We need more Dionysian Science

Michelle and I just finished reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. It was good. He can get a little rambling at times, but overall it was entertaining and enjoyable. The book follows the relationships between people and four plants, through history. The four plants are: apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. It pairs with them four desires, respectively: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. The connections are more than a little tenuous, but the histories are certainly worth examining. The apple chapter in particular has inspired me to learn more about hard cider (since it turns out that’s largely what Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman’s apples were used for, all across 19th century America). And who can resist an examination of cannabis’s relationship with humans, written at least partially while stoned?

One theme Pollan has touched on repeatedly, in this book and his others, is the competition between Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in nature and society. Apollo representing order and control, Dionysus wildness and chaos, both being utterly necessary for civilization to be dynamic and persistent, for knowledge to increase and broaden through time. E.g. our Apollonian monocultures of Russet Burbank potatoes are vulnerable because of their uniformity, but are also productive and economically efficient. The Andean potato farmers of antiquity grew dozens of different varieties in different micro climates, all the while allowing the plants to hybridize with the local wild potatoes, maintaining a possibly less productive, but certainly more diverse and robust system of potato cultivation, in which new biological innovation was constantly taking place, and in which the farmers were well protected against catastrophic collapse in any one year… unlike the potato farmers of Ireland in the 1840s. The potato chapter in particular focuses largely on a very recent interaction with the potato: the introduction of a genetically engineered variety called the “New Leaf” by Monsanto, that produces Bt toxin to guard the plant against the Colorado potato beetle and other insect pests.

Science has traditionally been thought of as a purely Apollonian affair, but in my mind at least, this is changing now, as we press on in our investigations of complex, non-linear systems like climate and genetics, and as we wield ever more powerful and opaque computational tools in those investigations.  Science is running up against a kind of Dionysian wall – or maybe more accurately, becoming entangled in Dionysian thickets.  This is the same notion that Stuart Kauffman was talking about in his recent lecture at Caltech.  There are some problems which are just inherently hairy, and cannot ever be expected to yield to reductionist investigation in the same way that light is described by Maxwell’s equations, or gravity by Newtonian mechanics or general relativity, because in complex non-linear systems, even the vague overall shape of the solution can depend strongly on the small scale structure – the specifics – of the problem, and there are many problems with grotesquely non-repeating initial conditions.  Who could have guessed that a small shrew-like nocturnal animal who lived 65 million years ago would have descendants capable of traveling to other planets, building nuclear reactors, and altering the climate of the Earth?  Nobody.  It wasn’t predictable, just like the weather 100 years from now (even absent climate change) isn’t predictable.

We need to be okay with that identifiable uncertainty when we come across it, and understand that sometimes even when we can’t clearly recognize it, it may still be there.  It’s not clear to me that science as an institution realizes this.  I’m not saying that all the reductionist investigations are finished, and I’m not saying we should stop trying to deepen our understanding of complex systems, but when it comes to making life-and-death decisions that cannot be rescinded, I think we should not make the blanket assumption that in the “future”, we’ll understand exactly how these troublesome things work, and so we’ll be able to deal with it then.  We should try and re-balance our conception of what science is to include Dionysian aspects, instead of only the strict control and determinism of Apollonian systems.  No matter how great our impact on the world, there is an irreducible wildness within it, that is both creative and destructive.

Another place this is only starting to become apparent is in computation.  Computational systems that are evolved or taught instead of being engineered have a kernel of the Dionysian creativity and unpredictability within them, like the evolving FPGAs that take advantage of analog signals passed via electromagnetic fields in the (otherwise completely digital) chip’s viscinity.  Scientists and engineers still usually don’t think about approaching problems with systems that learn and function well, but which cannot be understood by their users, and which have no designers.  The military has this problem: command and control vs. adapt and evolve.  And companies too: Microsoft still doesn’t ‘get’ the internet in the way that Wikipedia does (and not just because Wikipedia isn’t trying to make money).  The record companies don’t get it.  The scientific publishing companies don’t get it.  The government doesn’t even realize there’s anything to get!  You can sometimes give up a measure of control, and in exchange get a disproportionate amount of creativity and dynamism.  But you really do have to give up some control.  Google seems to get this sometimes, but not always.  The NRG talk that Frances Arnold gave seemed to get it… the alternating cycles of evolution and design in the pursuit of microbes capable of producing cellulosic biofuels.  It’s a beautiful process.  It’s knowledge gardening, not engineering.  A collaboration with nature.

We need to do more collaborating with nature, and admit that occasionally we have to abandon hope of overcoming or even understanding her wilderness.  It makes the Universe a richer place to live, and we don’t actually have any choice in the matter.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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