Learning in Island Ecologies: Aina Pomar, Andrea Ragno, Andrew Dobson, Anna Mikkola, Ashley Lewis, Cameron Alexander, Chris Fussner, Himanshu Halve, Jacob Meher, Jasmine Grace Wenzel, Mariah Reodica, Marie Klinger, Marjolijn Kok, Sindi-Leigh McBride, Richard Hames PDF
The coronavirus pandemic has assigned a new meaning to isolation. It can have many meanings and it has had different meanings in the past. The 14-day ‘quarantine’ for the current pandemic is different from the original 40 days (hence the name) of keeping ships away from the docks to kill any rodents carrying the plague. The Island Ecologies (IE) project was able to put together concepts such as scientific modelling, archipelagic thinking, and socio-cultural developments in the context of isolated learning. In this article, I want to focus on one very particular interpretation of an island and therefore that of isolation. This is to think of the isolation we as a species face, in the production of knowledge, on the biggest ‘island’ we know of – the Earth.
It is interesting to think about how human beings have evolved while staying on a planet. Our endeavours to produce knowledge about the world around us have been remarkable in the sense that we have largely been on our own. This could, arguably, be an instance of archipelagic thinking. It might seem at odds with the commonly accepted notion, but I want to add another perspective to it. That is, to think of the world as an island. In the context of producing scientific knowledge, at least, this first type of isolation is a plausible idea.
Of course, scientists produce knowledge within their communities and are geographically separated as well. This is a more common instance of archipelagic thinking; the second type of isolation. The methods of investigation that a scientist or a community of such scientists rely on in trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe are largely limited to the normative practices that are specific to those communities. Many times, in history, communities of scientists were seen as operating in a type of methodical isolation. The production of knowledge this way is of special importance to science.
But they are still trying to find a common truth about the world out there. The idea that we are a species on one very small planet, in one of the solar systems, in one of the galaxies of this vast universe trying to know the universe is both enthralling and unsettling. It implies that our knowledge systems depend on this perception we have of our place in the universe. The realisation that we are (so far) alone in this universe trying to figure out its rules is bound to affect the way we produce knowledge. This is evident in the attitude many scientists have towards their work. Thus, both types of isolation affect the production of knowledge in science and they often overlap.
To compare it with a more obvious example of learning on an island, I would like to draw a parallel between the ideas above and William Golding’s famous novel the Lord of the Flies. This is an interesting comparison for two reasons. Firstly, when speaking of islands and learning within island ecologies, it is hard to miss the importance of the novel. I would recommend it to any reader who hasn’t come across it. That said, my very short summary doesn’t hope to give a complete overview of the novel. I just wish to juxtapose some ideas that, hopefully, the reader will appreciate.
Lord of the Flies is about a group of preteens getting stranded on an island where there is no human habitation. The age of the boys is crucial as most of them are children only starting to learn new things. This sets the plot for a story where the kids explore nature, culture, power, and civilisation form the limitations of an island. Golding creates a setting where he gets to play with a ‘toy-model’ of civilisation and it is one of the strongest ideas to take away from the book. By organising themselves, more or less like a civilisation, the boys learn to establish a system to survive and communicate. The spectrum of human endeavours invested not only in surviving but also in understanding the world around us can be seen in a rather rudimentary form. From the very intellectual and emotional characters like Ralph and Piggy to the very rash and aggressive ones Jack: an array of human nature is on display, and everyone has a role to play. One of the central themes of the novel is the struggle between anarchy and organisation. The tiff between Ralph and Jack shows how their efforts to seek organisation often collapses into anarchy.
In a sense, this is also true for scientists and scientific knowledge. Classification and systematization of information have been core features of modern science. The problem arises when even systematic pursuit of knowledge fails to give the answers we need. Physicist Max Planck, in his book The Philosophy of Physics, speaks about a guiding principle required to systematise or put an order to the knowledge we produce. This guiding principle he fears is not easy to discover and many times the production of scientific knowledge has to go on without actually knowing this principle. He also seems to imply that the guiding principle can only be known in retrospect. Scientists are tasked with describing and explaining the world and the universe. However, it is not always clear what should be the way to do that. Furthermore, philosopher Paul Feyerabend is famous for his view that there really is no general method or guiding principle in science. His doctrine suggests that science is an anarchist enterprise. Despite that, scientists often strive for an organisation. Hence, the struggle between a systematic pursuit and an anarchist one is evident, especially in modern physics. Now, in his novel, Golding seems to suggest that there is no end to such a struggle unless we reach a higher truth. In the book, the boys end up destroying everything until a British Naval officer shows up, at which point everything is rendered meaningless. Could this be true for modern science, as well?
Another interesting incidence in the Lord of the Flies is about an apparent ghost that lives on the island. This ghost is representative of the unknown things in the world that inspire fear in us. The boys fear what they think is the ghost. Then, one of the boys, perhaps delusional due to the circumstances, starts speaking to the head of a pig that the boys have hunted down. The head stands hoisted on a stick and is covered by flies. The head tells the kid that it is the lord of the flies and that there is no ghost on the island. Instead, it says that the ghost is inside the boys. This event in the story is important for many reasons. The idea that the ghost is inside the boys, that their fears all reside within them is very profound. This is perhaps the biggest take away from Golding’s work; it justifies the title. The fear of (or rather the tension caused by) the unknown plays a pivotal role in the survival of the boys. It affects both Ralph and Jack, the personifications of rationalism and radicalism, respectively. In the end, Piggy (who personifies order and knowledge) dies in a fight between Ralph and Jack and neither one wins.
We as humans, may not fear the unknown so to say, but our quest for knowledge is ultimately rooted in knowing the unknown. And scientists are at the top of this quest. Even today when so much is known about the world and the universe, puzzles such as dark matter, time travel, life after death etc. remained unsolved. All the methods and philosophies that the scientists employ are affected by these unknown ‘ghosts’ in our world. Moreover, the longstanding debate in science is whether the limitations of our knowledge are our own or are there things that cannot be known in principle?
These ideas demand a fuller exploration. Here, I am merely stating them. Juxtaposing the history of science with the Lord of the Flies (or another work that has similar reflections) could be very insightful. Of course, that is work for another day. I am glad that the IE project allowed me to think along these lines. One thing that, I hope, comes through this article though, is that studying developments (intellectual or otherwise) in different forms of isolation can tell us a lot about how we function as intelligent beings. Moreover, when it comes to knowledge, apart from the more tangible geographical isolation, we also experience intellectual isolation. Contrary to the popular belief then, scientific knowledge may not be as universal as we think it is. Scientists often work on their intellectual archipelagos and as their knowledge meets the rest of the world, they expand their islands in hope of perhaps a higher truth. Golding also tells us that at some point the island merges with the rest of the world, in a figurative sense. The boys on the island meet the Naval officer, that is their attainment of higher truth - a higher reality. On every level, the ‘island’ comes with its own sense of isolation. With time we evolve to take the larger definition of an island; perhaps this continues forever. There are islands that are parts of larger islands and every time, in our quest for knowledge, we must move from one sense of isolation to another.