by Kate Hannah
Change, always present, is now, more than ever, the dominating feature of life on earth. This is how Phil Ball, the eminent science writer and former editor of Nature, described the world when asked by panel chair Jesse Mulligan what we’re doing right. “It’s more complex, more interconnected, more co-dependent than we’d ever imagined.” This increase in complexity – what Ball calls the shift from “the century of the molecule to the century of the system”- has resulted in a critical challenge to the tools and structures designed to deal with reductionism – the century of the molecule.
Ball had been asked to start with what we’re doing right; he responded with a reference to the last section of The Bone Clocks, by fellow Auckland Writers’ Festival attendee, David Mitchell, which describes an anthropogenic apocalyptic future, in which climate change has wrought severe environmental, social, and economic impacts. A future in which the very nature of the human condition, human society has been irrevocably changed. “I know that’s not what we’re doing right, but it’s an example of how science and technology both solves and creates problems.”
Fellow panellist, the surgeon and science writer Atul Gawande, expanded on this idea of increased complexity, describing how Gorovitz and MacIntyre had summarised human fallibility in 1975 as being caused by either ignorance (“the limitations of the present state of natural science”) or ineptitude (“from the wilfulness of negligence of the natural scientist.”) Gawande sees the state of the world now as related to ineptitude – a systemic failure to apply knowledge correctly, creating a what he describes as “complexities of inequity” in which things like life expectancy, infant mortality, female education levels, vary greatly between countries and within socio-economic and/or ethnic groups within countries.
Chinese journalist in exile, Xinran, whose radio interviews and books focusing on women in rural China provide a window into the complexities of inequity Gawande describes echoes the rate of change as a key contributing factor to the status quo. China, which has travelled from pre-industrial to post- industrial in three generations, calls into question the very notion of human happiness or wellbeing as the overarching goal of human society. Xinran’s China is a country in which there is a 200-year gap between the industrialised cities and the rural countryside, one in which the pinnacle of human happiness for a woman is to bear a son. There’s a cold draft that fills the ASB Theatre when Xinran talks about the 30 million missing Chinese daughters, a gap made since the introduction of the one child policy.
For Xinran, discourse moves between what is real and what is imagined – she evokes the I Ching as a text that described, well before we had scientific language to reveal it, the intersection of place and time, the code (DNA) embedded within everything. This notion of describing the human condition in multiple languages lies at the heart of ways to change the world. Charlotte Grimshaw, the novelist and short story writer, notes that both Ball and Gawande, as science writers, use examples from literature in their science writing. Gawande’s most recent book, Being Mortal, refers extensively to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which explores what it means to live, and thus die, without meaningful, human connection. Similarly, Ball refers to Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen in his exploration of the uncertainty principle, and his discussion of the choices made by scientists during the Nazi era. For this panel, Snow’s two cultures are not riven apart, but connected by a shared language of image and metaphor that deepens human understanding.
I like to think that we at Te Pūnaha Matatini speak this language too; we’re aware of the impact of both ignorance and ineptitude, consistently trying to tell good, true stories about our increasingly interconnected and data-rich world. In this interplay between our existing human tools and structures, designed to deal with the twentieth century –there’s a sense that we’ve missed something in trying to reduce matter to its constituent parts – and the world we live in, in which the sum total of human knowledge concerns just 4 % of the universe – wherein we need to develop tools to understand self-organising phenomena that form complex patterns and hierarchies – is the founding motivation bringing this team of people together.
Given that what emerged from last Sunday’s panel discussion was a shared sense that the thing we are doing right is talking about the problems we face, the decisions we have to make, the increased need for human connection, Te Pūnaha Matatini’s central metaphor – ‘the meeting place for many faces’ – becomes more critical. It’s both an actual place in which many faces (peoples, disciplines, ideas) meet, and an image of how we imagine the best kind of human thinking and human interaction occurs, face to face, kanohi ki te kanohi. Charlotte Grimshaw said that what she and her fellow panellists, fellow writers’ festival participants and attendees were endeavouring to do was to “illuminate the problems that beset humanity;” more prosaically, we’ve said that at Te Pūnaha Matatini we’re trying to transform complex data about New Zealand into knowledge, tools, and insight to help make better decisions.
Better decisions? When asked for next steps, Ball responded: “Actually, we know what we need to change the world: we need more equality, more justice, more compassion, more tolerance, more love.” Pressed for a scientific answer – as the scientist on the panel – Ball responded with a list of value-filled abstract nouns. Gawande’s words take this notion of value further – describing happiness or wellbeing as emerging from a sense of purpose and connection. “We’ve lost the moral language that would allow us to ask the right questions.” As writers, as wisdom-seekers, as humans, the panel – a journalist, an author, a scientist, and a surgeon – agreed: the way to change the world is to adopt a stance based within family, human connection, relationship. From that place to stand, we then must engage compassion and curiosity – Gawande called these “the virtues or characters we need to bring to see the world.” Listening to those words, I instantly bought to mind our Te Pūnaha Matatini whakataukī: E tipu, e rea, mō ngā rā ō tāu ao. Grow up and thrive for the days destined you. Like Xinran, Grimshaw, Ball, Gawande, we’re approaching the questions at hand from a place of connection, compassion, and curiosity.