Professor Charles Birch’s speech
at the WTM Website Launch
Launch of the Foundation for Humanity’s Adulthood’s website—
now known as the World Transformation Movement (WTM)—by
one of the world’s leading biologists, Professor Charles Birch,
at the Australian Museum on 16 October 1998.
Delivering the Main Address, Professor Charles Birch, Emeritus Professor of Biology Sydney University and winner of the 1990 Templeton Prize for his scientific contribution to ‘progress in religion’, spoke about ‘the nature of holistic science and the need for tolerance in our society’.
I like the flowers Jeremy.
I mean you’ve heard so much about me that I don’t know what I can—I feel a bit like a friend of mine who was a Professor of Astronomy and he was in charge of an exhibit at the Royal Society of London, Professor Hanbury Brown, who you might know, he was an astronomer. And he was on this particular evening looking after an exhibit of the Thermionic valve and he, as people came along he would explain the principal of Thermionic valve and one very elderly man came along, and Professor Hanbury Brown said to him, ‘This is the Thermionic valve, I can finally explain it to you’. The old guy who was looking at the Thermionic valve said ‘Oh you needn’t bother, I invented it.’ And I get a bit, the impression that you invented a lot of things that are very important and who am I to try and explain any of it to you. Well, I’m not going to tell you anything but I think I can, I would like to discuss some issues with you.
As I saw the symbol of your Foundation up on the screen, and the symbol is a human hand holding a key, it reminded me of a statement I think Norman Mailer made on one occasion and that is ‘If the universe is a lock then the key to that lock is not a measure, but a metaphor’ and I think that makes the contrast between the mechanistic/materialistic way of interpreting the universe and life and the what you call a holistic way of looking at things.
Now I’m happy to be involved with the launch of your website for three reasons:
One is the questions the Foundation asks are important. I think they’re important.
Two, the Foundation has had a positive and creative influence on the lives of many of you, some of whom I know.
Thirdly, and this relates to something that Jοhn Bіggs was talking about information. And actually while he was talking it occurred to me that although I’ve spent the whole of my life virtually lecturing to students, I mean that’s not the only thing I did, but I spent a lot of time lecturing to students, I’ve never lectured to students on any subject of which I was taught, which is suggestive the extent of which information becomes out of date. In fact, as soon as I graduated I was already out of date. I learnt that very quickly. My third point, the third reason why I am glad to be here relates to that. In the 21st century the world will not be run by those who possess information alone. We are drowning in information. Just look at the internet. But we are starving for wisdom. And what we need is people who put the two together—the right information with the capacity to make important choices wisely. The Foundation can bring together the right information and wise choices. It’s not easy. Bertrand Russell once said that ‘The trouble with the wise is that they are so full of doubts, but the dull are so certain.’ And that’s true of our society.
Now let me now put before you some of the important questions which you, I know you are asking, that are in your literature:
What is the meaning of life?
What enhances living?
What can bring wholeness to our lives? That word again ‘whole’.
What calls us beyond our apparent limits?
What should we put as our ultimate values?
What’s the role of nature?
What’s the role of nurture, that some of these books refer to, in making us persons?
Our answers to all of these questions, and many others, depends upon our view of human nature. So I want to say a few words about that. And some of the books that Jeremy has referred to have very opposing views about the nature of human nature.
I think there are, as I’m thinking about it now, there are 4 options. One is the option of genetic determinism. Apologists for unrestrained capitalism and some economic rationalists claim that aggressiveness, entrepreneurial activity, male domination, territoriality, even xenophobia are innate in our nature, in our genes, and that is what determines the sort of society that will work. In other words you have to accept those sorts of propositions and then mould your society on the basis of those propositions. I call that genetic determinism and one of the outstanding proponents of genetic determinism today is E.O. Wilson, whom you referred to. I haven’t read the book The Origin of Virtues, but I think it has the same proposition as far as I can understand from the reviews. In fact, it would probably be true to say that of the various options in which one may scan human nature, the option that is on top at the moment is genetic determinism. It has a big press. And it has quite a lot of followers.
Now the second option which I think one could call Cultural Determinism. It applies to people, I mean you’ll find it more towards the political left wing part of the spectrum, any claims that we are really cooperative, we’re really altruistic underneath and society will determine that these qualities will come out in a very creative way. And I think it would be probably true to say that in the last 100 years the one person that has been uppermost promoting that position in a very extreme way was Prince Kropotkin who wrote a book called Mutual Aid. I have a very vivid recollection of the first time I visited Chicago, which is a long time ago, and I visited the first settlement that had ever been created in the world, a settlement amongst impoverished people. And it was established by a woman called Jane Adams. The settlement house right by the stock yards is there to this day as a sort of memorial I suppose to Jane Adams and you can see the desk she sat at and behind the desk there’s a great big picture of Prince Kropotkin Mutual Aid. And the whole idea of the settlement was that it was possible if you concentrated on in human societies on the cooperative and the positive things that humanity would respond and of course there is a great deal of truth in that. But there is to some extent, which I’ll mention later on, cultural determinism can get into its difficulties.
A third radical alternative is the notion of radical existentialism and that is that there is no such thing as human nature anyway. We are simply what we make of ourselves and leaves no room and no way of understanding human society. We are simply what we are and society is what it happens to be. Grin and bear it.
But now there is yet a fourth option which makes more sense than any of the other three. It is the proposition that we have propensities for almost any quality in our lives. What we are depends up on the relationship between organism, genes and environment. We have to take these three into account, not just the genes themselves but what happens in developing an organism and the relationship with the sort of environment we find ourselves in.
We are inextricably part of nature. The obvious example of that fact is that over 95% of our genes are in common with chimpanzees. But it would be true to say the main difference between us and chimpanzees is in that 5% of genes that is where we differ. But if we ask the question, what’s the real difference between us and human beings a hundred thousand years ago, the answer is, it’s not genetics at all. The difference is cultural. And the definition of culture is what we transmit from one generation to the next through learning, not through genes, but through learning. And this is the whole importance of families, of universities, of schools and so on, to transmit cultural information. It’s cultural evolution is a term that you sometimes will hear. Now where genetic determinism fails is in attributing the most important differences that exist between human beings and between human beings and our fore fathers many, many generations ago is that the differences are primarily due to genes. This is not true.
Now a claim of the genetic determinists, in which there are many, and a very leading one of course is E.O. Wilson, whose book Consilience was the last one which some of you may have read, from Harvard. A claim they make of the extreme cultural determinists is this, they say that cultural determinists think that individuals are simply mirrors of the cultural forces that have acted upon them since birth. They say that the organism at birth is simply a tabula rasa, a clean slate on which things are written by virtue simply of the relationships we have to the environment around us, our families schools and so on. That’s a very extreme position of cultural determinism.
Now I go along with neither extreme. I think our lives are the outcome of a great multitude of intersecting causal pathways that involve both our genes and our environment. In some case the emphasis may be on genes, for example if a person who is born with a black skin, the difference between them and a white person is genetic. But the most important differences between individual human beings are not genetic at all, their cultural. It’s a result of the environment that we live in. And this is why it’s so terribly important for society to be concerned all the time about the cultural influences from families, schools, universities and so on, from the work places that we live in. To suppose that the differences that matter between us are genetic seems to me to go very much back to the old doctrine of original sin. In other words, we are born in a particular sort of way and that we can’t do very much about that—we’re stained from the beginning. It is the old credo also which I hear very often—is that you can’t change human nature. Now if human nature is 100% genetically determined of course you can’t change it unless you have some genetic experimentation. But we’re not like that.
You see, what I am saying amounts to this, that we have potentialities for aggressiveness, we have potentialities for cooperativeness. We have potentialities for almost any human quality. Yesterday I was talking to a former student of ours who went into medicine, became a psychiatrist and spent pretty well all his life dealing with very under-privileged people and people who are on the periphery of society, people who are in gaols, people who are in mental hospitals. And I said to him, isn’t it very depressing working with such people every day of your life. He said, no it’s not because it’s so wonderful when a single one of them happens to rediscover the real nature of humanity and a life has been saved to some extent. That’s the thing that really matters to me. He spoke even about some woman who was in a mental institution and she had already murdered two children and she wanted to murder the third one, and his job was to try and see what he could do with a person who had that sort of outlook on life…that it was possible to change. Now if all the differences are genetic, well of course it’s not possible to change. Tremendous change has taken place. Cultural influence makes the difference between, and let me quote exactly Stephen J. Gould here, he was much more on the side of culture than on the side of genes. Gould says ‘Our genetic makeup permits us a wide range of behaviours from Ebenezer Scrooge before to Ebenezer Scrooge afterwards.’ And we could add between Saul before and Saul afterwards, and between Augustine before and Augustine afterwards. It’s the story of human civilisation to look at the difference that culture makes to people.
This is what ethics is all about. And a question I often ask myself is now that churches are no longer a dominant influence in the environment of the young where is youth going to get it’s ethical principles from, it’s understanding of human values that are positive and not destructive? Where are they going to come from?
Now I think there is a sure test you can apply to any society to determine whether it is ethical or not. In other words whether it’s cultural evolution is a positive rather than a negative thing. A society is judged not by how it helps the fit, not by the survival of the fittest, but by how it deals with the marginalised and the oppressed…that’s the clue. Compare One Nation with the Democrats in this respect. Nazi Germany was a society based on genetic determinism. If you want to know who were the marginalised and oppressed in that society visit Berlin an exhibition on the former site of the Gestapo headquarters. It is called The Topography of Terror. It is largely a photographic exhibition of those citizens who were judged during the Nazi period, tortured and killed either there or elsewhere. They were the unfit and had to be eliminated. Today it is a searing reminder of what a society with a crooked view of human nature can do to its citizens. It’s absolutely frightening. And it’s wonderful to see the reaction of people who go through this exhibition and realise how important our environment, our cultural influences, our political views, the view of human nature we have is.
I end with a quotation from Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian which takes account of our human capacity for both good and evil, in this case the capacity for both justice and injustice: ‘Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’ I’ll just repeat that ‘Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’ There is a very narrow knife edge if you like we live on, from day to day in our society, in Australia right at the moment. Thank you.