The Morals Science Teaches Us

Standard

Most people, when they think of science at all, think of lab coats, mice and monkeys in cages, particle accelerators, and astronauts. Although subconsciously we know how pervasive science is in our everyday lives, we rarely acknowledge it. The first reason is, well, I am not a scientist, nor do I know any. The second is that there still exists a stigma about it. After all, morals are taught by culture and religion, and science, for all its boons, is bent on destroying those things. Right? We know that scientists are not evil (at least, not in real life), and yet most of us still think of them as super-intelligent heathens, who develop toys and technologies for our everyday consumption and ask little in return. They are, and always have been, representative of Prometheus, the titan who defied the gods to bring man fire. We are both grateful and fearful, but mindful of worshipping or idolizing this false god.

I challenge you to break out of this mindset by considering a few non-controversial, unsung science facts. None of the following are ambiguous, unnatural, disputed, or divisive. You have probably always known them without realizing that nearly every generation that has come before you did not know them. Many scientific discoveries have bestowed something upon us or challenged our worldview, more than can possibly be listed. It is one thing to know now what a star is made of, but that hardly translates into moral progress. Yet these are a few that have challenged long-held beliefs affecting the moral constitution of our civilizations. Culture and religion taught us one thing, and a scientific discovery slowly changed what we teach our children, without ever demanding the credit. Or, it must be said, degrading or invalidating the religion it contradicted.


The earth is not the center of the universe. This one is a bit obvious, which makes it a good place to start. Early astronomy placed earth at the center of creation, and man at the center of the reason for earth’s creation. Consider the lesson in humility science teaches us by obliterating that totally understandable, but ultimately incorrect belief. By relegating mankind to an observer of the universe and not its kingpin, science has instilled in us a sense of wonder and responsibility toward the world around us, rather than subjugation. Moral: There is no center of the universe, and no single reason for its existence.


There are structures both vastly bigger and vastly smaller than the human senses can experience. Microscopes and telescopes teach us of the existence of microbes and galaxies, and the world of unfamiliar forces they experience. While this doesn’t necessarily have an immediate impact on our morality, per se, it does teach us that our bodies were not designed to be capable of directly sensing all of creation. We cannot see ultraviolet rays with our eyes, nor feel the neutrinos passing through us. Again, this should teach us to respect the invisible truths all around us, and seek them out, acknowledging that no creator ever intended for us to know them. Moral: Worlds exist in parallel all around us, that our natural organs were never intended to experience.


Race does not exist. Before the discovery of DNA, the word “racist” meant the belief that one race of men was superior to another. It could mean that Hutu was superior to Tutsi, that white was superior to black, or that Persian was superior to Arab. The contests of superiority are well-documented. What is underappreciated is the fact that this antiquated definition of “racist” presupposes that race exists in the first place. DNA encodes information about your lineage, and historically, people from the same geographic area shared lineages because they did not travel extensively. Biologically, this leads to a divergence in physical features over a long period of time that can sometimes become so extreme that two individuals from different genetic pools were no longer compatible enough to interbreed. Early naturalists called this process speciation. Human beings, for all our physical variety, have never diverged into distinct species. A man and a woman from two different lineages are as fertile, statistically, as from the same lineage, because the species is so biologically young. The connotative word “mulatto” was used to describe the illegitimate children of white masters and black slaves. Today we use the equally connotative, but politically correct phrase “mixed race.” Both are misnomers. The child of an Irish father and a German mother is as “mixed” in lineage as the offspring of a black-white couple, yet only the latter was ever called “mulatto.” Race is a social invention used exclusively to divide and subjugate. There is no single gene for dark skin, curly hair, blue eyes, or short stature. These phenotypes are the result of a tangled web of genes, which is why the physical features of parents appear “blended” in their child. Thus, a DNA test may reveal a person to hail from the West Indies, or from East Africa, but there is no pass/fail DNA test that shows him or her to be black. By comparing a single DNA specimen against databases of different lineages, a person can be placed on a branch of the human tree. That tree represents the travelling (and conquering) history of peoples geographically. Nowhere does the science suggest that there exist pools of people in the high-walled gardens we’ve always traditionally called “race.” Implicitly, we’ve accepted this. Today, the word “racist” means a feeling of superiority toward people of different ethnic background or geographic origin. Eradicating racism will involve, among other things, continuing to allow scientific discoveries to subtly change the literal definitions of words like “mulatto,” “mixed,” “foreign,” and “race.” Moral: We all belong to the same race, and our physical features originate from our geographic ancestry. There is no such thing as a “mixed” person.


You inherit exactly 50% of your genes from each parent. No, this was not obvious before genetics! Many mothers abhor the idea that a father can lay claim to the baby in her womb on account of the fact they “planted the seed.” This treats her as a mere carrier, not co-creator, of a child. This analogy of seed-planting, while euphemistic today, has been taken quite literally by cultures past. In this analogy, the baby contains 100% of the father’s genetic history, and the mother’s womb is the “soil” that allows this “seed” to grow into a “fruit.” After “harvest,” the new mother is the caretaker and steward of the father’s genetic history. This literal rendition of seed-planting was the norm for most of cultural history, until science said otherwise. Although a thinking person could determine from certain clues that babies blend their parents’ physical features, it wasn’t until the discovery of DNA, chromosomes, mitosis, and meiosis that the mechanics of reproduction evinced the 50% rule: that babies represent an exactly equal share of their mother’s and father’s genetic history. While this is not the sole misunderstanding underpinning gender inequality, it behooves us bury the egregious “planting of the seed” analogy for good. Moral: You represent exactly half your mother’s and your father’s genetic history. The mechanical differences of male and female reproductive roles do not change this ratio.


Infant mortality is at historical lows. We all know that families used to have more babies in generations past, but most people vaguely chalk it up to a change in “culture” or our “cultural” definition of family. In fact, there are dozens of factors that contribute to this trend. The two biggest ones: the near eradication of childhood disease, and contraception. Although there are lots of reasons for it, no one denies that families are smaller today than they have been in times past. Previously, women had very little control over the number of babies they had in their lifetimes, and sex was the only way to modulate this number. Counterbalancing this overproduction of babies was the fact that the odds of a child surviving to parenthood were low. Once medical science caught up with the science of microbes and things like vaccinations made survival more and more probable for babies and children, society encountered a bit of an arithmetic problem. How could the local economy support all these babies who, a generation ago, would not have survived long enough to need this support? Any society experiencing a rapid decline in infant mortality faces this grave economic challenge. Healthcare improving survival prospects leads to overpopulation which stresses the local economy, causing problems such as undernourishment and unemployment. Contraception, in its various forms, was the solution to this economic problem. “Natural” reproduction involves making babies quickly and often, from puberty to menopause, and losing most of them young, analogous to what we see in the animal kingdom. “Modern” reproduction divorces sex from baby-making, using contraception to control when a woman chooses to have children, as many as she wants or can take care of. This model has no analogy in the natural world, and we are on our own in making it work. Moral: Birth control is a necessity in a world where all babies are expected to reach adulthood.


“You” are your frontal lobe. You’d still be you if you lost your arm, or had to have a liver transplant, or your appendix removed. People did not always know what the brain was. The Egyptians threw it out during the mummification process, and only preserved the lungs, stomach, intestines, and liver. We take it for granted today that the electrical signals in our brain somehow encode who we are, even though brain science cannot yet explain precisely how. Although there are different interpretations of the word “soul,” the less connotative word “I” communicates the basic idea: I would not be me after a brain transplant. One horrific “treatment” of unruly mental patients used to be frontal lobe lobotomy, a gruesome practice that, while pacifying the patient, also deprived them of their “I.” In Greek mythology, gods were perfect specimens of men and women. Throughout history, morals can be found calling deformed people half-people. Think of lepers, cloven-feet, cleft palates, dwarfs, etc, and the subhuman status they’ve been awarded in the fables and history books, relative to today. Moral: No physical deformity makes a human being less human.


Many mental illnesses have physical causes, and are now treatable. This is a point that cannot be over-emphasized. For all the bad press our over-medicated culture gets, consider the alternative as it stood before this drug revolution. Words and phrases such as “cabin fever,” “going postal,” “crazy,” “lost touch,” “backed off the edge” will take generations to purge from our vocabulary. I read a book recently called Brain on Fire, where the afflicted woman, Susannah Cahalan wrote a memoir about her “month of madness,” when a rare auto-immune disease wreaked havoc on her spine, brain stem, and brain. One of the first and most obvious symptoms was a horrifying psychotic change in personality her family was at a loss to explain and that she has no memory of. A physical treatment to her physical ailment brought her out of it to a complete recovery, but it begged the question. The drug she received was very expensive, very new, and only available in small doses in a few top hospitals. Even her diagnosis was a stroke of luck. How many people, past and present, have exhibited her symptoms and been institutionalized for the rest of their lives, for having “lost it”? When we feel powerless over something, we often compartmentalize it. This is the moral lesson of our historical treatment of the insane: They have been forsaken, marginalized, boxed up, cut away, and buried from view. Increasingly, our care for our fellow human beings has led to the rigorous methods of treatment and diagnoses for the insane. Science has enabled us to reach into that box and save many of them, and it is possible to envision a future in which nearly every form of mental illness has been cataloged as the microbes once were. We live in the anteroom of that world, where certain ailments like depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, and mania are manageable, while those we don’t have a handle on, like schizophrenia, continue to be studied with fervor. Moral: Mental illness could very well prove to be symptomatic of physical, treatable diseases.

 


“True science teaches us to doubt and to abstain from ignorance.” ~Claude Bernard. Here is a legacy shared by two men living in two different ages: Gutenberg and Galileo. Their legacy was the divorce of truth from authority. When Gutenberg invented the printing press and started printing bibles, he published them in vernacular rather than Latin. This sent the strong statement that any common man could read, comprehend, and interpret the bible for himself, without necessarily going through a priest. When Galileo invented the telescope and proved Copernicus correct, he recanted under threat of torture and lived out the rest of his life under house arrest. Why? Not because the priesthood upheld any sacred astronomical text in the bible “proving” the sun revolved around the earth, but because the telescope as a truth-seeking device directly threatened their monopoly on truth. Science is the ultimate democratization of truth. Just as an informed electorate is necessary for the operation of a democratic state, a doubtful, questioning, skeptical public is necessary for an educated society. Moral: Doubt is the ultimate weapon against ignorance.


For all the goods and evils science has been responsible for, we have advanced so much that we now take these statements for granted, or probably will within the next few generations. No religion or culture anticipated them. You should teach them to your children as your secular upbringing has taught them to you. Perhaps in addition to vaccines, smartphones, jet planes, soap, and refrigerators, science can also help us along with our continued moral progress. Those men and women in the white lab coats are human beings with hearts full of care, and have shaped our morals more than they will ever ask credit for.

There is no center of the universe, and no single reason for its existence. Worlds exist in parallel all around us, that our natural organs were never intended to experience. We all belong to the same race, and our physical features originate from our geographic ancestry. There is no such thing as a “mixed” person. You represent exactly half your mother’s and your father’s genetic history. The mechanical differences of male and female reproductive roles do not change this ratio. Birth control is a necessity in a world where all babies are expected to reach adulthood. No physical deformity makes a human being less human. Mental illness could very well prove to be symptomatic of physical, treatable diseases. Doubt is the ultimate weapon against ignorance.

Review: The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

Standard

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a page-turner! Despite an occasional longwindedness that contributed to about a hundred pages’ worth of overwriting, this was an extremely engaging, informative read. The author weaves together medical science, history, statistics, and anecdotal descriptions of this horrifying episode very effectively. I found it most interesting that the author notes that very few people have written much about the 1918 flu epidemic. Having taken between 20 and 100 million lives worldwide, it was pervasive enough to have made a serious impact. Many people who were children at the time even remembered it as “the plague years” with little regard for the true nature of the disease. My great grandmother was orphaned when her parents died in this epidemic, so I can understand from my own family stories the impact on people’s lives. Perhaps it was too terrible to dwell upon or attempt to present as a narrative for the tens of millions of survivors.

Amazing tidbits I learned from this book: Oswald Avery was the man who discovered that DNA (a then unaccounted for compound within bacteria) carries genes. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first of only two presidents in US history to lose the popular vote and still become president – the second was George W. Bush. President Wilson was himself stricken with influenza, when in Europe negotiating the WWI-ending treaty, and some credit his difficult recovery with the poor outcome of those negotiations.

View all my reviews

Review: Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives

Standard

Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives
Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives by George Lakoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an incredibly important book! I don’t read many political books but this dug deeply into a question that has always fascinated me: What is the psychological divide in the U.S. political culture war? I am adding George Lakoff to the list of my other favorite cognitive scientists, alongside Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky. These guys have a knack for cutting to the simple heart of complex issues and making clear, mind-boggling presentations. Liberals will like this little The Art of War type book as a manual for winning rhetorical turf battles. But I believe this kind of book (and its equivalent from the other side) is very important for both sides to read. It’s about more than just arming yourself with the moral language for winning arguments. It’s about empathy, understanding other people’s worldviews so you can find common ground and build consensus.

View all my reviews

Review: Incubus

Standard

Incubus
Incubus by Ann Arensberg
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I hesitate when choosing whether to give this book one star or two. None of the author’s books have very good ratings, which is odd. She’s a good writer. There are beautiful passages in here and intelligent treatments of the supernatural. In fact, her protagonist uncannily resembled Ginny from A Thousand Acres, the sexually frustrated, intelligent, passive aggressive housewife. I agree with the other reviewers here that the main reason this book was no Pulitzer winner like Jane Smiley‘s was too much detail. The book oozes with unnecessary scenes and minute descriptions of the surroundings. I skimmed pretty liberally and still felt like I absorbed the meat of the story. In that sense, it was simply over-written. But it suffers from a worse problem: there is no discernible narrative. The Incubus came, frustrated and puzzled people, and they came together to be frustrated and puzzled in forums, then the book ends. There is no climax, no denouement, no resolution; there is only exposition and description.

Having said that, I am amazed that after skimming a boring passage, the author could hook me all over again with an engaging one. Usually, books that start off or become bad stay that way, but this author constantly dug herself into a hole and back out of it in cycles. I wish she could hone that ability to create engaging, beautiful prose and use it to produce a fully fleshed out narrative novel.

View all my reviews

The New Peace

Standard



Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 6

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 6: The New Peace

“Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.” ~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This ironically titled chapter talks about quantitative declines in the most horrific categories of human violence: genocide and terrorism. It is possible to compartmentalize archaic forms of violence, such as soldiers dying by the thousands in musket line advances, because we know we have advanced past the point of ever seeing that again. It is much harder to prepare a subject like ethnic cleansing for objective, palatable academic treatment when so many people’s lives today have been ruinously touched by it. How can one’s blood not boil when looking at a chart displaying a downward trend in terrorist attacks, when that tiny blip at the far end represents those who died on September 11th, 2001?

Perhaps it is time to take a breath and remember the theme of the book. There is a common quote falsely attributed to the Koran that goes “if any one killed a person, it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind.” This is exactly the nerve that is touched by the detached academic vivisection of the emotionally devastating. Such as when we say “sure, slavery was abolished on paper, but black people still suffer needless discrimination.” Or, “yes, women can vote in most countries, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still sex traffickers in the world.” This tendency to conflate the individual with the whole renders “progress” a dirty word. It is painful, and even offensive, to take two evils and attempt to weigh them against each other, to say that the more recent one is less harmful amounts to “progress,” or that a crime with ten victims is ten times “worse” than the same crime with one victim. Yet we have to be able to take these part-whole blinders off in order to make a fair judgment. It is disingenuous to claim that because black people still suffer needless discrimination, then “we’ve made no progress” since the times of slavery. That is factually incorrect and patently absurd, yet we hold it as a moral principle that if any one suffers needlessly, then the whole is broken.

The effort to whittle down the numbers that quantify misery can be heartless. But there is a moral imperative in getting the facts right, and not just to maintain credibility. The discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes. And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how altruistic we are. (p 468)

So long as any evil exists in the world, it is not the time for back-patting. But this is not what this book is encouraging us to do. His running theme is that recognizing a decline in violence is prerequisite to understanding what exactly it is that we have been doing right, so that we can pick up the threads of that effort and continue pushing it forwards. Pundits love to use phrases like “we live in dangerous times,” and “we are at a crossroads in history,” and “there is more at stake today than ever,” or most histrionically, “this is a battle for the soul of XYZ.” What they are doing is rousing us to action, engaging us to get involved in an issue or buy their sponsors’ products. They are exploiting the natural human misperception that times past were innocent because our ten-year-old eyes were incapable of perceiving wickedness. As we grow up and learn to see the world for what it is, our growing disillusionment can feel like a real decline in wholesomeness and purity. There is an ancient Greek word, kairos, which means “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.” We want to believe that we live in kairos, that we must be the vigilant driving forces to overcome the unique historical crisis we have for the first time found ourselves in. This is an illusion. There is nothing special about the time we live in other than the fact that we are here to live it. We are always living in kairos, in every age.

Baby boomers like to hearken back to the “innocent age” of the 1950s, when marriages were stable, families were whole and respectful, and jobs were plenty. But this was also a time when the lynching of a black man may not even make national news, when schoolchildren were taught their duck and cover drills in case the Russians dropped the bomb, and the Fadeyeen were terrorizing a nascent Israel. Has the world really gone to hell since these innocent times? Do we really want to go back there? Or was it simply that the five- to fifteen-year-olds of this time period remember it as being a time of childlike innocence because they were children?

Pinker writes that “[A] quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic.” Thus, if the quantitative trends are real, then it means that fewer people suffer, and that we can thank the better angels of our parents’ nature for recognizing and working to decrease the suffering they saw in their world in order to build ours. We must pick up that torch.

Review: (Almost) Average Anthology: Tales of Adventure, Loss, and Oddity

Standard

(Almost) Average Anthology: Tales of Adventure, Loss, and Oddity
(Almost) Average Anthology: Tales of Adventure, Loss, and Oddity by Jason J. Nugent
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked these little stories. The writer has a good voice and style and presents a good range of subjects. There is something about flash fiction that leaves me wanting more. This book reminded me of Impromptu Scribe, in that the author develops a lot of interesting ideas, but doesn’t craft a whole, satisfying story out of many.

View all my reviews

Review: Theory of Irony: How Jesus Led to Moon Golf

Standard

Theory of Irony: How Jesus Led to Moon Golf
Theory of Irony: How Jesus Led to Moon Golf by Erik Von Norden
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a history of Western Civilization on speed. Let me first say that the author is apparently extremely intelligent and well-educated, and can spout off facts and historical references with ease. I have to only give it the 2/5 “it was ok” rating. The book reads as an unstructured rant, a merciless succession of fact-laden sentences which occasionally hint at, but never reach, an overarching point. The supposed carrot before his cart seems to be that history is nonsensical, or at least full of nonsensical happenings. This reader will stipulate.

Fun reading for anyone seeking a bird’s-eye flyover of history.

View all my reviews

Review: Life of Galileo

Standard

Life of Galileo
Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a powerful play. I’ve always heard the adage that plays are meant to be performed, not read. That’s fine, but I still can’t shake the belief that the most substantive plays must be written by substantive playwrights who must have just as masterful a command over the written word as the visual performance. Bertolt Brecht possesses that command. I’ve always loved The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, and recently added The Miracle Worker to my list of favorite plays, but even these undisputed masters left so much in the hands of the production that the dialog seems rushed compared to ordinary prose. Not this play. The dialog itself is cleverly presented in dialectic form, with tragically heroic Galileo entrapping characters into Platonic question-answer sessions throughout the book. Thus Brecht uses the very principle he seeks to elevate, namely, that scientific thought is intuitive and morally right.

I’ve read in plenty of science books about how the medieval church didn’t care so much whether the sun went round the earth so much as the idea of the common man using mortal instruments and mortal reason to divine immortal truths. They were worried the telescope could put them out of the job. This story illustrates just that concept. The enemy was not superstition or tradition but authority. The scientific revolution, like so many enlightenment movements, had as much to do with throwing off oppression as seeking truth. Both share the same driving motivation: of looking at the same world and seeing it brighter.

View all my reviews

Review: The Year of the Stolen Bicycle Tire and Other Stories

Standard

The Year of the Stolen Bicycle Tire and Other Stories
The Year of the Stolen Bicycle Tire and Other Stories by Andrew Kozma
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Kozma’s collection. My favorite story was “Mile High Bridge.” There was something about the dynamic between the couple that sustained a perfect short story tension. He wanted to impress her, without thinking about his physical safety. He thought it an odd excursion, but went along with it to be chivalrous. They don’t know each other terribly well, but you can feel the tug of romance beneath the surface. The story is darkly funny, but told realistically, one of those terrible situations we all sometimes find ourselves in, when we think, “one day we’re going to laugh at this.” And of course, the ending was perfect, with as good a last line to a short story as one can ask for.

Although I felt the title story wasn’t the strongest of the bunch, they all present a cohesive new voice to short fiction literature.

View all my reviews