The science wars rarely intrude into the literature and comment on management and sustainability, but perhaps that ought to change. Fundamental beliefs about the nature of science have had a huge impact on approaches to economics and business management. In a more direct way, scientific understanding of the importance of DNA sequencing has influenced investment decisions on start-up companies in the past two decades, and arguably diverted resources away from green technology.
The intellectual debate principally concerns the rationalist-materialists, those who argue that life is ultimately explicable in the laws of physics and chemistry; and their opponents who argue that such materialism leaves important features unexplained.
Probably the most famous rationalist-materialist is Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, in which he argues that god is exceptionally improbable, and that faith is a delusion. He argues that the incompleteness of our understanding of scientific laws is no excuse to find refuge in superstition or faith in spiritual explanations.
Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake has responded with The Science Delusion, in which he argues that many of the assumptions of materialists themselves rely on faith rather than evidence, and that many phenomena defy explanations by conventional physics and chemistry.
When Sheldrake starts quoting the Wall Street Journal, there is an interesting new dimension. The bio-tech investment bubble of the past decade, he argues, was based on the idea that genes cause behaviour; that everything in life has a molecular explanation. He argues that the evidence does not bear this out, and has developed the concept of ‘morphic resonance’ – that living features such as memory or recognition do not leave material traces. He likens trying to understand life by only looking at genes to trying to work out what shows were on the TV last night by analyzing the circuit boards of your television.
He cannot prove that the materialists are wrong, but he can show that they have been over-optimistic. The New York Times’ business newspaper Deal Book reported in April this year that the stock price of the company Human Genome Sciences had fallen to one fifth of its 2000 valuation, as it began to fight off a takeover bid by Glaxo. Twelve years earlier, the report noted, investors and the industry had believed that genomics would revolutionize drug discovery – ‘something that has not panned out’.
It is easy to forget the hype surrounding the announcement of the completion of the human genome in 2000, declared with the pomp and ceremony of high office at the joint press conference of the then President of the USA Bill Clinton and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Their statement welcomed the completion of the DNA sequence of the entire human genome, describing it as ‘the human genetic blueprint’.
It now appears that that claim was overblown. Of course, it could be that the materialists were being premature rather than fundamentally wrong. But from the point of view of investors and the business community, there is little difference: if the promise of genomics is deferred, and no one can tell us if the deferral is 20 years or 2,000 years, we have to be more pragmatic and invest in more promising technologies. Bio-tech entrepreneurs sometimes call for investors to be more patient, but Sheldrake argues that they have been too patient.
Let us imagine the situation if the $xxx billion that have been invested in bio-tech firms in the past 15 years had instead been ploughed into renewable energy projects. We could be on the brink of replacing fossil fuel use completely.
Far more misguided than genetic research has been the development of pseudo-scientific laws around market behaviour, which were the basis of the risk models of the investment banks in recent years. There is a similar tale of over-confidence and misallocation of investment funds. Probably the most cogent critique has been by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of the few to warn of the extreme risks before the credit crisis exploded in 2008. He exposes the deep flaw of imagining that markets were auto-correcting and could be ‘modelled’ mathematically.
This is more properly described as a misapplication of scientific laws to unpredictable human societies, rather than a weakness of the scientific method itself. It was a misapplication that many materialist scientists themselves would counsel against. Yet the behavioural resemblance is striking.
At Radical Shift we cannot rule on the science wars; whether behaviour is in the genes, the gods or some previously undetected wave-like phenomena. But we can observe that no one is immune from hubris, that it can come with colossal economic cost, and that we urgently need a more humble, pragmatic approach to contemporary challenges.