The Morals Science Teaches Us

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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.

Victor A. Davis has always loved reading and writing short stories. He is an avid hiker and even when away from the world of laptops and wifi, keeps a pocket paperback and a handwritten journal to keep him company on trail. He is the author of two short story collections, Grains of Sand and The Gingerbread Collection. Join his Mailing List for special announcements about upcoming works.