The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Address to the Edinburgh Science Festival Church Service 2022

The Edinburgh Science Festival closes with a church service in the historic St Giles' Cathedral. It includes a ten-minute non-religious, non-political address. This year I was honoured to be asked to give it. As you can see, the service is as splendid as the setting. My talk starts at 33:28. The text follows below.

The theme of this year’s Science Festival is Revolution. This is an apt topic here in St Giles, which after all is the very spot where the revolution, in the then Three Kingdoms, began: a revolution that created modern Britain. But whether Jennie Geddes is real or legendary, I hope no chairs are hurled at the pulpit today. So, steering well clear of religion or politics, I’d like to talk about how we talk about politics, and when and why people started talking about revolution. Interestingly enough, it was at about the same time that our revolution happened, in the seventeenth century.

In the same century, and perhaps by no coincidence, there was a scientific revolution. The mechanics of Galileo and Newton was the subversive science of its day, challenging the metaphysical doctrines of ancient tradition as shatteringly as the artillery it helped to aim battered down the walls of lordly castles. And it left its mark on our language of politics.

When you look at the language and vocabulary that we use to describe political events, you find a surprising number of words from seventeenth-century physics and astronomy. Revolution in that context meant a complete turning of a wheel, or the circuit of a planet in its orbit – the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, as Copernicus titled his revolutionary thesis. And revolution, as a metaphor in politics, originally meant something very similar – a return to the starting point.

At the time it must indeed have seemed like that. You get rid of a King, you fight a civil war and end up with a Protector, and then the Protector dies and before you know it you have a King again. And everything seems to be back in the same place as it was before: after the Interregnum, the Restoration. Looking back, people in later centuries could see more clearly that it was not: that some things had changed irreversibly, and the revolution, you might say, kept rolling on.

We still talk of masses, which may or may not be in motion. We speak of political and social movements, which may or may not have certain dynamics. We evaluate the balance of forces. If we’re politics professors or journalists, we may ponder the electoral cycle. We may look at a social or political system – and that word too, system, originates in astronomy – and ask whether the system is stable or unstable, or whether or not it is in equilibrium. We may investigate the system’s mechanics. We may despair at the system’s inertia, and hope, perhaps in vain, for some impulse or even momentum to change it. And can the change we seek or fear be accelerated, or retarded? Should we worry about possible retrograde developments? Will our action in the end produce a reaction?

It’s Newtonian mechanics all the way down! Well – perhaps not quite. There are some other sciences that we draw on for political metaphor: the idea of a political upheaval surely comes from geology, as does a political earthquake, when the tectonic plates of politics shift. (I wonder how many years of the Edinburgh Science Festival, and how much toil of primary and secondary school teachers, and how many school visits to Dynamic Earth it took before plate tectonics became a political metaphor that everyone could understand!)

Our most troubling political language comes from biology, and evolutionary biology in particular. The metaphors of competition, of natural selection, of struggles for existence have been applied and misapplied with dire consequences. This pains me greatly, not least because I trained as a zoologist. Now, I’ve read Darwin, and for my sins I’ve even read Herbert Spencer, and I can honestly say that in these matters they are both much maligned. There is no basis in their work, let alone in modern biology, for any kind of racial politics. But when the founding text of a discipline is titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life it’s all too easy to see how misunderstandings could arise.

Is there a biological science that might offer us a more fruitful language for politics? I think there is: ecology. It’s already provided us with two familiar terms in politics: sustainability, and diversity. Ecology examines all forms of life in interaction with their physical environment and with each other, and identifies and measures the flows of energy and material among them. And humanity, of course, is now a somewhat important form of life, and affects these flows on a planetary scale, not always entirely for the good of itself, let alone the rest.

Ecology, I think, is as subversive a science in our time as Newton’s mechanical philosophy was in his. Why? It delivers warnings about what our interactions with the rest of nature are doing to us and to the planet, certainly. But it does more. It suggests a science of ourselves that starts with our relationship with the rest of nature, and with each other. Like it or not, we all need food, drink, and shelter, and like it or not we can only get them from the rest of nature and in and through relationships with other people. Human beings can’t sustain themselves individually, like the sea-birds outside my window, or co-operate instinctively, like the ants in my back yard. We’re social and productive by necessity but not by instinct, so we must rely on thought and speech. To make our living together, we have to speak and think, imagine and create, question and discover. An ecologically inspired science of humanity could start from these facts, and trace the flows of material and energy through human society and back to the earth and air and water around us. It could ask what people think they’re doing, and investigate what they’re actually doing. It might dig up all kinds of inconvenient truths about where stuff comes from, where it goes, and how it gets there -- and who gets it, and who gives. And if these connections became widely known and understood, people might want to change a lot of what goes on.

Perhaps we need a better metaphor for change than revolution. One that has always stuck in my mind is ecological succession. On land left bare by ice or fire or landslide or flood, different populations of plants, animals and fungi settle in well-defined stages, each incomplete and unstable in itself, each more complex and diverse in its components and their interactions, until finally there arises what is called the climax community, a combination of species that is self-sustaining and self-reproducing: a mature forest, for example. The more complex and various the community, the more stable and resilient it is. Is such complexity and diversity, then, that we should expect and work towards in our human community? What would a climax community of humanity look like? Are we there yet? I’ll leave these questions open. I’m not here to preach.


Thanks, Ken, for such a clear and stimulating talk. 'Ecological succession' has just been added to my vocabulary and bank of concepts. I learn so much from you, alwats!

Always. (Sorry for that typo)

What would a climax community of humanity look like? How would it operate? Maybe that can be your next trilogy? 🙂

I was in the congregation and thoroughly enjoyed your address. I have forwarded it on to my 91yo father who had a distinguished scientific career beginning in zoology and botany and ending in environmentalism, and is now active supporting his church. I suspect he will agree with what you've said.

Thanks, David! Best wishes to your father.

Interesting perspective. Society as a forest - a diverse and interactive / interdependent community. And then again, maybe that opens to seeing that various ecological habitats are what makes a whole ecology. Not an entire world consisting uniformly of one type of forest, but rather a forest here, and ocean there, a desert there, and then another type of forest again, and so on. Almost like different small political enclaves with each their political system - different yet interacting. I remember reading about something like that in a sci-fi book some decades ago ...

Awesome! Really appreciate it, man.
Mendocino Purps

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