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Book ‘Darwin’s combination lock’ gives us hope

Former dean and physicist Frans Saris writes in his new book ‘Darwin’s combination lock’ how our culture enabled us to dominate nature and about the corresponding responsibilities. Together with Joris Berkhout he will talk about his book during the This Week’s Discoveries on 27 February.

We are our culture

‘We are not our brain, nor our selfish genes; we are our culture’, says Saris in the beginning of his book. He states the importance of our bio-cultural evolution, which is much faster than the genetic evolution. This rapid evolution, Saris writes, enabled us to dominate nature. And with that power comes a certain responsibility: ‘We are capable of destroying all life on Earth, but it is our responsibility not to do so’, Saris says. Luckily, he outlines a bright future. ‘I strongly believe that we won’t let ourselves be dominated by capitalism. I have good hope that the problems that I describe in this book will be solved.’   

Solving the energy problem

Saris describes three problems in his book: energy and climate, bio-diversity and food, and peace and security. The solution for the energy problem seems to be within reach. ‘Solar energy is cheap and we can produce enough of it. But the problem is: how do we get this energy at the right place at the right time? Interestingly, with the oil and gas pipelines across the world we already have the right infrastructure to do this. By converting solar energy into synthetic fuels, we can distribute renewable energy around the world’, Saris explains. ‘Although the big oil companies wouldn’t agree with that, but I’m convinced that as a society we will do something about that.’

Darwin’s Theory of Everything

What strikes is that Saris also refers to Darwin and his evolution theory in some of his previous books. ‘I’m a physicist and the holy grail of physics is the Theory of Everything, so one formula or a set of formulas that explains everything. Einstein spent his whole life trying to find this formula and people like Robbert Dijkgraaf and Carlo Beenakker are still trying it. But I think they won’t succeed, and the funny thing is: for me this theory already exists. Namely the evolution theory of Darwin. It’s not about what everything is made of, but about how it works. And the theory of Darwin explains that: according to natural selection.’

Three-dimensional scientists

You might think, how does a physicist obtain knowledge this broad? The answer is simple: by a lot of reading. Saris: ‘As a scientist I have always been interested in humanities and social sciences. I think it’s important not to be just one-dimensional, as a scientist, but more importantly as a human being. The harmony between different disciplines is important. I always read a novel before I go to sleep, because otherwise I keep on brooding on all sorts of difficult issues in physics. That’s how I got my knowledge of our culture.’