Further thoughts

Action

This website champions the view that a wave on new understanding sweeping across the cultures of the world – understanding the story of life on Earth – is a precondition for the social changes necessary to ensure the survival of human civilisation. It is a pivotal first step in the global transition to ecological sustainability.

Those of us who share this view ask – ‘How might this cultural and social transformation be brought about?’

My own opinion is that the best hope for the future lies in the formation of a new kind of international body that has the dual purpose of

(1) spreading understanding of the story of life and the human place in nature across the cultures of the world, and

(2) providing a framework for the exchange of ideas about the meaning of this story for individuals and for society as a whole. It will also lobby educational authorities and international agencies to promote biounderstanding across human communities globally.

Finally, I would like to make the point that, in my view, Australia is in a position to make a major contribution to humanity, by playing a leading role among nations in the transition to a biosensitive society. It can do so by setting an example and showing how it can be done. This applies especially to the most critical issue at the present time – the urgent need to shift from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.

Notes

1 BIO-WORDS

This website puts the view that that the survival of civilisation will depend on a radical cultural and social transformation, and that this transformation will consist essentially of three steps, or phases. To facilitate thinking and communicating about this, I decided to give names to the transformation, and to each of its phases. But the task of finding appropriate terms was not easy. Because it is all to do with life, I decided to make use of the ‘bio‘ prefix. However, there are said to be over 1500 bio- words in the English language, and often when I thought I had found a suitable name I would discover that it had already been coined, and with a different meaning from what I had in mind.

Eventually, I opted for the following terms:

Biorenaissance: the cultural and social transition to a society that is in harmony with, and respectful of the processes of life on which we depend.

I also considered Bioawakening and Bioenlightenment. Biorenaissance is appropriate because many hunter-gatherer and early farming cultures in the past have embraced a deep respect for the living world, based on understanding that humans are living beings, part of nature, and completely dependent on other forms of life for their wellbeing and survival.

Bionarrative: the story of life on Earth and the human place in nature.

Biounderstanding: understanding the story of life and the human place in nature

Biorealism: a worldview that is based on bioundersatanding and that:

  • holds profound respect for the processes of life that gave rise to us and on which we are totally dependent
  • sees the achievement of harmony with nature as supremely important – to be given the highest priority in human affairs and placed right at the top of political and social agenda
  • embraces a vision of a society of the future that is truly sensitive to, in tune with and respectful of the processes of life.

Human relationships with, and attitudes to, the rest of nature have been the subject of a great deal of thought and writing for hundreds of years, and a number of terms introduced in quite recent times come to mind when seeking a name for this worldview. They include biocentrism, biophilia, biopolitics and deep ecology. However, none of them, as previously defined, quite fits the bill. Deep ecology is perhaps the closest, but this is an unfortunate term, in that ecology actually means the scientific study of how organisms interact with one another and with their physical environment.

So, I am using biorealism. Not a very pleasing term, but the best I can come up with.

This new shared worldview will be the most crucial difference between our current society and healthy and ecologically sustainable societies of the future. What is especially important is the fact that, in some people at least, biounderstanding leads not only to a feeling of deep respect for the processes of life, but also to a strong emotional commitment to living in harmony with nature, at a personal level and at the level of society as a whole.

Biosensitive: a biosensitive society is a society that is sensitive to, in tune with and respectful of the processes of life.

This term is introduced because there is a need for a single word to describe a society with these characteristics. The expression ‘ecologically sustainable’ is widely used these days. Of course, society must be ecologically sustainable – otherwise in the long term it cannot continue to exist. But ecological sustainability is surely the bottom line. We must aim for a society that is not only sustainable, but that also positively promotes health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population, as well as in the living systems of the biosphere.





2. HOLY SCRIPTS

In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari discusses how all belief systems, religious and political, have their ‘holy scripts’. These holy scripts provide the underlying basis of the belief systems and they sometimes have a powerful influence on people’s worldviews and behaviour.

It is our contention that the prevailing cultures of the world today suffer from a serious deficiency in this area of holy scripts, and that this deficiency lies behind many of the cultural maladaptations that threaten humanity today.

Across the world, we have the sacred writings of the various religious belief systems, like Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as the hallowed texts of communism and capitalism. But there is another story, of profound practical and ethical significance for every one of us and for society as a whole, that has yet to achieve the status of a holy script. It is the story about life on Earth and the human place in nature. We call it the Bionarrative. Certainly, there are people who are familiar with this story, but they are very much in a minority. The Bionarrative is not seen, or taught, as a story that has meaning for our lifestyle choices or governmental policies.

The Bionarrative generates an understanding of the human place in nature and of the life processes that gave rise to us, of which we are a part, and on which we are totally dependent, and it highlights the urgent need for radical changes in the patterns of human activity on Earth if civilisation, and perhaps our species, are to survive. The prospects for the future of humankind would be very much brighter if this story were embedded at the core of the prevailing cultures of the world.





3. A GENERATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Picture yourself on the stage of a large theatre with room for an audience of two thousand.

In your mind’s eye, place your mother in the seat at one end of the front row, and then her mother next to her and so on – until you have filled the place with 2,000 generations of mothers and daughters.

Only the women in the front twenty or so rows would have been alive since the time when farming first began, and only those in the front six or seven rows would have lived after the earliest cities came into existence, although few of them are likely to have actually lived in cities.

You could fill five further theatres with earlier maternal hunter-gatherer ancestors belonging to the species Homo sapiens. All these women really existed, and they lived in a state of health, at least until the birth of a daughter.

If you were to carry out the same mental exercise imagining you were in a stadium with seats for 100,000 people, the ladies in the rows at the back would be australopithecines.





4. CULTURAL ADAPTATION AND MALADAPTATION

Cultural adaptation can be defined as behavioural changes that result from new knowledge and that lead to people being better able to cope with prevailing conditions. The deliberate use of fire and the introduction of vaccination are among innumerable examples.

There is, however, another side to the picture. As cultures evolve they often come to embrace not only factual information of good practical value, but also assumptions that are sheer nonsense, leading to behaviours that are equally nonsensical. That is, cultures often get things wrong. Sometimes these cultural delusions have resulted in activities that caused unnecessary distress in humans or unnecessary damage to local ecosystems. Such cases are examples of cultural maladaptation. There are countless examples of cultural maladaptation in human history.

Fortunately, humans have the ability, through their capacity for itself, to bring culture back on track when it goes off the rails. Nowadays, when some people come to perceive the biological or social consequences of culturally-inspired activities as undesirable, a period of discussion and debate ensues about the causes of the problem and possible remedies. Eventually new understanding can bring about modifications in cultural assumptions and priorities, leading to appropriate changes in human activities. This process is referred to as cultural reform.

Cultural reform is often quite complicated, involving prolonged interactions between different interest groups in society. A key role is often played initially by minority groups, occasionally by single individuals, who start the ball rolling by drawing attention to an unsatisfactory state of affairs. An example is Rachel Carson who, in her ground-breaking book Silent Spring, drew attention to the insidious and destructive ecological impacts of certain synthetic pesticides.

Almost invariably these expressions of concern coming from reformers are promptly contradicted by others, the counter-reformers, who set out to block the reform process. This predictable backlash often involves, but is not restricted to, representatives of vested interests who believe that the proposed reforms will be to their disadvantage.

They are likely to argue that the problem does not exist, or that it has been grossly exaggerated, and they try to ridicule the reformers by calling them alarmists, fanatics, scaremongers and prophets of doom. Nowadays some of the counter-reform forces are extraordinarily powerful. For a detailed discussion in the context of tobacco smoking, CFCs and climate change – see Merchants of doubt by N. Oreskes and E.M. Conway (2010).

Eventually, if the reformers are successful, a change comes about in the dominant culture and members of governmental bureaucracies and other organisations set about working out ways and means of achieving the necessary changes. Their efforts may still be hindered by the stalling tactics of counter-reformers.

Cultural gullibility

The Bionarrative draws our attention to the tendency of humans to accept as gospel the messages coming from their close cultural environment. While occasional individuals reject some of the assumptions, attitudes and prejudices of the culture in which they have grown up, they are a minority. Most people remain true to their cultural inheritance throughout their lives. This natural tendency of humans to blindly accept the assumptions and prejudices of the cultural soups in which they have been immersed since childhood lies behind most of the conflicts between different ethnic and religious groups that still plague world today. Cultural gullibility is a fundamental, and potentially very dangerous, human characteristic.

The Bionarrative thus alerts us to the brainwashing power of culture and of the critical need to be constantly vigilant – making sure that the worldviews, assumptions and priorities of our cultures are in tune with reality; and that they are not leading us to behave in ways that are causing unnecessary human suffering or damage to the living systems on which we depend.





5. ENVIRONMENTALISM AND THE GREEN MOVEMENT

A minority of the population today have good understanding of the ecology of modern society, and this understanding finds expression in the ideologies referred to as environmentalism. The emergence of the Greens as a political entity is another indication of a growing concern about the ecological predicament  although election results in Australia suggest that this concern is shared by only a small section of the population.

In fact, for over half a century there have been signs of growing awareness, among some sections of the community, that our present society is heading for ecological collapse. Numerous books have now been published drawing attention to this reality. Early examples from the 1970s include works by Paul Erhlich, Barry Commoner, Donella and Dennis Meadows, René Dubos and Barbara Ward. Since that time there has been an explosive growth of literature on environmental history and philosophy.

Many individuals and groups have come up with ideas for an alternative society of the future that is ecologically sustainable. In 1972 Edward Goldsmith and others published Blueprint for survival, in which they argued for a shift to a new kind of society to prevent 1992‘the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life support systems on this planet’. Today there are many community organisations and NGOs campaigning for a transition to an ecologically sustainable society, such as the Transition Towns movement and the Great Transition Initiative.

There are also countless groups focusing on specific ecological issues. To mention but a few local examples here in Australia, we have the Climate Institute, Sustainable Population Australia, SEE Change groups, The Wilderness Society, Permaculture groups, Healthy Soils Australia, 350 Australia and Landcare groups.

At the international level there has been a series of major conferences on the theme of sustainability, organised by the United Nations, including the Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 to the Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.

There have also been many important international conferences on specific ecological issues, including the United Nations conferences that led up to the Paris Agreement on climate change in December 2015.

With the possible exception of the Paris Agreement, these warnings have not penetrated to the core of the prevailing cultures of the world. We have only to listen to the pre-election speeches of our political leaders for proof of this statement. Although some important measures have been taken here and there to protect aspects of the natural environment, they have not been allowed to interfere with the inexorable thrusts of ever-moreism and market forces. The juggernaut rolls on.

So, while the process of cultural reform is certainly underway, it has a long way to go, and the inevitable counter-reform backlash is very much in evidence. The ecologically maladaptive assumptions of the prevailing culture remain firmly entrenched, and the reform process is clearly in need of a big boost.





6. EVOLUTION AND HUMAN HEALTH

The health needs of animals, including Homo sapiens, are determined by their evolutionary background. This is because, through the processes of evolution, species have become well adapted in their innate biological characteristics to the conditions prevailing in the environment in which they are evolving.

If an organism is exposed to conditions of life that differ significantly from those that prevail in its natural environment, it is likely to be less well adapted to the new and different environment and is likely to show signs of maladjustment. It will be less healthy than in its natural environment. This fundamental evolutionary health principle applies to all plants and animals.

The evolutionary health principle clearly applies to a wide range of physical aspects of life conditions in humans. There is no diet better for humankind than that which was typical for hunter-gatherers. It is also clear that the principle is applicable to some aspects of behaviour. Marked deviations from natural sleeping patterns cause maladjustment, and health is likely to be impaired if patterns of physical exercise deviate markedly from those of humans in the natural habitat.

There are good reasons for supposing that the evolutionary health principle also applies to psychosocial and relatively intangible aspects of life experience. For example, the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers are usually characterised by a sense of purpose in daily activities and plenty of convivial social interaction. Most of us would agree that such conditions are all likely to promote health and wellbeing in our own society.

Taking our knowledge of the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers as a starting point, we can put together a working list of physical and psychosocial conditions likely to promote health and wellbeing in our species (see Box 1 above). They are referred to as universal health needs, because they apply to all members of the human species, wherever or whenever they may be living.

Not every item on the psychosocial list is absolutely essential for health. Lack of satisfaction of one psychosocial health need may be offset to some extent by the satisfaction of others. On the other hand, every item on the list will, if satisfied, make a positive contribution to health and wellbeing.

Biohistory

Biohistory has been defined as the study of human situations against the background of, and as part of, the story of life on Earth.

Biohistory is, by its very nature, inter-relational, holistic, integrative, and transdisciplinary. Here are some of the reasons why this is so.

The story of life of life on Earth tells us:

· About the origin of life and of key phenomena on which all life and human civilisation depend (DNA, energy from the sun, energy flows through biological systems, photosynthesis, sexual reproduction, biological evolution, biogeochemical cycles, soil biology etc.)

· About the evolutionary emergence of Homo sapiens – a species with the capacity to invent, remember and communicate with a symbolic spoken language. This capacity is a biological attribute.

· That the capacity for language led to the accumulation of shared knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and values in human groups. That is, it led to human culture.

· That human culture is thus a biological phenomenon. It is an outcome of biological evolution. It is a manifestation of the activities of neurons in the human brain and of muscles involved in speech. Cultural assumptions and values, and cultural arrangements (e.g. the economic system) have a major influence on human behaviour, and through this influence, on other living organisms.

· That an important aspect of human culture these days is technological knowhow. The internal combustion engine and computers are not regarded as biological phenomena, and of course, their activities are not biological (although fossil fuels are, of course, of biological origin). But these technologies would not exist if it were not for biological evolution and biological processes (like photosynthesis and the life processes that go on the human body). And they have important impacts, direct and indirect, on living systems.

The biohistorical approach thus leads an understanding of the constant interplay between different aspects of human situations, biological, social and cultural, that are conventionally studied separately in different academic disciplines as if they were unrelated. I believe that understanding of this kind is important for wise decision-making at the level of individuals and families and at the level of society as a whole.

So, in biohistory we are not saying ‘let’s be trans- or inter- disciplinary etc.’. We are simply saying ‘Let’s understand the story of life’. And, then, the more we learn about this story, the greater is our understanding of the human place in nature and the more we become aware of the urgent need for big changes not only in patterns of human activity, but also in cultural assumptions, priorities and arrangements.

Moreover, in some people this understanding, I call it biounderstanding, leads to a deep sense of respect for the processes of life, and to an emotional commitment to living in harmony with nature. In my view, this is the most meaningful outcome of learning about the story of life.

For more detail, see: Boyden, S. 2016. The biohistorical paradigm: the early days of human ecology at the Australian National University.  Human Ecology Review. 22 No1. Pp 25-47.

A Biorenaissance

Heading for the gurgler

The species Homo sapiens is thought to have been in existence for around 300,000 years. During the past 200 years, which is about 0.07 % of this time, there has been a massive growth in the human population, and an even more explosive increase in energy use and waste production by humankind, with ever-increasing impacts on the ecosystems of our planet. Climate change is at present the most critical issue, but there are many other anthropogenic threats to the sustainability of the living systems that underpin our existence. If present trends continue unabated, the collapse of civilisation is inevitable.





Biosensitivity – A way forward

The only hope for our future lies in a radical cultural and social transformation, leading to a different kind of society – a society that is truly in harmony with the processes of life within us and around us. I refer to such a society as a Biosensitive Society, and to the cultural transformation as the Biorenaissance [1].

In a biosensitive society, human activities will be on a scale and of a kind that promote health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population as well as in the ecosystems on which we depend. Biosensitivity will be a guiding principle in all spheres of human endeavour.

The first essential step in the transition will be a wave of new understanding sweeping across the culture of the world – understanding of the story of life on Earth and the human place in nature. I refer to this kind of understanding as Biounderstanding, and to the story life on Earth as the Bionarrative.

The bionarrative is of overarching significance for every one of us and for society as a whole. Yet it is known and understood by only a minority of the population. If it were understood by the majority, the prospects for humanity would be much brighter.

Shared biounderstanding will lead to a new biosensitive culture and worldview. It will be a worldview that:

– holds profound respect for the processes of life that gave rise to us and on which we are totally dependent

– perceives the achievement of harmony with nature as supremely important – to be given the highest priority in human affairs and placed right at the top of political and social agenda

– harbours a vision of a society of the future that is sensitive to, in tune with and respectful of the processes of life

This biosensitive worldview will be by far the most significant difference between our current society and healthy and ecologically sustainable societies of the future. It is a necessary precondition for the social changes that will be necessary to achieve biosensitivity, and therefore for the survival of civilisation

The new understanding and worldview will generate a global reform movement, leading eventually to the achievement of biosensitivity worldwide (see below). It will mean healthy people on a healthy planet[2].





Conclusion

For those of us who share the views expressed above, the crucial challenge today is to join forces and do all we possibly can to bring about the wave of new biounderstanding across the cultures of the world.

















FOOTNOTES

[1] I define Biorenaissance as the cultural and social transition to a society that is in harmony with, and respectful of the processes of life on which we depend. The term is appropriate because many hunter-gatherer and early farming cultures in the past embraced a deep respect for the living world, based on appreciation that we humans are living beings, part of nature, and completely dependent on other forms of life for our wellbeing and survival. This term Biosensitive is introduced because there is a need for a single word to describe a society with these characteristics. The expression ‘ecologically sustainable’ is widely used these days. Of course, society must be ecologically sustainable – otherwise in the long term it cannot continue to exist. But ecological sustainability is surely the bottom line. We must aim for a society that is not only sustainable, but that also positively promotes health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population, as well as in the living systems of the biosphere.

[2] The bioperspective also has meaning for many aspects of the human condition other than ecological sustainability and human health.  For example, it highlights the gross insanity of warfare and the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, and it throws a different light on the never-ending conflicts, sometimes deadly, between people of different political or religious persuasions. 

My Worldview

Nature is my god. To me, Nature is sacred. Trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals.

– Mikhael Gorbachev [1]

I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it’s enough for me.

– Jane Goodall [2]

Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.

– Albert Schweitzer [3]





All religions have their stories. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus – they all have their stories. All political ideologies have their hallowed texts. I have my story. It is the story of life on this planet and of the evolutionary emergence of humankind and of the interactions between humans and the rest of the living world. I call this story the Bionarrative. It comes to us through the natural sciences.

The more I learn about the Bionarrative, through personal observations and from science – the more I learn, the greater is my sense of wonder, and the more profound my sense of respect -indeed feeling of reverence – for Nature, and for the creative forces that gave rise to the living world.

I am thinking not only of the natural environment, with all its amazing diversity and beauty, but also of the amazing and extremely complicated processes that go on inside my own body and that have kept it going for over 96 years.

While I accept Darwinian theory and believe that biological evolution can be explained, at least partially, in terms of random genetic mutations and natural selection, I do not rule out the possibility of some other influence. I am absolutely amazed by the mindboggling range of patterns of size, shape, colour and behaviour among living organisms, from dinosaurs, whales and massive trees to butterflies, moths, flowering plants, fungi and sea slugs.

Can this all be the result of random mutations and natural selection? Many biologists would, of course, say ‘Yes’, but I am among those who can’t help wondering.

Anyway, here I am, a living human being, a product of 4000 million years of biological evolution. I received this gift of life from Nature, and I am totally dependent of the processes of life for my continued existence. And I am still a part of Nature, as are the eucalypts on Oakey Hill, the cockatoos in the garden and the wallaroos on my farm.

Science tells us about the evolution of life on Earth and about the ecological and physiological processes that keep us alive. But it tells nothing about morality. It does not tell us whether it is right or wrong to needlessly cause pain or distress in humans or other animals. It does not tell us whether it matters if the human species trashes the living systems that gave rise to it and on which it depends, or if it comes to an early end through its own activities and arrogance.

I don’t know how Nature came into existence: but I do know that it happened. And I know that Nature created me. I feel deep respect and reverence for the forces and processes that lie behind my existence.

As I see it, I have a choice. I can seek to live in harmony with Nature, or I can look on Nature with disdain and set out to exploit and conquer it. For me, there is no doubt whatsoever. My understanding of the story of life and of my biological origins leads me to choose the first of these pathways. I believe it is not only wise, in terms of my survival and wellbeing, but also morally right to strive to live in harmony with Nature. I see this as of supreme importance. It is what matters most.

I consider it morally wrong, the height of disrespect and arrogance, to trash the living systems of our beautiful planet. I have no sympathy with notion, dating back to the so-called Enlightenment, that we should set out to conquer Nature – to conquer the living system that gave rise to us, of which we are a part, and on which we are totally dependent.

With regard to my behaviour towards other human recipients of the gift of life, who are also part of Nature, again it seems to me that I have a choice. I can choose to do all I can to help them make the most of this gift, and to enjoy themselves; or I can exploit and harm them. Once more, there is no doubt whatsoever. My understanding of how we all come to be here leads me to feel morally committed to do everything I can to help others to enjoy life.

I am not saying I have lived up to these ideals. I wish that I had.

And the more I learn about life on earth, the greater is my resolve, in the words of Claude Monet, ‘to mingle more closely with Nature’, and ‘to live and work in harmony with her laws’ [4].

I should also say that, apart from its influence on my ethics, the bionarrative has meaning for me that can best be described as transcendental, or spiritual. Sometimes my understanding of this story, along with the experience of natural beauty and love for my family, brings about a profound sense of awe, joy and reverence. These feelings are a vitally important part of my life experience.

The bionarrative reminds me that I am not only a product, but also an intrinsic part, of Nature – even if an infinitesimally small part. I find myself feeling at one with the living world. It is a good feeling – uplifting, strengthening and comforting. It gives me peace of mind.


[1] 1 “Nature Is my God” – interview with Fred Matser in Resurgence No. 184 (September-October 1997).pp14-15.

[2] Jane Goodall. Questions and answers. Readers Digest. p.128. September 2010.

[3] Albert Schweitzer, Civilisation and Ethics, 1923.

[4] http://www.wisdomquotes.com/quote/claude-monet.html

What I Don’t Know

In the beginning

The information that leads me to believe these things (see above) comes from the natural sciences. However, the sciences have not explained the origin of all the processes which underpin the universe, life on Earth and our own existence. There must be an explanation – but we are ignorant of it.

Thus, science still leaves an unexplained mystery – the mystery of existence – the mystery of the origin of the natural phenomena and laws that gave rise to the living world. This underlying mystery is ultimately responsible for me, and for all life on Earth.

It has been said that life itself is ultimately explainable in terms of the laws of physics. These laws will lead, willy-nilly, to life on suitable planets in the universe. I am not competent to pass judgement on this hypothesis. But let us suppose it is correct – then we are still left with the question ‘Where did the laws of physics come from?’, just as those who believe in God must ask ‘Who, or what, created God?’.

And indeed, what a wondrous set of laws − laws that have led to the eventual coming into being – starting from the primordial mass of matter and energy – of the vast array of living organisms that make up our biosphere today, as well as the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven!

So, I do not know what lies behind it all.

Life after death

I don’t know whether the human spirit, or soul, is immortal. I think it very unlikely.

The human spirit is a manifestation of the processes of life within the human body. When these processes are no more, then the human spirit is no more. Of course, people like to believe there is life after death, because people like living.

The happenings in one’s life were real, and perhaps are real. We don’ understand time.

Reincarnation

Again, I don’t know, but it seems very unlikely. Human consciousness and the human spirit are a function of, and dependent on, the processes of life within the human body. How could they survive transfer to another organism?

UFOs

Some people firmly believe that flying objects, manned by living beings or supernatural forces from outer space, visit the Earth now and again, and some think they are evidence of a universal mind or spirit. I am sceptical. I think the evidence is totally unconvincing. Why don’t these beings stay around and make contact with us, or leave some concrete evidence of their existence?

Telepathy

I don’t know if telepathy exists. Personal experience makes me feel it is possible. And when small groups of people talk about telepathy, a surprising number of individuals tell of apparent telepathic experiences, which are nearly always associated with an unexpected calamity, such as the injury or death of a close friend or relative. If telepathy does exist, it seems that it only occurs spontaneously and unintentionally. Countless experiments in which people have tried to transmit thoughts to others have failed to produce any evidence for telepathy.

So – are the apparent instances of telepathy that we hear about just chance? I don’t know. I am open to the idea that telepathy may be a manifestation of a dimension of reality of which we are normally totally unaware – perhaps somewhat akin to the entanglement at a distance of quantum physics? If telepathy is real, then I suppose it is a manifestation of life.

Science

Science has resulted in the steady accumulation of knowledge about the biophysical world. It tells us about the nature of the physical universe, about the evolution of life, about the ecological and physiological processes that keep us going.

Science, of course, is not infallible. Early scientific findings may be faulted in some way, or they may paint an incomplete picture – leading to wrong conclusions. But over time, step by step, the truth emerges.

Personally, I have much more confidence in the sciences as a source of reliable information about reality than I have in the various dreams and visions that religious people refer to as revelations. This holds as much for the quite recent revelations of people like the Reverend Sun Myung Moon and ex-President of the United States, George W. Bush, as it does for those of individuals who lived thousands of years ago.

I recognise, however, that science has two important weaknesses.

First, science tells us nothing about morality. The findings of science do not tell us whether it is right or wrong to needlessly cause pain or distress in humans or other animals. It does not tell us whether it matters if the human species trashes the living systems that gave rise to it and on which it depends, or comes to an early end through its own activities and arrogance.

The second important limitation of science is that it does not explain everything. Although, through science, we progressively understand more and more about the biophysical world, we cannot, on the basis of existing knowledge, comprehend the ultimate origin of all the processes which underpin the universe, life on Earth and our own existence. There must be an explanation – but we are ignorant of it. 

Thus, science still leaves an unexplained mystery – the mystery of existence – the mystery of the origin of the natural phenomena and laws that gave rise to the living world. This underlying mystery is ultimately responsible for me, and for all life on Earth.

In my view, it is unscientific to deny the existence of this mystery, just as it is rather silly to dream up an explanation in the form of an all-powerful supernatural human-like god who has created each species of plant and animal separately, and who monitors our behaviour and who will, if we believe in him or her, take us up to heaven when we die.

I am content to accept the mystery as unexplainable at the present time, and I suspect it will always remain so.  The nearest I can get to resolving this mystery is to observe, listen to and learn about Nature.

What I Believe

I believe that:

Life

· Planet Earth came into existence around 4600 million years ago. At first there was no life. But then, perhaps around 4000 million years ago, the first living and reproducing cells came into being. By 2000 million years ago there were microbes capable of capturing light energy from the Sun and converting it into energy-rich carbohydrate molecules through the process of photosynthesis, and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere in the process.

· The first multicellular organisms that would have been visible to the naked eye appeared around 700 million years ago, and after that, biological evolution brought millions of life forms into existence, leading eventually to the rich network of interacting and interdependent living organisms that inhabit our world today.

· All living organisms, except for some viruses, share the same means by which genetic information is passed from parents to offspring. The essential agent in this process is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). It contains, in coded form, most of the information necessary for the formation and functioning of the new individual.

· All plants and animals, as well as human civilisation, are entirely dependent on the process of photosynthesis in green plants.

· Our species, Homo sapiens, came into existence around 300,000 years ago – as an omnivorous animal adapted genetically to the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers.

· The most distinctive biological attribute of our species, unique in the animal kingdom, is the ability to invent and memorise a symbolic spoken language, and to use this language to communicate among ourselves.

Humans

· The human aptitude for language led to the accumulation of shared knowledge, beliefs and attitudes in human groups. That is, it led to human culture.

· Human culture has recently emerged as a powerful new force in Nature. It has led to activities that have been to the benefit of humans (cultural adaptations) and to activities that have been greatly to their disadvantage (cultural maladaptations).

· Around 12,000 years ago, or around 500 generations ago, some of my ancestors were turning to farming as a way of life.

· My ancestors of three or four generations ago witnessed the beginning of the fourth, Exponential Ecological Phase of human history – the Anthropocene. This resulted in an explosive increase in the human population, in the use of fossil fuels, in the pollution of the natural environment and in the extinction of other species.

Me

I also believe that ninety seven years ago I did not exist. But then one day, inside my mother’s body, a miniscule cell from my father joined up with a cell from my mother,

and over the next nine months this new composite cell gave rise to a human baby, with all its organs, with a heart beating, with hair, a face, fingernails and toenails, and with the ability to breath, cry, suck and look around. This was me. I didn’t exist. Then I did exist. I was created. This I believe.

I came into a world inhabited by thousands of millions of other human beings, and by countless billions of other living organisms, ranging in size from invisible sub-microscopic viruses and microscopic bacteria to the 30-metres-long Blue Whales and the 100-metres-tall Mountain Ash trees of south-eastern Australia.

Nature

All religions have their stories. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus – they all have their stories. All political ideologies have their hallowed texts. I have my story. It is the story of life on this planet and of the evolutionary emergence of humankind and of the interactions between humans and the rest of the living world. I call this story the Bionarrative. It comes to us through the natural sciences. It is a great story.

The more I learn about the story of life, through personal observations and from science – the more I learn, the greater is my sense of wonder, and the more profound my sense of respect -indeed feeling of reverence – for Nature, and for the creative forces that gave rise to the living world – and to me.

I am thinking not only of the natural environment, with all its mindboggling diversity and beauty, but also of the amazing and extremely complicated processes that go on inside my own body and that have kept it going for over 94 years. 

And the more I learn, the greater is my resolve, in the words of Claude Monet, ‘to mingle more closely with Nature’ and ‘to live and work in harmony with her laws’.[1] 

It is a good feeling.


[1]  http://www.wisdomquotes.com/quote/claude-monet.html

Human Rights and the Rights of Nature

There has been a great deal of talk over the past half century about the crucial ethical issue of human rights. The notion of human rights is inferred as far back as 3800 years ago in the moral codes of Hammurabi and 500 years later in those of Moses. Both these codes imply that all humans have certain rights, and both were presented to the populace as instructions from a deity or deities.

The idea that humans possess ‘natural rights’ was further developed by European philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, although the actual expression ‘human rights’ only came into common parlance in the 20th century. In 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The natural sciences have nothing to say about human rights. People are not born with rights. Nature does not confer rights on us. The concept of human rights is a purely cultural construct. We can decide to confer rights on ourselves and others, and acceptance of these rights can then become embedded in our culture. This does not mean, of course, that the concept of human rights is unimportant.

In recent years there has also been much discussion about the notion of animal rights. Indeed, some authors believe the concept rights should be extended not only to animals, but also to trees, mountains, rocks and streams. I have not followed this literature – but an excellent account of this movement of thought in the English-speaking world is provided in the book The rights of nature: a history of environmental ethics by Roderick Nash.

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer has been prominent supporter of animal rights. Incidentally he does not extend the concept of rights to trees, mountains and rocks which, he says, do not feel anything and therefore possess no rights. A more recent book advocating animal rights is– Animalkind: what we owe to animals, by Jean Kazez.

However, as in the case of human rights, animals do not possess rights until they are conferred on them by human culture. Animal rights are a product of, and a component of, human culture.