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To save society, science should embrace ethical projects

The Evolution of Knowledge: Rethinking Science for the Anthropocene

Jürgen Renn
Princeton University Press
584 pp.
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Can science save humanity? In the face of runaway climate change and massive species extinction, some say that we already know all we need to know to fix these problems: Further research is a distraction and what we need now is action. Others anticipate a feat of technical ingenuity that will catapult us out of our current crisis. In their view, the “Anthropos” of the Anthropocene is well on the way to mastering the Earth system. A middle ground between these positions hardly seems to exist.

Into this fray comes Jürgen Renn, a polymath historian of science, whose research has careened from ancient Chinese mechanics to Einstein’s theory of gravitation to contemporary energy systems. What links these projects is Renn’s fascination with the dynamics by which science changes and changes hands. His new tour de force, The Evolution of Knowledge, addresses all those concerned with science’s fate.

Renn argues that the crisis of the Anthropocene is indeed a problem of knowledge, but he sharply distinguishes himself from those hunting for a technical fix. Knowledge, for Renn, is a broad and varied concept, with crucial experiential and ethical dimensions. Modern science, although uniquely efficacious, is just one facet of the evolution of human knowledge. Understanding this evolutionary process, he argues, is the key to reorienting science for the Anthropocene.

Taking a cue from biologists, Renn thinks of knowledge as an adaptive system, one that gradually transforms the material and cultural conditions of its own existence. Knowledge evolves through a slow, piecemeal process akin to ecological succession. If we want to guide the future evolution of science, we had better get familiar with its past.

Renn’s history of knowledge is alternately triumphant and tragic. On the bright side, he traces the development of techniques of representation that have increasingly allowed for reflective engagement with knowledge-making. His foremost example is the internet. With the proper oversight, he proposes, the internet has the potential to “optimize the current knowledge economy toward a global coproduction of knowledge,” building new connections between local stores of knowledge and new opportunities to put knowledge into action. What’s more, science has evolved unprecedented power to reshape the “cultural abstractions” that govern human behavior—as, for instance, in the idea of an ecological footprint.

Yet this history of modern science is also a story of loss. Market forces have distorted science’s ambitions, diverting it from the humanitarian aims of earlier centuries. The globalization of science has suppressed local forms of knowledge and alienated nonexpert populations. Renn thus returns to the past in part to remind readers of the value of natural knowledge produced in other eras, by a panoply of human cultures, even by nonliterate societies.

One example of the insights to be drawn from Renn’s historical case studies can be found in his retelling of the encounter between Jesuit and Chinese astronomers in the early 17th century. The Chinese adopted Copernican astronomy for the purpose of reforming official calendars, but they had no intention of allowing it to mingle with their religious views. Renn observes that this episode juxtaposes a remarkably stable intellectual tradition, that of the Ming dynasty, with one undergoing rapid change, as Europeans jettisoned medieval scholasticism in favor of rationalism and empiricism. The critical difference, he argues, was the tight relationship between natural knowledge and religion in the European scholastic tradition.

That observation brings us to one of Renn’s most provocative proposals. He argues that modern science, rather than striving to be value-free, should embrace ethical projects of the sort usually associated with religion. Fully aware of the atrocities that could result from turning science into a religion, he nonetheless proposes that we “seek out the eschatological dimensions of science itself and cultivate its role as a guide in a fragile world whose future depends on it.”

Ours is hardly the first era to witness calls for a wholesale reform of natural knowledge. From Francis Bacon in the 17th century to Vannevar Bush in the 20th, modern science has had its fair share of visionary reformers. In this respect, Renn might best be compared to the philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). In the 1930s, at a moment of existential crisis comparable to today’s, Husserl likewise sought to reorient science around shared human experiences and common human needs. Yet Husserl, a notoriously opaque writer, had little hope of communicating his message to the scientific community. With this lucid and accessible book, Renn stands a far greater chance of success.

About the author

The reviewer is chair of the Program in the History of Science and Medicine, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA, and the author of Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale (University of Chicago Press, 2018).