5 January 2013

Evolution become Conscious

Following up on my earlier post about 'joining the evolution', Michael Dunwell, my fellow green economist from the Forest of Dean, writes to tell me that Teilhard de Chardin thus described the human race in his book The Phenomenon of Man, published posthumously in 1955. It prompts me to post a talk I gave at a seminar in London on Europe Beyond Growth shortly before Christmas.

I’m going to start by saying something about science. On Monday I listened to Evan Davies interviewing fisheries minister Richard Benyon about his decision to oppose the latest EU fisheries proposal which Benyon claimed he was doing ‘on scientific grounds’. Davies brought in the top fisheries scientist from Defra, who argued for the EU proposal. Evan Davies seemed genuinely perplexed by the inability of the scientists to agree. He was seeking a ‘right’ answer, that was scientifically proved and unassailable.

Years ago I put together a report called ‘I Don’t Know Much About Science But I Know What I Like’. It’s Martin Amis’s joke but I’ve always enjoyed it. The reason I enjoy it is that it achieves with wit and brevity the task of challenging the right of science, usually in this context meaning statistical evidence, to trump other forms of thought.

Caroline Lucas has said that we are going to be the first species that is able to scientifically monitor our own extinction. Consecutive reports from the IPCC suggest that she is right about this, but I am a bit more optimistic. My optimism organises itself under my latest personal mantra: ‘Join the Evolution’ and it works like this.

We are unique in being a self-conscious animal. When other animals receive indications that they are reaching the limits of their evolutionary niche they respond to these by finding a new niche, or by failing to reproduce, or otherwise by ensuring that their numbers decline. As humans we are too clever for that. We can use our clever minds and our technology to keep pushing the boundary outwards, ignoring and filtering out the clear evidence that the ecological safety-limits have been exceeded.

So as a self-conscious animal we need to evolve self-consciously. We need to find a way to get a collective grip on ourselves, to stop believing our own fantasies, to get back down to earth. This is what I mean by ‘joining the evolution’,  and I would argue that it is a desire to do something like this that has brought you here today.

So I have nothing against science, and I think being able to prove that resources are not limitless and have some idea of the scope of the problem we are facing is vitally important in convincing those trapped in the scientistic mind-set. But it is not going to save us. We need much more human solutions to do that.


  1. I for one would love to know what these "other forms of thought" are...You fail to mention what they might be.

    There is only one "thought" framework that I know of that actually delivers results. Even if you come up with solutions by rolling a dice you still need empiricism (a large component of this 'science' thing) to determine if your solution is actually achieving whatever goal you set yourself.

    'Human solutions' still come under the pervue of science I'm afraid. Just because people are and must be involved does not make something unamenable to philosophy toolkit we call 'science'

  2. Anon 13/01/2013 provides the comment of a scientist and thereby makes rather than contradicts the article's point!