist, etc.

They think they have to do all this cleansing of science so that people can't go and say well you didn't tell us that so-and-so was a Nazi or a Communist. Scientists just have to cope with that. On the other hand, translations of my books that were published in Germany have been very successful. In fact, one of them is so successful that the German printing has run out and I can't persuade the publisher to republish it. He asks why he should publish another German edition of the book, when everybody reads the English edition. Which is true.

EDGE: Recently the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung began an initiative in their Feuilletton (Arts and Culture) section to present popular science and big scientific ideas to the public.

MAYR: I would say that generally you have far more food for the intellect in foreign newspapers than you have in American ones, except a little bit in papers like the Washington Post or The New York Times. It's remarkable; you pick up a German newspaper and there's all sorts of good reading material in it. Whereas we have very few such general interest articles in our papers. The focus in our papers tends to be almost exclusively on news rather than on education.


THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER


A Continuation of AN EDGE QUESTION: "WHAT NOW?

Responses (most recent first): David Deutsch, Mark Stahlman, Richard Rabkin, Derrick de Kerckhove. (The entire project of 57 contributions to date - 46,500 words - is available at http://www.edge.org.


From: David Deutsch
Date: 10.25.01

What happens now is that we (by which I mean the West) eradicate state-sponsored terrorism. And we can achieve that only by replacing all political systems that perpetrate or collaborate with terrorism, by systems that respect human rights both domestically and internationally.

This will require, first of all, war. Then, it will require spectacular success at the notoriously difficult task of improving other nations' political systems. But we have done such things before: we did it for Germany and Japan in 1945. We have also failed many times at it. We must succeed this time.

But more: it will require changes in us. In our conception of the political landscape. It will take violations of old taboos and the creation of new understanding and new traditions. Genuinely this time, it will require the creation of a new and better world order. At a moment like this, people like those gathered here ­ Edge contributors ­ surely have a great deal to offer.

I haven't read all the contributions. I agreed with much of what I read, disagreed with some. But I found little of what I had hoped for.

Richard Dawkins, as usual, talked sense, and made several true and timely points. He praised America as "the principal inheritor, and today's leading exponent, of European scientific and rational civilisation", and he broke a taboo by pointing out that this is "the highest civilisation ever". He took sides: "I want to stand up as a friend of America" ­ as do I. But in one important respect, his remarks did not seem to me to reach the heart of the issue. He blames religion, and our convention of "respecting" it. Now, I am no advocate of religion, but religious belief is surely not central to the present disaster. There are plenty of terrorists at large who are not pursuing any religious agenda. There are notorious sponsors of terrorism who are driven by nationalist or socialist ideologies, not religious dogma. And there are plenty of religious zealots who are no danger to anybody (except themselves and their unfortunate wives and children).

That is not to deny that mainstream Islamic culture has exhibited a major moral failure. It seems to struggle even to find the language and the conceptual framework genuinely to oppose the crimes that are committed in its name. Large numbers of peaceful Muslims find themselves in effect condoning mass murder, and painfully few can bring themselves to side with the victims now exercising their right of self defence. Nevertheless it is not the tenets of Islam that have caused the present violence. This is a political evil we are facing, not a religious one. And it is a modern evil, not an ancient one.

Moreover, mainstream Western culture has also exhibited a major moral failure: a refusal to distinguish between right and wrong. The unique glories of our civilisation ­ self-criticism, tolerance, openness to change and to ideas from other cultures ­ have in many people's minds decayed, under this moral failure, into self-hatred, appeasement, and moral relativism.

For instance, Freeman Dyson begins his contribution by attributing the First World War to an excess of zeal in fighting terrorism. His "What Now?" is that we must "stop telling the rest of the world how to behave" and instead "learn to live with the world as it is, not as we want it to be". He also describes his youthful sympathies with the Nazi bombers who in 1940 were dropping death on London, the "citadel of oppression" in which he lived. Of the recent suicide attacks he says: "I find it easy to imagine the state of mind of the young men who so resolutely smashed those planes into the buildings. Almost, I could have been one of them myself". It is ironic that he shows so much empathy with the pilots who murdered thousands in the cause of evil, and so little for those who are at this moment risking their lives to destroy a genuine citadel of oppression.

But this is no coincidence. Moral relativism always sees itself as evenhanded, and indeed it begins with a retreat from judgement or taking sides. But in practice it always entails siding with wrong against right. I said that we need to change. Here is something that desperately needs to change. A colleague wrote recently: "Despite the morality of responding in self-defence to a terrorist attack, I am thinking about how to find solutions that do not include tit for tat." Yet nothing that the West has done so far, or has threatened to do, or has proposed to do, has involved any hint of tit for tat. The idea that it does, is another example of the moral relativism that has pervaded far too much of Western thought and policy making, and is an integral part of what caused the attacks. In reality, the impulse for revenge plays no significant role in the political culture of the West. If it did, then the vast, peaceful, humane and diverse civilisation of the West itself would not be possible.

It is not true that the recent attacks on the US were motivated by a state of mind similar to that which is currently motivating the Western response. The Western stance ­ and even Western mistakes, including appeasement and moral relativism ­ are driven fundamentally by respect for human beings, human choices and human life. Western values are life-affirming and life-seeking. The murderers worship death. There is no symmetry between life and death.

There is no "cycle of violence" that we have to "break" by making the murderers and their sympathisers feel less angry with us. Their anger is unjustified: To cleanse the Arabian peninsula of non-Muslims is an immoral aim, violating the human rights both of non-Muslim residents and of Muslims who wish to associate with them (and, perhaps more pertinently, to seek their assistance in defending themselves). To cleanse Israel of Jews is an aspiration similar in kind but much more evil both in its racist motivation and in its intention to destroy an entire nation. To replace secular or less-than-fundamentalist governments by religious fundamentalist ones in all Islamic countries is an utterly tyrannical agenda. And there is a fourth unjustified 'grievance' that goes implicitly with those three: they demand the right to punish the West, by mass murder, with impunity, if anyone in the West opposes them in pursuing any of those other 'grievances'.

In contrast, the West's anger, and the West's restrained, careful and humane response in self-defence, are justified. The problem is not to find alternatives to defending ourselves against murderers. The exact opposite is true: this violence will end if and only if we defend ourselves, effectively. And effectiveness will depend in part on our saying truthfully what we are doing, and why our stance is not essentially the same as theirs.

You can perceive our stance and theirs as symmetrical only by expunging morality from your analysis: seeing all political objectives as being legitimate, all rival value systems as matters of taste, treating murderers and their victims with evenhanded sympathy. You have to look at tolerance and its opposite, intolerance, and pretend that they are two versions of the same thing. You have to pretend that the richness and diversity and creativity of our civilisation are playing the same role in our lives as empty repetition, oppression, and pitiless enforcement of a monoculture play in theirs.

People wring their hands and say that there must be "better ways of finding solutions" than warfare. Of course there are. We have already found them. The nations and people of the West use them all the time. They are openness, tolerance, reason, respect for human rights ­ the fundamental institutions of our civilisation. But no way of finding solutions is so effective that it can work when it isn't being used. And when a violent group defines itself by its comprehensive rejection of all the values on which problem-solving and the peaceful resolution of disputes depend, and embarks instead on a campaign of unlimited murder and destruction, it is morally wrong as well as factually inaccurate to represent this as a case of our needing "better ways of finding solutions". That is why we have to insist, by force if necessary, that everyone else in the world also respect, and enforce, the minimum standards of civilisation and human rights. Western standards.

One last thought. If I am right that there has been a moral failure in the West despite ­ and in a way, because of ­ the moral superiority of Western political culture over that of its enemies, then there is also a second irony. One may argue about the precise role of religion in the terrorists' mindset, but Mr Blair and Mr Bush, both of them religious believers who purport to derive their moral stances from their religions, are certainly not part of the problem: on the contrary, they are leading the solution. Mr Bush, speaking to an audience of children, addressed the question that everyone has asked: "Why would somebody hate so badly"? And he replied: "my answer is, there's evil in the world. But we can overcome evil. We're good." This is the simple truth ­ a truth on which all our futures depend ­ yet the moment Mr Bush uttered it, all the intellectuals in the Western world winced. Even those who, like myself, agreed with the proposition, winced, vicariously, because we recognised the intensity of the taboo that was being broken.

How many non-believers would have been capable of giving the right answer to that question? President Bush was able to answer it, and to articulate the explanation, and to use it as an essential element of national policy, not especially because he knows it intellectually but because he understands it in his gut. And the process by which it got into his gut was intimately connected with his religion. I must hasten to add that this process also entrenched there a slew of wrong ideas. Nevertheless, civilisation will survive the miscellaneous evils that one finds in a mature, Western religion ­ such as Bush's opposition to abortion, and the like. But it would not, pace Richard Dawkins, survive the typical non-believer's (pre-September-11) take on the nature of morality. We non-believers have failed too. What comes next is that we must correct that failure, by incorporating into the Western tradition of critical rationalism an objective conception of right and wrong.


From: Mark Stahlman
Date: 10.22.01

Antipodal Analysis

Imagine a distant time when some people noticed that a piece of floating rock pointed somewhere. Eventually, they noticed that all similar floating rocks seemed to point in the same direction. Let's say that they called this floating-rock pointing-direction North. Over time, this North began to take on very important qualities, becoming more and more significant, more and more great. Yes, over time, these people came to worship the great and magnificent North.

Imagine that some other people also noticed that pieces of floating rock all pointed in the same direction. Only these floating rocks didn't point towards the North; they pointed towards the South. And, overtime, these people came to worship the magnificent and great South. To them, nothing could be imagined to be more essential to their very survival than the marvelous South.

Then, wandering, as all people tend to wander, these groups devoted to the North and those groups committed to the South met each other.

No, it wasn't pretty. Yes, it was war.

However fanciful to our sensibility this might seem, this sort of conflict surely isn't unimaginable.

Not understanding that North and South are merely antipodes of a common "environmental field" ­ as we so surely understand ­ these people-from-a-distant-time wouldn't have grasped that they were both committed to the same environment. Earth. They wouldn't have comprehended that they were all dependent on both the North and the South . . . neither of which could exist without the other.

How does this relate to the Edge question, "What Now?"

Consider the possibility that we are now struggling to overcome our own lifetime's "War of The Antipodes."

"Modernism" and "Anti-modernism." Our antipodes. Our war.

Both originated (over and over) at the same times and in the same places. Both are completely dependent on the same environment, the same "field."

As demonstrated by the "Fundamentalism Project," we live in a world of "fundamentalisms" which share a great deal in common, starting with the arresting observation that they are all newly organized social phenomenon.

These "fundamentalisms" (or "anti-modernisms") simply couldn't exist without their corresponding "modernisms." Likewise, the other way around. As with all antipodes, their mutual interdependence is essential. Radically essential.

Yes, I did say "overcoming" a few paragraphs ago.

For, it would seem that just as antipodal analysis directs our attention away from the antipodes themselves to their common field, this re direction frees us to ask the question, "What is happening to the underlying field and how is that reflected in the activities at the antipodes?"

For, if the field is undergoing radical transformation and if the earth (or the ground) upon which these antipodes mutually depend is undergoing a revolution, then we might expect to observe some activity, even some disturbances at the antipodes.

Osama Bin Laden. Al Queda. Eqyptian Islamic Jihad. These are a group of type-related antipodes and, apparently, they are very upset. Very disturbed.

I am suggesting that this disturbance reflects their sense that they finished . . . that their relevance as antipodes is about to collapse.

I am further suggesting that they are indeed finished and that this is a reflection of changes in their underlying field.

"Anti-modernism" and "Modernism" alike . . . no longer relevant. Both no longer important. Both upset. Both disturbed. Both obsolete antipodes.

(Indeed, John Brockman's entire "Third Culture" project could be partially understood as an attempt to address disturbances in the "modernist" antipode.)

So, what now for all those who have committed themselves to one or the other (or some combination) of these (or other) antipodes?

What's a "Modernist" to do? What's an "Anti-modernist" to do? What is any "Antipodist" to do?

Go to war like those good Antipodists who were once committed to the South and the North, in distant times?

Yes, to be sure, this is exactly what many of them will do.

But, I suspect that some others understand that, like the North and the South of yore, it is what all antipodes depend upon — in common — that is much more important than the antipodes themselves . . . particularly in times of great antipodal instability.

And, if, as I'm suggesting, we are already living in a new environmental field, perhaps we should devote some serious attention to this new ground while we struggle to discard the obsolete antipodes to which we had previously committed our lives.

That is, if we wish to answer the burning question, "What Now?"


From: Richard Rabkin
Date: 10.18.01

I think I should contribute something from the "strategic" point of view to the "What Now?" discussion since it seems to be sadly missing, or, perhaps, simply obvious to all.

1. Terrorism is a military strategy to accomplish certain specific goals. It is used by those whose numbers and strength is unquestionable less than their opponents. It can be remarkably successful. The French reign of terror was conducted by 22 men and successfully control an entire country.

2. The specific strategy of the terrorist is to provoke a response in the enemy that leads to the enemy's downfall. It is warfare's equivalent to jujitzu in which the small in number and weak in strength use the opponents strength against him.

As one example, the Algeria terrorist provoked the French to withdraw from Algeria all native-born troops (and other actions) that clearly demonstrating to Algerians that the French did not really consider Algerians equal citizens and Algeria, itself, a southern province of France.

3. It is clear from his statements that bin Laden wants to provoke an attack by the US-led Western forces that will be viewed by the Moslem world as an attack on it in order to start a war which he believes the Moslems would win. It is not that he wants to weaken us directly, although the economy has taken a hit, he wants to provoke us to act in a way that will support his assertions about our animosity toward Islam.

4. Terrorists have been halted repeatedly when their actions produce either no response or responses that they do not want. The Palestinian terrorists instantly stopped hijacking planes and attacking airports following the Athens attack when the response in countries like Greece was unfavorable. In fact, Arafat issued a death threat to any such hijackers.

What now? This is a no-brainer. We must respond in a way that disqualifies bin Laden's goal. We must respond in a way that indicates that we are not hostile to Islam. Everything else, is commentary, as the saying goes.

5. Unfortunately the structural problem lies in the fact that information is capable of being distorted. No matter what we do, many people will be told we have done something else. Thus the terrorist does not really have to provoke us into an act that will be useful to him, but he has to be able to interpret what we do in that fashion. An example is that the attack on the World Trade Center is being reported as the work of the Israeli secret service. What scientists can do now is perfect systems that allow open communications. What ever happened to the sun-powered computers that could be provided to third world people that got information from satellites?


From: Derrick de Kerckhove
Date: 10.17.01

I am fascinated to read the latest comments and I certainly want to contribute to the Edge discussion. I am planning something more elaborate but this will do for now. For the moment, my principal concern is that the war rhetoric supported by 80% of Canadians polled (in this morning's National Post) is dead wrong in this situation. What it has provoked is clearly a polarization between Islam and the West. The problem with that is that this is not the kind of convenient polarization of East versus West under the cover of the nuclear threat. It is an ubiquitous polarization where your next door neighbor was your friend yesterday and wakes up your murderous enemy this morning. We have known this situation before in the 16th and 17th centuries with the religious wars. We talked yesterday of the infamous massacre of Saint Barthelemy where protestants were executed by posses of Catholics in a Church and in private houses. Even in a country as far removed from the centre of action as Northern Nigeria, that kind of behavior has already begun.

The other biggest mistake made by the same token is to have given bin Laden a huge PR effect by affording him the dignity of the enemy. Declaring war — even on "terrorism" was disastrously wrong, not only at the military level (how do you fight an enemy without an army?), but much much more at the symbolical level (the one that counts for the perpetrators of the September 11th massacre) because it immediately elevated a bunch of criminals to a heightened status, and provided Bin Ladin with the only military power he and the Taliban have, that is to be recognized officially as an opponent worthy of huge media attention and also have access to the minds of millions who see him as a hero and not as a terrorist.

The proper way to deal with terrorism is not war, but police action. The Americans are learning to really cooperate with the international counter terrorism forces for the first time (they used to snub them) and the payload has been immediate, as for instance, locating the cells in Germany and identifying several attackers. The police everywhere in the world is, in principle, paid to protect citizens precisely against this sort of harm. It may not always do its job well. Police states are not pleasant things, but these are not pleasant circumstance. The difference between asking the army to get into this instead of asking the police is that, while the police actions are largely underground, thus meeting the terrorism on their own terrain, so to speak, the effect of military attacks (and especially largely useless air strikes piling rubble on rubble and occasionally killing innocent Afghans) is to change the nature of planetary space itself, to divide it into two irreconcilable and unrelated entities.


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