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Vision Quest 2016: Challenging the Patriarchy

Friday, May 27th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Mojave Desert, Nature, Problems & Solutions, Regions, Road Trips, Science, Society.

Senna holding one of the video cams that Ally and Haneen used to study pollinators in the creosote understory

The Chicken and the Egg

Driving the highway east across the desert in late afternoon, I looked south across the basin, watching the old cinder cones far in the distance. When I had a view between them into the Pass, I pulled over to try the field glasses. Sure enough, I saw a glint of sunlight on glass and chrome, ten miles away, at the campsite behind one of the low hills. I hadn’t been able to reach John after getting his email a couple of weeks ago, so I’d been taking a risk that their plans might’ve changed and I’d be spending the night alone, after shopping and driving hours to make this rendezvous.

With all the rain damage to the roads, it was an hour later when I pulled into camp behind the volcanic hill above the Pass. The first people I met were hunters who’d volunteered to help find and count bighorn sheep with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, or “Fish & Game”. I drove further into the clearing at the center of the circle of pickup trucks, and asked who was in charge. An attractive young woman approached, saying “You must be John’s friend! He hasn’t showed up yet, but we’re expecting him any minute now.”

I parked my truck in an open spot across the circle, got out and took a look around camp. At first, all I could see was attractive young women with long, tanned legs, wearing skin-tight short shorts that looked like underwear. I’d attended many other sheep surveys with Fish & Game, and they’d all involved a bunch of rugged outdoorsmen overdressed in khaki, so this was quite a surprise. John later explained that the girls were biologists working with Fish & Game under a program he’d set up, and that they’d been doing all his sheep work for a while. Paige, the one I’d met at first, was the leader of this trip. The few women I’d met before in this role had been stereotypically plain. Later on my trip, another male scientist would complain that attractive young women are getting all the good jobs in biology now.

I laid out my tarp and unrolled my pad and bedroll. John drove up shortly and parked in the remaining spot next to me. The sun was setting, and Paige called everyone together to plan the next day’s work. As we stood in a circle, about a dozen of us, she passed out photocopied maps with the planned routes into the northernmost canyon system of the range. I could see immediately that they were beyond what I would be able to do, at least at the speed I expected John, and these younger people, to maintain. I didn’t want to slow them down, and I didn’t want to push myself trying to keep up, and end up straining the muscles and joints I’d spent months trying to rebuild since surgery. I said that, and Paige quickly grabbed my map back and handed it to someone else.

As I expected, John spoke up first, choosing the most difficult route for himself.

After the planning session, the group broke up. No hanging out around a campfire or lantern, getting to know each other, as we’d done on past Fish & Game outings. John returned to his truck and laid out his own bedroll, then brought a folding chair over to sit with me. I asked him if he’d memorized his route. He laughed. “I helped plan those routes! I’ll go wherever I damn well please!”

I questioned him about the respiratory epidemic, and how it might be spread. One topic of current research is the movement of sheep between ranges, and that led us into a discussion of climate. John scoffed at concerns over human-caused climate change. “There’s no question that humans are causing climate change in the near term, but my perspective, studying sheep populations, is much longer! In my perspective, global warming is just a blip. We’re still in an interglacial – in a few thousand years, this desert will be forested again. Where will the sheep go then?”

John took this as an opportunity to emphasize the primacy of evolution as the explanatory theory of life in the universe, reiterating the population biologist’s dominant view that genes are at the root of everything, determining everything important. So I had to point out that genes and evolution only apply to the individual organism, and no organism can live in a vacuum, without the context and interactions of its ecosystem, so ecology is really the foundation science. “No, no!” John protested, but I forged ahead. “Evolution is just popular in our technology-crazed society because it’s reductive and instrumental – we can easily crunch genetic data and manipulate the genome – whereas ecosystems are far too complex and chaotic for us. Ecosystems are the context for evolution, not vice versa, but they resist our understanding and hence our exploitation, so we say that evolution is more important than ecology!”

“So it’s a chicken and egg problem, which came first?” said John, starting to get my point. “I still say you can’t have an ecosystem without organisms, and you can’t have organisms without evolution.”

“It makes sense that genes are fundamental to you, as a population biologist,” I said. “But what biology traditionally sidesteps is the importance of non-living things in the ecosystem. Non-living things like rocks and clouds – geologists speak of the living rock – can be said to evolve, but not by means of DNA and genes.”

“Well, it’s not completely true that biology ignores the abiotic – climate and substrate are figured into ecological cycles…”

Fear of the Noble Savage

Night had fallen, the air was cooling, and the mass of the old cinder cone loomed beside us. The stars were out over camp, but we could still see the trucks and the silhouettes of people moving about, and hear the occasional rustle of pots, pans and other domestic affairs.

Thinking back to climate change, I wanted to restore humans to the ecological picture, as participants rather than detached, godlike manipulators. John’s interests are eclectic like mine, and it had been a long time since we’d had a good talk. I wanted to share some of my recent findings with him. I suggested that we Westerners needed more holistic paradigms, and that we might have lessons to learn from other, more traditional societies.

“There you go, romanticizing the noble savage again,” John cut in.

My biologist friends really don’t like to hear anything positive said about traditional or indigenous cultures. At the first hint, they tend to cut me off before I can explain, reacting to a stereotype in their own minds instead of what I’m trying to say, and accusing me of the romantic fallacy of the “noble savage”, a cliche of European literature and philosophy during the 17th-19th centuries.

Recent archaeological studies in widely separated parts of the world have shown that many prehistoric societies were like us, engineering their habitats for their own benefit and causing significant damage to local ecosystems. Reading these reports in the popular literature, scientists who don’t study other cultures conflate all traditional societies with the destructive ones, painting everything they don’t know with same broad brush. Worst of all, biologists blame ancestral Native Americans for “overkill” leading to the Quaternary Extinction Event in North American, a mass die-off of megafauna, even though this hypothesis is disputed by specialists who study it. Finally, coming from academia, they’re predisposed to dismiss traditional people as backward, ignorant, and superstitious.

My heroes in biology have been independent thinkers like Lyn Margulis and Gary Paul Nabhan, but my friends tend to work at the grass-roots level without power or influence, laboring away at their super-specialized studies and taking the dominant paradigms of their fields for granted because they’re not in a position to challenge them. They’re often frustrated in their careers, defensive in the face of anti-science political conservatives and religious fundamentalists, and helpless to stop the destruction of natural habitats & species that they see firsthand in their work.

But unlike my other biologist friends, John has worked with archaeologists and knows something of the history & philosophy of science.

“Our cultural bias leads us to focus on large-scale, technologically advanced societies of the past who were more like us,” I pointed out. “These were the aggressive societies that rolled over their weaker neighbors, like us against Native Americans. And societies that dominated people also tended to try to dominate nature.

“Jared Diamond popularized this idea that only the winners are relevant, that cultures who were conquered are failures that we can dismiss. After all, history is written by the winners.

“But let’s look at this rationally. Even the U.S., the most powerful country on earth, could be wiped out by an asteroid. Might doesn’t make right, and weakness and defeat don’t prove inferiority. In the 1950s, a multidisciplinary group of scientists spent 18 months on a remote atoll in the Pacific, studying every aspect of the terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and using native people as their assistants. And the leaders of the expedition came to admire the native culture so much that they would’ve given up their careers and stayed for the rest of their lives if they hadn’t had families back home.

“These peaceful people had achieved a stable equilibrium in their very limited habitat, cultivating food plants in patches of wetland without trying to engineer or manage the entire atoll, and harvesting seasonal resources from the ocean, sustainably. And they managed to keep their population from growing beyond its capacity.

“They’re part of a larger anthropological project by the University of Alabama called Peaceful Societies, and pacifism is roughly correlated with sustainable ecological practices. By focusing on the dominant winners and ignoring the submissive minorities, we may be missing some valuable lessons.”

John and I went on to have a long, productive, wide-ranging talk, our first in many years, until he realized he still needed a shower and good night’s sleep before the early morning start.

I, on the other hand, lay awake all night, watching the moon trail away over my shoulder to its own bed, watching the constellations rolling after, and the Milky Way rising in the final hours of darkness. My mind wasn’t racing, I wasn’t worried about anything. I just watched, resting my eyes occasionally, never falling asleep until dawn, when our camp came alive again, and I crawled out of bed, exhausted, to start the first day of the survey.

Challenging the Patriarchy

I always look forward to meeting grad students doing field studies at the desert ecological preserve, in hopes of learning about their work and deepening my understanding of the desert. This time, hauling my gear into the residence hall that I helped build 25 years ago, I met Ally and Haneen, beautiful young PhD candidates working together on a study of ecological facilitation in the understory of the creosote bush.

Traditionally patriarchal like all science, biology is undergoing a demographic revolution as female recruits increase. And at a much slower rate, the male-biased dogma of biology are being challenged as women gradually replace influential male peer reviewers.

The aggressive, coercive, domineering nature of Anglo-European society ensured that male biologists would see competition and negative interactions, rather than cooperation and positive interactions, at the foundation of both evolution and ecology, but female biologists are beginning to restore balance and a more accurate view of nature.

A generation ago, Lyn Margulis overcame male resistance to gain wide acceptance of symbiosis – interspecies cooperation – in evolutionary theory. More recently, some biologists have turned their attention to “facilitation” – cooperation and positive interactions in ecology. The distinction between positive and negative, competition and cooperation, is another historical artifact of Anglo-European tradition; the reality is clearly a continuum or spectrum of behavior and interactions that can go in or out of balance around a state of dynamic equilibrium.

The women and I got to know each other over a period of days in the common room of the preserve facility. Ally, from Toronto, was blonde and wholesome-looking; Haneen was raven-haired, tanned, more reserved and enigmatic. We were joined from time to time by Fred, an older botanist and plant illustrator, and Tasha and the kids, who had adopted the “girls” as big sisters. In contrast to my older scientist friends, Ally and Haneen were at the beginning of their careers, receiving a lot of support and encouragement from the establishment, excited about their future rather than discouraged by the setbacks that plague us all as we age and see more of life.

I talked about desert places and phenomena they hadn’t encountered yet. Haneen was interested in my music, and Ally pointed me to some background reading on facilitation. Her current work focused on the use of the creosote understory by other plants and by pollinators. Facilitation spans an infinite variety of natural phenomena that we really only need common sense to observe, from spatial structure (one species creating a nursery, home or workspace for other species) to community diversity (structuring interspecies interactions), from protection from stress and predation, to seed transport by birds and rodents. A male Anglo-European eye is likely to see selfishness behind it all, but that’s only one perspective, a form of anthropomorphism.

Hidden Underfoot

I arrived in the desert the day after heavy rain, and hiked up to the seep on our land, where I began to notice something I’d been only marginally aware of in the past. Here, the gravel slopes were laced with outcrops of white, sometimes translucent metamorphic rock, and my eyes were drawn to vivid black clumps of “stuff” that was neither plant, nor rock, nor soil, knobby mats swelling around cracks in the bright rock, as well as in patches in the pale gravel. I guessed that it must be biological soil crust, a community of lichens, bacteria and other tiny organisms that work together to build these structures on the interface between the living and the nonliving. Why hadn’t I noticed and studied these before, in the 35 years I’d walked among them? Probably it was the rain, the water they’d absorbed that made them more prominent, and their contrast against the bright substrate here.

I’d first encountered soil crusts, or cryptobiotic soil, 25 years ago during my Paiute skills course. The instructors had started by briefing and warning us about the extremely delicate crusts in the powder sand of the Colorado Plateau, an important part of the ecosystem which is instantly crushed when walked on and takes centuries to regenerate. I always work hard to avoid trampling these when I go back there, but I’d totally ignored their counterparts in the Mojave.

Now I was smitten. I got down on my knees and examined our local crusts. Unlike the Colorado Plateau crusts, which form a distinctive, modular architectural pattern, our Mojave crusts are free-form. They may swell around cracks in the rock like a spreading amoeba, or appear as small bumps across the bajada. My favorites are the scalloped rings.

Close up, their structures reveal a chaotic pattern of irregularly-shaped, variously sized knobs separated by gaps. The crusts in the white rock appeared black at first glance, but those out on the bajada showed more of a dark rust color. Whereas the Colorado Plateau crusts are delicate, these feel tough, like old leather.

Humble soil crusts were mostly ignored throughout the male-dominated history of biology and ecology. Macho male biologists tend to focus on charismatic megafauna. But crusts are finally getting more attention, which I suspect is a result of more women in the field. Per usual, there’s controversy over whether crusts are primarily competitors or facilitators in the ecosystem. A botanist friend told me that they’re essential for regeneration of shrubs, which may be set back by centuries when crusts are trampled or burned by wildfire. I remembered this the following week, when I hiked into a remote, heavily grazed valley where invasive bromus had replaced native grasses, encouraging a wildfire which had stripped the center of the valley of its shrub cover and significantly reduced its capacity to capture water in vegetation. I followed the tracks of the cattle and eventually saw them in the distance, half-wild, running away from me up a steep hill.

At the ecological preserve, I asked Tasha and she referred me to a female crust specialist, from whom I hope to learn a lot more about these fascinating communities of organisms working together at the foundation of life on earth.

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The Night I Gave Up Physics

Wednesday, April 29th, 2020: Jobs, Science, Society, Stories.

Cult of Genius

My Dad was a rocket scientist. He grew up during the Great Depression, when there seemed to be harsh limits on human potential. But World War II inspired technological innovations and a resulting leap in the industrialization, wealth, and power of our society. In high school, Dad read avidly about the exciting discoveries and inventions of his time in Popular Science magazine.

As World War II drew to an end, chemistry emerged as the glamorous science that offered “miracle products” and “better living through chemistry.” Dad began his career developing some of these products – for example, melamine, used in unbreakable dinnerware – in a research lab. From there, he advanced to the aerospace industry, where he developed rocket fuel for nuclear missiles.

My own childhood inherited this postwar optimism and passionate faith in science, technology, and innovation. Science and technology would bring us ever-increasing comfort, convenience, power, and speed, ultimately rocketing us into Outer Space! We were living in the Space Age, and President Kennedy, a national icon of youthful optimism, became one of its heroes, analogous to Elon Musk today.

But this scientific and technological innovation required the mastery of mathematics and other difficult subjects, nudging us further toward a meritocracy, in which power is achieved by those with the most advanced training and skills in the areas our society values most – those with superior ability, “aptitude,” and ultimately, “intelligence.”

Thus arose a cult of intelligence and “genius,” which signified the highest achievement in the most difficult field of endeavor. In our newly “scientistic” society, with its absolute faith in science, the most difficult field was believed to be physics. And the greatest achievement in physics was the Theory of Special Relativity, discovered by Albert Einstein, who was now recognized as the smartest human who ever lived – the very definition of a genius.

In general science and academia, as well as being the most difficult science, physics is considered the fundamental science, the science upon which all others are built, and the Laws of Physics are considered the most fundamental laws of the universe. Physics grapples with matters which used to be the sole province of the Judeo-Christian God. Hence it wasn’t just Einstein, but every exceptional physicist who became acknowledged as the smartest humans.

Dazzled by Choices

Growing up in that era with a rocket scientist Dad, it was unsurprising that I devoured science fiction and dreamed of being a scientist, and with physics as the most important science, the science of geniuses and everything from the atom bomb to space travel, it was no surprise that I was drawn to that subject. In junior high, even before I was old enough to study science, I was captivated by media accounts of lasers, the latest and coolest product of physics. In media and the popular imagination, lasers appeared to be the “death rays” forecast in science fiction, but they also promised unlimited benefits to peacetime society.

In the classified ads of Popular Science, I found an offer of blueprints for building a solid-state ruby laser. I ordered it, and when it came, although the technology was fairly simple, it was way over my head, so I consulted our high school physics teacher, and an older neighbor who was a ham radio geek and handy with electronics.

As the builder of a laser I become a local celebrity, and around the same time, IQ tests were administered in our schools and I was found to be exceptional. When I advanced to high school, I discovered a phenomenon well-known to talented students in our educational system. I became the target of seduction by teachers who were frustrated by their bored, unmotivated, underachieving students, teachers who were competing with other teachers for limited funding and equipment. In me, they saw a potential new star in their field, someone whose future glory they could eventually bask in. When they lobbied the administration to buy new equipment and teaching aids, they were doing it for students like me.

Our physics teacher had already become an early mentor. But after the IQ test, it emerged that I had equal aptitude in every subject. The only difficulty was to choose between them! Most people struggle to find something they excel at – I struggled to pick from seemingly infinite choices.

Our math teacher bought a computer for me – a long metal box topped with flickering vacuum tubes – and set it up in its own special room. Our English teacher enlisted me in a small circle of elite pupils to meet weekly in her home for readings and analysis of contemporary poetry. Our biology teacher lived on a farm and caught wild animals for me to study, including a beautiful, sleek black snake with a glistening yellow belly that became my favorite pet.

But the teacher I loved the most, and was the most loyal to, was my art teacher. He was the only one who exposed us to things that challenged not only our intellects but our most fundamental beliefs and values. He wasn’t pandering to our youthful attraction to cool fads, he was trying to make us uncomfortable, to get us to experience the world in new ways. He was truly wise, and he became my lifelong mentor.

Mastering academic subjects was so easy for me that I looked for more inspiration outside of school. My mom was an English teacher working on her master’s degree at Indiana University, and I accompanied her on trips to campus, where I picked up books on world religions, philosophy, and psychology. I devoured Neitzsche and Jung, inspired without really understanding what they were writing about. All that reading just filled me with urgent adolescent questions about the fundamental nature and meaning of life. I had mystical dreams and felt myself in the grip of profound mysteries.

Science of the Bomb

Of course, it was now the late 1960s, and my whole generation, average students as well as prodigies, were in revolt against the beliefs, values, and institutions of the older generation and its Establishment. Boys were threatened with the Draft and military service in a brutal war in a distant tropical jungle. We were shocked by horrific images in the media, and slightly older peers were returning home in body bags. This was the atmosphere in which we came under relentless pressure to quickly figure out what to do with the rest of our lives. Pressure to pick the right next step, college or vocational school, and the right career to ensure our future success – assuming we survived the draft and the war.

In early 1968, our government escalated the war, and the death toll accelerated. Closer to home, pacifist hero Martin Luther King, Jr. and liberal icon Robert Kennedy were assassinated in rapid succession. College students held desperate antiwar protests around the world, culminating in the chaotic, bloody Democratic Convention in Chicago, the big city of the Midwest – the city where my parents had met, a little more than 200 miles northwest of my home town.

The dangers and decisions I faced in the near future seemed more and more daunting. In the fall, at the start of my junior year, I don’t remember deciding on a particular career. Who does, after only two years of high school? But our physics teacher announced that I’d been selected as one of our state’s delegates to the National Youth Conference on the Atom, to be held in Chicago. And a newspaper clipping says that I planned to be a research physicist.

This prestigious event for high school students had been organized by the nation’s public utility companies, all of whom had been engaged in promoting nuclear energy. Since the 1950s, nuclear science, and in particular nuclear or “high energy” physics, had been considered the most cutting-edge of the sciences. It was the science that claimed to probe the essence of reality, the fundamental nature of matter and energy that supposedly make up everything in the universe. But it was also the science of war and mass destruction, the science of the Bomb, which my generation was trying to ban. Nuclear science badly needed a flattering makeover.

I didn’t record my feelings on being chosen for this honor, but I’m sure that despite any misgivings about the subject, I was impressed and excited about the trip. I’d be accompanied by our physics teacher, but I’d have my own hotel room, and at the age of 16, I’d be visiting a world-class city without my parents, staying in the center of the world-famous “Magnificent Mile” of North Michigan Avenue.

Eternal Danger

The Sheraton-Chicago Hotel turned out to be a massive, towering complex combining a 42-story Art Deco structure, faced with elaborate relief sculptures, and a newer, shorter contemporary annex. On arrival, I was advised to check out the 14th-floor pool, an ornate facility inspired by the architecture of Ancient Egypt. And for the first night’s dinner, I was taken to the hotel’s high-end restaurant, Kon-Tiki Ports, a phantasmagorical immersive series of themed spaces inspired by explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s bestselling book. I’d never seen anything like Michigan Avenue, the Sheraton, the pool, or the restaurant, and I can remember feeling like Alice through the looking glass, or down the rabbit hole, or whatever. Transported to a completely overwhelming alternate reality. The pregnant darkness, the millions of multicolored lights, the frenzied, random motion, the thronging, sophisticated voices. Modern people who experience almost everything through a tiny two-dimensional screen will have a hard time imagining the sensory overload I felt there as a teenager from a small farm town.

During the three-day conference, I attended lectures and demonstrations in the hotel’s spacious auditoriums. I saw a research physicist from Oak Ridge National Laboratories operating a gas laser, far more sophisticated than what I’d built. I went on a tour of Argonne National Laboratories and got up close to a famous research reactor. It was all overwhelming, but nothing left a lasting impression, except the reactor, which felt chillingly ominous, an object of profound, nearly eternal danger.

The conference schedule began with “hard science” topics like particle physics and space science, but the agenda became more transparent in the final sessions: “Nuclear Energy Centers for Underdeveloped Nations,” “Tapping Latent Science Talent in the Ghetto,” and most critically “The Flight From Science.” In the final lecture, a physics professor from the University of Chicago tackled what she believed to be my generation’s fundamental problems with science. But in keeping with the boosterish tone of the conference, she focused on superficial, simplistic arguments that were easy to refute, ignoring the deeper and more troubling critiques of the emerging Counterculture.

On Friday night, after dinner, the physics teacher and I parted. We returned to our separate rooms, and I put on a warm coat, took an elevator to the ground floor lobby, and set out into the big-city night by myself. A 16-year-old kid from the cornfields, loose in the city of Al Capone and John Dillinger. The city where my parents had met during the birth of bebop. It was truly the city where my existence had been made possible.

The Night I Gave Up Physics

I don’t remember many details from that night. I do know I wandered down to the Loop, Chicago’s center, where I left Michigan Avenue for State Street. Near the Loop, Michigan mostly hosted corporate offices, which were dark at night, whereas State was the street of theaters and nightclubs. Photos of nighttime Chicago typically show a blaze of light. But wherever I went in that night of hazy memory, what I remember most is darkness and mystery. Shadowy towers looming above me. Shadowy strangers on mysterious missions. A sense that I was invisible, a secret agent, a silent observer, a child posing as an adult. A sense of danger mixed with a feeling of new power and potential.

What could I do in a place like this, away from the safety and comfort of my family home? I’d read Emile Zola’s Nana, the tragic story of a Parisian prostitute, and I knew that some of the people around me had to be hookers, gangsters, violent criminals. Actors, directors, corrupt politicians, multi-millionaires, captains of industry. The kinds of people I’d only read about or seen in movies.

Somewhere along my nocturnal path through the heart of the city, I felt myself absorbed into its mystery. As tiny and insignificant as I really was, I felt my heart swelling with feelings I didn’t begin to understand. After all, I was an adolescent! Everything about me was in constant flux, evolving toward the unknown.

But there was one thing that became crystal clear on that solitary exploration. I would not become a physicist, or any kind of scientist at all. Nothing I’d heard or seen at the conference had moved or inspired me. None of these high-powered professors or researchers had captured my interest. It wasn’t a question of my ability – there was clearly nothing in these subjects that I couldn’t master. I knew I could achieve just as much as any of these eminent scientists if I wanted to.

I also knew my generation was rebelling against science, specifically the military-industrial complex that employed so many scientists, but also against the broader dominant paradigms of European culture. But I don’t think my generation’s rebellion motivated my decision to abandon science. What I realized was that my essence is to seek experience – in all its beauty, horror, magic, and danger – to process it, and to return it in the form of art, music, poems and stories. I feel things profoundly and I’m driven to create in response. I’d always known that, but in the turmoil of adolescence, the pressure to decide on a career path, and the competitive seduction of my teachers, my thoughts and feelings had remained muddled and conflicted. Until now. Until that night alone in downtown Chicago.

Real-Life Education

Eighteen months later, when I graduated from high school, it was with our town’s art scholarship. But that was long before the internet, and even before the now-widely-available comparative reviews of colleges and universities. The only way I knew about colleges back then was word-of-mouth: from family, teachers, and the guidance counselor in our little farm town.

Sure, everyone had heard of legendary schools like Harvard and MIT, but to a kid in the boondocks they were as distant and unreal as the moon. Nobody seemed to know anything about art schools, but my broad talents suggested that I needed an equally broad education. Our high school guidance counselor solved the problem for me when he received a recruitment package from the University of Chicago, in that vibrant, mysterious city where my parents had met and I had forsaken a  career in physics. That was where I started my long, winding, and ultimately misguided path through what our society calls “higher education.” Ahead of that mess, my real education was waiting for me, outside the ivory tower.

I entered college on the eve of a recession, and it quickly became evident that a career in the arts wasn’t going to support me. After a couple of years mastering anatomy and the classical techniques of figurative drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture in Chicago’s picturesque Midway Studios, I was forced to fall back on my math and science skills. And ironically, the degrees I ultimately obtained – BS and MS – derived from a branch of physics: dynamics, the science of motion and change, the science of Einstein and his Theory of Relativity. So I gave it up that night in Chicago, only to be forced back into it a few years later – although I never ended up actually working in the field.

It took me decades of hard living to begin to overcome the cultural conditioning of my formal education. So much misdirection, so many false gods, such a narrow scope of knowledge – our precious Western Civilization. There were a few solitary voices along the way urging me to question authority, but they were drowned out by the dominant paradigm. My childhood pastor, Richard Merriman, who urged us to reject received wisdom and think for ourselves. My junior high and high school art teacher, Mel Gray, who challenged me by asking hard questions and listening patiently to my long, agonized answers. My freshman social science professor, Bill Zimmerman, an antiwar activist and founder of Science for the People, who revealed that, far from being an objective search for truth, science is a political activity, a tool of the imperialist state and the capitalist economy, and scientists should always be held responsible for the practical applications of their work. Richard McKeon, the spellbinding philosopher who framed the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But most of my so-called teachers were just trying to indoctrinate me in the same gospel of Western Civilization that they’d been programmed in themselves: the Greeks, the Romans, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, Bach and Beethoven, Galileo and Darwin, blah blah blah.

Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t really think for myself until I’d gained a broad and deep experience of life outside the ivory tower. In ghettos and barrios, on movie sets and rural communes, in nightclubs and underground performance spaces, in jail cells and courtrooms, on military bases and toxic waste sites, in mines and oil fields, in remote farming villages and Indian reservations, in mountain and desert wilderness.

From that mature perspective, looking back on the formal education our society provided in my childhood and youth, some of which was generally acknowledged to be the best in the world, it’s easy to see that it was primarily an indoctrination in imperialist European culture. After I escaped that system of indoctrination, I struggled for decades to break through the veil of illusion it created, to correct the errors in thinking and overcome the bad habits.

Science of Death

One of those errors is the paradigm of reductive, mechanistic science, represented by physics and chemistry. Physics and chemistry are so universally accepted as the foundation of science that virtually no scientists today question them. But they originated in a wacky, controversial thesis from Ancient Greece, which held that everything in nature is assembled from tiny, invisible particles called atoms, and anything can be understood by analyzing its component parts. Of course, you have to destroy things to break them down into their component parts, so this principle of reductionism was essentially destructive. This destructive principle was initially validated by the transformative, and most often the destructive, power of early chemistry, beginning a feedback loop in which science was progressively validated by its power to destroy nature and transform natural resources for human purposes.

The material universe, including living organisms, was a machine for Descartes, which could in principle be understood completely by analyzing it in terms of its smallest parts….The belief that in every complex system the behavior of the whole can be understood entirely from the properties of its parts is central to the Cartesian paradigm. (Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life)

Physics and chemistry were initially one science, based on this atomic model. Models – simplified man-made structures which are presumed to represent aspects of nature – are fundamental to the scientific method. They are usually termed “mathematical models” because mathematical formulas and equations describe their behavior, but in the beginning, scientific models were uniformly inspired by man-made machines – particularly the Asian and Middle Eastern mechanical clocks and computers that were the earliest known complex machines. These machines inspired the cosmological theories of Galileo and Copernicus. And it became accepted practice, which continues unquestioned to this day, for scientists to base their models of nature on man-made machines.

Ironically, it turned out that the atoms and molecules of physics and chemistry – these tiny natural machines that were the building blocks of the periodic table – could only be observed by still more and more powerful machines, often via acts of destruction in “atom smashers.” As models proliferated, particles became waves, and waves became strings, but it was always the same old same old – invisible phenomena that only physicists could observe, and only using ever more powerful machines.

As the European sciences solidified into a hierarchy with physics and chemistry at the foundation, they also split into the physical sciences – the sciences of nonliving matter – and the life sciences – the sciences of living organisms. Traditional indigenous societies avoid that distinction – they view all of nature as alive. Even geologists acknowledge this when they speak of the living rock.

Physics has its own history of naive mysticism, which is usually interpreted as the harmless eccentricity of sages with big brains. Prominent theoretical physicist David Bohm maintained that all matter possesses consciousness – but no one really took him seriously.

Instead of living habitats in specific places, the physicist imagines abstract mathematical space. Instead of natural cycles, events, and progressions, the physicist contemplates mathematical equations based on the linear variable “t.” Rather than living ecosystems, the physicist sees “matter” and “energy” – mathematical abstractions which can only be detected by machines. The European distinction between living and nonliving matter has enabled us to justify our ruthless destruction of natural habitats and overconsumption of natural resources. Physics and chemistry, the sciences that gave us napalm and nuclear weapons, are the scientific leaders in this destruction. They are the violent sciences of death.

This circular, self-validating thinking – nature is a machine which can only be studied by breaking it down using other machines, I understand how this machine works, hence I can transform nature for my purpose, hence I understand nature – is the essence of most science today. But there was a brief period from the late 1960s through the early 1980s in which a minority of scientists – part of the Counterculture – rebelled against mechanism and reductionism, seeking to replace it with holistic science, a science in which entities are only studied as components in systems, the way we actually find them in nature. A more objective, holistic, life-based science would have its foundations in ecology – the study of nature – and anthropology – the study of humans.

The great shock of twentieth-century science has been that systems cannot be understood by analysis. The properties of the parts are not intrinsic properties but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole….Accordingly, systems thinking concentrates not on basic building blocks, but on basic principles of organization. Systems thinking is ‘contextual,’ which is the opposite of analytical thinking. (Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life)

By this point, physics should be obsolete. But it remains far too essential to the exploitative, coercive agenda of the state and its economy. After the 1970s, the idea of holistic science was rapidly swept aside and mostly forgotten as computers, genetics, robotics, and other reductive and mechanistic paradigms triumphed in furthering the ends of the capitalist marketplace and the imperialist state.

As we perceive reality as a network of relationships, our descriptions, too, form an interconnected network of concepts and models in which there are no foundations….Since there are no foundations in the network, the phenomena described by physics are not any more fundamental than those described by, say, biology or psychology….Physics has now lost its role as the science providing the most fundamental description of reality. However, this is still not generally recognized today. (Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life)

Physics and chemistry represent what is sometimes called Big Science – science which is funded and directed primarily by governments, including the military-industrial complex. Whereas they are considered the foundation sciences, they are actually the least objective sciences, because they are implicated in the power politics of the imperialist state. Claiming to define the fundamental laws of the universe, physicists are not even smart enough to grasp the concept of the Umwelt, recognized by pioneering ecologist Jacob von Uexkull. The knowledge of each living species, including humans, is limited to the sensory, experiential bubble we live in. We can never understand what’s outside that bubble. Far from the smartest humans, physicists are among the most naive and ignorant, confined in their circular theoretical universe of mechanical models and violent machines.

As a chemist and a rocket scientist, my Dad worked with some of the most toxic substances known to man. They destroyed his health and ultimately his livelihood, so that by the age of 55 he had to transition to part-time work, and by the age of 60 he was essentially unemployed, financially insecure, and becoming an invalid. The 10-square-mile rocket plant where he worked became a toxic Superfund site. The miracle products he helped develop in the 1950s were eventually found to be polluting our environment, poisoning our water supplies, killing wildlife, and changing global climate. This is the vicious cycle of science and technology. Scientists and engineers innovate in isolation, ignorant of the larger context for their work. Their innovations are promoted by entrepreneurs, media, politicians, and teachers, with little or no consideration for the long-term consequences in nature and society. Young people are attracted to novelty and pursue careers in the most exciting fields of their day. Decades later, scientists in other fields discover that these innovations are actually destroying us and our habitats.

What tragedies and misery we set our kids up for, hoping for their success in a toxic society, urging them through an educational system that indoctrinates them in destructive paradigms!

Even the most primitive tribes have a larger vision of the universe, of our place and functioning within it, a vision that extends to celestial regions of space and to interior depths of the human in a manner far exceeding the parameters of our own world of technological confinement. (Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth)

Beneath the veneer of civilization, to paraphrase the trite phrase of humanism, lies not the barbarian and animal, but the human in us who knows the rightness of birth in gentle surroundings, the necessity of a rich nonhuman environment, play at being animals, the discipline of natural history, juvenile tasks with simple tools, the expressive arts of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product, the cultivation of metaphorical significance of natural phenomena of all kinds, clan membership and small-group life, and the profound claims and liberation of ritual initiation and subsequent stages of adult mentorship. (Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness)

Where do the little people of the world turn when the big structures crumble or grow humanly intolerable? At that point, it becomes important for us to know what a political and intellectual leadership devoted to the big system orthodoxies will never tell us: that there are small alternatives that have managed to bring person and society, spiritual need and practical work together in a supportive and symbiotic relationship. (Theodore Roszak, Person/Planet: The Creative Disintegration of Industrial Society)

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