November 25, 2017

What is an electric toothbrush?

An editorial article by Edward Goldsmith from The Ecologist Vol. 6 No. 10, December 1976.


Let us suppose that an electric toothbrush blows away from Earth and lands up on Mars, and that it is presented, with the appropriate pomp and ceremony, to the Martian King.

Let us also suppose that he is a man of great intellectual curiosity and that he reacts by calling on the planet’s chief scientists to subject it to a thorough examination.

Let us also suppose that Martian scientists cherish the same illusions as do ours as to the nature of scientific method and that, again like ours, they try to under-stand things by breaking them up into their constituent parts (reductionism) and explaining their behaviour in terms of observing single one-way cause-and-effect relationships (induction) in the artificial conditions of a laboratory from which all ”extraneous” factors are systematically excluded (isolationism).

This would undoubtedly enable them, after the appropriate research, to provide the King with volumes of statistics, graphs, tables, footnotes, references and appendices – which would provide, between them, a detailed description of each individual bristle and its component atoms and molecules.

It would not enable them, however, to establish the one important thing to know about the electric toothbrush and that is – what the absurd device is actually for and hence, for general purposes, what it is.

Our scientists here on earth are in the same predicament. Over the past decades, billions of pounds have been lavished on scientific research of every description and though millions of tons of scientific data may have been accumulated on practically every subject, our scientists have come to no conclusions as to what living things and in particular man, are for – and hence what they really are.

As Rattray Taylor has said, “the only conclusion that has ever been reached by scientific research is that more money is required for scientific research”, so that in other words our scientists can keep on indefinitely accumulating more and more useless data.

It is probably our social scientists who are the most blind to the basic realities of the subjects they are supposed to be studying.

For instance they continue to regard the family as something archaic that we have inherited from our primitive past, that serves, more than anything else, to exert unnecessary constraint on its members, thereby preventing them from developing their individuality.

They still regard a society as nothing more than a mass of individuals who happen to live in the same geographical area and are governed by the same institutions.

In other words, our sociologists have not even understood what a family and a society are. Why? The answer is because they have not asked what they are for.

Today’s scientists wince at the suggestion that the behaviour of natural systems is purposive or directive, that, in fact, they have been designed to do particular jobs like electric toothbrushes. This, they maintain, implies ‘teleology’ – which is, surprisingly enough, still one of the principal taboos of the Religion of Science.

Needless to say, behaviour within the biosphere is purposive, as has been pointed out on very many occasions in this journal. The evolutionary process which designed the biosphere is adaptive. That means that it moves in a specific direction, i.e. it is purposive or directive. What is more, if we examine it in terms of a grand theory of behaviour, we can easily establish that the direction is towards stability.

Stability is defined as the ability of a system to maintain its structure in the face of change, i.e. to reduce discontinuities to a minimum: survival in fact, taken in the narrowest sense of the term. The implications are massive, enough to change the very nature of Science. Once we know what things are for within the biosphere, we are in a position to determine whether they are working properly or not – whether they are sound, in fact, or aberrant. We can, in fact, judge them.

It must be noted that this is something that our scientists refuse to do today. They are willing to provide us with the tools for achieving a specific goal but they refuse to say whether this is the right goal or not. According to them, whether we choose one goal or another is purely a question of individual preference, a “value judgement” in fact, which implies that behaviour within the biosphere is random – a puerile imbecility.

Once we know that stability is the correct goal, however, behaviour can be judged objectively and, in fact, “scientifically” (if the term is to have a useful meaning). A healthy organism is then a stable organism – a principle accepted by Audy who writes,

“Health is a continuing property, potentially measurable by the individual’s ability to rally from insults whether chemical, physical, infectious psychological or social.”

An ecosystem can then be regarded as healthy to the extent that floods, droughts, plant epidemics and other discontinuities are reduced to a minimum. A society can then be regarded as healthy to the extent that it is culturally geared to avoid the sort of crises to which ours is increasingly subject – in other words to the extent that it displays continuity or stability. [Audy, “Man”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, October 1976]

In addition, once we accept that stability is the goal, scientific research, rather than consist in the random accumulation of data, can now consist in striving to understand exactly how the behaviour of different natural systems actually contributes to the achievement of this goal in the specific conditions in which they live. This, of course, cannot be determined by studying natural systems in isolation from each other, but by examining them in the light of a general model of behaviour or unified science.

This approach would reveal to our sociologists that the extended family and, the small community are the basic units of human social behaviour, without which it cannot achieve a stable relationship with its environment. It would also enable a hypothetical Martian to understand what is an electric toothbrush and just how aberrant is the society in which the production of absurd devices of this sort has become the dominant goal of social policy.

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