Our Species’ Perilous Infancy

“I’ll meet you further on up the road.” 

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Dragon’s blood tree on the island of Socotra, Yemen. Source.

 

I sometimes wish we could fast-forward through this messy period of human history. I imagine that our descendants will be embarrassed by how sectarian and insular we were. It will probably take generations, but it seems almost inevitable that the world will keep shrinking until it becomes the prevailing wisdom that all people share a common ancestry and that our commonalities outweigh our differences.  

Yet, here we are. Ethno-nationalism is on the rise in Europe, with many people increasingly angered by the influx of Muslim refugees. In the United States, I.C.E. is rounding up and deporting people who have lived here for decades and who pose a threat to no one, including military veterans, a doctor, a mother of four children, and a college professor. President Trump infamously referred to several countries — including El Salvador, Haiti, and all of Africa —  as “shitholes, and implied that people from those places should not be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. Left unspoken, this presumes that a country’s political or economic struggles are a reflection of the character of all of the people who live there.

A common refrain in these stories is the perception that outsiders are a threat, either in the form of direct violence or indirectly to “our way of life.” Again, in 2016 when Trump was still a candidate, he visited my home state of Rhode Island for a fund raiser and suggested that thousands of Syrian refugees were being resettled there without any screening and that they were akin to a Trojan horse:

“We can’t let this happen. But you have a lot of them resettling in Rhode Island. Just enjoy your — lock your doors, folks.”

At the time, there was one resettled family from Syria — a young couple and their three beautiful young children. The calculated wielding of fear as a weapon against five harmless human beings struck many people, including me, as cynical and reprehensible.

As for the threat to “our way of life,” a state senator from New Jersey named Mike Doherty epitomized this sentiment when he said that the U.S. should limit immigration from “non-European” nations that are not part of a “Judeo-Christian culture” because: 

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A Small Protest…

President Trump just gave the CDC a list of forbidden words that it cannot use in official documents.  So, in solidarity, here they are:

  • “vulnerable”
  • “entitlement”
  • “diversity”
  • “transgender”
  • “fetus”
  • “evidence-based”
  • “science-based”

Also, evolution is real. Climate change is real. The earth is older than 10,000 years. Transgender people exist, as do fetuses, and vulnerable people. Among 7.5 billion human beings, there is diversity, as is true of all species (though we are also more alike than unalike). Some things just are, and manipulating language in the quest to impose one’s will on reality won’t make them go away. 

(A) man in his arrogance…

From Carl Sagan:

“We’re Johnny-come-latelies. We live in the cosmic boondocks. We emerged from microbes and muck. Apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. There may be much smarter and very different beings elsewhere. And on top of all this, we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves. The trap door beneath our swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free-fall. We are lost in a great darkness and there’s no one to send out a search party. Given so harsh a reality, of course we’re tempted to shut our eyes and pretend that we’re safe and snug at home, that the fall is only a bad dream. If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand?

We long to be here for a purpose, even though despite much self-deception, none is evident. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.

Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Our common sense intuitions can be mistaken. Our preferences don’t count. We do not live in a privileged reference frame. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”  

Imagining a Worthy Goal

“All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/ genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”

– Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities” (1983: 6)

 

“The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

– Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot” (1994)

 

Yesterday’s events in Charlottesville were heart-breaking. They didn’t come out of nowhere, but they felt like an exclamation point on a period marked by increasing social division. Like most Americans, I find the views expressed by the so-called alt right to be abhorrent. As a child, I thought that progress was inexorable, that my generation was more inclusive than those before, and that my kids’ generation would be even more inclusive than mine. That’s not how things go, I suppose, at least not without lots of bumps in the road.

Taking a very long-term view of the future, I’m still optimistic. I can’t help but feel that future generations will mock our ignorance, and that the communities they imagine will be based on accumulated wisdom. What’s the alternative? To be perpetually bogged down in counter-productive, short-sighted conflicts and social divisions? Maybe. Maybe the immediate incentives to gain an advantage by oppressing or stepping on top of others is too tempting. Maybe not. Maybe people can recognize that non-zero-sum relationships based that are mutually beneficial (win-win) are more enduring than ones that rely on a win-lose model (zero-sum) which only create long-term resentments.

What is a long-term worthy goal for humanity? I can imagine a few goals, and yours may differ from mine. But nowhere on my list is a narrow-minded, parochial desire to prop up one group of people above all others. Such a goal is a failure of imagination.

“A People Orientation” (A View from Anthropology and Astronomy)

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’ ”

— astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell

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“Earthrise,” 1968 (Source: NASA)

 

Sometimes, a simple shift of perspective can make all the difference in the world. Whenever I have to drive somewhere new, I always look at a map. Sometimes, it’s an old hard-copy version, though the majority of time I’ll use an online one. That view from above is very helpful, but sometimes at ground level there are nuances which I may have overlooked (an unexpected left-lane exit), or road changes, or construction that may have altered since the map was created. Both perspectives – on the ground, and from the sky – are correct; they just give us different views of the same thing. 

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Shifting perspectives. Source.

In the Edgar Mitchell quote above, a dramatic change in perspective – in this case a view of earth from the moon – created a sense of the unity of humanity, as well as a frustration that people back home frequently fail to rise above their parochial squabbles on the ground. That notion seems to recur among astronomers, astronauts, and astrophysicists. Perhaps it is an inherent benefit of their big-picture view. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” is the standard bearer for this sentiment:

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Pursuing the God of Truth in a Post-Truth Era

[Summary: This essay has three parts. First, truth is really important. Second, you are a damn fool. Well, not a fool. I’m trying to get your attention. But you are fallible, and so am I. We all are. This makes discovering truth very difficult. Third, our fallibilities can be exploited by others who do not particularly care for truth. Be humble, embrace your fallibilities, and try to overcome them as we strive towards accessing truth.]

“Being good, she observed, meant being good to others, including strangers. And that was pretty much enough to live by. But how can you know the right thing to do? Human reasoning, she said – referring now explicitly to Socrates and Plato – human reasoning is imperfect. Human bias keeps us from perfect vision of what is happening around us. But the quest for truth – the quest to understand the world around us – must ultimately be how you enact the good.”

– Alice Dreger’s mother (Galileo’s Middle Finger, p. 256)

“Veritas super omnia.”

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Last year, I shared some thoughts on Isaiah Berlin’s 1994 essay, “A Message to the 21st Century.” Everyone should read it, in my opinion. I often come back to his words, as I see them as a synopsis of the human condition. Berlin emphasized that the values we hold most dear frequently clash with other ones (justice can clash with mercy, spontaneity with rational planning, liberty with equality, knowledge with happiness, etc.).

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Our Trivial, Different Ways of Being Human

From Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” (p. 283):

“We have held the peculiar notion that a person or society that is a little different from us, whoever we are, is somehow strange or bizarre, to be distrusted or loathed. Think of the negative connotations of words like ‘alien’ or ‘outlandish.’ And yet the monuments and cultures of each of our civilizations merely represent different ways of being human. An extraterrestrial visitor, looking at the differences among human beings and their societies, would find those differences trivial compared to the similarities. The Cosmos may be densely populated with intelligent beings. But the Darwinian lesson is clear: There will be no humans elsewhere. Only here. Only on this small planet. We are a rare as well as endangered species. Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have captured the most comprehensive picture ever assembled of the evolving Universe — and one of the most colourful. The study is called the Ultraviolet Coverage of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UVUDF) project.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field. (Source)

The ‘Sapient’ Species

This Carl Sagan video “Pale Blue Dot” may not be new to many of you, but for those who haven’t seen it, I think everyone should watch it at least once. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how frequently people conflict over personal issues, power, ideology, wealth, or for whatever rationale. What a way to use the finite time we have to exist. For a species that defines itself, taxonomically, as being sapient, we have an odd way of showing it. 

 

The Pale Blue Dot

“Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

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