The explosion of knowledge that came from The Enlightenment (a period from approximately the mid 1600s to the mid 1800s), has fundamentally shaped our human (and by extension our natural) world. The birth of the scientific method(s), rigorous inquiry, philosophy, the natural sciences, medicine, politics, and more critical evaluation of religious bases of understanding all began to infuse our education, our civic processes, and our institutions.
Much of the early part of this period was rooted in our ability to break something down into its components and study them independently, categorizing them along the way. The ‘Father of Modern Taxonomy’ Carl Linnaeus, for example, developed the system we still use today to classify species and categorize them into a genus, which then belongs to a family, then to an order, class, phylum and then to a kingdom.
The five kingdoms are plants, animals, fungi, protists (e.g. algae), and monerans (bacteria). And it is why today, if you want to study biology, you tend to specialize in botany or zoology or mycology. And then still further your specialism might be microbiology, or wildlife biology, or forestry, or evolutionary biology, or genetics or….literally any one of about 100 specialties of applied or research-based biology. A parasitologist might have very little overlap with a dendrologist even though they are both biologists.
This tendency to ‘reduce’ a whole to its component parts in order to study and understand it has led to incredible discoveries and critical pieces of knowledge. It will continue to be necessary for specialists to dive deep into their sub-fields to ferret out ever more detail.
And…..this reductionism is not the only way we must proceed.
You can only get so far towards building a house by creating ever better bricks and tiles and stronger wood. At some point, you also need to consider how they fit together. And mortar - you will need that.
The world does not exist as a bundle of individual sticks tied with string. It is a web of interactions, overlaps, flows, cascading consequences, patterns, strings, and evolutions. It is dynamic and interconnected.
The challenge is that our real world problems almost always exist at the intersection points.
Climate change for example, is at the intersection between economics, governance, atmospheric physics, ocean chemistry, botany, architecture, agronomy, geology, industrial processes, history, solar physics, urban design, etc, etc, etc. Even at the local scale, to solve the problems we face - poverty, or local development, or community health, or pollution - we need expertise from multiple domains AND the ability to integrate that expertise into a coherent set of policies and decisions and actions.
Take this example from the great E.O. Wilson in his book Consilience (published in 1999):
“Governments everywhere are at a loss as to the best policy for regulating the dwindling forest reserves of the world. There are few established ethical guidelines from which agreement might be reached, and those are based on an insufficient knowledge of ecology. Even if adequate scientific knowledge were available, there would still be little basis for the long-term valuation of forests. The economics of sustainable yield is still a primitive art, and the psychological benefits of natural ecosystems are almost wholly unexplored.”
And as E.O. Wilson also points out, at these intersection points “ virtually no maps exist. Few concepts and words serve to guide us.”
I agree. I do think this is changing however.
Let’s take a couple of examples:
The discipline of sustainability has arisen really just in the last 25 year or so - ‘sustainability science’ even more recently. The concept has been around much longer of course, but we really didn’t even start using the word until the late 1980s (stemming from the 1987 Brundtland Commission). Now, many higher education institutions offer a sustainability-focused program and typically, a sustainability course or degree will explicitly incorporate social, ecological, and economic knowledge.
And even more recently, ‘integrated health’ has become a field of study as a pre-med, or pre-nursing option (e.g. see Arizona State’s bachelor program). This combines learning of ‘traditional’ western medicine (including anatomy, physiology, pharmacology etc) with approaches to developing mental fitness, spiritual well-being, social connectedness and other key factors in holistic mind-body wellness.
This latter example is very new, but I am guessing it will become much more popular because we’re recognizing more and more that being well and happy goes far beyond simply treating disease.
I think it’s possible that all truly unified understanding - mature wisdom - only arises through a period of fragmented study and detailed analysis (immature knowledge). And it makes sense to me that in order to comprehend a complex whole, we first need to make it simpler, and intellectually take it apart. It’s also possible I’m completely wrong about that.
But either way, I see the biggest challenge of the next 100 years as one of reassembly.
Solving any of our ‘big problems’ (let alone all of them) is simply impossible if we consider them separately.
We have to not only see the problems themselves as interconnected, but then we have to be able to bring human behavior, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, medicine, politics, history, and philosophy all to the table at the same time to solve them.
We have to learn how to confidently navigate the borderlands.
It will involve elevating our skills (or creating new ones) to pull our loose threads of knowledge together. We have to narrow the gap between different languages and concepts encoded in each of the disciplines so that we can bring them to bear equally on decisions and policy.
To go back to house analogy - you need an architect and a contractor to be able to work together, using similar language, in order to build a house. You need to know and appreciate the different materials, delivered by different specialists, and find people who know how to attach this one to that using the right screws or glue or mortar or nails. You need to know the regulations and codes, and how people are going to use the space.
We train people to be contractors. We don’t have even have a word for people who sit between the perimeters of most other disciplines, let alone training for it. In the geosciences, we have started referring to some people as ‘boundary spanners’….yuh, awkward. And we still don’t really know how to create such talent as a matter of course.
So, this requires that we take a new look at research and education and a new look at governance and practitioners, and how we can make ‘boundary spanning’ (ugh) as much of a legitimate art and science as for the disciplinary specialists.
In the meantime, we can and we must do the best we can to make progress towards fixing our previously unfortunate decisions (that arose partly out of disjointed thinking). And we are making some extraordinary progress and beginning to pull those loose threads together along the way. The very act of tackling these challenges is illuminating more of the intersections and the sorts of interdisciplinary learning and integrated thinking we need to cultivate.
For me this is all really good news.
But I believe there is one more thing we have to do.
Even as we reassemble our view of the world and how its supposed to work, I believe we also need to reassemble ourselves.
In our quest to know more, do more, be more, and ‘win’, we have become individually, internally fragmented, which makes our communities divided, and then our systems chaotic, and our world confusing and distant. We have to make ourselves whole again. We have to reassemble our own physical and mental and social and spiritual selves.
We have to be willing to navigate our own borderlands, to develop our own individual mature wisdom.
The path ahead will be so much smoother when we start from there.
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I love this. And I’d like to see more discussions along these lines. Super thought provoking...