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                                                                                                Richard Levins


            I am delighted that the Networker ( January 2000)  is opening up discussion on spirituality and science. For most of my life I have been uncomfortable with the term “spirituality” because it seemed to imply religion, but I now accept its common usage as pertaining to our deepest values and feelings.

Although I had intended for some time to write on the subject, what finally got me to do it was the quote from Sheldrake about a “mechanistic-atheistic worldview …[that] portrays a disenchanted, unmagical reality proceeding entirely mechanically”. By 1991, when Sheldrake wrote, there could be no excuse for ignoring the traditions also of a non-mechanistic, dialectical atheism that sees the world as evolving with emergent discontinuities and always full of surprises. I write from that place.

 I do not see the domain of “spirituality”, of the felt and the wished for and the enjoyed, as isolated from the domain of the “is”, and I cannot separate my views of the one domain from the other. That is, I see the values of connection and solidarity and the aesthetic  of complexity as coming from our real connectedness and common interest, our efforts to right wrongs from a perception of the universality and possibility of change, compassion as the recognition of  a present built from the past and the possibilities of a transformed future.

With Marx, out of Hegel, I give priority to wholeness and change. The ubiquity of change is shared by Marxists and Buddhists, but of course we make use of that insight in different ways. Buddhism is less interested in the dynamics of change than in the fact of impermanence, and applies this insight to the value of non-attachment. It further distinguishes misery, an external phenomenon such as hunger or repression, from suffering, the pain caused by the way in which we deal emotionally with experience. Marxism is more concerned with the systems of exploitation, repression and deprivation that cause the misery and with ways to remove them.…Hegel’s dictum that the truth is the whole is an affirmation of the connectedness of all phenomena, external and internal.

We are all “free” to deal with wholeness as we chose: we can deny it and insist on an atomized universe of monads drifting in the void, with its individualist ethics and reductionist methodologies; we can acknowledge wholeness as unfortunate and invent methods for getting around it or despair of understanding a “too complicated” world, treating connection as “noise”; or we can embrace this knowledge and let it guide our intellectual, ethical and aesthetic life.

Wholeness has several important consequences:

a)      A problem has to be posed big enough for an answer to fit. When it is posed too narrowly, rational solutions in the small are thwarted by events from “outside”, that is from processes that have been pushed outside of the domain of the problem, such as evolutionary considerations in thinking about antibiotics and the failure of pesticides or the exclusion of social justice from epidemiology. To talk about cancer only as a cellular phenomenon without mentioning the chemical industry is a common form of lying by telling only small truths.

I claim that the present state of knowledge—increasing sophistication in the small, at the level of the laboratory, and increasing irrationality of the scientific enterprise as a whole—is a consequence of the narrowing of horizons, the fragmentation and commodification of knowledge, the commercialization of human relations, and that it is responsible for the startlingly uneven pattern of successes and failures of efforts to improve life and the extreme unevenness of knowledge and ignorance about nature.

b)      The dichotomies into which we fragment knowledge—social/biological, physical/psychological, environmental/genetic, societal/behavioral, objectivity/commitment, the is/the ought, thinking/feeling and so on—are false dichotomies, useful as temporary investigative devices but misleading in the long run. The task is not to fracture the whole and assign relative weights to discrete “factors” but to understand how the whole fits together.

c)      “The whole” includes ourselves, our analytic, feeling and appreciating selves. In the course of any research we form a relationship with the objects of study that colors how we think about the project. In biology especially, the ability to pose meaningful questions, to figure out how to study the problems of interest, to  observe keenly and to know how we might be misled depend on an intuition that comes from an aesthetic and emotional appreciation of the beings we work with. Many is the dusk when I sat on the beach of an uninhabited island watching ants at work, sipping beer, watching the evening feeding effervescence in the reefs, anticipating how a particular worker ant will interpret a round object as a pebble to be discarded or a seed to be brought home, wondering how she will react to a twig in her path, and making little marks on my clipboard. The National Science Foundation did not care about the sunset or the beer but paid for the little marks turning into data about feeding behavior. But the rest was part of the total experience of being part of the nature I studied. I knew that these ants were from Africa, probably brought to the Caribbean by the slave trade, that they have been invading and dying out on islands for 3-4 centuries depending on the neighbors they found there and the vegetation and the regional  drying trends. Later, their feeding behavior lead to my using them for pest control in Cuba. But no practical value they have can detract from the simple fact that I love Pheidole megacephala.

`                 The late Robert MacArthur, an ecologist whose boyhood spent watching and appreciating birds allowed him to do superb ecology on species relations among warblers, once told me that he had turned down an invitation to spend a semester studying the ecology of the Chilean intertidal zone because “six months was not enough time to develop empathy with clams”.

d)      Our science itself is also an object of study. We have to examine how our approach to a problem arose and is influenced by our surroundings so that we can make self-aware choices about what needs to be known. In seeing ourselves, we even have to ask why the current upsurge of interest in the domain of “spirituality” is happening now.

e)      The scientific vocation carries with it the implied commitment to discover and communicate “truth”. Here we are not concerned with philosophical dialogs about what is Truth, but the simpler injunction not to lie.

      But this is not so unproblematic as it might seem. The German Communist Bertold Brecht, addressing himself to intellectuals in resistance to Nazism within Germany in the 1930’s wrote his essay “Telling the Truth: Five Problems” as an annex to the play “Galileo”. I adapt his approach to the present discussion as follows.

First, what truths are worth discovering and telling? There are many pressures to seek only those truths that do not offend the powers that control the lives of scientists—public or private employers and potential employers, granting agencies, publishers, the universities and professional societies. The domain of tolerated quests is limited by the institutionalized traditions of knowledge fragmented into disciplines, departments, schools and programs. It is formed by economic pressures to find those bits of knowledge that can be most readily turned into marketable commodities. It is constrained by economic/political interests so that the environmental impact of military bases, the role of industry in the epidemiology of cancer, the noxious effects of the feedlot meat packing industry, the possible alternatives to a strategy of molecular therapies in medicine and public health, are either ignored or turned into narrow technical problems. It is constrained by intellectual fashions that reflect these other constraints but also lead their own lives: reductionist bias favoring the smallest objects as the most fundamental, a self-image as practical people that warns policy analysts to discuss only the potentially acceptable, an injunction toward detachment that makes passion seem naïve, a false objectivism that identifies “science” with quantification.     

Therefore many small and medium truths are discovered while major ones are so thoroughly denied as to be invisible. The answer to Brecht’s first question is, seek those truths that matter, that challenge existing biases, that provide us with the understanding of how we got into this mess and possible ways out of it, that enhance our power to see clearly and to relate with compassion.  Seek those truths that empower and teach how to work toward a society in which it makes sense to be kind.

The imperative to seek meaningful truths also informs our esthetic sense, the kinds of problems that are appealing and the kinds of solutions that would be acceptable. For instance, the observation that different racial groups score differently on the average in certain standard tests is an important observation for a racist society. But it leads to very different kinds of scientific interest. The study of genetic bases for racial differences in academic performance is an interesting and exciting question within the context of racism, whereas the question of how people can develop their fullest capacities to learn is the exciting problem for a liberating and democratic agenda.

But Brecht was wrong when he wrote about living in terrible times “when to talk about trees is almost a crime because it is a kind of silence about injustice.” Now we know that not to talk of trees is also a crime, a lie about our connectedness! Telling truths is much more than the exposé of abuses or warnings of the effects of pollution. It includes the deeper levels of truth, the need to see wholeness in a fragmented intellectual landscape, to respect complexity in the face of reductionism, to focus on process where a static view prevails and to challenge the boundary conditions that are taken for granted. This is one way that commitment to the questions of deep human significance. It enhances our scientific work by protecting it from drowning in the race to be the first to find trivial results.

In interpreting our observations, we have to see where they lead. My working hypothesis is the postulate of partisanship: all theories are wrong that promote, justify or tolerate injustice. But we do not always know how they are wrong. The data may be erroneous, the analysis inappropriate, the conclusions badly drawn or the study conceived too narrowly. When there is an apparent conflict between truth and justice, bet on justice! To deny partisanship is a second kind of lying: our partisanships are chosen or are adopted unthinkingly, are unconscious or conscious, thought out or so readily assumed that they seem to be objectivity itself. But they are always present.

This kind of commitment sets a scientific agenda and proposes hypotheses to find out why the research seemed to support injustice. But it does not determine the outcome. Detachment from the goal is an interlude in the endeavor, a moment when the issues become how to design experiments or organize observations. Here the larger goal operates only as motivation, stimulating the creativity. Then, after the study is finished, we are back to strong self conscious commitment in making use of the results for humane purposes.

Once you have a truth, there is the decision of what truth to tell. Now the importance of the truth has to be measured against any dangers in the telling of it. Our culture is rich in the means it has for excluding uncomfortable truths and discrediting the tellers. We have a rich vocabulary for rejecting the messengers of the uncongenial: quackish, far out, fringe, not mainstream, ideological, with an axe to grind, unproven, untested, etc. And scientists depend on being part of their professional network for resources, interchanges of ideas and personal validation.

Policy scholars are especially vulnerable: Peer review is always an imperfect mechanism for assuring quality of scholarship. It normally does catch the errors that are departures from the norms of a given field of study while leaving undetected the errors of the field itself, and tends to reinforce the shared beliefs of the creators of the present state of the art who have become its recognized leaders. In the policy and consulting area, peer review is subordinated to satisfying the client. This both distorts the work itself and creates a climate of shared agendas that can set the intellectual horizons of the scholars and determine the curricula of the schools preparing potential policy people. Scholars are very vulnerable to the terrorism of the raised eyebrow.

Therefore telling the truth has its dangers that are greater or less depending on our own social locations. In government and industry, whistle blowers are very vulnerable to reprisals. In university life, competition for fellowships, grants and promotions creates an environment of insecurity that dissuades boldness among the aspiring and beginning scholars. Tenure offers a privileged position, relatively free from the need for respectability, grant raising and satisfying the powerful. Therefore despite the possibilities of tenure being abused by shirkers, it remains an essential ingredient in preserving integrity and is therefore a target of university administrations.

But whatever the dangers and degrees of freedom for telling the truth, the experience of finding a way of telling it and working with people who can use that truth is enriching of our own humanity, makes alive our belief in our interconnectedness, strengthens our research by redirecting it toward what matters and toward appreciating wholeness, and finds us a community that serves as counterpoint to the most stultifying aspects of university life.

Once we know what truths to seek and to tell, and have the courage to tell them, the next question is, too whom? It is normal for academics to write and speak to academics, and this is important for the development of our knowledge. But it is also important to go beyond academia. The problems facing our species are simply too big to be left to the professionals and specialists. Rather we have to find ways to democratize science, to mobilize the incredibly rich intellectual potential of the species, of those who are excluded by reasons of class, gender, race or other barriers from sharing in the knowledge their labor helped create and offering their special insights into the problems that affect them and all of us.

This can be done in two ways: opening the world of the scientific professions, and learning to work with the grassroots non-professional groups. The opening up of the exclusive world of the academic professions to all who have the calling is the real meaning of affirmative action. It enriches because it expands the pool of creative scientists, because it brings to bear the particular experiences of the excluded groups, and because it creates models that inspire those who have been  discouraged by the discriminatory barriers from imagining themselves as creators of understanding.

We have to learn to combine the intimate, detailed knowledge that people have of their own experience with the abstract, comparative and generalized scientific knowledge that requires some distance from the particular and that gives the freedom to take seeming detours from practicality.

It is this long term need to rally the full creative capacity of our species that leads to the ethic of honesty: if it is the people who make history, then it is self-destructive to lie, manipulate and misinform them. People cannot be tricked, cajoled or coerced into making a revolution.

The use of non-professional knowledge itself has to be studied. Every social group has its pattern of special insight and of special blindness, and knowing that pattern is a prerequisite for effective collaboration. But knowing it requires respect for the people involved. A respectful, friendly and appreciative relationship is a necessary ingredient in carrying out a complex scientific study that respects both the general and the particular and recognizes the theorizing that comes from experience even when not expressed in algorithmic form. It also requires developing of research methods suitable for nonprofessional observers who are not interchangeable measuring devices and who may sometimes skip an observation to attend a meeting with their kids’ teachers.

Thus truth telling includes telling truth to the non-professional publics and to do this in a way that does not oversimplify or underestimate but builds on what they already know. “Popular article” is often a pejorative in university circles, implying oversimplified reasoning, unfair selection of data and biased conclusions. But it need not be so. Popular scientific writing is evolving rapidly, but mostly within the norms of “objective” and “neutral” journalism. We have to develop and learn a style of communication which is committed, honest and intelligible.

Once we have selected the truths to find and to tell and the audience to tell them to, the next question is how to tell the truth so that it will be understood: if you tell it like it is, will it be heard like it is? If you write it, can it reach the hundreds of millions who are still illiterate in this age of mail, e-mail and web pages? If you speak it, can anyone hear it against the background noise?

After we have pointed out how greed operates to pollute environments, uses up resources and hides harmful impacts, should we hold back from mentioning capitalism as a unifying concept because it may turn some people off? Should we tell about ourselves as we engage with a project even if that might divert attention from the issues? Or if I transmit the information accurately, might it depress rather than energize, conveying only the overwhelming power for harm of the transnational corporations but not the less obvious ways that people always find to resist?

There is obviously no uniform answer to this question. When I identify myself as a communist, does this merely conjure up images of Gulags and of dull bureaucrats censoring poetry from gray offices? Or might it confront the reader with a dilemma: is he an ecologist and also,  independently of that, a communist, an idiosyncratic quirk the way Newton was a fundamentalist and Feynman a jazz musician? Or is he not really a communist but claiming the title to show off? Is he speaking for all communists or only describing his own struggle to be a good communist? Or are communists not quite what I imagined them to be? Perhaps not all atheists are mechanistic exploiters of nature, perhaps materialists also have feelings?

Or it might raise the deeper question: how do we account for the gap between the humanistic communist beliefs as expressed by Levins and the behaviors of regimes led by parties that called themselves Communist? But that is a problem we share with Christians and followers of other religions: How do we account for the gap between theory and practice? I cannot pursue the question here, except to suggest that we can compare practice with practice or ideals with ideals, but that it would not be helpful to compare our worst practice with your most sublime ideals.


We as a species and as individuals are irrevocably connected to each other. This is an observation, not a norm. Human development presumes other humans around us for physical, psychological and emotional care. This dependence is so powerful that we can say that others are part of our development system, like the yolk of a chick’s egg, external to the embryo yet an essential part of its development.

This connectedness is a starting point for human solidarity. It is only in the hands of philosophers that “self” and “others” are absolutized into mutually incompatible opposites, and somebody else becomes “The Other”. Then there are the fruitless debates about how to reconnect them, the counterposing of “selfishness” and “altruism” that are the seemingly opposed starting points of a common individualistic world view. Only from that fragmented perspective can the well-fed hold symposia (dinner included)  to argue whether there is a logical reason why the hungry should have food.

f)       Scientific problems are always bigger that we imagine. Therefore we start out by posing a question as broadly as we can and then justify scaling back rather than making it as small as possible and kicking and screaming when we have to expand the domain.

g)      After we have posed the problem as large as we can, we always remember that there is more out there than we realize, that as the British biologist and Marxist  J.B.S. Haldane wrote, the world “is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine”. We keep in mind that there is always an external that can thwart our best analysis: surprise is inevitable, exciting, sometimes delightful, awesome or inspiring; sometimes frightening. The emotional counterpart of this realization is that the pride of the scientist is not that of the prophet, of being right.(This got Jonah into trouble when having his prediction confirmed became more important than the lives that would have been destroyed had that happened). Rather our pride is in being open to surprise, with an aesthetic of enjoying surprise as expressing the marvelous creativity of nature.

I once studied some flies in desert and rain forest conditions, expecting the desert flies to be more heat- and desiccation-tolerant than those in the moist, cool habitat. They weren’t: they were just better at finding the moist cool spots! These small discovers bring delight in the unexpectedness of life that does not contradict my love of understanding the complexity. Therefore when chaotic motion was discovered I did not worry that it destroyed the foundations of science but rather reveled in an unexpected kind of dynamics and engaged to understand it better.

The priority we give to change is enriched with notions of qualitative change. Thus we escape the controversy between the reductionists who see life as “nothing but” ensembles of molecules and the vitalists who saw life as the insertion of some “vital force” into dead matter. We argue instead that life arose from non-living matter through its own dynamics, but in so doing created something new. We reject both the theological claim that somewhere along the way a soul was inserted, and the reductionism of a Wilson who sees human relations simply as extensions of pre-human evolution and can decide that particular social relations that he likes are “biological based” while disfavored ones are violations of our inheritance.

The emphasis on change also gives priority to process and asks the two fundamental questions: “Why are things the way they are instead of a little bit different?” ( the question of homeostasis, resilience, stability, equilibrium) and “Why are things the way they are instead of very different?” (the question of evolution, history or development according to the field).

An emphasis on process applies also to our understanding of how we reach our conclusions.

a)The attempt to discover first principles from which to derive a binding program has to fail. The “first principles” are the ones that commend themselves to us, in the here and now. They reflect our present concerns as examined by us with our historically derived tools, and then we reify them into universals. Rather we should begin both in science and morality with where we are now (where else can we be?), a whole mixed bag of an inheritance of notions, beliefs, prejudices and rules of discourse in a social context. We then examine that inheritance to understand its origins and changing significance and subject it to criticism, revealing contradictions and uncovering hidden assumptions and boundary conditions, proposing changes. We examine our most deeply felt sufferings and see how we can invert them into social goals. For instance for the poor, “food for our children” is an almost utopian, ideal goal that stirs the heart. For those with secure employment, it is a “mere material demand” whereas “meaningful work”  appears as an ideal goal.

Finally, we apply the universality of change to ourselves. Instead of trying to find an unchanging “true self” seeking expression beneath the inconstancies of life, we say with the Uruguayan communist Eduardo Galeano “ We are what we do, and above all what we do to change what we are.”

  I see the rising interest in religion and spirituality as a repudiation of the commercialization of life and of the predominance of individualistic drives to accumulate or consume as the road to satisfaction. We share with some religious believers the insight that the race for wealth is depleting the planet, undermining our life support systems, isolating us from each other. We see business becoming a metaphor for all of life, cost-benefit analyses penetrating our intimate lives, the corporation becoming the model for governance, and modern technology enabling us to turn kidneys, eyes and wombs into marketable trade goods. We also see the waste of human beings for whom there are no jobs, no land, no room in school, nothing useful to do, no problems to solve, whose opinions are only consulted if at all as data for sales efforts, and the waste by deep alienation of the rest, caught in the cold logic of cost effectiveness. No wonder there is rebellion, and a rediscovery of pre-capitalist ways of looking at the world: people do too matter! The trees are not just cubic meters of lumber! Grand Canyon is not just real estate! Health is a right! People should find ways of caring about each other and about nature! Scientists should not be wasting their lives designing weapons or racing for patents or prizes! They shouldn’t be so damned detached when the world is going to hell! In this context, people who have very little, and sometimes even people who have been repelled by their satiation with too much, find common ground in looking for another way. It makes sense then that they reexamine the ways others have tried to do this in similarly alienating times. Ancient Chinese bureaucrats, devoting their official lives to administering a hierarchy of privilege, developed a Taoist alternative for their personal lives with a delicate appreciation of nature as a soothing counterpoint to the byzantine labyrinths of mandarin politicking.

“I am not suited for service in a country town.

By my door the autumn rushes grow.

I planted bamboo, more than a hundred shoots…”

But they still collected taxes and bribes and whipped the peasants into shape.

Or people could look back 2000 years to the lives of middle eastern slaves coming to terms with their slavery and seeking consolation in love and fellowship.

Sometimes this quest can lead some people to false notions of a vanished golden age when their privilege was unchallenged, to a fear of innovation, to blaming anything except the system that turns people into things. The present day Christian Right is made up mostly of people who should be our allies in the struggle for a world where it is safe to be kind, and they will have to become our allies if we are to win a sustainable future that is worth sustaining. It is this sense of common human interest and eventual active solidarity with most of our present enemies and a confidence (“faith?”) in people’s capacity to learn and change that is the source of our compassion even in conflict. This is a more dynamic notion than “tolerance” or “respect” for people’s opinions, which leaves them irrevocably where they are.

To suggest that social conditions are responsible for the present openness to spirituality does not trivialize either the sincerity or the positive value attached to such quests. I share with the religious and other spiritual searchers a rejection of the commodified life and the individualism our way of life promotes. I share a sense of engagement and appreciation of nature that combines intellectual analysis, emotional commitment and aesthetic delight. I delight both in surprise and in finding out how the system works, with emotional and aesthetic priority given to complexity, discontinuity, surprise. I enjoy the uniqueness of each particular without seeing that uniqueness as preventing generalization, nor do I see understanding as an enemy to marveling. I am moved (“awed”, if you prefer) by the magnificence of a giant beech tree and the exquisite intricacy of a tiny pseudoscorpion completely absorbed in navigating the leaf litter of a tropical forest. I am also enthused by acts of resistance to the commodification of nature, by the protection of a forest or the provision of a refuge for grizzly bears and thrill to the creativity and heroism in struggle of  the Chipko women of India, the Zapatista Maya of Chiapas, the people from all over the world on the streets of Seattle.

It is almost commonplace now to call for “a new paradigm”, a more humane way of looking at the world. Spiritually informed friends look toward a transformation in the way we think and feel, a new attitude toward nature and our fellow beings. And I agree with them up to a point. But I also think that a transformation in the way we think is unstable and will remain only a partial transformation and a besieged minority position until we have a society where solidarity prevails over individualistic competition through a sharing of the fruits of our labor and our intellects, our joys and sorrows, where natural objects are not commodities and people are more than “labor power” and “consumers”, where it is practical to love. 

The paradox , enunciated by Rosa Luxemburg, is that we are attempting to build the new with the materials of the old, namely ourselves. We need “a new way of thinking” in order to create the society in which that “new way of thinking” could become the norm. It is in the struggle to right present wrongs that we find the new experiences that refute the prevailing ways, that we remake ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, and we create new aspirations. But as we succeed, our barely imagined  bold “new way of thinking” will itself become obsolete and appear naïve. Anti-militarism will cease to move people when the terrible armaments of today are footnotes in the museums of plowshares. Diversity in our neighborhoods may cease to thrill us and seem just “natural” when the category of “race” itself has been discarded along with all the cruelties of racism. Post -patriarchy will have given rise to the only meaningful post-feminism, and the people of that happy time will invent their own even newer ways of thinking and feeling and doing.

It is this open-endedness, this realization that even our most powerfully felt aspirations are historically created and historically bounded, that prevents us from talking of Perfection, or an Ideal Society, of an Earthly Paradise or the Coming of the Kingdom. (Such terms are used ironically by our adversaries to sneer at the failures and difficulties of revolutions but are irrelevant to Marxists.)

In summary, communist spirituality is the unity of thinking, wanting and feeling in ongoing conflict with their present state, on behalf of deeper understanding, more creative wanting, and the evolving feelings of solidarity humanity and the rest of nature.
















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    Richard Levins - Human Ecology - Writings - REFLECTIONS ON SPIRITUALITY AND SCIENCE
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