Fantasy Versus Reality
years ago a young woman about to take my introductory biology course
said, Im a creationist. Do you teach biology as if evolution
Evolution, I replied, is the uniting concept in
She persisted. Professor McDaniel, dont you know that
belief is much stronger than fact?
Each of us has a capacity to hold and act upon our beliefs, even
though they may be demonstrably false. Often we are naïve,
but more telling is the fact that we do not necessarily alter our
beliefs when exposed to overwhelming evidence that contradicts them.
phenomenon helps explain why our society denies both the importance
of the Nauru experiment and our own environmental conundrums. Our
brains did not evolve to understand biology or to accept the evolutionary
processes that led to life on Earth. Yet, without an evolutionary
perspective, what we know about life makes little sense. Before
the development of science, humans knew little about the freestanding
reality that exists outside the human brain.
for example, the electromagnetic spectrum that is used to classify
radiation by wavelength. Wavelengths span from less than 0.000000000001
meters to more than 100 meters. For almost all of the several hundred
thousand years that our species has existed, humans knew only about
wavelengths visible to the human eye. Radio waves, microwaves, ultraviolet
rays, and x-rays existed, but our senses couldnt detect them.
once self-sustaining, unspoiled paradise is now a mined-out
forest area once dominated the island; 80 percent of Nauru has
since been mined.
mined area on Nauru where phosphate ore mining began 100 years
that was mined 30-40 years ago displays oxidized coral tentacles
and vegetative regrowth.
because our early ancestors were unable to explain how the world
worked from a scientific perspective, they dreamed up explanations,
even though they had no reliable way of proving them. Their explanations
came to life in stories, which were woven together by various cultures
to create worldviews. These views then guided the culture, instructing
its people about right and wrong and how to live. Unfortunately,
almost everything our pre-modern ancestors imagined about the physical
and biological world was wrong. Even today, humans (whether by design
or need) create fantasy worlds estranged from biological and physical
reality and accept them as true.
The natural sciences offer the most believable and reliable description,
albeit incomplete, of freestanding reality ever achieved. We know,
for example, where we are in the universe and how we came to be.
Life has existed on Earth for at least 3.6 billion years. Our species,
Homo sapiens, has been around for just 0.03 percent of this
time. Our civilization is absolutely dependent upon other species
for life-support functions such as atmosphere and temperature, food,
fertile soil, medicine, pest management, population regulation,
pollination, water retention and purification, aesthetic beauty,
emotional stability, recreation, and so on. We also know that Earth
is in, or will soon enter, its sixth mass extinction of life in
the past half billion years and that we are the cause.
extinctions and recovery periods are times of biological chaos and
ecological instability. Life support is in constant flux. These
conditions are not suitable for maintaining huge populations of
large animals, especially those at the top of the food chain. In
a nutshell, our speeding up of extinction is incompatible with durable
habitation. Nobody, however, knows how much or which parts of biodiversity
we need to preserve our civilization. The biosphere and its ecosystems
are immense, complex, adaptive systems that are beyond human capacity
I suspect it will remain so.
face a similar predicament with climate change. We know that our
activities are major contributors to the increase in greenhouse
gases. These changes will increase heat retention and likely deplete
biodiversity and devastate human activities. But nobody can predict
how much change the atmosphere can endure before major, irreversible
climate change becomes inevitable. Prudence and wisdom suggest that
we stop our global experiments with life support and climate, but
these are not the principles that guide our civilization.
practice, prudence and wisdom are elusive because our highly diverse
species is collectively not as logical nor as reason-based as we
think we are. Within our brains lies a hodgepodge of logic, nonsense,
passion, and reason struggling to make sense of incomplete and often
contradictory information. To make matters worse, humans have the
unbridled ability to dream up missing pieces of information. We
then believe our fantasies, even to the point of sacrificing our
lives. Much like in our ancestral times, this can lead to incorrect
aspect of human behaviorto create and act upon our beliefswill
not change; it holds deep evolutionary roots. But our culture must
alter its beliefs and fantasies if we are to create durable patterns
of human habitation. As the Nauruan experiment established, we have
to move away from our economically centered
perspective toward a new, biologically based worldview, in which
our primary goal is to live responsibly and compatibly with ourselves
and the rest of life.
this realistic? A Polynesian culture on the island of Tikopia did
change from a pattern of environmental destruction to one of sustainable
habitation, but I dont know if this is possible on a global
scale. I do know that if we are unable to arrive at some consensus
about the severity of our environmental problems and their causes,
then collapse is certain. Education will be a critical component
in this cultural transformation, if it is to take place.
is merely a glimpse of our tendency for fantasy and its role in
preventing us from acting decisively on the mega-trends that will
undo civilization unless they are reversed. However, the environmental
agenda includes the entire range of human activities; therefore,
everything we do is potentially part of the solution. Every aspect
of what happens in a home, school, or a place of work is relevant.
Clearly, addressing in a meaningful way Oberlins traditional
concerns of equity, fairness, social justice, and respect for diversity
is utterly dependent upon our resolving environmental problems.
McDaniel is a professor of biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
and co-author of the book Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature.
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