The Emergence of the New – The Curiosity to Know the Future: Nature Knows No Future Tense

When the introduction of the new is controversial, when resistance appears and opposition forms, invoking a body of higher, morally bound values, the issue is often unsettled questions of placing a boundary between nature and society. This dichotomy may be false and constructed, empirically and historically dis-provable, but it persists with a stubbornness that is again and again mustered to defend ingrained interests. In the conven-tional argumentation, nature stands for the given and for some-thing willed by a higher power. Nature is regarded as the norm that defines normality. Human intervention, by contrast, stands for a transgression of set limits that subversively undermines and endangers normality. But the attractiveness of invoking a nature that stands for the immutability of normative claims and for stretches of time that exceed human scale does not take us far since the next step requires us to decide where the domain of nature ends and who is authorized to determine this. The arduous debates and struggle over a societal consensus will increase in the future.

The belief in the immutability of nature screens out knowledge of the societal processes that lead to knowledge and the capacity to intervene in, manipulate, and control nature. Resistance against the new is often rallied in the name of an authority that seems to stand outside of societal norm-setting and that is therefore granted a right to set pre or suprasocietal norms. At the beginning of the modern era, when there arose for the first time in Europe the modern concept that politics is neither guided nor secured by God’s pleasure, the focus was on the problem of the practice of human freedom and the limitations to be placed on arbitrary political power. Two institutions came into question because of this focus. One was the legal system, which was to be primarily responsible for working out the norms, regulations, procedural directives, and guarantees that gradually determined the construction of the constitutional state under the rule of law and for ensuring their implementation. The other institution was science, which was equally young and hardly institutionalized yet. According to Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political scientist, science was historically conceived as an apolitical authority with the capacity to discipline political activity, criticize decisions, and place limits on the secular state. This—political—function of science was some-times used to depoliticize and veil the exercise of power through the invocation of scientific and technological rationality. But the certification of a science-based reality contributed crucially to replacing the will of God with the laws of nature and led to a restraining of the arbitrariness of political action.

Even in its beginnings, modern natural science showed that mechanisms could be found with which the scientific community could reach consensus on disputed issues. In a time wracked by religious and civil wars, this doubtless contributed to solidifying the moral prestige of this young institution, which nevertheless was wise enough to accept the limitation placed on it by the state and religious powers—namely, not to interfere in their affairs.

The authority of science as an apolitical authority is based on a legitimacy derived from the authority of nature. The natural laws it investigates are higher laws that are nonnegotiable and cannot be subjected to a state power or a judge’s ruling. Science certifies that the reality of nature is removed from the jurisdiction of human laws and their arbitrariness but that there are nonetheless procedures “to reveal its secrets,” to manipulate it and make it serviceable. This makes the institution, science, the apparently infallible mediator between nature and society. Science claims the authority to speak in the name of nature. To successfully advance its program of exploration, it must be free of state and religious interventions for it “speaks truth to power.” The other way around, through its procedures of quality control, especially peer review, the scientific community guarantees that the knowledge produced is reliable. These two strands—science’s claim to speak in the name of a higher, apolitical authority and its claim to guarantee to the public the reliability of the knowledge it creates and certifles—are the basis for its autonomy to this day, even as the public character of science is coming under pressure.

In this way, science became the referee in all questions that it can answer on the appeal to nature and its own apolitical authority. But the more successful and consequential human interventions in nature became, the more clearly visible were the limitations of this institutional arrangement that was otherwise so successful for science. The faster the pace of scientific-technological innovation, the greater the proportion of “social knowledge,” which, in analogy to Epstein’s deflnition of technological knowledge, I would like to define as knowledge that knows social contexts and ensures that they function. Scientific-technological innovations have to be emplaced in already exist-ing organizational forms, social structures, and biographies. To be successful, they must be accepted and altered in such a way that they identify and meet latently present needs. They must contain answers to only diffusely articulated expectations, and their promises must be redeemable not only as “technological flxes” but also within the disorder of social reality. The rapid path via technological solutions, as practically effective as it can sometimes be, runs the danger of overlooking social contexts that cause the problem and that can reappear all the more insistently in another place.

In the public discussions of controversial questions related to values and ethical principles, it is also becoming ever clearer that nature—and therefore also natural science—proffers no standards for human activity, so science cannot answer these questions clearly. Thus, Hubert Markl, then the president of the Max Planck Society, wrote that the German debate on stem cells, which is probably conducted more heatedly in Germany than anywhere else, entails far more than the ostensible topic. It refers not only to stem-cell research and preimplantation diagnostics but also to the questions of what it means to be a person and what the freedom and tasks of science are. To be a person, Markl argues, is a culturally defined attribute rather than a biologically determined fact. Even if persons are biological beings, being a person goes beyond that. This is why a person cannot be defined solely in terms of molecular genetic facts, like the 43.2 million nucleotides that are arranged in a specific way inside a zygote. Personhood is thus also defined by the culture, which gives us many different answers.

Science never completely managed to prevail in enforcing its monopoly on interpreting an “objectively” graspable reality or in reducing the content of public controversies to “hard facts.” On the one hand, publicly discussed values stubbornly resist being cleanly separated from the supposed facts since on closer examination the facts often turn out to be the results of determinable or preset political and social framework conditions or questions. On the other hand, the concept of scientific objectivity is itself subject to processes of historical change, as the history of science shows. To maintain its claim, the processes for obtaining objectivity would have to adjust to the changed technological givens as well as to the changed social dynamics of the scientific community. In addition, alternative claims to interpret reality that have withdrawn from science (for example, alternative medicine) were able to survive in premodern niches, where they fulfill other social functions.

How strong the alliance between science and the state actually was went unnoticed until it began to break down. What welded them together in the twentieth century was the systematic use of science in the two world wars, followed by nuclear arming and other forms of military research in the time of the cold war. This influence of the state on science and the state’s claim to the right to use its monopoly on knowledge paradoxically became especially noticeable in basic research. Basic research produces decisive breakthroughs and new scientific knowledge but often at the same time also new technological applications. The freedom of action needed for theoretical and technological-practical basic research was granted, but then the new knowledge and technological artifacts were selected for military-operational utility. With the end of the cold war, this regime of close alliance was replaced in part by a decentralized form of funding research that is oriented toward worldwide economic competition.

With the advance of the market and transatlantic economic interdependence, the nation state lost further ground and importance. On the one hand, the assumption that scientific and technological standards of rationality guide state policy was also undermined, and Enlightenment thinking was replaced by so-called postmodern configurations. The media take a significantly larger role in democracy mediating the public realm and thereby in redefining the boundary between public and private. The institutional constraints that separate, including normatively, the realm of politics from the economy and the private sphere are mixing in an often unclear way. At universities in the United States (but not only there), new guidelines are repeatedly promulgated whose function is to harmonize academic freedom with industry’s interests in fostering research. Specialized journals, especially but not exclusively in the life sciences, demand that submitters reveal possible conflicts of interest, and ethics commissions are supposed to ensure that commercial interests do not hinder research’s interest in publishing negative as well as positive scientific results.

If today mistrust, tension, and loss of credibility in the relationship between science and the civil society are lamented in many places, the reasons are in part to be sought in the dwindling normative consensual basis in liberal democracies that oriented themselves toward scientific rationality and the technocratic structures of the state and that were supported by science’s apolitical, neutral stance. While the state relinquished some of the competencies it used to exercise to market like institutions in the name of greater economic efficiency, the institution, science, has to make greater efforts to credibly maintain its apolitical neutrality in the public sphere. Scientific and technological expertise is in greater demand than ever before, but the reason for this is the increasing density of regulation and the growing complexity of decisions with a scientific-technological content. The greater demand is accompanied by the equally greater vulnerability to objections and protests made in the name of a pluralistic political diversity.

The current self-understanding of the pluralistically organized liberal democracies prevents any one authority from having the right and the credibility to legitimize decisions or in general to speak in the name of nature, which stands above society. Society’s share in the coevolution of science, technology, and society has grown too strong to permit such a solution of conflicts. The twentieth century, which was one of devastating, frightening political projects as well as of monumental scientific-technological projects, assumed in its megalomaniacal optimism about progress that the guardrails and coarse patterns of orientation that modernity had normatively set up for societal development and progress could be followed straight to the future. Today’s thinking is turning away from this belief. The advances toward a scientiflic-technological future are surrounded by imponderabilities and uncertainties. Politically, this is expressed by politics’ fragmentation as the reverse side of the coin of pluralism and by its short-term thinking. Science and technology have lost some of their privileges and part of the protected space that the state and politics granted them. Above all, they can no longer invoke higher criteria of rationality to offer those securities on which the human capacity for judgment, decisions, and action could be anchored and legitimated. The rationality of action has been splintered into a diversity of rationalities that invoke an explosive and unstable mixture of economic and private interests, scientific and technological orientation, remaining state competencies, and the demands of a civil society—all this in a public theater that the media illuminate and stage.

A normative basic consensus can be found, at best, by accepting an openness toward the future and by viewing society as a laboratory serving the public good—under limitations that must be concretely worked out. Instead of being able to trust in secured prognoses for the future and in a science that acts mostly apolitically and independently of external interests, what is needed are pluralistic negotiation processes. Nature provides no answers for most of the questions that arise from the growing knowledge of its functioning and from the need for decisions and action that results from the successful interventions in and manipulations of it. This means that we must accept effort and conflicts and work to create public spaces in which we can negotiate what cannot be otherwise decided.

But this does not mean that nature has disappeared as a normative authority in societal discourse. In this regard, it is useful to distinguish between images of science existing in society from images of nature in societal discourse. The images of science are fed from a broad spectrum of sources of imagination, including those that science projects onto society. As the historian of science Simon Schaffer has shown, they oscillate between two poles. At one end, scientific activity is presented to the public in a way that suggests its direct connection to everyday experience and everyday understanding. Scientific activity then becomes a continuation of general thinking, and all people can understand it. The (even today still usually male) scientist acting in this image resembles a hobby tinkerer. He has craftsmanlike skills like those encountered in everyday life and is inventive and practical.

The opposite pole is represented by an image characterized by an unbridgeable separation from everyday experience and everyday understanding. Here, science appears as an extraordinary activity open to only a few especially gifted minds and leading into realms that unmistakably go far beyond everyday understanding. The accompanying image of the scientist (again usually male) is of someone passionately and totally living his ideas, someone who is guided exclusively by his curiosity. This image of science finds its counterpart in the idealization of basic research, which stands sharply apart from expectations of utility. Schaffer says the two images are evoked alternately as circumstances demand. The heroic figure with the characteristics of genius who is above all the economic and other constraints, preconditions, and consequences of her action lives unproblem-atically alongside the practical figure who is found everywhere in everyday life.

The images of nature that are present in societal discourses also oscillate between two opposites. On the one hand, nature is imagined as the epitome of threat. Its powers can be tamed to a certain degree by means of human cleverness, knowledge, and technological imagination, but this state is never lastingly guaranteed. Since nature will always be more powerful than people, it is unpredictable. Anthropomorphically speaking, it can “strike back” at any time and even “avenge” itself for what has been done to it. On the other hand, an image of a nature requiring protection is also imagined—endangered species, diminishing biodiversity, continued degradation of the environ-ment and its resources, which all must be brought to a stop. In one case, nature becomes a deterring example that, deeply amoral, comprises every imaginable brutality and cruelty. In the other case, it becomes a moral role model that can teach us how to preserve diversity and how to nurture it. In both cases, nature is normatively charged and normatively interpreted. It becomes a mirror of cultural achievements and equally of their failure, a mirror of ourselves that reveals deep-seated ambivalence. But the gaze is unable to see itself.

The success and the failure of freedom are both inherent in the project of modernity. A glance back into the past provides adequate evidence for both options and permits at least a careful weighing. Clinging to utopian and dystopian ideas, wishes, and fears darkens the glance into the future. In the face of the new, the play of imagination can begin, but communicating the new is already difficult because the language for this is lacking and the images are deceptive. Different patterns of argumentation can promote or hinder the new. The language that the new is clothed in is either not yet available at all or not yet made for it. It triggers varying associations and holds much scope for interpretation. It easily falters where the point is to dampen the shock of the new, which nonetheless has to struggle on its radical path to a changed way of viewing things. A historical example can illustrate this.

For almost no other radical theoretical edifice of ideas is this as true as for Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, published in 1859. Darwin was very aware of the problem. When Wallace’s surprising letter from the South Seas reporting on his notes and theoretical considerations, which mostly corresponded to Darwin’s own, reached Darwin one day, Hooker, Lyell, and other friends of Darwin urged him to begin compiling the observations he had painstakingly noted more than twenty years earlier along with the associated theory (which he originally termed a mere “abstract”). Darwin clearly understood that one of his biggest problems thereby would be to clothe the knowledge he was introducing in a new language that would enable its acceptance and stabilization. Whereas other natural philosophers of his time consciously relied on predictions, experiments, demonstrations, or mathematical proofs because they thought they saw in them the means for public accreditation of scientific truths, Darwin’s approach was doubly unusual.

His content demanded a lot from his readers. He spread before their imaginations a world ruled by irregular and unforeseeable contingencies. He revealed a nature that was cruel and full of errors and in which there were no moral laws or purposes. Animals and plants were not the result of a creator’s special design or plan. As he wrote at the beginning of his primary work, Darwin was firmly convinced that the species were not immutable. He asked his readers to accept his answers for the sole and simple reason that they were the facts. To this purpose, he invited them to participate in the information, observations, and sorted evidence he had gathered over a period of more than twenty years and to accompany him in carefully weighing the conclusions he had drawn. In the text, many different strands of narrative and argumentation are interwoven and enriched with rich, inventive metaphors. But ultimately what counts is the structure of the arguments Darwin mustered to persuade his readership.

Although Darwin presents the sequence of chapters as if they corresponded to the chronology of his daily research work (thereby implying that his ideas developed from the observations and facts), the actual course of the development of his theory was much more complicated and many-layered and was certainly not linear. The concept of “natural selection” was not simply present in nature, nor could it be presented under the injunction to “look and understand.” As Janet Browne under-scores, Darwin had no mathematical equations or formulas in hand to prove his theory. His book contains only words borne by strong convictions, visual presentations, the weighing of probabilities, interactions between large numbers of organisms, and the subtle consequences of tiny coincidences and changes. He often employed analogies between what was known and what was unknown. He relied on statistical frequencies to support his arguments. He consciously employed a strategy of progressively weakening his reader’s resistance by adducing factual examples. And of course he was aware that the whole of his factual material was inseparable from his theory. In a sentence that has become famous, he expresses this in his characteristically simple and disarming manner: “How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observations must be made for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”

Literary historians and historians of science have often commented on Darwin’s skillful use of language and his cultivated, accommodating manner, which won readers’ sympathies. It can be shown that some of Darwin’s arguments that appeal to nature have the purpose of giving him the necessary cover for the novelty of his ideas. Gillian Beer investigated the question of why Darwin uses the term “natural selection” rather than simply speaking of “selection.”21 “Natural selection” pre-supposes a counterterm, “artificial” selection. The term “natural selection” is based on the analogy with “artiflcial selection” and thus on an analogy between the processes of selection, which must unfold either under natural or artiflcial conditions. Artificial selection includes all human activities aimed at effecting rapid genetic change—in agriculture or in breeding pigeons, dogs, or orchids. It is based on a technology, accessible also to amateurs, that includes human aims as well as intentional results. It includes the market.

Gillian Beer suspects that Darwin made this distinction not least because of his experiences on his journeys on the Beagle. On these journeys, he had seen the devastating effects of colonial conquest and the genocide committed against aboriginal peoples. In The Origin of Species, Darwin avoids mentioning humans, knowing full well that he would trigger controversies if he did (he speaks of his own “abominable volume”). Gillian Beer concludes that the term “natural selection” allows Darwin to pursue the questions that the term “artiflcial selection” excludes—questions of nature’s long temporal scale in contrast to the short-term scale of breeders and of nature’s complete indifference in contrast to human intentions and their drive for mastery, planning, and management.

Darwin’s theory distinguishes itself clearly from the views of his contemporaries (with the big exception of Alfred Russell Wallace)* and from the preevolutionary thinkers. A key to this is that for Darwin diversity and deviation are central principles of survival. The truly creative forms, the decisive difference, are owed to the nonconformity that arises from being different. For Darwin’s theory and its reception, that only increases the urgency of the problem that the “natural” is frequently equated with what is considered normative. For Darwin, deviation, rather than conformity, is decisive for survival. Differences from parents, rather than similarities to them, are what count because this is the only way that existing ecological niches can be expanded and the exploration of new niches can be nudged. In 1858 on the South Sea island of Halmahera, Wallace wrote his famous letter in the form of an essay, titled “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type,” to Darwin, triggering confusion and despair in the latter. Darwin’s friends Lyell and Hooker thereafter arranged a meeting of the Linnean Society at which were read aloud a previously unpublished essay that Darwin wrote in 1844 and the abstract of a letter that he had written to Asa Grey the year before. Both contain the Darwinian theory of natural selection and the origin of species through modification. Thus, Wallace’s essay came later, and Darwin’s priority was ensured. Darwin’s book The Origin of Species, whose composition was triggered by Wallace’s essay, was published soon after. Darwin became famous, while Wallace was forgotten for a long time. forward. Nature always moves on the verge of the monstrous— and according to the laws of evolution, it must. For what may initially seem like a monster can later prove to be a new type that has merely waited for the proper conditions before develop-ing. At the right moment, what was initially monstrous can become the norm and define normality.

Whereas the concept of natural selection expands, the concept of artificial selection narrows. If the first stands for exuberance and plenty, the latter indicates parsimony and the ruthless exclusion of everything that is not adapted to current conditions. In a small population, selection does not mean fertility but extinction. The intrusion of an alien species can lead not to the native species’ improvement but to its disappearance, as Darwin was able to observe in the result of the encounter between the Spanish and the Indigenes in South America. He had seen how the invasion of the Spaniards made the aboriginal population regress from settled to nomadic, quite in contrast to the stepladder of the “natural” rise of every civilization.

Darwin was thus able to denude one of the nineteenth century’s most prevalent terms of its “naturalness.” It is usually worthwhile to question the self-evidence of terms and concepts that are employed. But it is seldom so important to make oneself aware of their function as when nature and what is regarded as nature’s binding authority are brought into play as arguments. Nature stands precisely not for immutability but for diversity and deviation from what has existed heretofore. If everything is constantly changing, then “natural” can be understood only as an appeal to the knowledge of the past. Then it is an expression of the attempt to ward off the future and to ensure that deviance is forgotten. In the following, Gillian Beer summarizes the role that “nature” has to play in argumentation:

Nature is how things have always already been, i.e., lasting and universal.

Nature is how things were in the past, i.e., ideal and nostalgic. Nature is how things normally are, i.e., as a matter of course and the norm.

Nature is how things should be or should have been, i.e., as described by imperatives and ideals.

But if we want to know how things will be (instead of how they should be), this is not part of the concept of “nature.”

Nature knows no future tense—and yet it constantly provides for the emergence of the new. What begins with insatiable curiosity, the exploration of the unknown, and the inexorable appropriation of a future that nevertheless eludes all claims to possession—the emergence of the new—follows differing paths. Nature has long time scales and the laws of evolution. Human societies, which themselves have emerged through evolution, also have cultural and social forms at their disposal. They are able to imagine their future and various designs for it. The capacity to aspire helps these imaginings to come to realization, although under manifold limitations. As fragile as the future may appear and as fragile as it is, conceiving it anew and conceiving it as different grows out of what has already been achieved. The unprecedented potential of scientific knowledge and of technological abilities opens up a tremendous realm of possibilities. The collective wager on the future that we have made goes by the name of innovation. But it, too, is unable to say how things will be or how they should be. To this end, societal debates are needed, along with strategic sites for finding a consensus. Language is needed to describe the new, and selective appropriation is also required. Needed are the cultural resource of reflection and the attitude that has accompanied us since the beginning of modernity, ambivalence. It contains a yes and a no—and nonetheless permits us to act in the face of a fragile future.

You may also like...