Archive for July, 2010
REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Fellowship and the Story of a Scientific Revolution: The Royal Society of London” by John Gribbin.Monday, July 26th, 2010
“Yet truly, there is a race of men stupid, and ignorant, who have neither the wish nor the ability to find anything new. And, therefore, whatever a physician with a great name writes, they immediately subscribe to it, nor will they depart from their beliefs not one jot. But you, honest Reader, a pupil of learned men most zealous for the truth, I beg of you try the experiment…I admonish you, I exhort you, try the experiment I say, and find out whether what I have said agrees with the thing itself.”
Thus, in the 16th century, did Realdus Columbus throw down the gauntlet before the received medical and scientific wisdom of the Greeks, whose idea of scientific exploration was to sit around and talk about ideas that were never tested. Nevertheless, their pronouncements on medicine and biology held for over two-thousand years. The notion to conduct actual scientific experimentation was foreign to the great Greek physicians, and was not to come into play until the 16th century, which is where this book picks up.
Though nominally the story of the founding of The Royal Society of London, this book is really about the scientific revolution that replaced scientific “philosophy” with experimental rigor. It’s a fascinating story.
The book (published in the U.S. in 2007) is a series of interwoven biographies of the names, large and small, that were responsible of the opening of the new frontier of scientific experimentation in the 16th and 17th centuries in England and Europe. The author is English, and has his clear favorites, and the book could have benefited, I think, from a better organization of the narrative (as it is, it feels as if it just sort of keeps rambling on between infrequent chapter breaks — not a good “bathroom book”). Nevertheless, the subject (and, indeed, the personalities) in this book are of such import to our current understanding of the world that I considered the effort well rewarded. But, then, I was due for a filling-in of the gaps in my knowledge on Copernicus, Newton, Halley and the couple dozen other figures profiled in “The Fellowship”.
The new experimental approach to science (then called “Scientific Philosophy”) was described in a letter from Isaac Newton: “The best and safest method of philosophizing seems to be, first to inquire diligently into the properties of things, and to establish those properties by experiences [experiments] and then to proceed more slowly to hypotheses for the explanation of them. For hypotheses should be employed only in explaining the properties of things, but not assumed in determining them; unless so far as they may furnish experiments.”
This was the core of the scientific revolution — to avoid “the venomous thing” of experimenting without a complete willingness to accept the actual outcome.
Here are two quotes from the book:
“…Newton finally removed the need to invoke magic or the supernatural to explain the workings of the Universe. Although Nicolaus Copernicus had suggested that the Earth moved around the Sun, and Galileo had gathered a wealth of evidence that it did so, before Newton nobody knew what held the planets in their orbits, or what kept the stars in their places in the sky. It was Newton who showed that the Universe works in accordance with precise rules, or laws, and that the motion of the planets and comets (and, by implication, even the stars) could be explained by the same laws that applied to the fall of an apple or the flight of a cannonball here on Earth. His law of gravitation and law of motion are universal laws that apply everywhere, and at all times.”
“The Principia (Newton’s landmark book) made such a big impact because it finally established, for those with eyes to see, that the world ran on essentially mechanical principles, principles that could be understood by ordinary human beings, and that it was not governed by magic or the whims of capricious gods.”
If you have any interest in how modern science was born, this book will be worth reading.
As the mid-size commercial airliner lifted me through canyons and cathedrals of billowing clouds, my face was nearly pressed to my small window to the sky. A moment ago rain was streaking across the glass, and we were accelerating down the runway beneath a low, gray monsoonal sky. Now we were above the rain, eye level with layer upon layer of rising cumulous in shades of blue grays where they stood like columns supporting a ceiling of even more clouds, above which shone the evening sun. Shreds of long, thin cirrus clouds raced by in the foreground. The beauty of it nearly took my breath away.
As we continued to rise up into the clear, smooth air above the cloud level it occurred to me that just moments earlier I had been reading a book about how the discovery of cooking had played the major role in our evolution from apes to humans. Now I was flying at an incredible speed in a product of very recent human technology witnessing sights that a tiny majority of life on earth would ever see.
Around me were a cabin full of fellow primates who seemed mostly anxious for permission to turn their phones back on.
I’m not going to be a prig and insist that everyone around me should have been equally rapt with the scene unfolding outside our cozy aluminum cabin. No. We each take our moments of wonder and awe when (and as) we find them. That is the wonder of natural beauty: it is there to be enjoyed by anyone that takes the time to look, and no matter how many people look at it, it is neither diminished nor depleted. Beauty, when it appears, is an unlimited resource for the time it is on display.
Of course our aesthetic sense is something that has evolved right along with our upright gait and ability to talk, and it is a universal trait of us hominids. The religiously inclined would likely suggest that such a “natural” view of one of our “higher senses” is a slap against god, and a reduction of humans to nothing more than clever animals. What crap.
Animals we most definitely are. But the suggestion that this statement of fact is some sort of diminishment of our status makes less and less sense to me. Perhaps its because I’ve moved so far from the point of accepting the fact that there is nothing that happens on this planet that is not completely natural in origin that I am now free to more truly appreciate the wonder of who and what we are. For I would suggest that until one accepts the reality of our actual origins and place in the world, one is not qualified to pass judgement on the “evolutionary” view of life, or to portray it as an insult to god’s image.
There is so much real wonder out there to contemplate that I now consider any religious or spiritual explanation of things to be the true diminishment of our species. They represent the stories of our childhood as a species. When considered in that light, our first stories are useful in understanding our development as humans, but when applied as actual, grown-up explanations or as guides for adult behavior, they are woefully inadequate and — I would argue — detrimental to our continued progress.
In my own life I feel as if I’ve just reached a point where I have cleared away enough of the cobwebs and inherited stories to begin my discovery of what life really has to offer. It only took me 51 years (an age which I would never have reached in earlier times). And thanks (it would seem) to cooking (more on this next week), I was born in a time where I could spend as little time eating as possible, yet take in enough calories to have the energy, the lifespan, and the time to learn as much as I have learned.
That, in itself, is a source of awe and wonder.
I feel, also, a certain urgency to see just how far I can go with this journey of discovery in my one lifetime.
Around us are thousands of people that seem to live more like animals than we would like to admit, moving with the herd. At times each of us must move with the pack as well. But in-between those passages, we have the time, energy and opportunity to look around us, to look at ourselves and explore our lives, our bodies, our world. It is an evolutionary gift that has been given to no other species as richly as to us. And it is there to enjoy, just like those billowing clouds I flew through. Just like the sunset.
Life’s riches are there for anyone who takes the time to stop and take them in.
REVIEWS FROM THE REV: Two Documentaries: “Marlene” and “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary”, by t.n.s.r. bobSunday, July 18th, 2010
I’m a frequent borrower from my local library, and a particular fan of their wide-ranging DVD collection. This week I found two documentaries that ended up — unintentionally — being a perfect pairing
The first is “Marlene” (1984, Kino Video), a documentary about the actress Marlene Dietrich. Made by the German actor Maximillian Schell, the film begins with the famously reclusive actress’s refusal — at the last minute — to allow her former co-star (Schell, from “Judgement at Nurenburg”) to actually film a series of interviews in her Paris apartment. Discouraged, but determined, Schell is able, at least, to record the conversations on tape, and then sets about coming up with a way to make a “moving picture” out of it all. Adding the device of a recreation of Dietrich’s apartment into the usual mix of archival film and photos, the dominant force of the film is Marlene’s voice. And in that voice you hear a personality limited by her austere German upbringing and her own brittle temperament.
The second documentary is: “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” (Sony Pictures Classics, 2002), A Film by Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer. This film is the polar opposite of “Marlene”, in that it consists entirely of face-front filmed interviews with Traudl Junge, who was one of Adolph Hitlers secretaries and who, remarkably, survived the very last days with Hitler and his officers in the bunker in Berlin (Hitler dictated his final “political testament” to her before shooting himself). There is never so much as a cut-away from Junge’s face for the entire film. Sometimes she is shown watching (and listening to) previous interview footage of herself, adding in details or comments as they come to her mind. This is remarkable. I’ve never seen a documentary like it. But then, when you have such an articulate eyewitness to the kind of events that she is describing, who in their right mind would want to distract the viewer.
If you’ve seen the fine recent German film “Downfall”, then you know this woman’s story (she provided a great deal of the detail that was used in that film which is, in some ways, her story as well). But to be able to watch the real person’s eyes, face and hands as she speaks with such openness is a remarkable opportunity.
Both of these films are windows into Germany in the years leading up to, during and after World War 2. But they are also studies in contrast of the two subjects. Dietrich left Germany and, essentially, joined the U.S. Army during the war (she is beloved by WW2 vets for putting on shows for troops far nearer the front lines then Bob Hope ever dared to tread). When asked why, she says, matter of faculty, that it was a simple choice of good over evil. Trudly Junge, on the other hand, was “apolitical”, and itching for job in Berlin that would allow her to get out of her home town. It is only many years later (after walking past a monument to the German resistance fighter Sophie Scholl, about whom another recent film was made) that Trudl has an awakening to the fact that she, too, had choices.
In many ways, these are simple biographies of two human beings who happened to be swept up in great events that throw their individual characters into greater relief. You may find yourself getting a bit tired of Dietrich by the end, but “Marlene” is quietly building its power that pays off in the end. “Hitler’s Secretary” is riveting throughout, yet still manages to pack a punch in the end. I recommend them both.
Consider this imagined news item:
“You can’t prove to me that 2 plus 2 equals four!” shouted Emily Smorgasbord at a recent rally on the capitol steps. Emily is a member of “The Four Deniers” (or, as they prefer to be called “The Five Believers”).
The group’s leader, Pastor Ben Thair adds: “I hear it all the time: some talking head on the television, to prove a point, will say so and so added two and two and got five. Well, we do it all the time, and we’re tired of being called stupid, backwards and ignorant for it. It’s our right to add numbers the way we want to, and no-one can take that right away from us!”
The “Four Deniers”, (or “Five Believers”) are determined to no longer be the subject of social ridicule and are organizing themselves into an army to “Take ciphering back from the ivory-towered elites that have taken it over from the common folk”.
Supporters are agitating for their version of math to have equal time in the classroom, which has created quite a controversy. “And that’s just fine with us!”, Pastor Thair said, “Teach the controversy, and let the kids figure it out for themselves!”
As I was driving in my truck this morning, I heard a radio minister explaining to a caller the intricacies of how the resurrection of the body would work when the Rapture came. (Apparently the caller was confused on what would happen to her body if she died before the event). She was assured that once she died her soul would go directly to God, and whatever the resting place of her body (be it in the soil or in the sea) it would be called up by God on the day of the Rapture to reunite with her heavenly soul “in the air”. The woman was relieved, it seemed, to have this question answered. The man doing the answering spoke with supreme confidence. And I was reminded, once again, of Sam Harris reference to Theology as being a “branch of human ignorance”.
There is, it seems, enough distance now between my religious years and the present that I am, at last, able to hear religious explanations such as these with fresh, rational ears. And boy, what I hear sounds incredibly silly.
At the moment I’m immersed in a book about the founding of The Royal Society in London in the 17th century that covers the personalities, experiments and intellectual revolution that led to the establishment of what we now call “the scientific method”. This was the time of Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon and Newton, before which “scientific philosophy” consisted mostly of learned men sitting around and theorizing about how things worked, without ever really testing anything they said. Which means that from the time of Aristotle to the establishment of experimental science in the 1600′s, it was accepted as fact that fresh blood was constantly manufactured in the Liver and completely used up by the body, and that the universe rotated in perfect circles around the earth, with the planets suspended in some fluid medium that helped keep them in place.
None of that was even close to being true, we now know, but no one, apparently, thought it important to actually test these ideas (for centuries, at least). And then once clever, thoughtful individuals did begin to experiment, they immediately ran afoul of the Church, and many were burned at the stake (or in the case of Galileo, simply excommunicated).
I keep coming back to Christopher Hitchen’s statement that “Religion will always have the advantage of having been there first”. Which, when you think about it, is the only rational explanation for how so irrational a system of beliefs could persist this many decades after Copernicus determined that it was the Sun, in fact, that was the center of our universe, Newton determined that it was gravity that made the planets move in elliptical orbits, and Harvey figured out that our (fixed volume of) blood was pumped out of the heart by arteries and returned to it through the veins.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but before the time of science, people just made shit up and called it truth…or religion.
That fact that we — after the benefit of some two-hundred years of scientific discovery – still have seemingly educated people spouting nonsense about people rising from the dead or torturing billions of years of biology and geology into some six-thousand years of special divine creation is a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes.
There have always been those willing to say what pleases a paying crowd, and the fact remains that religion, like sex, sells. (A recent comedy “The Invention of Lying” gives a wickedly insightful take on how religion may have come to be). Add to this the reality that most scientists are much too keenly interested in their own research (and limit their grandstanding to their respective journals), and the scientist is always going to be at a disadvantage to the evangelist in terms of whipping a crowd into ecstasy.
So our (above imagined) preacher that shouts that two and two equal five because God told him so, can further pronounce that such special knowledge trumps the claims of lowly mankind’s “science”. One could argue, I suppose, that the words “two” and “five” are just made-up words, and have no empirical meaning at all. This, of course, is true. However, the mathematical reality which these words refer to is not subject to linguistic dismissal of this kind. No matter how you attack the words or the mathematicians who coined them, two and two will always add up to four. And even God can’t change that.
In yet one more example of hearing it straight from the scientific horse’s mouth, James Watson (Nobel prize winner as co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953, and later the director of the Human Genome Project) has written this 2007 wide ranging book about all things DNA.
And wide-ranging it is. In a very readable way, we are taken back in time to the first ideas about where the secrets of life were to be found (and what form they might take) before we are brought up through history to the rapidly accumulating genetic discoveries of the last century, a journey summed up in the introduction:
“The intellectual journey that had begun with Copernicus displacing humans from the center of the universe and continued with Darwin’s insistence that humans are merely modified monkeys had finally focused on the very essence of life. And there was nothing special about it. The double helix is an elegant structure, but its message is downright prosaic: life is simply a matter of chemistry.”
But the HOW of how we figured these things out is the tale to be told in the pages that follow. A parade of notables in scientific research are deftly profiled as both researchers and human beings, and the stories build upon each other at a steady clip until science leads us to the conclusion that “…the essence of life is complicated chemistry and nothing more.”
It turns out that (even after mapping the entire human genome) that we still don’t know what most of the genes we carry actually “do”. (As a research geneticist told me, however, what is popularly referred to as our enormous collection of “junk” DNA is really just DNA we haven’t figured out yet!)
Among DNA discoveries:
Fruit flies have levels of genetic variation 10 times that of humans, Adelie Penguins are twice as variable, and even chimps are 3 times, gorillas 2 times and orangutans 3.5 times as variable as humans. “It’s because our common ancestor was so recent; 150,000 years is a blink of an eye by evolutionary standards — insufficient time for substantial variation to arise through mutation.”
And the fact that we humans share so much of our basic DNA with other animals, plants and bacteria: “The basic genetic software governing both mice and men has not changed much over the 75 million years of evolution since our lineages separated.”
At times this book reads like a cheerleading broadside for unrestricted DNA research, and it is peppered with tales of (recent) corporate profiteering and public hysterics that have delayed the progress of research by years. I found myself unready to jump completely on the bandwagon, yet compelled to give weight to the arguments of one of the people so deeply (and historically) involved in the field. Two arguments, in particular, were effective: “…knowledge, however awkwardly acquired, is still preferable to ignorance.” And: “When discussing our genes, we seem ready to commit what philosophers call the “naturalistic fallacy”, assuming that the way nature intended it is best. By centrally heating our homes and taking antibiotics when we have an infection, we carefully steer clear of the fallacy in our daily lives, but mentions of genetic improvement have us rushing to run the “nature knows best” flag up the mast.”
Let me close with a selection of summarizing statements from the later pages of the book:
“Over my career since the discovery of the double helix, my awe at the majesty of what evolution has installed in our every cell has been rivaled only by anguish at the cruel arbitrariness of genetic disadvantage and deficit, particularly as it blights the lives of children. In the past it was the remit of natural selection — a process that is at once marvelously efficient and woefully brutal — to eliminate those deleterious genetic mutations. Today, natural selection still often holds sway…”
“I do not dispute the right of individuals to look to religion for a private moral compass, but I do object to the assumption of too many religious people that atheists live in a moral vacuum. Those of us who feel no need for a moral code written down in an ancient tome have, in my opinion, recourse to an innate moral intuition long ago shaped by natural selection promoting social cohesion in groups of our ancestors.”
“With its direct contradiction of religious accounts of creation, evolution represents science’s most direct incursion into the religious domain and accordingly provokes the acute defensiveness that characterizes creationism. It could be that as genetic knowledge grows in centuries to come, with ever more individuals coming to understand themselves as products of random throws of the genetic dice — chance e mixtures of their parents’ genes and a few equally lucky accidental mutations — a new gnosis in fact much more ancient than today’s religions will come to be sanctified. Our DNA, the instruction book of human creation, may well come to rival religious scripture as the keeper of the truth.”
This book altered my view of life. What more could I ask for?
It hit me today that the main complication in being anti-theistic is the reality that so many people in my life (and in society at large) believe in God, and draw varying degrees of practical comfort from that belief. So when I launch into a rant about the unlikely nature of an actual God’s existence, I sometimes feel a “pang” as I imagine the offense I may cause. (What’s interesting, perhaps, is that my pang is not, generally, related to any fear of actual divine retribution).
As I drove across town — listening for a bit to a Christian radio station preacher going on about the wonder of God’s one-week creative act — my mind dispassionately clicked off the likelihood that anything of the sort was responsible for creating the actual heavens and earth and everything that walks or crawls. For just before that I’d been listening to a story on NPR about how scientists and engineers are exploring rather amazing light-controlling structures in the wings of certain butterflies, and trying to work out ways in which to exploit — through nanotechnology — these structures that “self assemble” in nature. That story reminded me of Darwin’s lengthy explanation (in “On the Origin of Species”) of the very natural mechanics of honeycomb assembly by honey bees.
All of the wonders of the world that one can think of are perfectly (and adequately) explained as completely natural processes. (Consider the many once-mysterious diseases that have been traced to their true causation in mutations in one or several genes).
We understand now, through science, that our bodies build themselves bit by bit through the actions of gene expression, regulating proteins, amino acids and the like (with each new discovery pointing the way to the deeper subtleties of the intricate dance of genes switching on and off at the right times that brought you and me from a single cell to a fully-formed human).
In short, a little reading of the available popular writing about genetics and biology can give one a good conceptual grasp of the real miracle of life on earth that (in my experience) so exceeds any religious explanation for sheer mind-blowing, awe-inspiring wonder by exponential factors.
Yet religious belief persists, even in such “modern” minds as ours.
Of course, we moderns are the tip of the spear, as it were, that extends all the way back into our past, and we still carry with us so much of our history that a definite tendency toward belief — toward the externalizing of inner thoughts and impulses to the extent that we now easily regard them as coming from actual divine or spiritual sources — is a completely natural part of the functioning of our consciousnesses.
As I’ve said before, I am a natural “believer”. I notice it now when my mind is at rest (as it often is these days, having answered for myself most of the “big” existential questions of life): I will hear a declaration of belief from someone (in person or on the radio) and my mind immediately writes a memo to my consciousness asking: “Have we really looked at the question of God from every angle?”. The answer is “Of course I have”. But for that moment, I doubt.
But when I think about it for more than a moment, the smallest piece of evidence from science, geology or biology is enough to make that memo of doubt disappear. I could look at a star and think about how long the light from that star has been traveling to get here and know that the world could not have been “created” seven thousand years ago. Or I can think about the fact that I have a tailbone (where my very own tail used to grow); or my bad back (from our species learning to walk upright); or a hiccup (that links me to my amphibian past). I can reach down about anywhere and pick up a rock that could be millions of years old, or consider the lessons of the Human Genome Project that has revealed the evidence in our genes of our evolutionary past.
In short, any argument for God or special creation is embarrassingly easy to disprove.
But belief is a personal thing, and we tend to be deeply entwined with our beliefs and will defend them with ferocity, if not rationality. And so the problem with attacking irrational beliefs is not the beliefs (which are made of nothing), but the feelings of the believers themselves (who are real flesh and blood).
There is no real resolution to this dilemma. As I explained to a believing friend, I stand up to oppose the irrational beliefs of others at the point where they begin to infringe on my own personal liberties. On this point he and I agreed.
I think most of us understand that “Freedom of Religion” is a compromise: we allow people to believe crazy things so that we, in turn, are not hindered in our own thoughtful pursuits. Of course there are many religious believers among us that are mistrustful of the compromise, and assume that their views are so transcendent and universal as to merit priority. Which brings to mind the Dunning/Kruger effect, which describes how the less informed one actually is, the higher his (or her) certainty of the “rightness” of their views. Conversely, the more one knows, the more one learns to doubt (or at least be wary of baseless confidence).
And so it makes sense why the religiously confident are so vehement in their denial of science in general, and Evolution if particular: not only is their world-view threatened, but their confidence as well.
Still, such as the above provides the best argument for education I can think of: to decrease the levels of confident ignorance, and increase the levels of intelligent doubt (which is to say a recognition of the complexity of life).
And so, though we don’t desire to cause anyone discomfort, we must nevertheless continue to promote scientific knowledge and reason, recognizing it as the best path toward making the most of our time here on earth.