The unexplored worlds around, under and in us.

I am posting below a comment attached to a wonderful article  on Grist about some amazing fungi found growing inside barley plants.  Compared to many of the comments one gets on Grist, this one was informed, thoughtful and articulate.  It also says in a far better way some of the things I would like to say.


Very, very cool.

For anyone interested in this topic who wants to know more about the bleeding edge of fungus research (yes, there is such a thing, though it’s less academic than you might expect), recommend Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running.

When I read stories like this, I am immediately struck by two emotions. The first is absolute wonder at the incredible depth and complexity of life. The systems that sustain us have, not only details about which we know nothing, but entire layers of interlocking systems about which we are totally ignorant. From a scientific point of view, discoveries like this are akin to a flatlander discovering the concept of thickness, up, and down. It gives a whole new dimension, literally, to our understanding of the world and how our actions may impact it.

My second reaction is flabbergasted disbelief at the misplaced sense of confidence exhibited by anyone who says, absolutely positively and without reservation that biochemical thing/technology/substance X is safe for people and/or the planet.

(X can be any number of things. GMOs. Endocrine-mimicking chemicals. Phalates. Yes, even vaccines.)

I am not saying that we should avoid these technologies or innovations based on the risk of the things we don’t know that we don’t know. We have to weigh the risks and benefits. (Vaccinate your f*kcing kids! And yourself!!) But we should weigh those risks with a fundamental understanding that we, as a species, are mostly ignorant and are doing the best we can to figure it out.

We should take an attitude of humility about how little we know (and the potential for that ignorance to bite us on the ass) rather than an attitude of arrogance about the things we do know. If you place the sum total of all human knowledge throughout history in the context of all the things that we might, could and ultimately should know, it is like a scattering of stars in a dark night sky. If you’re close to one of our points of knowledge, everything seems bright and well illuminated. But if you back up and place that knowledge in context, you realize that it is, mostly, still darkness.

If we as a species are capable of making this epistemological leap, then maybe we will last long enough that, someday, we can actually illuminate (most of) the universe of knowledge. And then we will be The Culture and can be as arrogant as we feel appropriate. But we’re not there yet.

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