INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Edge JANUARY 2011 - by Brian Eno
What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?
That idea, or bundle of ideas, seems to me the most important revolution in general thinking in the last one hundred and fifty years. It has given us a whole new sense of who we are, where we fit, and how things work. It has made commonplace and intuitive a type of perception that used to be the province of mystics - the sense of wholeness and interconnectedness.
Beginning with Copernicus, our picture of a semi-divine humankind perfectly located at the centre of The Universe began to falter: we discovered that we live on a small planet circling a medium sized star at the edge of an average galaxy. And then, following Darwin, we stopped being able to locate ourselves at the centre of life. Darwin gave us a matrix upon which we could locate life in all its forms: and the shocking news was that we weren't at the centre of that either - just another species in the innumerable panoply of species, inseparably woven into the whole fabric (and not an indispensable part of it either). We have been cut down to size, but at the same time we have discovered ourselves to be part of the most unimaginably vast and beautiful drama called Life.
Before "ecology" we understood the world in the metaphor of a pyramid - a heirarchy with God at the top, Man a close second and, sharply separated, a vast mass of life and matter beneath. In that model, information and intelligence flowed in one direction only - from the intelligent top to the "base" bottom - and, as masters of the universe, we felt no misgivings exploiting the lower reaches of the pyramid.
The ecological vision has changed that: we now increasingly view life as a profoundly complex weblike system, with information running in all directions, and instead of a single heirarchy we see an infinity of nested-together and co-dependent heirarchies - and the complexity of all this is such to be in and of itself creative. We no longer need the idea of a superior intelligence outside of the system - the dense field of intersecting intelligences is fertile enough to account for all the incredible beauty of "creation".
The "ecological" view isn't confined to the organic world. Along with it comes a new understanding of how intelligence itself comes into being. The classical picture saw Great Men with Great Ideas... but now we tend to think more in terms of fertile circumstances where uncountable numbers of minds contribute to a river of innovation. It doesn't mean we cease to admire the most conspicuous of these - but that we understand them as effects as much as causes. This has ramifications for the way we think about societal design, about crime and conflict, education, culture and science.
That in turn leads to a re-evaluation of the various actors in the human drama. When we realise that the cleaners and the bus drivers and the primary school teachers are as much a part of the story as the professors and the celebrities, we will start to accord them the respect they deserve.