Cover Story: TELMO PIEVANI

Bergamo, 10 February 2020


Telmo Pievani, born in 1970, is an Italian philosopher, professor and evolutionist. To find out this information, you can look up on Wikipedia. Since I have known him for some years now, I can add that he is a wise and passionate man, a rare intellect that encompasses knowledge and emotions.
Telmo can say the hardest thing in the simplest way. His intellectual honesty has no equal and If only we learned from him that we must look back to the past for a healthy future… it would be quite an achievement.
Today, Telmo and I meet at DiverCity’s editorial office in front of a warm cup of green tea. Let’s start from the “cover”, so to speak. Our magazine deals with inclusion and this month’s issue is about sustainability.
Not everyone instantly understood the editorial choice. It is funny, you know, I think we might need common vocabularies on this too.

Telmo, would you please highlight the link between sustainability and inclusion?

Of course. I will tell you my personal experience. For the past four years, we have been working on an all-around concept of inclusion with the Chancellor and the student government of the University of Padua. Research projects were generally related to a specific theme like disability or gender but we started to adopt a comprehensive approach because inclusion means accepting the value of diversity from all walks of life. To answer your question, sustainability means giving everyone equal access to resources. Social and environmental sustainability should be perceived as one. All scientific models agree that we can’t really take measures against environmental crisis if no social action is taken too. Social inequality is one of the main reasons of the current ecological crisis and climate change, in turn, widens inequality. it’s a never-ending twisted game, so we need to take action on both sides.

As it is often mentioned, define climate change.

Climate change includes, all at once, a change in the weather, political disruptions in many countries, greater conflicts and an increase in environmental migrants.

Apparently, in 2020, dealing with environmental and sustainability issues is considered “unmanly”, or at least a sociological analysis published in the newspaper Il Corriere della Sera reported this outcome. You know gender issues mean a lot to me: what about you?

I have, by training and profession, an evolutionary worldview, so I see the world over very long periods of time. We objectively live in a male-dominated society and carry the legacy of patriarch societies: we can’t change it in a generation or two. It takes a change of paradigm and mind. It takes time. We must act on many levels at the same time and language is one of these – language as a means to change our behavior, not just as maquillage. The stereotypes we see are only the tip of the iceberg: the way our society is hierarchically structured is the ice shelf. The problem is not about the superstructure, but the structure itself. Our society feeds inequality, difficulty in access to education and work, gender pay gap between women and men. Inequality is not visible underwater and, first, we have to eradicate it. Gender inequality.
Generational inequality. New generations, both women and men, are indeed the most discriminated of all: we are leaving our children a world which is getting more expensive, more unequal, dirtier and harder to live in… this legacy violates all the fundamental ethical principles of western philosophy. One should leave the world at least as decent as found.

In this respect, Greta Thunberg (young, female and affected by Asperger Syndrome…) embodies several forms of diversity and maybe it is not accident that she tried to change the paradigm you defined.

Greta is an extraordinary case. She proved how today’s means of communication can work out and make an icon of a great struggle out of sixteen-year-old girl using simple words. She is telling the plain truth when she says that science has been fighting against climate change for forty years. This is a major issue. There must be something wrong if all scientific models agree on that and still we keep ignoring them. This means that there are high walls to climb: cognitive, mental, economic and social walls. Our whole human life must be called into question. Numbers are not enough to persuade people. We must find languages able to touch our most intimate strings.

In DiverCity issue number 5, Christian Richmond Nzi’s article opened as follows: “if somebody told you that 3% of the population can produce more than 10% of global GDP, let’s say it, we immediately assume it concerns the United States or the European Union. 10% of global GDP, instead, is produced by immigrants around the world”.

The link between sustainability and migration is so tight. We could examine the issue from many points of view, I choose the strongest one. By 2050, the United Nations estimate that 250 million people will have to leave their home because they will no longer be able to live there. It is a rough estimation, so it could get worse. Why do they have to migrate? There are two main causes: 1. desertification, 2. extreme weather conditions. Where will they go? 80% of them will stay within the country’s borders and move from rural areas to urban areas. Megacities will grow rapidly widening the gap between wealthy people downtown and poor people with nowhere to go. The 15% of them will cross the border and stay within their geographical zone (Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia, etc.). Only the remaining 5% will embark on the journey we all know as migration. These are huge numbers. These are real processes. They share a dynamic structure, so they can be foreseen and, above all, they will create terrible inequalities. Climate refuges will foster new conflicts and deepen the old conflicts over access to resources. They will cause violent social and political instabilities.
Accepting diversity as a source of growth applied and applies to all aspects of diversity.
This will take place in a context where our demographic growth will be even more unbalanced. For instance, between now and 2030, Nigeria alone is expected to reach and exceed European population.
These results show that Italy is only one little piece of a puzzle in need of a deep global change.

What causes climate change as you described it earlier (desertification, extreme weather conditions and greater conflicts)?

Western colonialism. This is our legacy. U.S., Europe and Russia are the main producers of greenhouse gas emissions ever since steam engine was invented. Only lately, India and China have been on the scene. Once we know who is to blame, needless to say, we can’t face the situation building metaphorical walls or not. It is somewhat silly, anachronistic and does not take into account the history development. We need to be careful as this is to be faced now in order to get results – hopefully – in a couple of years. United States and Russia know it well. They have known for years. Trump stated (well, he twitted…) that climate change is an invention and yet the Pentagon (United States Department of Defence) revealed that the major threat to American national security has been terrorism and climate change for seven years now. So, they know it well. Nevertheless, propaganda, rhetoric, populism, sovereignism shift our attention and force us into a whole different public debate.

Are there any economic, financial and political reason (in terms of power) why climate change emergency is not taken seriously?

For decades, climate change denial has met great economic resistance from big corporations and lobbies.
Today, the denial side is still strong in the United States and holds the majority in the Senate. The same happened with smoking health risks. However, the reasons of those who don’t want to face this crisis have grown deeper and more complex over the years. Resistance comes with the awareness that the necessary measures to slow down climate change will be dramatic and “expensive”. We will have to make sacrifices, change habits, create new development and consumption patterns. Most of us, ça va sans dire, don’t like the idea. When Emmanuel Macron proposed an eco-tax rise, all hell broke loose. Do you remember that?
People, after all, get anxious if the mall is closed for two days in a row…

Speaking about collective decision-making as the sum of individual choices, let’s talk about your Chair. A Philosopher of Science teaching at the Department of Biology (in Padua, as you said) might sound strange to someone…

Well, here is another inclusive choice to talk about! Indeed, universities are cathedrals full of stereotypes, closure and sectarism too. Especially those passing on the baton from one generation to another. So, break the mould is highly important. In short, this is my story: I came back from the U.S. in 2001 – I worked at the American Museum of New York as a researcher for five years – when Bicocca University of Milan offered me a job. I accepted it and taught courses in the humanities for eleven years. I pursued the same academic career as many but no full professor preceded me – this is typical of Italy for this profession. Then, University of Padua came up with a proposal. University of Padua has the most important Department of Biology in Italy. I had already worked with lots of biologists and my publications have been closer to science than philosophy for many years, so, it was a thrill to receive that proposal. I immediately accepted it despite the logistic, economic and emotional discomfort as I come from Bergamo. The symbolic and cultural value of the idea they came up with was really high. I have gone from being a professor in Philosophy of Science at a Faculty of Humanities, like everyone else in Italy, to being a full professor among geneticists, biologists and biotechnologists. We broke a taboo. A whole different community invested in another theoretical, ethic, radical and communicative knowledge – which happened to be mine – because it was inspiring both for students and colleagues. University of Padua chose an inclusive and attractive politics. Today, I’m part of the Scientific Committee of the Department and we are trying to attract back Italian researchers from abroad, promote new careers to spread not only internally and open up an interdisciplinary dialogue. As I said, there are geneticists, ecologists, biotechnologists at the Department… the spectrum of Life Sciences is completely covered.

Biology has taken hold in our century like chemistry in the previous century and physics even before then. However, The Department of Padua is the only one that has taken this route in Italy until now.

Yes, indeed, I hope it’s not the last one!

Explain in detail how Philosophy can support Biology then.

Philosophy can support Life Sciences in so many ways! I will mention the most important ways among others: 1. The rigorous and conceptual methodology underpinning Philosophy of Science. We all studied logics, epistemology, terminology and concept analysis, philosophical assumptions and model comparisons.
In my own case, my work is heuristic: I build models, interpretive and explanatory assumptions, and compare them. It’s a theoretical study of human evolution. I gather genetic, paleontological and archaeological records to trace the key stages of human evolution. 2. The communicative approach, that is to say that scientists can’t “communicate science” only through products and results, but also through the method and process they employ. It is thus essential to know the scientific method and to understand how it works in order to communicate effectively. 3. Ethics. Maybe it should come before everything else. For instance, we decided that everyone enrolled in Biotechnology – in other words, future genetics engineers who will modify plant and animal genome… – must study Bioethics in their third year. It is usually an elective course, so, we are pioneers here too.

May I burst out and say that the courses in Life Sciences are quite incomplete in any other Italian Faculty?

You are right. The risks are real, but today the most promising researches in Life Sciences are interdisciplinary.

Our species has adapted to life on Earth for thousands of years. From the nineteenth century onwards, we see a total reverse situation. Technics and science have adapted the planet to our needs. Here is a simple question: how do you see the future of mankind?

That is true. We owe this success to our ability to change the world and shape it to our desires. We used to respond to environmental needs and now we are so powerful and pervasive that we can change the world itself according to our needs. Let’s take the example of China, a huge country where landscape, nature and resources are fully available for growth. The diversion of rivers is a common practice and a dangerous game there because if we change the world too fast, then we will have to change ourselves just as fast. Climate change activated a negative feedback mechanism and we are starting to pay the piper in terms of health conditions. People from highly developed countries have largely lost their human microbiome (to put it simply, intestinal microbiota important for assimilation and protection against diseases such as diabetes, nervous system diseases and autoimmune diseases). What we are starting to pay is not only an economic price, it is also a biological, human and social loss.

That’s a little scary. Are you optimistic?

Yes, I am. We are capable of “doing harm” as much as we are good at “doing right”. We have an incredible potential for change, we just have to make wise decisions.

I turn now to a field I am used to work in, which is business environment. Big companies are finally starting to understand that multidisciplinary teams are a source of innovation and a great boost for business. What about Italian companies dealing with inclusion?

Lately, I’ve seen companies developing new politics and practices. I was amazed by my last collaboration experiences as I’ve seen a rising awareness about the importance of inclusion (and therefore sustainability) in the private sector. However, companies are limited by their profit dimension (which is reasonable, of course). As for me, I belong to a State institution, I get paid by citizens and I am free to speak my mind.
Freedom from constraints and conditions is vital to carry out my work.

If you could write and bring into force two laws on a more inclusive sustainability tomorrow, what would they be?

Only two? (laughing). Well, the first one wouldn’t be a Decree Law. I would like to add two more articles in the Constitution and one of them would be about the future generation rights as we are completely ignoring them. This would ensure that, if one day a law violated future generation rights, it would be unconstitutional. The other article would be about the unavailability of primary natural resources. What I mean is that we have to stop. We have an incredible potential for change, we just have to take wise decisions. considering air, water, sun, etc. available for our economic development and declare them our common heritage again. Here is an example: Bolsonaro is the legitimate president of Brazil, but he is not the owner of the Amazon rainforest. It is not his own property, but a common natural resource. The second article (it is actually the third one, but I would elect Telmo as the President of the Italian Republic tomorrow, so I won’t complain about it ed.) would be about new technologies, especially the most powerful ones. I wish biotechnologies, for example, were considered a common good. In short, if a scientist discovered a new implantation of gene editing, companies could have it and use it to do research and create products. The new technologies, however, can’t be private. Ever. Technology will be so pervasive in the near future that I think it should at our disposal. Besides, ensuring inclusion in health care and education are the two pillars of social inclusion. When one of them is missing, we experience inequality. Oxfam’s annual report on global inequality dramatically shows it: where there is limited access to health care and education, there are very high levels of inequality. Since 2017/2018/2019, (only) the countries which have invested the most in scientific research and technological innovation emerged from the economic crisis more quickly and successfully. We might call it a “physical law”!

We are going through a crisis, so we can’t deal with inclusion – this is the typical answer I heard from many companies across the years. It is time to deal with inclusion precisely because we are going through a crisis, I replied.

I totally agree. Closing the inequality gap can foster development. Those companies which understood the fairness of some ethical choices benefitted from them economically.

Shall we talk about coronavirus?

As human beings, we think we are the greatest form of evolution and yet we are afraid of a package of RNA surrounded by proteins. This is coronavirus: one of the most elementary and primordial being on Earth. It has been doing this “job” for the past 3 billion years: it enters the host cell, injects its RNA and takes over it.
It’s a tiny parasite able to control over a great mammal of 10 trillion of human cells, make the market collapse, cause terrible economic losses and mass panic. There is an ongoing debate among scientists over whether the virus should be considered a living organism or not. I can read the invisible, silent, inherent fragility of our world through it. We think we can rule the planet and then… Let’s take a step back. H5N1 (avian influenza) got dangerous because it was transmitted from chickens to human beings. Ebola virus still survives in Africa because it was transmitted from monkeys to human beings. How? That’s how it happened: we destroyed the rainforest with palm oil plantations and rice fields. Attracted by their fruits, flying foxes come from the rainforest, invade plantations, breed, increase in number and, just like that, increase the chances of contact and transmission. That’s how Ebola jumped the species. The same thing happened with Covid-19, passed on from a nature reserve to us. We can no longer accept open-air markets (like the Asian markets) where you can find animals legally kept under terrible conditions against any international law, exotic species and protected animals, dead and living animals all together, carcasses and blood poured all over the place… Of course Covid-19 did jump the species. In all these cases (H5N1, EBOLA, COVID-19), if we hadn’t destroyed the environment and upset the ecological ecosystem, the virus wouldn’t have spread. I would add that, when a virus jumps from an animal to another in microbiology, it recombines genetically. For this reason, it is unknown and therefore more dangerous for us. As RNA viruses can mutate rapidly, it won’t be easy to find a vaccine. I fear there will be many losses. The species jump is not a “natural” event and it is not inevitable. It never gets told in the public debate. We are causing it. No one wanted the virus to jump, just to be clear. However, we created the conditions for this to happen. We must learn to look beyond our anthropocentric view and with a little more humility. An evolutionary humility.


Translated by Elvira Di Bella.

PUBLISHED ARTICLE IN DIVERCITY VII September 2020

Spread inclusion all around the globe

Author: administer