Can we make things gooder?

Suddenly one of my colleagues asked – “Can we make things gooder?”

She was parodying our academic obsession with grammar, but also making the serious point that we weren’t just here to manage smoothly; we had a responsibility to make improvements.

Most administration is routine. Some involves trying to prevent things from getting worse, but sometimes things can be made better.

When I was first learning biology, I was taught how Lamarckian inheritance could make things better. Imagine giraffes striving to reach the highest leaves, and stretching their necks. Lamarck suggested that this endowed their offspring with longer necks, enabling them to graze on the tallest trees, and prosper. Efforts were being rewarded.

But with the advent of Darwinism came the crushing realisation that all efforts are worthless in terms of driving evolution. What actually happened was that neck length varied as a result of random mutation, and in each generation the shorter giraffes starved, leaving fewer offspring. Whereas the giraffes that just happened to have mutations giving them slightly longer necks, thrived.

This nihilistic and heartless philosophy reminds us that actions, efforts, intentions just don’t matter when it comes to evolution. It’s a game of chance mutation. One might conclude that God does play dice with the living universe.

This is a harsh lesson and over the years I have seen repeated attempts to crowbar aspects of Lamarckian inheritance into classical genetics and evolutionary thinking, often via invoking ‘transgenerational epigenetic inheritance’. But in scientific terms there is limited evidence for experiences translating to epigenetic marks on DNA, and being transferred across generations in humans.

Happily, however, in terms of cultural evolution, of learning, of building on foundations of knowledge, of law, of custom, Lamarckian inheritance is everywhere. Past intellectual efforts endure and are rewarded.

Giraffes’ necks don’t become longer through effort; but the learnings of individuals, the sum total of human knowledge, and our ability to access that knowledge, can keep increasing. If done properly, this does enhance human capability and prosperity, generation after generation.

The trick is to maintain our commitment to the value of learning. Even when times get tough.

We are at a time in history (or perhaps it always feels like this) where there is uncertainty and a lack of shared purpose. Democracy seems fragile in the US, there are bloody wars on Europe’s borders, and tensions within the realms of the East. Climate change threatens the biosphere, and the rise of Artificial Intelligence strikes at the very core of what it means to be human. Globalisation and the plurality of religions, polarised political beliefs and firmly held identities, as well as gifting us diversity, can also drive division and fear, which is exploited by some seeking power. On top of all this, the internet’s virtual world appears to work for some but not all our young people.

A time of crisis also characterises Asimov’s early Foundation novels. Accordingly, humanity is tasked with collecting and storing human knowledge in the Encyclopaedia Galactica, a bulwark against any future dark ages, but also a way of uniting citizens around a common purpose.

A core human aspiration is that we should be ‘sapiens’ – wise. Our distinctive quality is the search for and the sharing of knowledge. In Australia a highly sophisticated education system has emerged, and now is the time to unite to make it better.

Our country treasures education. Indigenous people value their knowledge, and each wave of new arrivals focusses intently on the education of their children. Both sides of politics are committed to the idea that no one should be cut out from this system, and each year the educational sector grows.

The current Universities Accord process is evidence that education is a priority in Australia. The Australian Higher Education Commission – if it is set up properly – can help strategic growth in education, not only for productivity, for skilled migration, and for security, but also because if we focus on a culture of ideas, we automatically play the ball and not the ‘man’ (or woman).

Enabling education for all will enable Australia to enjoy an inclusive society, and investing in research will boost our prosperity and provide sovereign capability.

We cannot rely on ad hoc intermittent schemes to establish a culture of innovation so the idea of dedicating a set proportion of our GDP (e.g. 3%) to research to ensure the stability of a vibrant university sector is the big answer in the Accord that will set Australia up for the future.

If we can get solid policy outcomes and if we all – including our domestic and international graduates – keep valuing knowledge and education, then we will, indeed, make things gooder.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality and Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research & Enterprise at UNSW



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