When things get bad enough……

There is economy in nature and exquisite precision and elegance in the quality rather than the quantity of the processes or the elements that are involved in the processes.The beauty of that is really something to behold, and when the poets speak, they have a sense of the beauty in the creations in nature.

I will illustrate with just one or two instances the way in which the capacity or the capability of an organism is expressed. And this shows the economy of nature. Let us take two bacteria.They normally reside in the intestine. One of them has the genetic ability to make an enzyme capable of digesting a certain sugar. The other one, similar in all other respects, does not have the capacity to digest that sugar. It does not have the enzyme necessary to do so.The existence of hat enzyme is dependent upon the existence of a gene, but that enzyme in the competent organism is induced only in the presence of the substrate, that is to say, the sugar which it is designed to digest.

Now the point of interest here, in the context of educators, is that to be able to act the genetic capability must be there, but that action is not induced until an environmental influence is present which in turn acts to release the inhibitor to the production of the enzyme. It makes me think of the process of learning in many ways. The more obvious one is that of antibody production, where the genetic capability to form an antibody exists in the presence of the antigen, let us say,a virus or a vaccine. That antibody is induced to form; and memory then exists of that experience,and the individual is permanently immunized.

Now with metaphors such as these, I submit there is a very large and rich source of inspiration for understanding more about the nature of man which is far more complex than these simple systems. These examples are enriching for the imagination and begin to unite man and nature in a way that I believe is tremendously useful, both for the experience of it and also for education and for going beyond.

We are  asking: What is a nourishing experience? What is a poisonous experience? What is a strengthening or weakening experience? These are questions that clearly are before us, every day. I have spoken of the process of natural selection. There is an inner selecting mechanism. There is an outer one in terms of interactions with others in an ecosystem. The problems of economics in life, the economy in life, all of these are operative in the nature of man, which, I submit, must be understood in the same way as we must understand the nature of an organism or of a cell if we have any interest in dealing with the control and regulatory mechanisms that have a bearing on malfunction, disorder, or disease.

Jonas Salk, Educators: Trustees of Evolution?

From: Leeper, Robert R., Ed. Emerging Moral Dimensions in Society: Implicationsfor Schooling. Association for Supervision and CurriculumDevelopment, Washington, D.C. 1975

Dr. Jonas Salk, M.D. (October 28 1914June 23 1995) was a Medical researcher and author, the inventor of the Salk vaccine against Polio, and the founder of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.


The revelation of the open mindset of Dr. Salk happens in the following scene. When asked by the interviewer Murrow about the patent of the polio-vaccine, Salk answered in the following way:

Edward R. Murrow: Who owns the patent on this vaccine? Jonas Salk: Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?CBS Television interview, on See It Now (12 April 1955)

Subsequently Dr. Salk states:

  • What is … important is that we — number one: Learn to live with each other. Number two: try to bring out the best in each other. The best from the best, and the best from those who, perhaps, might not have the same endowment. And so this bespeaks an entirely different philosophy — a different way of life — a different kind of relationship — where the object is not to put down the other, but to raise up the other.
  • When things get bad enough, then something happens to correct the course. And it’s for that reason that I speak about evolution as an error-making and an error-correcting process. And if we can be ever so much better — ever so much slightly better — at error correcting than at error making, then we’ll make it.
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