View Electronic Edition

Plains of Science, Summits of Passion

Kenneth Boulding, the most cybernetic of economists, does a regular column for MIT's Technology Review.  This is one from the December '74 issue. At the University of Colorado Dr. Boulding is director of the Program on General, Social, and Economic Dynamics.

Personally I've seen more mystics who are ignorant of science than vice-versa. The best poets and the best scientists I've met find adventure equally in the mountains and the plains.

-SB

The 10 billion neurons of the individual human nervous system, and still more, the 3x1 019 neurons of the whole human race (about 77 x lO19 if we include all human beings who have ever lived) make a very large habitat in space-time  one that has already developed an enormous complexity of mental species but has yet realized only a small portion of its total potential. One thinks of this as a vast ecosystem populated by images and ideas, perceptions and beliefs, and one perceives science as a small, but very productive subecosystem within this vast habitat. This scientific ecosystem is rather like the agriculture in the Middle West and the Great Plains, surrounded by a vast expanse of the meadows of ordinary experience, the lush forests of religion and art, and the wild glaciers and peaks of ecstacy and agony, mysticism and power, sainthood and devilry.

I happen to live in a marginal ecosystem, where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains and cactus blooms under  the ponderosa pine. I have also lived most of my life on the  uneasy margin between science and religion. Prickly cactuses  of faith also bloom in the level cornfields of economics,  cultivated by the uniform technologies of scientific planting and testing. The often conflicting interaction between  science and religion has therefore been of great interest to  me: I see it in ecological rather than in dialectical terms, not  as a battle between two armies  one of which must win and  the other lose  but rather like the wavering margin between the cornfield and the forest.

In the last century and a half we have seen an enormous expansion of agriculture, and the forest and the prairie every- where have retreated before the relentless advance of the field. This is not unrelated to the similar advance in science,  which is a kind of mental agriculture, and of government,  which is political agriculture. Science raises periodic tables, testable equations, and mechanical and evolutionary models and routs out witchcraft and astrology, alchemy and old  wives' tales. Government grows  we hope  internal peace and controlled economies and strives, somewhat less success- fully, to rout out crime, strife, and depression.

Nevertheless there are limits to our husbandry in the field, in the laboratory, and in the legislature. We plow up the Great Plains and they blow away; we push agriculture too far into the forests and we create a precarious ecosystem. Agriculture, science, and government all result in a loss of species: An Iowa cornfield has far fewer species than the prairie which it supplanted.

Science is a world monoculture. The mandala of the periodic table appears in chemistry lecture rooms in Peking, Moscow,  Rome, Tokyo, Hobart, and Singapore. There is no such  thing as Communist chemistry. Catholic chemistry, or Hindu  chemistry, white chemistry or black chemistry. Even  economics is practiced somewhat furtively in the mathematics  departments of socialist universities and Darwinian biology  in the laboratories of Catholic universities. 

Government likewise tends to create cultural uniformity, at least enough to ensure that everybody pays taxes. Only the nation, the religious sect, and the hippie cult stand between us and world monoculture.

There is something a little frightening in this. If one ecosystem goes wrong in a world of many ecosystems, the others do not; in a world of many isolated cultures, one can collapse,  like the Mayan, and the others are quite unaffected. But if  the world becomes a single ecosystem with a single culture,  then if anything goes wrong everything goes wrong. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s stands as a solemn record of the dangers of monoculture.

But as great as was the Irish catastrophe, it was retrievable because it was local. There comes a point as catastrophe moves toward universality where it becomes irretrievable. In  a period of time over which the generalized Murphy's Law  holds (if anything can go wrong, it eventually will), there is  clearly an optimum degree of diversity from the point of view of maximizing the possibilities of continued long-range evolution.

For those who live out on the great plains of science, where the rich square fields produce increasing yields under the benign inputs of advancing knowledge, it is easy to forget that the plains do not go on forever. The scientist who has never darkened the door of a church, who has never read Gerard Manley Hopkins, or St. John of the Cross, or George Fox, or even Tennyson's "In Memoriam," may be living in a more restricted ecosystem than he thinks. There is a dramatic moment as one drives across the Great Plains where the Rockies first rise above the endless horizon. Even if one never experiences this moment of exhaltation and lives in the middle of Kansas all one's life, it may be nice to know that the Rockies are there. Even if one spends one's whole life raising good, solid, sustaining, scientific wheat, it may be good to know that the fields end somewhere.

At the margins, life can be difficult as well as exciting. There is a constant tension between the urge to go off into the plains and raise solid and nourishing scientific wheat and the contrary urge to disappear into the great gothic forests of the mind and indulge shamelessly in prayer and praise, or even to climb to the icy summits of mystical union. To have a foot in each world can lead to a very uncomfortable straddle, but it does surely lead to a dynamic dance of the mind which is seldom enjoyed by those whose feet are solidly planted in the rich plains. These margins are a good place to live for those who are agile enough to survive in them, and it is necessary for some people to live in them if we are to see the great habitats of the human mind as a totality and not as a set of totally unrelated parts.