Science and Culture

Piltdown Man

In the early twentieth century there was concern among some in England that the earliest  traces of modern man were being found in Africa and Asia, as well as in Germany (Homo neanderthalensis, who looked so modern that it was first hypothesized to be the remains of a Russian cossack who had died pursing Napoleon’s troops on their retreat from Moscow.)   This envy led to an infamous paleoanthropological fraud in which someone, presumably an amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson, doctored and buried in a gravel bed near the village of Piltsdown in Sussex,  in 1908, a human cranium together with the jaw of an ape, that was then conveniently ‘discovered’ by Dawson himself two years later.  in the face of national  fervor the scientific evidence of the supposed missing link was ignored until 1954, even though Professor Raymond Dart, at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, 29 years earlier,  had identified unequivocally the remains of the Taung Child as a young Australopithecus africanus and a legitimate antecedent of modern man.  



The point is that  culture affects our thinking.  Even scientists are not immune, sometimes looking  for what they want to find or finding what they are looking for, within the wider arc of cultural norms. Let’s ignore for a moment the denial of scientific discoveries in the light of biblical correctness, and look at the names scientists choose to christen their findings. At the time of Aristotle, worker bees were termed slaves” because they were named when bondage was a cultural norm, and the largest bee in the colony was seen as a ruler, both behaviorally and reproductively. Because Aristotle viewed reproduction as a primarily masculine initiative, he assumed that these bees must be kings, and even after they had been observed laying eggs the name stuck and their femininity went unacknowledged.


The British entomologist Charles Butler, sometimes called the Father of English Beekeeping,was a logician, author and priest besides being an experienced apiarist,  and was among the first to assert that drones are male and the queen female, though he believed worker bees laid eggs.   He was born in the thirty eighth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and was 32 years old when she died.   In 1609, six years after her death, he published The Feminine Monarchie; having  lived in the Elizabethan era for 32 years clearly influenced his recognition of the honeybee matriarchy, even as he saw the queen as an Amazonian ruler of the hive, much as had been his beloved monarch. 


In the same time period the microscope and its twin, the telescope, were invented.  Legend has it that the principle underlying both was accidentally discovered by children playing in a lens-maker’s shop. Whatever the real story, with the microscope (literally small-look at)  doors were opened to reveal veritable mazes of the minutest detail. 


The first plate of the exoskeleton of a honey bee drawn with the aid of microscope was by Francesco Stelluti in 1630 (ie. 20 years after Galileo first looked at the night sky through a telescope.)  Stelluti was one of the founders of the Accademia dei Lincei, the only academic research institute in Europe at the time. His drawings were beautifully executed, the details are accurate  and the worker bee was shown in greater clarity than ever before, but even so, Hh had to leave Rome temporarily  in the face of papal hostility to his discoveries.


40 years later Jan Swammerdam,  the Dutch biologist and microscopist who had demonstrated that the various phases during the life of an insect - egg, larva, pupa and adult—are different forms of the same animal, dissected a queen bee and drew her ovaries and oviduct, confirming Butler’s assertion that a colony is a matriarchy but adding the correction that she was the egg-layer. 


The science seemed incontrovertible.  In France Louis Dieudonné had become king in 1643 as Louis XIV, or the Sun King. A member of his court, the Duke de Saint-Simon,  one of the great memoirists of French literature, focused on the last twenty years of Louis’s reign.  In his Memoires, described as “equal proportions of literary genius and insincerity,” he described Louis thus.   “In the midst of other men, his figure, his courage, his grace, his beauty, his grand mien, even the tone of his voice and the majestic and natural charm of all his person, distinguished him till his death as a true King Bee.”


Despite the work of Butler, Stelluti and Swammerdam, to the French royalist a perfect civilization such as that of bees could only be ruled by a male, one of ‘majestic and natural charm.’  The telescope had put the sun at the center of the solar system but 80 years of microscopic study of the queen bee could not penetrate a social environment with deductions that seem obvious to us today. 


Therefore question is, how does culture inhibit our thinking today?  For me, first is the idea that progress is linear, inevitable and necessary, and secondly that science is the key to that advance.  Science is vitally important  - the fight against the corvid virus is a prime example, and indeed differing public reactions to dealing with the virus illustrate graphically the culture/science conflict.   I am not anti-science - far from it, even as we get to witness daily how decisions of the FDA and the EPA are driven by politics as much as by science. What is critical is that, like the executive, legislature and judiciary, science is checked and balanced by, and in harmony with,  the natural processes and the integrity and dignity of all living things.  


Two examples come to mind..  First is the increasing presence of thousands (literally) of chemicals in our water, soil, air and food.  If the first chemical doesn’t work, up the dose or try another, but whatever you do, don’t suggest a change of lifestyle or an all-natural solution.  According to the composer John Cage, Food provides nourishment: but Americans eat it fully aware that small amounts of poison have been added to improve its appearance and delay its putrefaction.” We have little idea of the long term consequences, yet somehow trust corporate science to come up with a solution that, conveniently, will also make them a lot of money. Indeed, a corporation that knowingly invests in a financially losing proposition, no matter its environmental attributes, can be sued by its shareholders. 


Writing in the New Yorker of April 20, 2020, Jerome Groopman, the Recanati Professor of Immunology at Harvard Medical School and a leading cancer and AIDS researcher, describes how, unlike drugs, medical implants are not required to be tested in clinical trials before being approved by the FDA.  Citing the work of David Schneider (The Invention of Surgery) and Jeanne Lenzeer (The Danger Within) he writes, “The medical-device industry has manipulated the societal need for clinical innovation in order to prematurely market products of unproven safety and benefit…  The root of the problem, of course, is money.  In medicine, progress is driven by innovation and, inner society, innovation is driven by profit.”  The implantable-device industry is very lucrative, with operating margins of 25 per cent or higher and an over-all estimated revenue of 136 billion dollars in 2014, some of which was used to finance a powerful lobby in Washington.  Accordingly the courts and legislation have made regulatory oversight mostly expedient if not perfunctory. 


The economist Jeffrey Sachs has focused on the impacts of tropical diseases.  Malaria, for example,  keeps countries poor, and because they are poor the potential market for a vaccine in not sufficiently valuable to warrant drug companies making the huge investment in research that is necessary.  Meanwhile an estimated 219 million people suffered from the disease in 2017 and about 435,000 died. More than 90 percent of the deaths were in Africa (that is almost the same number as those who have died, globally, from covid-19 as of late June)  and over 60 percent were among children under 5.   How would this scenario be different if those 260 000 annual infant deaths were in the more developed world?  Profit trumps humanity. Much of the research that is being done, and the coordination thereof,  is funded largely by private enterprises such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made the eradication of the disease one of its top priorities.  


 In terms of farming practices, a vital recent development is the concept of regenerative agriculture.  Note, not sustainable agriculture, which by definition means sustaining our current level of disfunction which we know has no long term future; rather regenerating the quality and values of responsible agriculture by starting with the quality of the soil in which most everything is grown. In this sense, what Tom Seeley describes as Darwinian Beekeeping could equally be labelled Regenerative Beekeeping, in that it rejuvenates our concept of honey bee societies and the management thereof based on processes that the bees have evolved over millions of years, rather than what our culture has imposed on them over five thousand years. Both of these scientifically based proposals are meeting resistance from those locked in older cultural norms. 


The second example involves the debate about the use of mechanical drones for pollination, which presumably will allow us to sit back with a clear conscience and watch our pollinating insects go into extinction.  We know that trees are arguably the greatest antidote to climate change.  Without the bees and bats and butterflies, who, pray tell, is going to pollinate the 3 trillion trees world wide (that is 422 trees for each person on this planet) that are not wind pollinated?  These trees cover about 30 percent of the planets surface and are our largest bank for carbon storage - an estimated 45 per cent of the total.  We are already cutting them down at the rate of some 15 billion a year, with the highest losses in the tropics where some of the oldest and biggest trees live.  


If we don’t care about the pollinators in our gardens, the creators and sustainers of life,  how can we possibly care about the bigger issues beyond our immediate experience?


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my