Lecture delivered at the Universitas Nusa Cendana in Kupang, Indonesia, on 10 October 2018, by Jan Visser, President, Learning Development Institute

Questions about who and what we are, where we come from, and where we are going have long fascinated human beings. They are perhaps the most profound questions we can ever ask. They are also questions to which we may never find definitive answers. This is exactly why they inspire both our art and science—our ways to come to grips with an only partially understood reality.

In art we express our deepest feelings and reflections on where we belong. In our scientific endeavor we seek to grasp where we stand amidst all that surrounds us. Earliest artistic expressions of this quest can be found in rock art that dates back tens of thousands of years. Science, as it evolved over thousands of years, has given us beautiful mathematical descriptions—such as Maxwell’s equations or Einstein’s field equations—to aid in contemplating our world.

It’s a pleasure to address an audience that understands physics. However, what I should like to discuss with you today surpasses the boundaries of our discipline. You may ask: Does physics have boundaries? I know—we physicists maintain that everything, even life itself, is ultimately physics. We can be forgiven to think that way as long as we look at the world from a reductionist point of view. However, we should not be forgiven if—despite the profound knowledge and deep insight we gather about the nature of things—we fail to recognize the larger picture of which things are part. Allow me to illustrate this with an example from my personal experience.

During the 1960s I had a strong interest in the question ‘What is life?’ The question was first brought into prominence, as a matter of serious scientific interest, in 1943 by Erwin Schrödinger, when he delivered a series of public lectures at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. A year later he published his thoughts in a book with that same title, while apologizing, eloquently, for deviating from the expectation that, as a scientist, one should “not…write on any topic of which…[one] is not a master.” He wanted to free himself of the obligation to stay within the norm while addressing this uncommon issue, trespassing in the domain of a different discipline.

This little book, of less than a hundred pages, had a profound, revolutionizing, impact, not in the least because it encouraged the participation of scientists from different disciplines in researching issues pertaining to the realm of the life sciences. Only a decade later the structure of DNA had been unraveled as—in a landmark publication in Nature—Watson and Crick suggested, based on X-ray crystallographic evidence gleaned from work by Franklin, that it should be double- helical. It motivated further work to be done to understand life from a molecular point of view. This, in turn, led to the development during the 1960s and beyond of a dynamic field of multidisciplinary research that brought biology, chemistry and physics together under one roof. Quantum biochemistry was born.

I was a young theoretical physicist at the time, inspired by the question originally raised by Schrödinger, and hopeful to reach greater wisdom and more profound insight in what life really is. I had the great privilege to be working in close proximity to some of the senior colleagues who were shaping the new field. It was fascinating. But did the study of molecular orbitals bring me any closer to a real understanding of life the way we, humans, experience it? Could we correctly assume that such work as my colleagues and I were involved in would eventually contribute to our knowledge of life itself? Few people I knew were troubled by that question. The one exception I am aware of was Christopher Longuet-Higgins, a theoretical chemist and a prominent as well as respected figure in the field.

I remember well reading, in the Spring of 1967, while working at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, a document written by Longuet-Higgins that, sadly, I have never been able to trace again. It is long ago now, but I believe that what I read was not an officially published paper, but rather something like an open letter to colleagues that went from hand to hand. It argued— convincingly to me—that our assumptions were naïve. The work we did would never reveal the fullness of life. I have occasionally asked colleagues from that same period if they recalled the article. The answer has always been ‘no.’ The paper must have been generally ignored; an accidental deviation from the norm by an otherwise brilliant scientist, one may have thought. I now read in the Wikipedia that in 1967, Longuet-Higgins “made a major change in his career,” turning his attention to the brain and artificial intelligence rather than the quantum chemistry of life. In retrospect I note that I made a similarly crucial move a year later.

My brief autobiographic interlude above, presented in the context of developments that took place over a couple of decades in one particular multidisciplinary branch of science, shows that important benefit can be derived from the collaboration between researchers from different disciplines who work on dissimilar aspects of a given problem, each from the perspective of their own discipline. While that is the case, not everyone is happy. Surely, we understand things more fully, but greater depth of understanding can be achieved. In fact, greater depth of understanding must be achieved for humanity to interact constructively with the ever more convoluted problem situations of our time.

Allow me to explain.

As we have seen, sharply enhanced insights into the riddle of life were obtained. We understand life much better.

However, our understanding of life is still restricted by what the methods and procedures that define our science allow us to explore. We have to step outside the boundaries of our discipline if we want to consider issues such as ‘the value of life’ or Albert Schweitzer’s ethical principle of ‘reverence for life.’ And it’s often exactly such considerations that matter most when it comes to confronting the vexing problems of our time. So, where do we really stand within the grand scheme of evolution of the universe and life on planet Earth?


The composite graphic shown above locates us in space-time. It may help us feel both happy and humble. Our conscious existence now is the result of evolutionary processes over billions of years on the crust of an ordinary planetary satellite, of an ordinary star, located in some insignificant corner of one particular galaxy among the more than 100 billion (1011) that are known to exist. It is unlikely that no other similarly (or more) complex life forms could have emerged elsewhere in the universe. Regarding the amazing fact of our own conscious existence on planet Earth, which for each of us lasts no longer than a brief period that can best be expressed in tens of years, we should consider that it required 13.82 billion years of evolution, starting with a singularity that we call the Big Bang, for us to appear. As said, it should make us feel happy, because we have this brief opportunity to consciously participate in the ongoing evolution. It should also make us feel humble, because it is so infinitesimally short.

In what I so far discussed, I have deliberately added the adjective ‘conscious’ to words such as existence and its derivatives. I have done so for a reason. We are not separate from nature. We are nature. As we see nature evolve we should also see us—the species ‘Homo sapiens’—co-evolve with everything else that evolves. According to the most recent findings, our species emerged, from earlier hominids, such as Homo heidelbergensis, more than 300,000 (3 x 105) years ago.

That’s of course an ephemeral event when looked upon against the backdrop of the 1.382 x 1010 years of evolution since the Big Bang. Yet, our impact has been enormous, particularly due to the agricultural revolution (dating back to circa 10,000 BCE) and more specifically since the industrial revolution (starting during the 18th century CE). Both developments have benefited us in the short run (short in evolutionary terms), but consequences may be disastrous from the longer-term perspective of human existence on earth.

What are some of those short-term benefits and long-term adverse consequences? Here are some examples. The list is far from exhaustive.

It is thanks to the agricultural revolution that members of our species could liberate time for doing other things than satisfying their basic needs to survive. Food could be produced in much greater quantities than what could have been obtained through hunting and gathering. After food storage technologies were invented, humans managed to cope with the stresses of food shortages over long periods of time. Freeing up time was an important precondition for cultural development. We owe to it the beauty of music, literature, the graphic and plastic arts, and the marvelous science-based insights into our world and ourselves.

The industrial revolution and the current technological revolution have further contributed to freeing up even more time and to changing conditions that determine how we live together. Without the latter revolution, the emancipation of women might not have happened to the extent that it has been successful so far. It has also made life much easier for most of us.

On the downside it should be noted that, as a consequence of the agricultural revolution, the human population on Earth ceased to be naturally kept in check in ways similar to what happens in the case of other animals. Moreover, agriculture, industrial practices and the possibilities offered through technological development, have led to attitudes of ‘taking it all.’ It is felt that everything we can do, we also must do. Consequently, we have increasingly started living in ways that are unhealthy for both our bodies and the environment.

Commercial interests promote a generalized sense that we should feel happy about the replacement of our physical and mental faculties by machines. As a result, many of us have foregone the pleasure of living in harmony with nature as determined by our biologically evolved features. ‘Assisted living by default’ has become the norm.

A much more elaborate and comprehensive analysis of benefits and adverse consequences of what we have done to our living conditions and ourselves would be justified if time were available to present it as part of this brief talk. But I hope you get the point.

Our actions since 12,000 years ago, but particularly and increasingly during the last two to three centuries, have made us our own enemies. In the face of extreme meteorological events and changing temperature patterns around the world we are being told that we must ‘fight climate change.’ Yes, me must, but, as I see it, the fight is in the first place against ourselves and our disastrous habits. Particularly, we must come to grips with our superior intelligence. It’s a great gift, but we seem to have seriously lagged behind in emotional development. A profound change in our entire ‘way of being in the world’ is imperative to guarantee that we can survive as a species under the conditions we have ourselves so carelessly made to evolve.

The title of my intervention mentions the term ‘Anthropocene.’ For those who are unfamiliar with it, here is a brief update. In Greek, the word ‘ἄνθρωπος’ (anthropos) stands for ‘man’ in the sense of ‘human being,’ including male and female members of our species. In May 2000, Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist and 1995 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, and the biologist Eugene Stoermer proposed the term ‘Anthropocene’—the era of man—to refer to the epoch in the history of our planet when humans started to have a significant impact on the Earth’s geological and ecological systems. They emphasized that “to develop a world-wide accepted strategy leading to sustainability of ecosystems against human induced stresses will be one of the great future tasks of mankind, requiring intensive research efforts and wise application of the knowledge thus acquired…” (p. 18).

Of course, it’s just a word, but its increased use in our daily conversations may hopefully keep reminding us that we live in a different world. It is a world in which there is a real threat that our species, the humans, will disappear and many other species with it. It is not impossible that we will see first signs that we are, irreversibly, on the way out in our lifetime or that of our children or grandchildren. The impending possibility of a Sixth Mass Extinction is being noted increasingly in the scientific literature. Our species may well be among those that go extinct.

Being reminded of the vulnerability of our species may sound like a call to pessimism, but it isn’t. The prospect of species extinction has always been there, and there is no reason why Homo sapiens would be excluded. But note that the past five extinctions have all occurred due to non-human causes, often a combination of different factors. The last one took place 65.5 million years ago. As long as there is still time, we should consider reversing the current trend.

We live in a world that is strikingly different from where we started, tens of thousands of years ago, when members of our species kept themselves alive through hunting and by gathering whatever they could find that was edible. Their (ecological) footprint was small and so was their number. We have now populated the Earth to an extent to which, when we see other animals do so, we find it is time to cull the population. I am not advocating any such deliberate violent means to control the size of the world’s human population. Yet, I should like to merely point to the fact that we have acquired knowledge about sexual reproduction and developed medical and technological innovations that allow us to regulate growth of the world population.

Not only the sheer size of our population, but also the ways in which we live (particularly by standards of the Western world), have dramatically increased our footprint on this planet. To change all that, new ways of being in the world, new ways of interacting with it, new ways of thinking within and about it, and thus new ways of learning must be invented and implemented. Not doing so will seriously threaten our sustained existence and dramatically change the biosphere or extinguish life on Earth altogether. Action at the individual, community, national/societal, and global level is needed to avoid this from happening.

Earlier, I referred to consciousness as an important attribute that characterizes our existence. We exist consciously. More than any other participant in the process of planetary evolution, we have an enhanced ability to be aware, cognitively and emotionally, of what we are doing; to foresee likely consequences; to learn from what we have seen happening in the past; to think about it; to imagine alternative scenario’s; and to correct our behavior while inventing new futures.

Not thinking deeply enough has allowed us to screw up the world. Going to greater depth in our thinking should allow us to fix the world as long as there is time left for things to be fixed. We should feel hard pressed. Periods as short as three years may already count.

It is precisely these ‘enhanced abilities’ of humans I just referred to that allow us to interact constructively with a changing world—a changing world to whose change we contribute ourselves, collectively and individually.

The highlighted words are important and I shall explain why.

There are certain concepts about which people usually don’t ask questions. The question ‘What is life?’ with which I started my intervention was such a question until it was raised by Schrödinger in 1943. We all knew we were alive and how it felt to be alive, but what exactly it was, well, that would have been hard to explain. Thanks to research since 1943 we now know a little better, but still don’t fully understand.

In addition to physics, an important—if not my most important—mission in life has been devoted to the development of human learning, of helping people to learn. Doing so is the task of teachers as well as parents, but, if you think about it, we are all continually playing a role in helping other people learn while, at the same time, we ourselves learn our entire life. But what is learning?

Just like the ‘What is life?’ question, also the ‘What is learning?’ question is seldom asked. It seems unnecessary. It is taken for granted that everyone knows what it means. Besides, if the question was asked, most people would find it difficult to come up with a concise and satisfying answer. Try it out at a party and you’ll see.

Should you ask the average person, you would probably get an answer like: “Well, why would you ask a silly question. Isn’t that what we all do in school? Don’t you know that.” When asked of a professional who studies learning or is involved in designing and creating the conditions for learning, the likely answer would be that it is about acquiring knowledge and skills. But is that all? Is that really what matters most, or is it simply what matters to those who teach or who administer education?

The question has long been on my mind, until I thought: ‘Let me find out.’ Starting in the year 2000 and continuing for several years, I used every appropriate opportunity to ask people some simple questions: ‘What is the most meaningful thing your learned in life?’ ‘Why do you consider it meaningful?’ ‘What prompted it and in what circumstances did it happen?’

Colleagues joined me and together we collected and analyzed over the years hundreds of so-called ‘learning stories’ that respondents had written down, expressed in drawings or poetry, or delivered orally to be recorded by the researcher. The stories were collected at different places around the world. They represented a diverse spectrum of people, including well-established academics as well as illiterate farmers living in the Andean mountains in South America.

Analysis showed that hardly any of the reported meaningful learning experiences had anything to do with what happened in schools and other formal learning environments. The most profound, most transformative, learning occurred in informal settings. That is a good thing. Transformative learning is a key condition for sustained human existence in the Anthropocene. It is therefore also a good thing that we spend most of our time in diverse informal learning environments. Yet, educators, education experts, administrators, and policy and decision makers hardly ever think about or recognize the importance of informal settings. Considering the challenges posed by the Anthropocene it is imperative that this should change.

But I digress, and do so intentionally, because the issue is so important that I can’t help bringing it up time and again.

Now, let me return to the research I was referring to. The results of it, in combination with what I had learned from my prior experience as an educator and developer of learning systems, compelled me to rethink the meaning of learning, redefine it, and figure out why it is so difficult to change people’s perceptions about it. This led to a definition of learning which highlights the following four things:

  • Getting better at constructive interaction with change is the essence of what it means to learn
  • Learning is a lifelong disposition rather than something one engages in only from time to time
  • The disposition referred to in the previous item does not only apply to individual people. Social entities (such as families, organizations, corporations, ) also learn and thus get better at interacting with change
  • Learning results from dialogue. It should be noted that we develop such dialogue along the lifespan with the human, social, biological and physical environment that surrounds us.

As said—and I repeat it here for enhanced emphasis—there is, as we face the challenges of the Anthropocene, an urgent need to indeed get better at how we interact constructively with a changing world. And, please, be aware that we contribute ourselves to that change. We thus must learn in the sense of my enhanced definition of learning. It requires that we all broaden our vision of learning, giving it a much richer meaning. This is as such a tremendous task. Changing one’s perceptions about such things as learning is difficult and may take a long time. It may even take generations, but it must be done, however difficult it may be.

A key issue regarding life in the Anthropocene is that we must be fully aware of its complexity and thus be capable of dealing with complexity. Life is not complex simply because it is complicated or difficult. Surely, it is also complicated and difficult, but the more important issue is that the essential problems of life in the Anthropocene cannot be addressed in isolation from their context. Any attempted ‘solution’ of a problem in isolation will change the context of which the problem is part and thereby redefine the problem, often making the situation worse. Solutions to complex problems come from complex approaches in which all actors (human as well as non-human actors) participate. Such solutions recognize that complex systems are adaptive and can be made to adjust under the influence of, generally, gentle forces. Such forces are equally applied in a complex manner in which actors work together in harmony. On the part of human actors this means that humans must be capable of complex thinking, an issue that is well addressed in the work of Edgar Morin.

Let me conclude. I started off by referring to questions that are at the origin of humanity’s intellectual and spiritual development. They express all at once awe, fear, veneration, respect for the unknown, and recognition of ignorance. We marvel and tremble as we look into the void of not knowing. When asked, such questions can only be answered partially. The partial answers obtained reveal more ignorance at ever higher levels. It is the recognition of such ignorance that fuels our curiosity and that drives us forward.

We have long thought of ourselves as separate from the world, a message that one finds embedded quite strongly in some of the major world religions that situate humans between God and nature, giving humans the divine responsibility to care for the world and all that it contains while transforming the world to serve humans’ best interests. Humans are not seen as part of the world but rather as the apex of evolution, as the crown of the creation.

Everything else is in the service of humanity.

This worldview has made us feel dominant and has led to a sense of license to transform the world to our liking. After tens of thousands of years we have come full circle and look ourselves in the eye. Yes, we have transformed the world, our home in the universe, but we are suddenly discovering that the way we changed it is now threatening our very existence. We are finally becoming aware of the complexity of a world to which we belong, of which we are an integral part, a world that we cannot escape.

This notion is poorly represented in how we currently think about human learning, what we do to create propitious conditions to facilitate learning. Recognizing our shortcomings, we should feel compelled to reimagine the entire learning landscape. In conclusion, therefore, I suggest a comparative, non-exhaustive, even minimalist, listing of necessary changes.

Accumulative vs. Transformative
Linear vs. Complex
Focused on acquiring skills and static change vs. Focused on process and dynamics of change
Aimed at transforming the world vs. Aimed at constructive interaction with the world
Mainly formal vs. Across formal, non-formal and informal
Documented in quantifiable terms vs. Documented in quantifiable and qualitative terms
Disciplinary silos vs. Integral knowledge and visions
Mono- and multidisciplinarity vs. Inter- and transdisciplinarity
One design fits all vs. Following a self-designed learning path
Curriculum driven vs. Flexible curricula or curriculum free
Acquisition-memorization-retrieval vs. Creative participatory involvement
Expository and didactic vs. Exploratory, discovery and inquiry based, participatory
Focus on single organ: The brain vs. Focus on organism as a whole, including the brain
Rational (part of the brain) vs. Rational and emotive (entire brain)
Knowledge and skills in isolation vs. Knowledge, skills, attitudes, values
Learning bounded in space and time vs. Learning without frontiers
Learning about nature vs. Learning in and from nature

Thank you.

Find version with extra pictures and footnotes here

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