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 The Charles Darwin Syndrome

When Science is Not the Business


Alastair McIntosh looks at the Government’s policy on the links between science and business.


This article was published in The Herald, Glasgow, 1-10-96, p. 15 on the day after Edinburgh University closed down the Centre for Human Ecology. It is similar to the version also published by New Scientist, but with inclusion of the fascinating Charles Darwin material at the beginning and end, and it is based on a full research paper published in Environmental Values. Why should Edinburgh University have wanted, reluctantly, to close down a centre undertaking work so consistent with the values of academic freedom? Well, who knows, but an insight might be gained from the New Scientist's leader about the closure, and from one of several letters that came in to university associates from people who believed their vested interests were threatened (click here to view).



THERE is a sad passage in Charles Darwin’s autobiography. It says: “But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry; I have tried lately to read Shake­speare, and found It so intolera­bly dull that It nauseated me. I have also lost any taste for pictures or music


Let me come back to that later. First, I want to address British science policy and its educational implications. In 1993, William Waldegrave produced Realising Our Potential, the Government’s White Paper on science and technology. Senior dons lauded him as academia’s “thinking man” in the Cabinet. But with academic freedom challenged by cuts and commercialisation, few openly questioned its ethics.


Following the fiasco unmasked by the Scott Report on the export of arms to Iraq, in which Waldegrave was implicated, it is worth looking again at the paper’s underlying values. Put bluntly, it is a business executive’s charter. And since senior academics have described it as “a metaphor not just for science, but for what the Government wants in education generally”, it is worth reflecting how it might affect our children.


The paper states its aim as being “to achieve a key cultural change between the scientific community, industry, and government departments”. The “modern world was made possible by our great engineers” and “in a world where ever fiercer competition prevails, history’s lessons are highly pertinent”.


The main thrust of science policy is, therefore, to intensify “interaction between scientists and businessmen involved in the day-to-day business of selling in competitive markets”. Enhancement of quality of life is important, but contingent upon “above all the generation of national prosperity”.


The paper devotes a whole chapter to the centrality of science to the military/industrial complex. In contrast with the traditional justification of “spin-off”, military research should now look to benefit from “opportunities for ‘spin-in’ from the civil to the defence sector.


In a pluralistic society such statements might be acceptable in balance with other points of view. But other than occasional tight lip-service to cultural dimensions and the pure research value of “mega-science”, no other outlooks are presented on what science is for, or should not be for.


Gone is any consideration of the classical view that science helps us know ourselves better. Gone is any acknowledgment of science as being to stimulate awe, creativity, service to others, and respect for nature. Only profit counts Profit from an accelerating “hell’s merry-go-round” racetrack of world economy, where you either run faster and faster or get trampled from behind.


Implicit to this is post-colonial recognition that wealth can no longer come from ruling other people’s countries. Instead we’ll take out TRIPs – neocolonialism’s Trade Related Intellectual Property rights - with sanctions. Globalised patents and copyrights are now colonising knowledge itself


To compete, the world’s farmers have to cash crop with industrial seed varieties, pesticides, and fertilisers that do little for soil conservation. We’ve seen the space race. And the arms race. Now it’s technofix race with profit as the yardstick.


And this is where education comes in. The paper calmly states that “the Government … has embarked on a radical agenda of charges in the education and training system, including changes in the school curriculum … for the whole of compulsory schooling”. It goes on: “More young people … must see the value of developing the entrepreneurial skills which will help businesses exploit more effectively the results of research, science, and technological development.”


It is tragic that something as potentially beautiful, honest, and important as science has been disfigured in this way. Our children deserve better. They deserve a science that respects their “wow” of wonder as they look down a microscope or up a telescope. They deserve holistic as well as reductionist science.


They deserve participation in a non-destructive economy. In short, they deserve an education that draws out the full faculties not just of the head, but also of the hand and heart.


Which brings us back to Darwin. He concludes: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”


Our children deserve better than educational policies that naturally select for loss of happiness. Britain has a 20% share in the world arms trade. It’s a pity we seem intent on training emotionally enfeebled geniuses to maintain it.



For nearly seven years Alastair McIntosh has directed postgraduate teaching at Edinburgh University’s Centre for Human Ecology. The university closed the Centre yesterday. A new Centre for Human Ecology will re-open with an autumn public lecture series on Politics of the Real World — details from P.0. Box 1972, Edinburgh.



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