Bly discusses how science shapes even our ideas and images of the world.
Question: How has science changed our understanding of ourselves?
Adam Bly: I think with each new wave in science we . . . one of the natural consequences is it does force us to think differently about who we are; our relationship with each other; our relationship to the planet; our planet’s relationship to the solar system; our solar system’s relationship to the bigger universe. And I think one of the sort of interesting things that’s happening right now is not only are we getting data and results that are contributing to that – so most certainly in genetics, in evolutionary biology, in theoretical physics, in neuroscience – but also I think there’s an interesting marriage of that kind of research with the sort of physically . . . the new ways we’re looking at things. So not only are we starting to achieve new ways of thinking about ourselves, but we are thinking about ourselves differently as a result of evolutionary genetics, for example; and projects to really see genetic similarities across . . . across populations around the world; to see the relationship that we have with other species in our homologies; how like we are of something contiguous to something else that definitely does change our sense of self. And sometimes it’s humbling forces; you know forces that make us feel less special. I think that’s kind of cool. In other cases it makes us feel incredibly important, and kind of evolved, and like the higher being. And so there is constantly this back and forth between a notion that we are the highest form of evolution, and we are simply but yet another thing that’s come about on this planet at this moment in time under these initial conditions of the planet. But I think the other sort of as interesting dynamic right now is the way we’re seeing all of these things. We are a, you know . . . a visual society, and the images are as important as the ideas. And sometimes it’s an image that’s come from science that has changed our way of thinking about the world. As an example, you know, the first image of the earth from space led to the establishment of the EPA in the United States and the first, you know, silent spring kind of era of environmental concern. It’s about seeing that, you know, as Carl Sagan said, that little blue dot. And feeling like it was this precious little blue dot that we needed to preserve, and that we all live, and all of our fights, and all of our battles and everything we knew was on that little blue dot. That really did change our way of thinking about things and led to very concrete social, political, economic action. And so I think today the new images that we’re getting back from deep space is just a stone’s throw from the big bang; or new images that we’re starting to see of human genome; of new visualizations that are still very, very, very fresh, and are currently the fodder of sort of design science geeks who kind of love to look at all these things – myself included – but that I think will ultimately become the visual language of the 21st century. These are new ways at looking at ourselves, new ways of looking at our human genome. We are going to, in the next little while, start to see images of really comprehensive maps of the human brain. And so we all have this notion of the brain as this organ in a very anatomical way but not in a more computational way. And it could be an image, again, that really does completely transform our notion of intelligence; our notion of nature versus nurture; our notion of complexity versus simplicity. And so I am as excited about the visualizations, the imagings, the functional magnetic resonance imaging that we see as so . . . such a dominant tool in our newspapers and media streams. You know here is the brain. Here’s a red dot. Here is . . . When you love someone it’s red here. There are pros and cons to some of these images. But regardless we’re seeing more images. And I think scientific imaging is going to have just as much an impact on our notion of who we are; our notion of identity as . . . as the ideas themselves.
Recorded on: 10/17/07