Friday, June 13, 2014

Human need or human greed? Jane Goodall & Michio Kaku

I recently had the opportunity to attend a couple public lectures on consecutive nights; Jane Goodall, celebrated primatologist and Michio Kaku, futurist and co-founder of string theory. Both were very different talks.

My caveats were that I was more tired for Kaku, not with my family and not impressed with the organisation. But I have to say all that aside, there was far more appeal and power to what she said that Kaku's polished performance and glib answers.

Both of course are great scientists in their own fields, and both told stories of childhood inspiration to take their paths: for Jane it was a childhood love of animals, for Kaku the desire to complete the book on the "theory of everything". Both show how childhood nurture of curiosity is essential to breed scientists - all kids start as scientists!

Yet as well as a scientist, Jane has become an advocate, not just for the chimps of Gombe but all of God's creatures, including us humans. Our minds may be finite but we have undergone an explosive development in intelligence that does separate us from other creatures and gives us a great responsibility. Yet we threaten our own self destruction and are stealing the future of our children.

Through her Roots and shoots program, she seeks to promote the idea for a new generation that we can all make a difference in our choices. I note too she thinks there must be political issues, and noted that Tony Abbott didn't really believe in climate change, Jane is all about reconnecting to the Earth so we might not lose it.

In contrast, apart from some amazing ideas on the nature of reality, Kaku was all about technology. He rightly notes that "science is the engine of prosperity", commenting on steam, lasers and transistors (the last two being applications of Quantum Mechanics, the former really coming before the theory of thermodynamics, contrary to what Kaku tried to say). In another aside at Abbott, Kaku suggested that Western countries had forgotten where our prosperity came from, and lamented the spending cuts in science.

Kaku I think though accepts technology too uncritically. He claims that Twitter threw out dictators, and that the internet brings democracy - at a time when many countries crack down on it in dictatorial ways (and some companies too)? The claim too that democracies don't go to war with each other seems somewhat naive as well.  He looks forward to uploading who we are to a "library of souls", not understanding the importance of continuity (though maybe resurrection is a similar idea?). He sees a time when we are connected 24/7 with the net on our contact lenses.

His interview finished with question time, and he deftly dealt with odd or inarticulate questions. It was however, how he dealt with the last question that set him apart from Jane Goodall. Someone asked a prosaic question about adopting a connected life that separates us from nature. Indeed, a technology that satisfies our need and not simple our greed (as Jane spoke of, quoting Gandhi). He answer was, this is what people want. No reflection on whether or not it is best for us, just a technological fatalism.

While technology is not always an ill (clothes, houses, electricity are all goods), it seems to me that the more they separate us from our humanity and from everything else, the more our rushing to techno-heaven will end us up somewhere else.

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