Science and Democracy: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

The modern ideal of democracy-a constitutional polity governed by thoughtful citizens who decide on policy after public consideration of alternative courses of action and their consequences-emerged in the 18th century, riding on the coattails of a scientific worldview shared by Jefferson, Franklin, and every other signatory of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

That worldview was articulated in its classical form by John Locke and his good friend Isaac Newton, and has served historically to underwrite democracy as scientifically suited to human­kind and our place in Nature. Newton's lawful Nature, ordained and guaranteed by God-where atoms gravitate to form molecules, and these lawfully assemble into the visible structure of our world-was taken up by Locke in the Second Treatise of Government in 1688. Locke argued that humans are social atoms, and he represented the "social contract" as the gravitation of these sovereign atomic individuals to form associations governed by laws that all must obey. Science and democracy are here indissolubly joined in a single world system: Individuals, like physical atoms, are free, independent, and prior to the structures they build.

This complementarity of science and democracy is not lightly abandoned, and may explain why the scientific worldview of most educated people contains nothing of relativity, quantum mechanics, or theoretical population genetics. Yet these ideas have largely superseded those of Newton and even Darwin, and have guided physics and biology for the better part of a century. I suspect the newer views appear to undercut the alliance between science and democratic politics. The characteristic vocabulary of current science-filled with words such as relative, uncertain, indeterminate, random, mutant-does not seem to bode well for an ordered polity.

I don't agree. Relativity, quantum mechanics, and population genetics are not only compatible with democratic politics, they provide a vastly more useful way of viewing the world and acting in it than the 300-year-old Newtonian and the 150-year-old Darwinian ideas they have replaced.

Let us first take up Einstein's theory of relativity, one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted pieces of science in history. The very word conjures up visions of subjective and irresolvable disputation, solipsism, uncertainty, even the rejection of a single truth in favor of multiple truths. But the theory says nothing of the sort.

What it really says is that, if I see the world from here and you see it from there and we see different things, there is no way to say what is "really" happening, i.e., which of us is right. However-and a big however it is-the same laws of nature apply to both of us, and we can write "translation rules" that get us from my standpoint to yours and back again. We may disagree about interpretations, but can and must agree on the facts.

Consider the recent prosecution of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk for "denigrating Turkish identity" (he alluded to the genocide against the Armenians in a radio interview). Turkey argues that it has a right to do this. Yet from the standpoint of the European Union, which Turkey very much wants to join, this violates fundamental human rights: If Turkey proceeds with the prosecution, it will not be allowed into the EU. Note that it is possible for both the EU and Turkey to map their differences even though there is no third interpretation which transcends both and resolves the dispute. Turkey may insist on its sovereign rights, but it can not deny it is prosecuting Pamuk for what he said, nor conceal the Armenian genocide. These facts are real and undeniable despite the relativity of viewpoints about them.

The social and political implications of relativity more clearly reflect our political realities than their Newtonian predecessors. The Newtonian version of negotiation-"Let's sit down and talk till we agree on a single viewpoint," which has failed repeatedly in Israel and Palestine-gives way to a rationally comprehended set of differences of interpretation of the same facts. This is a hard lesson, but not a hopeless one. Actions are still consequential. It is permissible to change one's mind, but not the facts of the world. A suicide bomber may be a terrorist in one frame and a martyr in another, but he is a killer in both. Whatever one calls the West Bank of the Jordan, it is occupied by Israel. We want our worldview to be scientific precisely to guarantee we will be guided by facts, not just by interpretations. Science tells us what is happening, but not what we should do about it.

Turning to quantum physics, we find a set of ideas almost as thoroughly misrepresented as relativity. "Quantum" is an ordinary Latin word meaning "individual unit." When Einstein wrote a paper on the nature of light, he argued that while light clearly has the characteristics of a wave, at the moment something emits light or absorbs it, this event has a particulate character: There are light particles (photons).

Interpreted socially and politically, the quantum theory broke with the late 19th century idea that we derive our identity from being part of some larger thing (the race, the state, the nation) and instead reestablished sovereign individuality. We live our lives in collectives, like photons in a wave, but we are born and we die as individuals.

In short, there is nothing in relativity or quantum mechanics which casts the slightest shadow or doubt on pluralist, democratic individualism.

When we turn to the biological we face a similar situation. Almost anyone who claims a scientific worldview believes in a common origin for life and descent with modification over billions of years. Many Darwinians like a version of the theory that rewards struggle to adapt to changing circumstances and finding a niche and making the most of it. While this scientific doctrine sits comfortably with democratic convictions, it is not how evolution works.

Even many ardent Darwinians have not been happy with the theoretical population genetics developed in the 1920s, especially by the American biologist Sewall Wright, who rejected the notion that organisms adapt themselves in any directed sense. Rather, evolution consists mostly of a shifting balance between random mutation on one hand and environmental pressure on the other. Since most of the environment is other organisms also mutating, evolution is the sum total of shifting balances within the genetic complement of the world. Adaptation is not something that organisms do, it is something that happens to them.

While this view of things seems random, it is not. It merely says that evolution does not proceed by organisms going it alone; we are always part of a larger system. Moreover, evidence from population genetics shows that evolution emphasizes experimentation; it also rewards moderate risk taking, inter-group cooperation, and communication; and applies to human social and technological systems as well as to biology-to the evolution of the bicycle and the internal combustion engine as well as the salmon and the deer. It suggests that societies that pay the premium now for solar, wind, and hydrogen power are more likely to succeed than a society that waits till the last drop of oil is gone and then tries to adapt by jumping instantly to another and higher optimum (nuclear fusion?).

Relativity, quantum mechanics, and population biology have much to offer us, if we bring them into our worldview. They reestablish a vital alliance between current natural science and democratic politics, and they offer concrete suggestions and approaches that grow, as the theories themselves, out of the soil of our own problems and prospects, not those of preceding centuries. It's time to make the change.


Mott Greene is John Magee Professor of Science and Values at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.



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© Chris Madden, from his cartoon book The Beast That Ate The Earth,