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Is there no such thing as new science?

In his fascinating book Rethink, Steven Poole argues that what’s commonly hailed as innovation in science and technology is often an old idea

30 July 2016

9:00 AM

30 July 2016

9:00 AM

Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas Steven Poole

Random House, pp.320, £20

Rupert Sheldrake had it coming. In A New Science of Life (1981), he argued that animals and plants have inherited a collective memory from their predecessors, thanks to ‘morphic resonance’. This also explained why animals had telepathic powers. ‘You see, I told you so,’ I said to my wife when reading about this in Steven Poole’s exciting new book, and exchanged a secret glance with our dog. Mothers, one might add, also seem to have such psychic powers and know exactly when their teenage sons are sneaking home late at night.

But Sheldrake is not your average ‘new ager’ or dog lover. He is a cell biologist. The idea of telepathy and that ‘laws of nature’ might not be fixed in time but flexible and evolving infuriated the science establishment. Rethink comes to the rescue of such contrarian thinkers. They are what the Germans call Querdenker, literally people who do not think straight. Poole invites us to be a bit bolder than we often are, to challenge accepted truths, to revisit old ideas and even to play with some crazy new ones.

We live in modern times and tend to believe in scientific progress. Of course, there are some people who continue to believe that the earth is flat or that climate change is a myth, but professional scientists and most sensible people don’t. Superstition gives way to scientific truth. Rethink makes you, well, rethink this convenient story. Fear not: Poole is not a relativist. There are some really bad ideas — the earth is not flat. But he does challenge the idea that science is travelling on a linear road to perfection. Instead, he sees a roller coaster.

Take evolution, for example. Few biologists have been more mocked than Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) who held that giraffes developed their long necks so that they could reach high-hanging leaves. Instead, as we learnt in school, it all boiled down to random mutations in DNA, less picturesque, perhaps, but in line with received scientific wisdom. Or until 2003, when a researcher in Zurich found that the mice in her lab had inherited depression from their mice mothers. Old ideas, Poole shows, deserve a second look.

Rethink is also interested in ‘right’ ideas that appear intuitively wrong, such as about the relation between the body and emotions. Most of us believe that our feelings are real, the core of our selves. In fact, William James, the great American psychologist and philosopher, pointed out in the late 19th century that emotions really are nothing but unconscious responses to physiological changes in the body.

With this book, Poole confirms his standing as one of our liveliest and most thought-provoking writers on science and technology. Ranging widely, from Pyrrho, the sceptic Greek philosopher, to Elon Musk, the chairman of the electronic Tesla car company, Rethink is a stimulating journey that challenges our fixation with ‘winners’, but also with novelty for novelty’s sake. Along the way, we revisit arguments for eugenics and genetic design, learn how leeches can actually relieve blood clots and meet those who think going to Mars will become a reality.

‘No one should be ashamed if it is pointed out that someone has had their idea before,’ Poole concludes. Instead, they should rejoice, because it could help them to make that idea even better. In that sense, improvement remains the mantra — simply not via innovation from scratch, but through a kind of constant collision between old and new. Poole believes in a ‘marketplace’ of ideas. A monopoly of conventional wisdom can be a bad thing.

If they contain a kernel of truth, why then do old ideas find it so hard to be heard or are forgotten altogether? Is there something we can do to give them more breathing space? Here, Poole’s position is less clear. On the one hand, he points to cultural factors — our unwillingness to accept emotions as consequences of bodily states, for example, he pins on our belief in identity and personal autonomy. Fair enough. When it comes to technological innovation, by contrast, he includes other factors. The electric car, he points out, was around in 1900 but driven out by oil wells and gas-guzzling cars. Yet their impressive revival, with affordable Tesla models and better batteries, does not automatically translate into dominance. There are still only about 50,000 electric cars in all of Germany, in spite of wild promises by politicians to have one million on the road by 2020. It is not that batteries are worse in Germany than in America. The reason has to do with a lack of supporting infrastructure, established habits, politics and taxes.

Most of the time, we are not dealing with a ‘marketplace’ of ideas but one that is rigged by power, social conventions and vested interests. ‘Basic income’ might be a sensible idea, but that is not enough. Ideas need political uplift. This is what John Maynard Keynes found in the interwar years, when only a shrinking band of Liberals was willing to take him seriously. It was the second world war, and the transformation of the state that came with it, that provided the opening, not the idea itself. If there is one thing missing in this admirable book it is this context of power.

Rethink invites us to be sceptical and to look back, but perhaps just as important, I think, it also encourages us to be more creative when looking ahead. Too much faith in current wisdom, and a preference for how things are, tend to make people imagine the future as an extension of the present, perhaps more efficient but ultimately a bit more of the same. This kind of thinking has become especially deep-seated in Britain, which is distinguished by a most unimaginative vision of what a more sustainable society might look like in 2050. The German government, meanwhile, is sponsoring a ‘House of the Future’ in Berlin, where citizens as well as architects and planners will be able to explore their different visions. Rethink, I hope, will rekindle a bit of that utopianism among British readers as well.

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