March 3, 2010
Just the other day I was speaking to a friend about who we really were i.e. what defines ‘us’, what is real about ‘us’, what makes ‘us’ us… And after we’d finished discussing The Grand Delusion Of Self, he decided that it was our body that defined us.
So came into question the time period with which our cells replenish and replace themselves. I had no idea about the exact facts or figures, but I had heard that every cell in the body replaces itself at least once every seven years. But… As hearsay is nothing more than scuttlebutt at the best of times, I decided to research this topic further. And thus I came across the following article in the New Scientist which decidedly covers the issue with a thoroughness that left me without any doubt that… Even though our bodies appear to be a solid structure of form and function that remain true, albeit age, for the rest of our life, they are certainly not as defining an aspect of ourselves as some of us would like think!? Why? Well… Even though I’ve been alive for 33 years here on Earth, my body is – on average – only 15 years old.
When we are presented with such undefinable aspects about the notion of our “self,” doesn’t it seem that we are sometimes overly prone to worrying about something which really not not exist? I mean, fair enough we have a need to survive and avoid certain death, for we are carrying the torch of Life for future generations; as an olympian carries the flame from mount Olympus to start the games with. But to obsess about ourselves; to worry about ourselves beyond reason… Well isn’t it missing the point of Life? Aren’t we really worrying about nothing? After all, we are nothing more than a collection of schemas/memes – ideas that originate from other people – that loosely add onto this framework of a body via the brain’s structure and ability; a body which is built from the star dust of ancient suns long extinguished, working on principles of chaos, weaving unpredictability into modes of ‘apparent’ understanding… An understanding that modifies itself all the time – via our constant study – into ever cosier comprehensions about the nature of reality and the beauty that guides it.
I mean, isn’t this uncertainty simply wonderful? For the first time it truly frees us from the confines of our own predefined humanity. It allows us to see that even WE – the predesignated arrangement of atoms that makes up our body, giving us substance in this world – are an uncertainty. I know this experience we are having seems pretty real i.e. I am really aware of the keyboard as my fingers type these words out on the keys in patterns of “QWERTY” order, and I can even interrelate these present experiences with past ones, and even calculate with a fairly accurate estimation about the chances of what might happen in the immediate future if I was to perform certain actions – like what would happen if I was to drive my bike at twenty miles per hour into the lake in the park… I’d go “SPLOSH!” and get rather wet, while ducks quack and fly off in many directions. BUT… Despite these amazing feats of organic supercomputing, our bodies and our memories are ever changing and ever shifting like the dunes of a desert. We’re just not really aware of them changing…
Perhaps this is something we should all bear in mind… That, while we might feel solid and certain at many points in our lives, ‘WE’ really are as fickle as the dunes of the Sahara. As Nisargadatta Maharaj once said, “When you have seen the dream as a dream, you have done all that needs to be done.”
Here’s a question: how old are you? Think carefully before you reply. It’s a lot trickier than you might imagine. The correct answer, it turns out, is about 15 and a half. According to recent research, that’s the average age of your body – your muscles and guts, anyway. You might think that you have been around since the day you were born, but most of your body is a lot younger.
That may come as no surprise. It’s a common belief that the human body completely renews itself every seven years, and though biologists would hesitate to put a firm figure on it most are happy to accept that cells eventually wear out and are replaced. In some tissues – skin and blood – we know how long it takes, for example from seeing how long transfused blood cells last. Surprisingly, however, we have no idea how often most cell types are replaced, if indeed they are replaced at all. Until a few months ago it was impossible to tell. Experiments on mice had hinted that some cells are replaced more often than others, but no one was sure how relevant the findings were to humans.
Now neurologist Jonas Frisén of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, has invented an ingenious technique for determining the age of adult cells. He and others are using the technique to answer questions that have intrigued scientists and laypeople for decades: does cell turnover mean that you eventually renew your entire body? If so, how many bodies do you go through in a lifetime? If you live to a ripe old age, is there anything left of the original “you”? There’s more to it than curiosity value, though. The rate of cell turnover is a hot question in neuroscience and regenerative medicine, and may provide the key to treating numerous diseases and managing the effects of ageing.
Questions about the rates of cell renewal first arose about 100 years ago, when scientists discovered that most of our neurons are formed during fetal development and persist for life. Ever since, people have been wondering if the brain’s cerebral cortex – the seat of executive functions such as attention and decision-making – ever makes new cells. In the 1960s neurologists discovered that rodents and cats may make new neurons. Then in 1999 a study in Science caused great excitement with the claim that new growth had been found in the cerebral cortex of monkeys. Despite numerous attempts, however, the results have never been repeated.
Information about the lifespan of cells has historically come from experiments on rats and mice. The method involves giving the animals radioactive nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, either in their food or by injection. The assumption is that if cell turnover is going on, new cells will incorporate labelled nucleotides into their DNA. Post-mortem tests can later reveal how much tagged DNA there is in various tissues and hence what proportion of cells were born during the animal’s exposure to the nucleotides. These experiments undoubtedly tell us about cell turnover rates in rodents but it is unclear whether the results can be extrapolated to humans. Because humans live for decades rather than months, we might have a greater need to replace our cells.
Feeding radioactive genetic material to humans, however, is clearly not on. Some researchers have attempted to date cells by other means such as measuring the lengths of telomeres, the DNA stubs on the end of chromosomes that shorten each time a cell divides. But no one has ever been able to develop a reliable method for reading age from telomere length. What’s worse, says Frisén, “some cells, such as stem cells, appear to be able to lengthen their telomeres, which would be a problem when trying to assess the cell’s age, especially in the brain”.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Frisén decided there had to be another way. “My train of thought ran to the ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls, which were carbon-dated, and I wondered if there was a way we could use that,” he says.
Carbon dating relies on measuring the amount of carbon-14 in a sample of organic matter. Carbon-14, a rare and weakly radioactive isotope of carbon, is continually produced in the atmosphere when neutrons generated by cosmic rays smash into nitrogen nuclei, stripping out a proton. Carbon-14 eventually decays back to nitrogen, with a half-life of 5730 years. But before it decays, carbon-14 can be taken up by plants during photosynthesis and converted into sugars. Animals eat the plants, and in this way all living things contain small amounts of carbon-14 – about 1 in a trillion carbon atoms in your body are carbon-14 rather than carbon-12. At death, however, the organism stops taking in carbon-14, and what it already contains eventually decays away.
That slow decay is what makes carbon dating of archaeological samples possible. By measuring the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in something that was once alive you can estimate when it died – up to 60,000 years ago, after which carbon-14 levels have fallen too much to be useful.
Slow decay, however, also makes the method fairly imprecise. An archaeological radiocarbon date is accurate only to between 30 and 100 years, depending on the age of the sample – fine for ancient Egyptian artefacts but useless for dating cells in a human body.
Frisén’s eureka moment arrived when he realised he could use carbon-14 in a different way thanks to a unique episode in recent history – the cold war arms race. Between 1955 and 1963, above-ground nuclear weapons tests loaded masses of carbon-14 into the atmosphere. At the peak of such tests in 1963, atmospheric levels of carbon-14 reached twice the normal background level (see Diagram below). This “bomb spike” was accurately recorded at locations all over the world, creating a unique window of opportunity that Frisén is now exploiting.
He reasoned that while most molecules in a cell are in a constant state of flux, DNA is very stable: when a cell is born it gets a set of chromosomes that stay with it throughout its life. Therefore the level of carbon-14 in a living cell’s DNA is directly proportional to the level in the atmosphere at the time it was born, minus a tiny amount lost to radioactive decay. Before 1955 that level was always roughly the same. But during the bomb spike, atmospheric levels rose and then fell again – and so did carbon-14 levels in cells’ DNA. What that meant, Frisén realised, is that he could take cells born after 1955, measure the proportion of carbon-14 in their DNA and then consult the bomb spike curve to obtain an estimate of their date of birth.
If Frisén was right, for the first time scientists would be able to work out the average age of cells in different parts of the body and, he hoped, finally settle the question of whether the brain makes new nerve cells.
Before he could start, Frisén needed to know how long the window of opportunity was open for. Ever since the 1963 partial test ban treaty, carbon-14 in the atmosphere has been declining steadily, halving every 11 years as it is absorbed by the oceans and biosphere. Even so, Frisén found that any cell born between 1955 and 1990 would contain enough extra carbon-14 in its DNA to give a reliable date, give or take a year or so.
Last year Frisén and his team reported preliminary tests on a few body tissues taken from cadavers of people who had been alive during the bomb spike (Cell, vol 122, p 133). They revealed for the first time how many different ages one human body can be.
The body’s front-line cells endure the roughest life, last the briefest time and are constantly replaced – these include the epithelial cells lining the gut (five days), the epidermal cells covering the skin’s surface (two weeks) and red blood cells (120 days).
Cells Frisén analysed from the rib muscles of people in their late 30s had an average age of 15.1 years, a similar lifespan to cells making up the body of the gut, which he found were around 15.9 years old on average. It seems our bodies are indeed in a constant state of breakdown and renewal – even the entire skeleton is replaced every few years, he says.
Exciting though these forays into uncharted territory were, Frisén was eager to get on with his original quest, working out the age of the cells in the brain. “I am a neurologist and that is where my love lies,” he explains.
“Of course I want to know how often our body cells are replaced – we will do it little by little, and I hope that experts in all those areas take on the research and help us. But I want to explore the areas of the brain and discover whether we generate new brain cells throughout our adult lives.”
The standard view from animal studies – and one man who agreed to have labelled nucleotides injected into his brain as he was dying from cancer – is that once the brain is formed, no new neurons are generated except in two areas: the hippocampus and a region around the ventricles.
Frisén first applied his new method to cells taken from the visual cortex. Here, as expected, the neurons turned out to be the same age as the person they came from – perhaps because they need to be wired up in a very stable way so that each time an object or colour is viewed it is perceived in the same way as before, he speculates. Cells in the cerebellum, which is involved in coordinating movement, turned out to be about 2.9 years younger on average than the person, which is consistent with the idea that this region continues to develop during infancy.
“We’ve now mapped the rest of the cortex and are well on our way with the hippocampus,” says Frisén. “So far, it doesn’t look like there are any new cells being formed in the cortex – they’re as old as you are. But some regions of the hippocampus are exciting – absolutely there’s neurogenesis.”
Frisén isn’t just motivated by curiosity. He hopes that by uncovering the secrets of cell turnover in the brain, he can help shed light on diseases including depression and Alzheimer’s. In 2004, a team led by Rene Hen at Columbia University in New York demonstrated that mice appeared to become depressed if hippocampal stem cells were not making enough new neurons, and that drugs such as Prozac work by stimulating neurogenesis: when the team inhibited neurogenesis, the antidepressants stopped working (Science, vol 301, p 805).
Alzheimer’s, too, has been associated with a lack of neurogenesis in the hippocampus, and other brain disorders, including Parkinson’s, are linked to cell death not being balanced by adequate cell creation. Frisén’s group is now studying cell turnover in people with neurodegenerative diseases.
The brain is not the only organ where information on cell turnover may provide clues to treating disease. Knowing how frequently healthy people produce new fat cells, for example, could help treat obesity: at the moment nobody knows whether obesity is the result of having enlarged fat cells or a greater number of them. Similarly, understanding the normal turnover of liver cells – which animal studies suggest have a lifespan of 300 to 500 days – could help physicians spot abnormalities such as cancer. And understanding the cell turnover rates in the pancreas could eventually help us to manipulate the organ’s lifespan with a view to treating diabetes.
There are other possibilities too. Experts believe heart muscle cells are not renewed when they die, leaving gaps that are filled with fibrotic material, resulting in a gradual loss of cardiac function as we get older. But no one knows for sure. Frisén’s group has just started preparing some heart tissue for analysis to see whether heart muscle cells are ever renewed.
Meanwhile, a group at the University of California, Davis, led by Krishnan Nambiar, is using Frisén’s method to investigate the lens of the eye. Cells in the transparent inner part of the lens form five weeks into embryonic life and stay with you for life. New cells are generated from the periphery, where they build up and make the lens thicker and less flexible with age, sometimes leading to cataracts. “If we could learn more about the turnover of cells in the lens, we could perhaps learn how to delay the onset of cataracts for five years and make tremendous savings in the health budget,” explains Bruce Buchholz at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who uses atomic mass spectrometry to carry out the carbon-14 analysis of Nambiar and Frisén’s samples.
It is clear, then, that a large proportion of your body is significantly younger than you are, and that raises a paradox. If your skin, for example, is so young, why don’t you retain a smooth complexion even into old age? Why can’t a 60-year-old woman, with her youthful muscle cells, flick-flack across the floor with the acrobatic agility of a 10-year-old girl?
The answer lies with mitochondrial DNA. This accumulates mutations at a faster rate than DNA in the nucleus. As soon as you are born, your mitochondria start taking hits – and there is nothing much you can do about it. So while your cells may be only a third as old as you are, the snag is that your mitochondria are the same age. In skin, for instance, mitochondrial mutations are thought to be responsible for the gradual loss in the quality of collagen, the skin’s scaffolding, which is why skin loses its shape and forms wrinkles.
There is good news, however. If we ever find ways to protect or repair mitochondrial DNA – and there are many ideas for how to do so – the discovery that most of our cells are younger than we are means that we could significantly delay ageing. Perhaps in the future people really will struggle to answer the question “How old are you?”
written by Gaia Vince
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February 19, 2010
I read this New Scientist article the other day… And it kind of summed up everything I’ve been thinking about over the last two years i.e. mankind, Life and the Universe. I had never heard of Jeremy Rifkin till now but, having read this article, I have just bought his book, entitled “The Empathic Civilization,” off Amazon.
No doubt, as many of you may have already noticed, the purpose of this blog is to develop a modification about the way we understand ourselves in the context of Life, the Universe and patterns… With the ultimate purpose being to free us from the old memetic drives of needless religious indoctrination, blind base animal instincts, and psychological control that feeds-back through the media into modes of normalisation, so that we might ultimately find the notion of what we have sought throughout history to ascribe as “God,” and thus replace it with a more healthy Spinozist view of “God, or Nature…” Once there, we can truly accept responsibility for our actions, become more compassionate so that we may open our minds and hearts to one another with honesty and truth, and thereby see the patterns of natural discourse that ripple through the cosmic chaos in ordered and structured flows of symmetrical design. From this we will be able to posit a new light in our minds about “why” we are here… A light that will change the structure of our grey matter for the better allowing us greater chances of survival.
If we make it that far, it will be like a shedding of old, dry and tight skin – just as snake sheds their old skin in order to grow – allowing us more flexible movement into new ways of being, so that we can tread more carefully into ecological habits that will develop into deeply connected modes of humanity, Life and Earth, leading us to the truth behind the Buddhist theory of “Interdependent Origination.”
Thus, I would advise anyone who might take this goal of understanding ourselves better in relation to the cosmos seriously, to buy this book and heed its astute and perceptive stance on humanity… Because this is bigger than climate change… This is a battle to redefine humanity!
In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin argues that before we can save ourselves from climate change we have to break a vicious circle and embrace a new model of society based on scientists’ new understanding of human nature. I asked him how we can do it.
What is the premise of The Empathic Civilization?
My sense is that we’re nearing an endgame for the modern age. I think we had two singular events in the last 18 months that signal the end. First, in July 2008 the price of oil hit $147/barrel. Food riots broke out in 30 countries, the price of basic items shot up and purchasing power plummeted. That was the earthquake; the market crash 60 days later was the aftershock. It signaled the beginning of the endgame of a great industrial era based on fossil fuels. The second event, in December 2009, was the breakdown in Copenhagen, when world leaders tried to deal with our entropy problem and failed.
That’s the context of the book. Why couldn’t our world leaders anticipate or respond to the global meltdown of the industrial revolution? And why can’t they deal with climate change when scientists have been telling us that it may be the greatest threat our species has ever faced?
What do you think the problem is?
My sense is that the failure runs very deep. The problem is that those leaders are using 18th century Enlightenment ideas to address 20th century challenges. I advise a number of heads of state in Europe and over and over again I see how these old ideas about human nature and the meaning of life continue to cloak public policy. The Enlightenment view is that human beings are rational, detached agents that pursue our own self-interests and our nation states reflect that view. How are we going to address the needs of 7 billion people and heal the biosphere if we really are dispassionate, disinterested agents pursuing our own self-interest?
A lot of interesting new discoveries in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, child development, anthropology and more suggest that human nature might not be what Enlightenment philosophers suggested. For instance, the discovery of mirror neurons suggests that we are not wired for autonomy or utility but for empathic distress; we are a social species.
If we begin to change our ideas about human nature and, as you say in the book, view history through an empathic lens, what new things do we discover?
We can see how consciousness, which is wired for empathy and social engagement, changes over history. Obviously consciousness has changed over history–a Paleolithic hunter is wired differently than a medieval serf or a modern human. My belief is that when energy and communications revolutions converge it creates new economic eras and changes consciousness dramatically by shifting our temporal and spatial boundaries, causing empathy to expand.
For instance, wherever there were hydraulic agricultural societies based on large-scale irrigation systems, humans independently created writing. That’s fascinating to me. Writing made it possible to manage a complex energy regime. It also changed consciousness–transforming the mythological consciousness of oral cultures into a theological one. In the process, empathy evolves. The range of oral communication is limited–you can’t extend empathy beyond kin and blood ties. With script you could empathize further with associational ties, you broaden your frame of reference.
In the 19th century the printing press communications revolution converged with new energies: coal and steam. This led to the introduction of public schools and mass literacy across Europe and America. Theological consciousness became ideological consciousness. The same shift occurred in the 20th century with the Second Industrial Revolution, the electronics revolution, which gave rise to psychological consciousness.
Each convergence of energy and communications technology changed our consciousness, extended our social networks and in turn expanded our empathy.
But all of that happens at the expense of the environment?
It’s the conundrum of history that these more complex civilizations that use greater energy flow-through allow us to bring more people together, but they create more entropy in the process. If we are going to ward off the extreme dangers posed by climate change we need to find a way to increase empathy while decreasing entropy. The question is, how do you do that? How do you break the paradox?
In the book you argue that we can break the paradox by shifting from geopolitical consciousness to biosphere consciousness.
We need to implement reglobalization from the bottom-up in order to achieve a more sustainable global economy. Geopolitics is an extension of the Enlightenment view of human nature, the idea that we pursue our utilitarian pleasures and individual self-interests. In geopolitics, the nation-state becomes a macro view of that. Nations deal with nations by being rational, detached and calculating, pursuing self-interests, excercising power and acquiring more capital and wealth. That’s why Copenhagen failed. The world leaders weren’t thinking biosphere, they were thinking geopolitics. Everyone was looking out for their nation’s self-interest.
What we need to do is attempt biosphere politics. Governing units are going to change–I think there’s going to be a shift toward continentalization. The EU is a first attempt at organizing a new frame of reference across continents, but it’s a transitional governing form. The Asian Union, African Union and South American Union are in their early stages.
The global economy didn’t work in its first stage. And that’s because the economics and the technology raced ahead of our changing consciousness. A global economy requires social trust; you need biosphere consciousness, not geopolitics. You’re never going to get globalization until empathy extends to the whole species.
As I said in the book, I think we need to rethink economic policies and make thermodynamics the basis of economic theory. The price of energy is embedded in every product we make. At the same time, the effects of climate change are already eroding economies in many parts of the world as extreme weather events destroy ecosystems and agricultural infrastructure. The Third Industrial Revolution will be driven in part by the need to mitigate the entropic impact of the first two industrial revolutions.
A lot of business people would say that you can’t be empathic in the market. But the market is a secondary institution–it’s an extension of culture. The real invisible hand of the market is trust, which is the result of empathic engagement. The only way you can have a market is if you have a shared narrative. The market is not a utilitarian frame of reference, it only exists by the social trust that allows people to engage in anonymous settings and believe that their engagements will be honored. When that trust fails, markets collapse and that’s what is happening now.
What will the Third Industrial Revolution look like? When will it happen?
I think we’re on the verge. I had the privilege to help design the European Union’s Third Industrial Revolution economic stability game plan, which was endorsed by the European Parliament in 2007. What we noticed is that in the last 10 or 15 years we’ve had a very powerful communication revolution with the internet, and the key word is that it’s distributed. What’s beginning to happen now is that the distributed ICT [information and communication technologies] revolution is beginning to converge with a new energy regime: distributed renewable energy. When they do converge, it’s likely to change consciousness once again.
Distributed ICT will organize distributed energies. Renewables like wind, solar, geothermal and biomass are found in some proportion everywhere, in people’s backyards. As people begin to harvest these renewable energies they can share electricity peer-to-peer across an internet-like smart energy grid that extends across nations and even continents. We see buildings as the new power plants. Buildings are the number one source of C02 emmissions, but they might also be the solution if they can harness renewables to produce their own energy on site. People will also need new energy storage technologies like hydrogen. The EU has committed 8 billion Euros to hydrogen storage technologies. Those technologies will give us dependable distributed energy.
I founded the Third Industrial Revolution Global CEO Business Roundtable, which is comprised of 100 leading companies from renewable energy to utilities to architectural firms. We’re starting to lay out plans.
How will the Third Industrial Revolution change our consciousness?
It extends it in a distributed fashion, with everyone taking responsibility for their swath of the biosphere and then sharing their energy across continents. We have to take responsibility where we are but we have to share across the world for it to work. That would allow us to think biosphere politics not geopolitics and extend empathy in that regard. That gives us a possibility of breaking the empathy/entropy paradox. Will we actually do it? If I were a betting person…well, I wouldn’t even want to make a bet. But it’s our best shot.
It’s a tough challenge. What I’m saying is so difficult. But what
encourages me is the empathy we are already seeing resulting from technology.
After the Iranian elections a young college student was gunned down in the street by an Iranian militiaman for protesting, and someone took a cell phone video. The world instantly empathized. Then there was the earthquake in Haiti. There was an immediate response. That’s new–we’re thinking as a human race. We still have our xenophobia and our prejudices but I think we’re catching a glimpse of something new, and we’re going to have to if the possibility of our own extinction depends on it.
I think the question hasn’t been asked yet, what is the point of this exercise in connecting the human race in this way? Up to now, most people’s reasons for supporting it is more information, quicker information, better entertainment, improved commerce and trade, etc. What I’m suggesting is that that is not enough. When Henry David Thoreau saw the telegraph, he said, “Well, now Maine can talk to Texas, but does Maine really have anything to say to Texas?” If we can’t have a global discussion of the transcendent purpose of this connectivity, I don’t think entertainment and information are going to be enough to justify the Third Industrial revolution. We have to think deeper, to think as a human family, to take responsibility for the biosphere and our fellow creatures.
If human nature is Homo empathicus, as scientists are suggesting, if that’s our true nature, then we can begin to create new institutions–parenting styles, education, business models–that reflect our core nature. Then I can see how this Third Industrial Revolution will happen.
Perhaps we are too cynical for these ideas. Do some people see an empathic global society as an idealistic dream?
If you know my past work you know I’m not utopian. But empathy isn’t about utopia. It’s about knowing how damn tough it is to be alive. We empathize with others because we smell the whiff of death in their vulnerabilities and so we celebrate their life. There’s no such thing as empathy in heaven because there’s no mortality, no suffering. Empathy is about encouraging another person’s struggle to be. It’s a tough feeling to have. In utopia there’s no struggle, there’s nothing to empathize with. Empathy is more than just, “I feel your pain”. We root for each other’s struggle to live out this mystery of life.
I was struck by the vast number of fields you explore in your book. Do you think there’s a need for more cross-disciplinary scholarship?
Absolutely. Education is a total mess. Our educational model is based on Enlightenment ideas and progressive ideas of the 20th century–if human nature is autonomous, calculating and self-interested and if the market is the way we fulfill those interests, our education reflects that. We are taught that knowledge is a personal asset to achieve one’s aims in the world–knowledge is power. If you share your knowledge, that’s cheating.
It limits us to a more vocational idea of what life is about. We all become little drones. And as we go through education it grows narrower and narrower. But what’s happening with the internet is that young folks are growing up believing that information is something you share, not hoard. That thinking is a collaborative exercise, not an autonomous one, and that spaces ought to be commons. That’s completely alien to the Enlightenment ideas I grew up on.
I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching. If you’re studying evolutionary biology, let a philosopher come in and talk about the way our concept of nature has changed over history. Allow young people to have so many frames of reference so they can be more open and more synthetic in their thinking. If we are a social animal and we live by our stories, then our stories are only made richer with more points of view.
Sharing knowledge is considered cheating, yet collaboration has been shown to improve critical thinking if it’s done in a disciplined way. There was a doctor at UCL medical college in the 1950s who realized that if he brought all of his interns to a patient’s bedside at the same time, the collaborative response got to a diagnosis quicker than if only one intern was there.
Education has to be completely reformed to reflect the new era of distributed knowledge. I’m currently in deep private discussions with some major educational associations in the US who want to put together a team of people to begin rethinking this.
We still don’t know how to grade people in a collaborative model. But if we’re moving from Homo sapien to Homo empathicus, we have to rethink all of this.
You’ve also said we need to rethink the scientific method.
The scientific method reflects Enlightenment thinking. You have to be detached, rational and value-free; you can’t be connected or use empathic imagination. But we’re seeing that you need both. If the scientific method is the way kids learn, how do they grow up to form an empathic connection to the world?
There are scientists who are practicing a different kind of science, a not-too-close, not-too-far empathic engagement. Jane Goodall is a great example. I told Jane, what you did was so amazing because it’s a new approach to science, and she said she had never thought about it that way. She began to empathize with the chimpanzees she was studying, imagining their experience as if it were her own. What she learned about chimpanzee behaviour was massively more than what people had previously learned by studying them in a completely detached way.
Goethe understood this a couple hundred years ago–he disagreed with Francis Bacon’s approach. He argued that we understand nature by participating, not by standing back and observing with dispassionate neutrality. Especially in the ecological sciences and climate science, you need to be engaged, interactive and interdisciplinary, because you’re dealing with systems thinking.
Empathic science is a good balance between the traditional scientific method on the one hand and something that wouldn’t be science at all on the other. Empathy requires that you not be too close or too far away. You have to be close enough to feel the experiences biologically as if they are your own but far enough to use your cognitive abilities to rationally respond.
I hope scholars will take these ideas much further. I’m hoping a younger generation can do that.
I found it interesting that you correlate the expansion of empathy throughout human history with a growing sense of self. I would naively think that they would have an inverse relationship.
Empathy goes hand-in-hand with selfhood; if you know you’re a self you can see yourself in relation to the other. People hear “empathy” and they think socialism or something–that’s completely missing the point. Increasing individuation and selfhood is critical to increasing empathy.
We are wired for empathic distress. If you put a bunch of babies in a nursery and one starts crying, the others start crying but they don’t know why. Real empathy – empathic expression–doesn’t occur until children develop a sense of self and recognize themselves as being separate from others; when they can recognize themselves in a mirror, for instance. When kids learn about birth and death they think, uh oh, now I know I have a history, I’m finite. Realizing their own vulnerability allows them to feel another’s vulnerability. The more advanced your selfhood, the more you can feel another’s fragility and empathize. Empathy is the invisible social glue that allows a complex individuated society to remain integrated.
You said that people hear “empathy” and think “socialism”. How does capitalism survive an empathic society?
Market capitalism will be transformed into “distributed capitalism”. Just as the internet led to the democratization of information, the Third Industrial Revolution will lead to the democratization of energy. The required changes to infrastructure are going to create massive amounts of jobs and a whole new economy. But when you have peer-to-peer sharing of energy across an intelligent grid system, you no longer have the top-down, centralized economic system. Distributed energy requires distributed capitalism, and that relies on the opposite view of human nature than that of market capitalism. But the politics isn’t right or left–its centralized, top-down versus collaborative commons. You don’t hear people say, I’m going onto a social networking space because I’m a socialist–it’s just a different frame of reference.
At over 600 pages, The Empathic Civilization is a long book! How long did it take you to write it?
I didn’t mean for it to be a long book, but my wife says the older I get, the longer my books get. It took over five years. I got so deep into the research; I read about 400 books and maybe 3,000 articles. The actual writing took about a year and a half. My wife has made me promise no more books!
by Amanda Gefter
About Jeremy Rifkin:
Jeremy Rifkin is an advisor to the European Union and heads of state around the world. He is a senior lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania where he instructs CEOs and corporate management on new trends in science, technology, the economy and society. He is the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C. His book The Empathic Civilization was published by Penguin in December 2009.
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