Our Essential, Fragile Bonds

Today would have been my brother’s birthday, and I’ve been saving this passage from Boris Pasternik’s Doctor Zhivago to mark it. Here the title character, Yura Zhivago, is speaking to Anna Ivanovna who feared she was terminally ill. He offers what he thinks happens to us when we die, and the primacy of our social connections:

“So what will happen to your consciousness? Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else’s. Well, what are you? There’s the point. Let’s try to find out. What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself? Your kidneys? Your liver? Your blood vessels? No. However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity–in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people. And now listen carefully. You in others–this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life–your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you–the you that enters the future and becomes part of it.” (Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, p. 68)

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I still haven’t mastered the ability to completely separate the academic and the personal, and I’m not sure I completely want to. Instead of an impenetrable wall between them, perhaps, for me, there is a wrought-iron fence with an open gate. What I mean is that I often go between the two, allowing them to inform each other. The passage from Zhivago is from literature, and is not a scientific statement. But it runs parallel to some aspects of science, which seems poetic to me, particularly on a day I’m thinking of my brother. 

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Kant at 39

File:Immanuel Kant (painted portrait).jpg

Kant (wiki commons)

Today is birthday 39. Odd. I’m finding inspiration from Immanuel Kant:

He was of the rather curious conviction that a person did not have a firm direction in life until their thirty-ninth year; when this came and passed and he was just a minor metaphysician in a Prussian University a brief mid-life crisis ensued; perhaps it can be credited with some of his later direction.

We all take different paths and bloom at different times. 

Kindness and Regrets

Be excellent to each other.” – Bill and Ted (20th century philosophers)

 

From a commencement speech by George Saunders: 

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindnessThose moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.”

Saunders then describes a memory from the seventh grade, when he did not defend the new girl in school who was teased for being different. Forty-two years later, he still thinks of her occasionally, and even though he was not personally cruel toward her, he regrets not going out of his way to extend her kindness. He then questions why kindness is often lacking, and he looks for prescriptions to make it more common.

The speech is a good one, and it stirred up some personal memories of instances when I could have used some kindness from someone. Sometimes it came; others it didn’t. There were also situations that called for me to be the one to extend kindness to someone else who needed it. Sometimes I stepped up, although probably not as consistently as I should have. Fear can be a powerful deterrent. Like Saunders, I regret those missed opportunities.

Of course, the opposite of kindness is cruelty, and I’m often distressed by the latest story of human callousness, where someone is belittled for not conforming to another’s standards. For those of us who are not Rhodes Scholar Olympians (which is to say, nearly everyone), we all fall short of socially constructed ideals in some way. Either we’re not attractive enough, or not stylish, athletic, or smart enough (or too smart). Too red. Too blue. Too promiscuous or too chaste. Too tall. Too short. Too neurally atypical. Or, we’re the ‘wrong’ weight, gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, social class, or speak the wrong dialect. We can be incredibly creative at finding the holes in the armor to bring someone down.

For such an intensely social species, we often seem to go out of our way to make each other want to leave the group.

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On Finding Optimism

(Dec 31: Here’s to an optimistic New Year, and that as individuals and societies we can learn from, and possibly even get the chance to rectify, our mistakes).

Some days, it’s harder to find optimism than others. But it’s always there. “In any event, it is the only way we can live.” 

From Bobby Kennedy:

“There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows. But we can perhaps remember—even if only for a time—that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek—as we do—nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

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A Darwin Day Dose of Inspiration

Today is Charles Darwin Day, in honor of the person whose insights on evolution helped us make sense of the biological world. Evolution remains the backbone of biology, 200+ years after Darwin’s birth. In addition to evolution being a scientifically robust theory, many also find it to be an inspirational idea. At the end of  “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin wrote what is one of the most cited passages in science:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

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It is a wonderful world, and Darwin’s ideas help make nature’s diversity comprehensible to us. Like many others, I definitely have found inspiration in his ideas, which I’ve tried to put into words in various posts on this site (below are a few examples). Happy Darwin Day, everyone.

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Nature, Not Always “Red in Tooth and Claw”

In “River Out of Eden,” Richard Dawkins wrote this passage on the cruelties of nature:

 “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (Dawkins 2008: 131-2)

 

I think this view of nature is one of the primary reasons that many people run away from the idea of evolution.  For some, the notion of an indifferent nature, where organisms can be reduced merely to genetic ‘copy me’ programs  with the goals of survival and reproduction, is too bleak. Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education, has written that for many non-biologists the notion that evolution is an unguided, mechanistic process implies that “life has no meaning.” Microbiologist Kenneth Miller, a staunch defender of evolution, has relayed that in his experience one of the main concerns of many anti-evolutionists is not with the science, but with the implications of evolution, which is perceived as threatening to moral order. For example, Miller referred to this statement from Rick Santorum, the former Presidential candidate and Senator from Pennsylvania:

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I Should Like to Say Two Things

With another contentious election now behind us, I’ve been thinking about this famous, lengthy quote from Bertrand Russell. In an interview from 1959, he spoke of the need for people to find common ground and to make an honest effort at seeking truth, even when we don’t like what the truth is.

I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral.

The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say: Love is wise. Hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way — and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

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