The following is an excerpt from: Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1987). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Boston, MA, US: New Science Library/Shambhala Publications. pp 997-999 Altruism and Selfishness A study of the ontogenic couplings between organisms and an assessment of their great universality and variety point to a… Read More
The Tree of Knowledge, by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, is a landmark attempt to integrate biology, cognition, and epistemology into a single science, reversing the dualism of fact and value, and of observer and observed, that has haunted the West since the seventeenth century. The authors see perception as a reciprocal and interacting phenomenon, a “dance of congruity” that takes place between a living entity and its environment. This, they argue, implies a relativity of worldviews (there are no certainties), as well as the existence of a biology of cooperation going back millions of years. Recognition of a lack of absolutes, and of the nature of perception itself, they assert, make it possible for us today to change things for the better, as a deliberate and conscious act. What is overlooked in this discussion, however, are the origins and nature of conflict. By being pointedly apolitical, the authors wind up implying that one worldview is as good as the next. Cognitively speaking, the substitution of Buddhism for politics is a serious error, leaving, as it does, too many crucial questions unanswered. It is thus doubtful whether the biological argument being advanced here can stand up to serious scrutiny, and whether the dualism of modern science has indeed been overcome. Yet The Tree of Knowledge remains an important milestone in our current efforts to recognize that science is not value-free, and that fact and value are inevitably tied together. We are finally going to have to create a science that does not split the two apart, and that puts the human being back into the world as an involved participant, not as an alienated observer.
This article is Maturana’s response to Morris Berman’s review of The Tree of Knowledge by Maturana and Varela. Maturana claims that Berman partially misunderstood the book and explains that, far from advocating passivity in the face of evil, the book asks that we act out of responsible, personally chosen love, instead of from the belief that we hold a better “truth.” In the case of Chile, this would mean opposing Pinochet for personal and cultural reasons rather than alleged biological principles of viability. Nothing is gained by attempting to defeat tyrants with the tyranny of our own imposed, alternative truth.