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July 14, 2013


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i'm with you on science George, but must point out that human knowledge is (and has been for centuries) misused for the very purposes you end your essay on, that of personal gain and/or weaponization: from the advancement of mathematics to gunpowder to genetics. Our great leaps in knowledge are controlled and misused or squashed (how about the history of the electric car) by TPTB, large corporations, and the military.

Sometime you may want to examine why the psychopaths always seem to rise to positions of power and decision-making in society in one of your essays.

Lastly, major knowledge by scientists is completely ignored, muddled with misinformation and shouted down like that of Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and many others pointing out how the climate is rapidly changing due to our misapplication of chemistry to agriculture (without thinking about nitrogen run-off) and the entire "bug-control" business, in energy production (with respect to particulates and radiation) and the list goes on and on. We always seem to jump right on new knew knowledge to maximize profit without any consideration for consequences of any kind.


The scientists discover and describe reality. The tightly attached limbic system with a little engineering help finds ways to grow into and consume the resource gradients. Science is wonderful and acceptable as long as it does not interfere with our primitive emotions, but let science cross the limbic divide and put a damper on the consumption party and it becomes an evil to be resisted. Limbics think science is evil if it suppresses their desires to consume and rational thinkers think science is evil if it only equips the limbics to do untold damage to their environment and themselves. The temporary advantages bestowed upon us by engineering tools for growth, consumption and life extension, working within that scientifically described world, will turn out to be a significant mistake.


Here's another take on how we get bogged down with language, law, rights and so many other issues when just trying to do the "right" thing.


You might find 'The Moral Landscape' by Sam Harris an interesting read. In this book Harris proposes a scientific approach to morality - a way to use the engine of science to fix not only itself, but everything else (it's only a first step, but at least it's a step in what looks to be a good direction).

Reverse Engineer

It's not just Homo Calidus' lack of Wisdom which causes the failure of science as a paradigm, it is inherent blowback and feedback loops in the biological system. Easy example is in Medicine, where you say great strides have been made say in creating anti-biotics, but the result of that is evolution of MRSA and assorted other Superbugs. Utilizing more Energy has "improved" the standard of living for a portion of humanity, but utilizing more energy INHERENTLY creates more Waste and uses up the Resource base faster. No amount of Wisdom could stop that, it is basic thermodynamics.

I used to be a fan of Science, I was reading Tom Swift when I was 5, and my Dad's Popular Science and Scientific American magazines besides. Today, I find science and what it has wrought on the Earth to be revolting. We were better off without it, and without Ag also.

Anyhow Mobusfans, I'll cross post this article on the Diner tomorrow, along with Part 2 of George's Podcast.


Reverse Engineer

Oops, make that Part 3, Part 2 already up. Typo.


George Mobus


There are a few examples of science in the hands of more sapient scientists. Such people are able to derive big integrative ideas out of pure research. Several examples come to mind, like E.O. Wilson or Jane Goodall. I think Carl Sagan was in this category from what I was able to tell while he was alive.

To RE's points: Biology is not inherently at fault. The example you cite is just evolution working. In earlier posts I have explored the role of cooperation in the evolution of social organization (e.g. eukaryotic cells, multi-cellular organisms, eusocial organisms, etc.) I think that if Homo manages to survive and further evolve, that his eusocial nature, tied very strongly to eusapience, will make the new species capable of the wise use of science to gain knowledge without necessarily using it to exploit one another or the Ecos. We cannot judge what might be in the future based on what we have seen (and think we understand) from the past. Our species has abused its capabilities to expose reality. But that need not be the case for a much more cooperative species - one with much higher capacity for strategic and systemic thinking.



Placing things in the context of the long history often shines light on forgotten dimensions. I'm a regular reader of your posts since a few years already and often resisted the temptation to comment but your present post was irresistible.
My take is that biological evolution (competition) is paralleled by societal evolution (culture). Biology implies the individuals making up a species. Society implies the collective arrangement of the individual energies.

Science as a method to make sense of reality emerges from the success of "the reason of capital". Over the 500 years preceding the age of philosophic rationalism in the 18th century "the reason of capital", applied to long distance trade, bestowed on the merchants an aura of financial success that seemed irresistible to most observers of the European societal scene. Intellectuals were not only dabbling in concepts and theories. Many of them were also involved in applied research hoping to benefit from large financial returns. Those intellectuals were relying on their personal resources. This changed in the 19th century with the advent of economic massification when capital started financing the early scientific community and this is when scientists lost control of the bulk of the decision making process about what to research. In this light one understands why science could indeed end up being, as your title states, a "failed institution". But there is something a lot deeper going on here.

The emergence of "the reason of capital" in the minds of the early merchants that followed in the footsteps of the crusades is what ultimately unleashed modernity that followed the age of religions (in the West) and philosophies in the East. What I mean is that, seen from the perspective of the long history, societal evolution is characterized by successive "worldviews". Over the last 100,000 years societies around the world have been glued through the sharing by their citizens of a common worldview or a set of ideas about the working of reality that acted as instruments to foster societal cohesion which, in the last instance, is the ultimate condition for ensuring societal reproduction (let's remember that no societal reproduction = no individual survival). The creation of ideas about the working of reality was the prerogative of "the men of knowledge" who were respected by all as detaining the "truth" about the working of reality and their ideas were widely spread among the citizens through visual representations or what we have come to call art in modernity.
- animism (shaman). Tribal matriarchal societies without the idea of power and without states.
- religions and/or philosophies emerge after the development of agriculture and the emergence of patriarchal power with the early kingdoms and empires. The men of knowledge are the priests in the West or the "wise men" in the East.
- modernity emerges as the set of ideas imposed upon the merchants by the "reason of capital": individualism and private property. The financial success of the early merchants unleashes greed and the envy of all which leads to the emergence of philosophic rationalism and the scientific method.

Let's observe that, contrary to past worldviews, modernity never got a commonly accepted narrative to be shared by all citizens. One could imagine that scientists would be the men of knowledge of modernity. But no. On the level playing field of the market for ideas scientists are left to compete for eyeballs with all kinds of charlatans... Science does not have a grand narrative about reality that could be shared by all. Science is a method and as such the knowledge it conveys evolves. So on the level playing field of the market for ideas scientists have not the slimmest chance to convince the large majority of citizens in their societies. When our late modern societies leave scientists to compete with charlatans for eyeballs this clearly illustrates that science is not a shared worldview.

Now this inevitably leads to:
- the loss of societal cohesion... Societal fragmentation concluding in societal atomization which implies no societal cohesion left and thus the ir-reproducibility of late modern societies. That explains perhaps why our powers to be envisage authoritarianism as a last instance societal stabilizer. But that belief is merely an illusion bound to flounder.
- about your concept of sapience. I think that the combination of societal evolution with biological evolution offers a path where the concept of sapience is not really necessary any longer to make sense of humanity's lack of wisdom. What you perceive as a lack of individual sapience can easily be construed as being a societal aberration. But I'm afraid that leaving that societal aberration behind implies the death of modernity and the emergence of a whole new worldview in "after modernity".

We are, kind of, unconscious prisoners of the foundational axioms our civilizational houses are built upon. We Westerners approach anything in dualistic terms while positioning ourselves on the side of one of the opposites. In late-modernity this takes the form of ultra-individualism and the rejection of its opposite collective forms. In reality, glancing at the Eastern axioms of civilization we discover a radically different take on the working of things. Opposites are not seen in dualistic terms but are conceived as the polarities of a same unity. So individuals and societies are seen as the polarities of the human species and their "dancing" around each other is understood as the powering of the march forward of the unity (change and time). In this understanding an imbalance between the polarities is unavoidably going to be followed by the pendulum swinging back toward the other polarity.
What I mean to show is that individual sapience is not necessary to understand the impasse humanity has reached in late-modernity. To me the extreme imbalance between individualism and the societal explains without a shred of a doubt how we collectively, very unwisely, landed our species in that impasse. Following this model of reasoning individualism is going to melt from our consciousness as a result perhaps of the coming hardships and the rebalancing of the societal and the individual polarities could thus, possibly, unleash a new age of wisdom.

Reverse Engineer

"To RE's points: Biology is not inherently at fault. The example you cite is just evolution working. "-GM

The point is not to assign blame to Biology, but to point out that the supposed improvements to the human condition brought about by scientific knowledge in reality cause more harm than good, and not merely because we lack wisdom to use the knowledge well.

For the most part the scientific revolution has been about harnessing energy to extract more resources from the earth and build cooler toys. Even the knowledge of gene manipulation already appears to have blowback in the area of GMO plants and animals wreaking havoc with the natural ecosystem, not to mention our food supply.

It's darn hard actually to find any scientific "advancement" that doesn't have blowback. An increasingly Wired society brings with it increased surveillance as every street corner has a camera on it. We've been digging this hole in earnest now since the development of the steam engine, and the state of the world sucks because of it, and it's not lack of wisdom, it is inherrent.

Also George, discussion has picked up on your Podcast on the Diner:;topicseen#msg27458


Bodhi Chefurka

One of the things that has most helped me make sense of the difference between science and engineering has been Marvin Harris' anthropological framework called "Cultural Materialism".

Harris sees all human cultures as operating on three levels. The infrastructure is the level at which culture and the physical environment meet. It's where all the "means of subsistence" work to provide the culture with its physical existence. It's the level of technology - of farming, mining, manufacturing etc. Above that is the structural level, where the organizing institutions of the culture operate - the legal and educational systems, economic institutions etc. At the highest level, the "superstructure" is the level where values and meaning live. It's the level at which we explain to ourselves the nature of the world and our place in it.

The other key element of CM is the concept of "Infrastructural Determinism". This principle embodies the observation that in all cultures, cultural change usually flows up from the infrastructure, usually due to changes in physical circumstances or the technology to deal with them. Changes do not flow down from the superstructure with anything like the same ease or impact. In other words, the operation of a culture responds more to changes in the outer environment or technology than to changes in value systems. In fact, most changes in value systems occur *in support of* changes that are already occurring down in the infrastructure.

In this view, engineering lives at the infrastructure, since it provides the technology for promoting our continued existence. On the other hand, science is a component of the superstructure. Science explains the universe to us, and creates a sense of meaning. Religion also live in the cultural superstructure of course.

Here's how I see the process working. I'll use 18th century British coal mining as an example.

British society needed a new thermal technology because the forests are being depleted, so enterprising people figure out that coal can be burned in place of wood. Coal mining starts. The easy seams are rapidly exhausted, and the mines are dug deeper. But there's water down there, flooding the shafts. It needs to be pumped out, and hand vacuum pumps lose their lifting ability below about 30 feet. Some mining engineers hear about the Newcomen steam engine, and it's brought into service as a pumping engine.

As the mines go deeper through the rest of the century, the early engine is found not to be efficient enough. So the call goes out from the engineers for improvements to steam engine technology. This call rises through the culture until it reaches the ears of Carnot and Clausius. They're not engineers, but scientists, and as they think about the issue, the new science of thermodynamics is born. The scientific finding are fed back to the ironmongers and mining engineers, and the problem is solved. In the process, a new science has been created, one that continues to explain the operation of the universe 150 years later.

The same process can be seen at work in the need for a hugely destructive weapon to win WWII. Science did not "create" the atom bomb, it merely made it possible. The long view of science is sometimes incompatible with the needs of the infrastucture, as both Oppenheimer and Wiener found out, much to their disadvantage.

As long as the role of science is kept clear, there is little problem. Science explains the world up in the cultural superstructure, then engineering turns those observations into useful technology down in the infrastructure. However, when the needs of the cultural infrastructure become overwhelmingly pressing, the direction of science is subjected to great pressure flowing up from below - pressure to align its work with the technological needs of the culture. Thus the pure explanatory objective of science is gradually subverted. Scientists are forced into bed with the engineers through social pressure and grant tailoring, and we have the unfortunate, muddy result we see today.


Science provides a measured facsimile of reality, a mental playground for engineers, mating technological enzyme to substrate with predictive results. We use this knowledge to preserve and extend our lives beyond natural limits; those limits that if greatly surpassed will result in ecosystem collapse. We cater to every desire of our evolved pleasure loving brain that has become terribly obsolete in terms of promoting our survival. Humans no longer fit in the ecosystem and they’re beginning to feel the effects.

Reverse Engineer

"One of the things that has most helped me make sense of the difference between science and engineering has been Marvin Harris' anthropological framework called "Cultural Materialism".-BC

I loved MH's "Our Kind", but I find the distinction between Science & Engineering to be rather specious.

"Pure Science is Good & Clean, it's those Nasty Dirty Engineers who muck it all up!" LOL. Einstein=Good thinking up Relativity, Oppenheimer, Tesla & Feinman=Bad for making Bombs out of it.

What good is it to know something if you don't make something with that knowledge? The knowledge of relativity gave us the ability to make Atom Bombs and Nuke Plants, neither of which turned out to be very good things.

Watson & Crick elucidated the structure of DNA, leading to creation of GMO foods and the Monsanto Monster, not a good thing.

Alan Turing comes up with principles of computing, we end up with the Big Gorilla of Microsoft and the Google/NSA database mining of your life, not a good thing.

It is too far back in history to peg whoever it was that discovered principles of making fire and agriculture, but in application of these ideas, it has not been a good thing for the planet overall.


Bodhi Chefurka

Sorry, RE - I didn't intend a value judgment from that - i was trying to point to the role of science as explanatory of the universe and out place ion it - in much the same way as art, philosophy or religion. We are tool-monkeys, we always do things with our knowledge. Art is pressed into service as propaganda in addition to its more benign expressive role; religion becomes a social control mechanism as well as a way of expressing reverence towards the larger universe; philosophy becomes the basis for legal systems... It's not even that though is noble and action is base. I think that some clarity can be had by unpacking the cultural roles of science and engineering a bit more clearly than we're used to doing.

Bodhi Chefurka

Typos, typos.
...and our place in it...
...that thought is noble..."


Under the animistic worldview the concept of individuality is non-existent. Each individual conceives of him(her)self as being like one atom of the molecule tribe that contains on average some 150 atoms (Dunbar number). Deviance from the worldview was non-existent in the individuals' consciousness. Reality was being conceived of as "one" or "whole" ensemble in which all particles were interconnected. So in tribal societies the interrelations with the other individuals and with all under particles in nature were seen as sacred or life enhancing. Under animism humanity was seen as the result of the dance between its 2 polarities: individuals and societal.
Furthermore the animistic worldview and its corresponding tribal societal organization was roughly similar around the whole world.

Following the advent of agriculture kingdoms and empires imposed their religious or philosophic worldviews by means of force. Deviance was punished by death or exile but deviance helped new worldviews to emerge. Meanwhile the repression was fostering the discovery of the self.
East and West part ways starting with the foundations of their civilizational house:
- brutal elimination of all vestiges of animism in the West while in the East the new worldviews were build on top of the acquired animistic knowledge base and pragmatism thus ensues in the East while the West remains stuck for millenia with a narrative that is totally detached from reality.
- dualism versus polarities
Over time, with the addition of separate layers of cultural addons, worldviews differentiate within the civilizational houses. It is in such a context that modernity emerges in Western Europe.

The dualism at the core of Christianity explains why the popes wanted to conquer Jerusalem and crusades were thus called for by the end of the 11th century.
At the time Western Europe and the Middle-East were characterized by extreme divergences in sociological and economic realities. In one word Europe was extremely primitive and "provincial" while the Middle-East was flourishing as a result of its long distance trade with the East.
Plunder ensued and over the following centuries plunder morphed into long distance trade for luxury goods at the attention of the high clergy, the aristocracy and the mew rich merchants who were eager to take possession of Eastern luxury goods. But the Christian worldview opposed the use of the new instruments of long distance trade so the early new rich merchants grew conflicted and soon became encouraged to stand up for the new values that emerged out of the practice of long distance trade under the "reason of capital". They indeed soon became aware that capital has a life of itself and that to be successful at the game of trade their actions had to satisfy capital's "reason" or logic. This were the days of early modernity or of early rationalism.
The success of long distance traders manifested itself in the erection of mansions in the country and houses in the cities of Northern Europe. Soon everyone was falling for the dream of material possessions.
The rest of the story of modernity is a succession of widening phases when "the reason or rationality of capital" was gradually spreading to everyone and everything and as a consequence we end up with an extreme individualism that rejects the idea of the societal. In late-modernity humanity reaches a phase of uni-polarity and as a consequence, its vital energy, its wisdom has dried up.

The 19th century, in the West, has been the consecration of:
- the scientific method to discover functional truths about reality (functionally useful truths that could help generate surpluses)
- the investment of capital in generating such functional truths in order to propose offers on the market at the attention of a demand from society (existing demand or demand to be created from scratch)
Those general principles were not, and still are not, visible to the naked eye. What was visible, and is still visible today, are the changes in daily life provoked by the introduction of always newer offers on the market. What was not visible, and is still not clearly visible today for most, are the consequences such offers are inflicting upon the principle of life.

Science and art suffer the same kind of dilemma. On one side the feeling of a loss of purity, or a loss of sense. while, on the other side, the market train steams forward. In art the saying goes that "art is dead" and that what passes for art is no more than products for interior decoration on which greedy financiers eventually speculate. The biggest difference, perhaps, between art and science is that interior decoration products don't threaten humanity while science is always seen at the origin of all our troubles... There is a clear danger here that, the deeper our troubles get, science could possibly end up being vilified by disgruntled citizens while in reality the rationality of capital is the true culprit of those troubles. When "Reverse Engineer" writes "Today, I find science and what it has wrought on the Earth to be revolting" is this not a sign of a vilification in the making?

George Mobus


That was quite a lot to digest! BTW I had to retrieve this comment from the spam filter. Typepad staff suggest that the reason is was tagged was due to length! My suggestion is that if you make comments and they need to be lengthy, cut them up into shorter sections and post them serially, but leave a good 15 minutes in between. Apparently the filter also grabs posts that are done in sequence too soon together. [All, I'm not happy with the filter, but OTOH I have very little real spam that gets through.]

My take is that biological evolution (competition) is paralleled by societal evolution (culture). Biology implies the individuals making up a species. Society implies the collective arrangement of the individual energies.

I hope you will understand that I will not be able to address much of your post. I think you raise some interesting ideas. After a quick read through I'm not sure I agree with some aspects, such as the claim that individual sapience is unnecessary, implying that societal sapience (whatever that might be) is the goal [if I interpreted correctly].

For now I will just point out that I have talked about coevolution on a number of occasions and I think this is your stated premise - that culture and biology coevolve. On other posts I have introduced the notion that biological evolution is not just a matter of competition, that the old interpretation of Darwinian selection is not sufficient to explain certain major leaps in the organization of living systems. So I'll leave it at that.

As time permits (which is a luxury these days) I will try to re-read and grapple with other ideas here. Thanks for commenting though. Always appreciated.


This mention of blowback is interesting. In my view evolution has always involved disruptions to the "norm" or natural order of things. There have always been "blowbacks" of one kind or another, including from life processes themselves, e.g. the advent of oxygen in the atmosphere thanks to cyanobacteria. In my view humanity is just another disrupting phenomenon in the Ecos. As ever before I expect our kinds of disruptions will lead to interesting new experiments in biological evolution (and social evolution as well!)

On your response to Bohdi, consider that calling something good or bad depends on how you perceive yourself affected. I stand by my claim that science has been misused in the service not of engineering per se, but political and ideological pressures. All of the results that you point to are harmful to us and our form of life. Hence we will consider them as bad.

But the comet that hit the Earth 65 mya wasn't good for the dinosaurs and a number of other genera. However, it proved to be a good thing if you think mammalian and avian evolution were good. We would possibly not be here if that massive extinction hadn't happened.

Evolution doesn't play good or bad, it just constantly tests organisms and species against the events that are a natural part of the universe. I do not consider humans to be an anomaly, an unnatural thing. When we create GMOs, for example, we are just following our natural tendencies and shuffling the gene pools around a bit. It might be harmful to us, but so what? Life will find a way to make use of it in the future. If we are not part of that saga, too bad, for us.

Consider too, if we follow your logic backward every innovation in evolution should have been stopped before it happened. At what point in evolutionary history would you say here and no further? If man should not have learned to master fire, would you have had further intelligence development stopped at Homo ergastor?

None of us likes what is happening, and like much less that we are the very causes of so much disruption. As you know I think that karmic feedback is going to play havoc with our species. But the fact that we are unhappy with the situation and ourselves doesn't obviate the reality of evolution. Disruptive change is inevitable. I guess I take solace in the notion that we are the first sentients to be able to recognize the process.

@Bodhi (Paul),

RE: Harris. Blast from the past! I'd forgotten all about this but the ideas stuck in my brain (apparently). I read Harris in my undergrad days at U of Mo. when I was considering anthropology as a major. Thanks for the reminder, will have to see if I can dig up a copy. Also good example about coal, very apropos to the whole predicament.


Reverse Engineer

"BTW I had to retrieve this comment from the spam filter. Typepad staff suggest that the reason is was tagged was due to length!"-GM

You should chat it up on the Diner. No comment length issues there, I set it to INFINITY since I have a serious case of diahreah of the keyboard. :)

Better yet, I am working together with the Database Cavalry From California to set up a New Collapse Network, you should join us. We can migrate your whole database no problem and get you set up with the Spiffiest Platform in the Collapse Blogosphere, and the best Hosting Server also!

Far as when I would have Stopped "Progress" if I was God, it would have been with the tech the Polynesians had circa 1500 prior to the arrival of Cook. Basically Stone Age with the ability to Navigate the Pacific.


Paul Chefurka

As a little lagniappe for the cybernetic cognoscenti, and to illustrate where I think the combination of science and engineering have brought us, here's an excerpt from a short article called The Dawn of Cybernetic Civilization:

I've recently begun to suspect that humanity is at a point of endosymbiosis with our electronic communications and control technology, especially through the Internet. In a sense, we humans have incorporated ourselves as essential control elements of a planet-wide cybernetic super-organism. The precedent for something like this is the way that mitochondria migrated as bacteria into ancient prokaryotic cells to become essential components of the new eukaryotic cells that make up all modern organisms, including us.

It looks as though over the last few centuries humanity has built ourselves a global cybernetic exoskeleton. Although its development started back with the emergence of language and the taming of fire, it's most visible in the modern world, and especially in the last two decades.

Transportation systems act as its gut and bloodstream, carrying raw materials (the food of civilization) to the digestive organs of factories, and carrying the finished goods (the nutrients) to wherever they are needed. Engines and motors of all kinds are its muscles. The global electronic communication network is its nervous system, the world's financial network its endocrine system. Electronic sensors of a million kinds are its organs of taste, touch, smell and sight. Legal systems, police and military make up its immune system.

Human beings have evolved culturally to the point where we now act largely as hyper-functional decision-making neurons within this super-organism, with endpoint devices like smart phones, PCs and their descendants acting as synapses, and network connections being analogous to nerve fibers.

Just as neurons cannot live outside the body, we have evolved a system that doesn't permit humans to live outside its boundaries. Not only is there very little "outside" left, but access to the necessities of life is now only possible though the auspices of the cybernetic system itself. As we have developed this system around us, we have had to relinquish more and more of our autonomy in favor of helping the machine continue functioning and growing.

While we can no longer survive outside our cybernetic exoskeleton, in return it can't exist without our input. I realized over the last month or so that this means the symbiosis has already occurred. If I had to put a "closure date" on it, the period where it transitioned to its current form was around 1990 (plus or minus a decade or so). We didn't even notice it happening - to us it just looked like our daily lives going on as usual.

Paul Chefurka

The link didn't resolve properly above, it seems:

George Mobus

For All,

My sincere apologies but the spam filter seems to be kicking into high gear. It seems that comment length (for anyone who isn't an owner of the blog!) is an issue. So please try to keep comments relatively short and just post a sequence if you really need to say a lot.

RE I don't know why you keep getting sequestered. Supposedly once I mark a trapped comment for publishing it keeps that commentator's stuff out of the filter.

All I can ask is patience. I will routinely check the filter folder in the mornings and try to move anything legit through.

RE, thanks for the kind offer but I have a personal reason for keeping QE separate from mixing in other platforms (note I pay a fee to keep advertising out as an example). Typepad has worked reasonably well for all these years and I wouldn't really have time to handle the transfers anyway.

On a positive note, I just sent chapter 12 (systems analysis) off to my co-author for review and corrections, etc. On to 13 (modeling) and 14 (systems engineering) and then I'm done, at least with the main writing task.


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