James Lovelock on Misunderstanding Science, How Intuition Drives Innovation, and the Future of Human Evolution
James Lovelock is fast becoming one of my heroes.
These days, he’s best known for the Gaia hypothesis, which sees the Earth as a complex, self-regulating system.
There’s a lot more to him, though. Over an illustrious career (he’s 98 now and still inventing things, he’s done original work in nearly a dozen fields including space exploration (at NASA), nuclear energy, climate science, and medicine.
He’s also a bit of a legend for bringing down an empire that was destroying the ozone layer when he, as an independent scientist, proved the existence of harmful CFCs in the atmosphere.
In this essay, I want to look at a few thought-provoking insights from his book A Rough Ride to the Future, which is a mix of autobiography, theory, and visions for the future of humanity.
Technology Out of Control
“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” -Richard Feynman
Population has exploded in the last few hundred years. Humans have transformed the Earth, and we’ve entered what many now call the Anthropocene: the age of man.
A big feature of the Anthropocene is the exponential growth of technologies.
But here’s what’s interesting about all this technology — almost nobody understands how it works.
Take my apartment, for example. Here’s what I see around me: a smartphone (screen cracked), various cables and cords, a LCD monitor, a coffee grinder, and a little screen that lights up when the Japanese delivery man rings my doorbell.
I have no idea how any of these things work.
We like to think that at least the scientists and inventors understand this stuff, but this often untrue, says Lovelock:
“…the invention of these artefacts takes place without more than a tiny proportion of humanity having the slightest idea of how they were made or how they work. This is even true of the inventors; only rarely is an invention rationally understood by the inventor at the time of invention. …it can sometimes take years to partially understand or explain the invention that came into my mind almost instantly as a gift from intuition. Scientists, unless the invention is a part of their specialty, are as ignorant of the working of our artefacts as the rest of us.”
This is both wonderful and terrifying.
We make stuff without understanding how it works and, by the time we do, many changes are already irreversible. Technology is beyond our control:
“…how much of [the Anthropocene] can be attributed to the inspiration of talented individuals and their flowering during and after the Renaissance? More likely, I think, the burgeoning progress we see around us, good and bad, may have come from a simpler and cruder source: that is, the work of rude mechanicals who worked blindly like Wagner’s Nibelungen, who made their Ring with no thought for the consequences.”
Very few people, if any, saw what a history-altering thing the invention of the Internet was going to be. Hell, we still don’t understand it — or what it will become.
No wonder Lovelock chose to title his book A Rough Ride to the Future.
The above passages also express a key theme woven through Lovelock’s book: We severely overestimate the impact of reason and science on technological progress.
But if it’s not reason or science, what is it?
Reversing the Arrow of Progress
Lovelock mentions that many of his inventions (hundreds of them produced in the basement of his suburban home) were a gift fromintuition:
“I know from experience and observation that inventions often originate without conscious thought, presumably in the hidden layers of the mind, and emerge intuitively. It follows that the widespread belief that progress through new inventions is led by science is only partially true. It seems that necessity and its intuitive answer through invention is the explanation of progress. Science is wonderful at explaining what happened after an event. … We have reached the dizzy heights of our new Enlightenment not so much by the cleverness of science, but by the intuitions of those who made inventions that satisfied the needs of the greatest number.”
In other words of us, many of us see technological progress as:
academia/science → invention
But things may actually be the reverse:
invention → academia/science
Of course, this is not an either/or situation. Science does lead still to innovation — just not as much as we tend to think.
Lovelocks claims remind me of another author — the philosopher Nassim Taleb. In his book Antifragile, Taleb argues that we’ve gotten the arrow of technological progress backwards:
“We have the illusion that the world functions thanks to programmed design, university research, and bureaucratic funding, but there is compelling — very compelling — evidence to show that this is an illusion, the illusion I call lecturing birds how to fly. Technology is the result of antifragility, exploited by risk-takers in the form of tinkering and trial and error, with nerd-driven design confined to the backstage. Engineers and tinkerers develop things while history books are written by academics; we will have to refine historical interpretations of growth, innovation, and many such things. … The error of naive rationalism leads to overestimating the role and necessity of … academic knowledge, in human affairs — and degrading the uncodifiable, more complex, intuitive, or experience-based type.
What both authors are getting at, I think, is that we overestimate the ability to “think” or “reason” our way through problems or to new inventions.
Just as there’s no way to learn how to ride a bike via a textbook, there may be no substitute for hands-on, practical, intuition-driven time in the lab.
The Gift of Intuition
Now, back to intuition.
A lot of people (myself included) get very, very uncomfortable when we hear people talking about “gut feelings” or “intuitions”. But Lovelock makes a convincing case that we humans didn’t evolve to only think rationally:
“My target is not science of scientists; after all I am one myself. My target is our obsession with rational thinking that goes in parallel with our distrust of intuition. Intuition and reason are both part of our evolutionary past and I suspect are equally necessary for survival.”
Reason is useful, but it can never fully replace intuition:
“I like to think that while inventing I am in touch with that inner layer of the mind where information is processed without awareness. As a scientist I have to explain each step of a process openly, and often I do this on a piece of paper, with pencilled sums or simple diagrams. In real life these two processes tend to merge, and scientific intuitions come from the inner layer without my being aware until the completed thought emerges.”
There’s a lot of interesting debate on both sides about the value of intuition. Here’s an excerpt from one blog post that influenced my thinking.
The author distinguishes between rationality and something called postrationality:
“…rationality tends to give advice like ‘ignore your intuitions/feelings, and rely on conscious reasoning and explicit calculation’. Postrationality, on the other hand, says ‘actually, intuitions and feelings are really important, let’s see if we can work with them instead of against them.”
It seems pretty clear that Lovelock is in the second camp.
The Future of Evolution
Just one last thing.
Lovelock sees this exponential growth in technologies as a new form of evolution that is millions of times faster than the old, traditional type of evolution we tend to talk about:
“…the new evolutionary process is something quite different from all that went before it, and may mark the end of the primacy of evolution by natural selection which has carried us and the Earth for the past 3 billion years at its slow, unhurried pace.”
This evolution is “driven by necessity” and — just as ordinary evolution may speed up during periods of high stress — the pace of technological innovation can speed up when need is great, such as during wartime or during a global crisis.
Indeed, (as Yuval Harari has argued in his bestselling Homo Deus) Lovelock says that we are already on the way to evolving to a “future symbiosis with electronic life”:
“All things evolve do so in a series of small but finite steps, and the first of these towards electronic symbiosis was taken in 1958 when the Swedish surgeon Ake Senning impanted a cardiac pacemaker … and it worked.”
It seems that, if we do someday become half-human and half-robot, it’ll happen so gradually that we might find ourselves saying, “What’s the big deal? People have been using implants for centuries.”
My goal in many of my essays is simply to (a) share what challenged my models of the world and (b) give you enough intuition to start asking your own questions.
There’s much more of value in Lovelock’s book, including: snapshots of life as a lone scientist, what symbiotic superhumans might look like, and why maybe we shouldn’t feel so guilty about climate change.
Thanks for reading.