Reading two books in parallel recently proved to be an informative exercise. One was Richard Dawkins’ 2009 The Greatest Show on Earth – The Evidence for Evolution, the other Tim Flannery’s 2010 Here on Earth – An Argument for Hope. It was informative because the two books exemplified contrasting ways of viewing and investigating the world in which we live.
Dawkins, arguably the greatest living exponent of Neo-Darwinism, makes out a compelling case for evolution by natural selection. He has arrived at his conclusion through a reductionist process whereby he has ‘drilled down’ to uncover fragments of evidence, mostly fossil, that support his case.
Reductionism is a regularly used approach in science and has yielded spectacular results. Let me give one personal example. One of our sons, a molecular biologist with a PhD in genetics, along with thousands of others around the world, contributed to the Human Genome Project by sending to a database the results of DNA sequencing done in the course of other work. DNA sequencing determines the order of the nucleotide bases: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine in a molecule of DNA. It requires a reductionist approach, drilling down to the smallest components of the gene. Together, all the contributions resulted in the mapping of the whole human genome, which was announced in 2003. The project identified the twenty to twenty five thousand genes in human DNA and determined the sequences of three billion base pairs that make up human DNA. Reductionism is a vital approach that has brought a myriad of benefits in science and medicine to the whole of mankind.
But is it the most appropriate approach to climate change? Is it enough to drill down into more and more detail, but not look at the broader picture? More of that later when I will explain why I think it is not.
While reductionism yields so much, the opposite, the holistic view, gives a different perspective. Let me give another personal example. Another son with a PhD in limnology, a division of ecology or environmental science, which is the study of inland waters: lakes, ponds, rivers, springs, streams and wetlands, did his thesis on the effect of snags (fallen tree branches) in rivers. It involved on the one hand a reductionist approach that delved into the intricate biology and chemistry of waterways that had snags, yet it also required standing back and looking at the whole picture. Too many snags results in obstruction to water flows, and in heavy rain predisposes to flooding. But removing all the snags results in such profound alterations to the biology of the stream that fish and other life is threatened. So not surprisingly the best solution is not achieved solely by the reductionist approach, but by looking at the big picture too, and to coin a phrase, using ‘controlled snagging’. We saw this applied recently in Bourke where it seemed to be preserving fish life yet not creating flooding. I tell that story to emphasize that we must view these natural phenomena from both angles to find the problems and create the solutions. The same applies to climate change.
Before getting to climate change though, let me give you another illustrative example of reductionist and holistic perspectives from my personal experience in family medicine. In teaching students and residents we were at pains to emphasize the need to take both reductionist and holistic approaches. Sometimes the answer to a patient’s problem is to found ‘down there’ at a cellular, molecular or genetic level, so the doctor needs to able to drill down through laboratory tests and imaging to discover the cause, very occasionally a single one, and from that derive a solution. But the doctor then needs to ‘stand back’ and visualize the condition against the person’s nature and background, the family, work and community setting, the physical environment, and as government is involved in health care, against the prevailing political environment. Only by taking all these factors into account, and by assessing how they will likely interact, can a comprehensive diagnosis be made and suitable therapy fashioned. This is the holistic approach.
To reinforce this combined use of reductionist and holistic approaches, we use an analogy – the zoom lens. Using the telephoto lens fine details can be brought up close to establish a diagnosis, down to a molecular or genetic level. This is the reductionist view. Then the lens need to be zoomed out to normal focal length for the doctor to see the condition in the context of the whole person, then zoomed to wide angle to see the person against the many environments: family, work, community, and so on. This is the holistic view. Sometimes the diagnosis is 'out there' in the environment, in the circumstances of the patient's life. The able doctor uses the zoom lens continually, looking sometimes at the fine detail, sometimes at the broad picture, both necessary for understanding the patient’s condition in all its complexity. The operational model is systems theory.
Now to climate change.
Climate scientists use the reductionist approach to measure global temperatures in the oceans and the atmosphere. They measure atmospheric CO2, ocean acidity, study ocean and atmospheric currents and river flows, take into account El Niño and La Niña patterns, drill out ice cores to measure atmospheric carbon concentrations over the years, measure the change in the behaviour of glaciers and the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps, and they do this all over the globe, again and again. But they know that none of these alone can give the answer to the question ‘is the globe warming’, and ‘how much of this is due to man’. They need to take into account all the data, all the operating factors, and the way in which they interact. They need to look at the scene holistically.
In his book Tim Flannery describes an approach to climate studies developed by James Lovelock, born near London in 1919, the ‘Gaia concept’. Interestingly, Alfred Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin had a similar concept, of which Lovelock probably was unaware. Both saw the atmosphere as the key to understanding life as a whole.
In 1965 an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California told Lovelock about recently derived data about the atmosphere on Venus and Mars, showing that it was composed principally of CO2. Lovelock realized that this was evidence that they were ‘dead planets’, and that Earth was different because living things had reduced its atmospheric CO2, and replaced it with oxygen. Then with data about the temperature of the Sun three billion years ago, Lovelock developed the image of the Earth as a living organism able to regulate its temperature and chemistry at a comfortable steady state. This he described as the Gaia hypothesis that is now regarded as soundly based and profoundly important to our understanding of the evolution of life on Earth. It embodies a holistic approach.
Lovelock describes Gaia as “a view of Earth…as a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system…the system has a goal – the regulation of surface conditions so as always to be favourable as possible to contemporary life.”
Richard Dawkins disputed the validity of the Gaia hypothesis, which prompted Lovelock to develop a computer model he named ‘Daisyworld’, an attempt to see what would happen on an imaginary planet with a very simple ecology that followed the same orbit around the Sun as the Earth. Several modifications of the model all gave the same result: “…life as a whole (albeit virtual life) regulates conditions to suit itself. That is, until a force so great – such as an asteroid or emission of greenhouse gas – as to overwhelm its control mechanism.” That is what climate scientists warn us about – excessive emission of greenhouse gas has the potential for overwhelming the Earth’s control mechanism. No wonder they are worried, increasingly so as the emerging data suggests that the worst-case scenario is increasingly more likely than a less severe outcome.
Tim Flannery is an advocate of the holistic approach to understanding climate that the Gaia hypothesis provides. I have no data on how many climate scientists hold the same view, but Flannery asserts that a growing number do. My personal experience in other fields leads me to the view that this holistic approach holds great promise. You would need to read Flannery’s book for more detail. I recommend it wholeheartedly, and acknowledge that several of the quotes in this piece are derived from his book.
I personally believe the evidence of a myriad of climate scientists around the world that the globe is warming and that this is significantly due to the activities of man. I’m sure I don’t have to spell out what these activities are.
But how do we manage those with vested interests to oppose action and the skeptics and deniers?
Regarding vested interests, Flannery points out a deep source of tension: “…the deep interconnectedness central to the Gaia hypothesis presents a profound challenge to our current economic model, for it explains that there are… limits to growth…”. Yet business is wedded to growth.
Regarding the deniers, we know some are ignorant rat bags, but one could not apply that label to one of Tony Abbott’s mentors, Archbishop George Pell, who believes that environmentalists suffer from a new ‘pagan emptiness’, and even compete with religion. In 2008 he said of climate science: “The public generally seem to have embraced even the wilder claims about man-made climate change as if they constituted a new religion. These days, for any public figure to question the basis of what amounts to a green fundamentalist faith is tantamount to heresy.” Is it any wonder that Abbott vacillates and changes his position so wildly, so often?
Abbott associates himself with those who argue that because CO2 is a naturally occurring substance it cannot be harmful, after all it is the bubbles in soda water. The scientific stupidity of such a claim is mindboggling. Let me give just one example to illustrate why it is so stupid. CO2 is a normal component of blood, and a necessary one as it is the chemical that stimulates the respiratory centre at the base of the brain so that we continue to breathe. But too much in the blood (hypercapnia) is poisonous and leads to death. We see this in terminal lung disease. So CO2 is both normal and necessary in correct amounts for normal respiration, yet deadly in excess. The same applies to our planet.
I could go on for pages debunking some of the more stupid assertions about CO2, but the example above will have to do.
More difficult to counter are the deniers with a scientific background such as Adelaide geologist Professor Ian Plimer, and Lord Christopher Monckton. Both are highly plausible, articulate and convincing to those who have no scientific background or knowledge against which to assess the veracity of their claims. They cherry-pick the data that suits their argument, misrepresent it by way of word and graph, and argue from questionable historical data. They do not mention the holistic Gaia hypothesis as it does not support their argument. While the rat bags have nuisance value, these deniers are dangerous as they are able to convince intelligent (but scientifically ignorant) people to their cause. They are well funded by vested interests and travel the world, often at the invitation of denialist shock jocks, spreading their misinformation, and often downright lies, often with no challenge from climate scientists, who are not welcome at their performances.
To return to Flannery’s discussion of the Gaia hypothesis, he concludes by pointing to the new science of sociobiology that seeks to explain the social behaviour of animals through evolutionary theory. Its founder, Oxford University’s Bill Hamilton, has come as close as anyone to bridging the gulf between Richard Dawkins’ Neo-Darwinism and the Gaia hypothesis, wedding the reductionist and holistic approach to evolution.
This is not the place to discuss the most appropriate ways of combating excess CO2 in the atmosphere that is leading us towards dangerous global warming. That is for another piece.
But I trust I have explained clearly the reductionist and the holistic approach to scientific problems by reference to my own experience and that of family members, and that you are ready to consider the value of both, and the importance of using them together. I hope too you are willing to consider how these approaches might be useful in the study of climate change, and the folly of limiting consideration to just one of the multiple factors that affect climate, such as the stupid argument that because CO2 is natural, it cannot be harmful.
I trust you have found this interesting and informative.
How do you think about climate change?