Saturday, March 19, 2011

Science is Optimism

Charles Darwin was always hesitant to apply the theory of evolution to human beings. The Origin of Species ignores humans as a subject, and the Descent of Man takes an absurdly positive view of human nature. He wrote that civilization came to be through the evolutionarily favored empathy and compassion between early man. He suggests that compassion is one of the primary qualities that makes modern man successfully reproduce and believed that the more advanced civilizations were advanced because the compassion of civilized men had a broader reach than those of less advanced people; his argument is "since I loved my universal 'neighbor' as myself, I would be more evolutionarily successful than if I only loved my physical neighbor as myself." Modern biologists take a much more nuanced and realistic approach to the subject and we know that while compassion is important in humans, fouler motives tend to guide most of our behavior. Perhaps he chose this rose-colored view of human evolution because he wanted fame for his discoveries and believed they would be rejected if he brought them to their dark conclusion, or perhaps he was too influenced by his contemporary philosophers, but there is another possible reason: When he lived, the world had become so astonishing due to human ingenuity, it only seemed possible that such a world could come to be by a cooperative group of people working together, and the virtues of compassion and empathy are absolutely necessary to make something so wonderful.

His world was post industrial revolution Englad. We tend to look back on that age and think of huge clouds of smoke covering the cities, the subjugation of the poor and the romantic poets complaining about all of it. That age, however, was the beginning of technology. The arcane sciences, which once only mattered to philosophers, now were changing the face of the planet, and their discoveries started to improve the quality of life drastically. This was the beginning of a trend.

To start at the beginning, for thousands of years, the world was largely the same. Between the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Chinese and Japanese, each made great discoveries and advanced their civilizations beyond primitive, but as each civilization’s technological prowess grew, they were continually hindered by the gluttony of their monarchs or civil war or religion. Then there was a miracle, the Renaissance. Though the Italian Renaissance was quashed by the Borgias, the greatness of Da Vinci, Dante and Michelango could not be contained by political borders. Soon all of Western Europe began to reinvent itself. Descartes arose as the philosophic voice of the new world as he revolutionized both philosophy and science. Everyone set out to tear down the previously sacred philosophy of Aristotle. Empiricism was popular in England and spread to France. Every man of intellect tried his hand at making the next new scientific discovery. The speed of technology began to speed up. Boyle discovered that gas laws and because of him, the steam engine was invented. Then trains and railways spread all over the world. Similarly, factories were invented and improved the speed of manufacturing a thousand fold. Volta and Galvani learned to control electricity then Tesla and Edison learned how to use it in cities. There was a massive undertaking to build power grids connecting villages, towns and metropolises to generators and illuminating the night sky. Soon we had heated water in our homes. The Great War showed how technology could be used for the rampant destruction of human life, and the Second War showed us the true potential technology has for destruction. It would not have been possible without the work of Einstein. In this new science, theory precedes invention. Behind each advancement in technology is the work of engineers, inventors and a theory, and behind each theory is the work of many scientists.

Science is competitive and people always want to outdo their contemporaries, but as each field has advanced, people more and more are forced to rely on the work of their competitors. While every scientist dreams of uprooting all current theories, most scientists don’t make major breakthroughs. Many, however, make minor ones which don’t overturn theories, but amend them. The big theories are refined by the little and along the way seemingly insignificant discoveries lead to wonderful advancements. The anthropologists studying a tribe in South America discovers the way in which the shaman uses a hallucinogen to ease the mental anguish of a family who had lost its father to war, and that research leads a psychiatrist in America to reevaluate value of hallucinogens in therapy. The zoologist who studies a lizard which exists in only in the Sahara Desert notices that they absorb and recycle water in an extremely efficient way, and a researcher realizes that these techniques could be used to vastly increase the efficiency of water usage in cities. The zoologist and anthropologist are adding bits and pieces to the massive (and I mean extraordinarily massive) body of information we call the theory of evolution and at the same time helping to develop new technologies (I don’t currently have the internet, but I feel like this example could be with a little research). I find it a great comfort to know that there are hundreds of thousands of people working right now on sciencey things that could improve the world in unfathomable ways.

There is a tendency to look back at the past and think that the world was better than. It seems a natural human instinct as even that characters in Homer see their ancestors as better stronger men then they. The reasons why are unnecessary to explain here, but this form of nostalgia is pointless and irrational. When we think about the “good old days” we mythologize them. We don’t think about how the modern wars, which admittedly are horrible, amount to near insignificant death tolls relative to the per capita death tolls in any other part of human history. Over this century, even if you include both world wars, the percentage of people killed by warfare is a small fraction of people killed in previous centuries and a near insignificant figure compared to that of tribal peoples. The figures for infant mortality, rape and murder are the same way. The quality of life for most people has risen exponentially. We tend to fear China as a tyrannical country who will end up ruling the world, but they’ll pass America in civil rights sooner than we think. Their ascension will continue to improve the world’s quality of life statistics. Perhaps their rise will diminish America‘s, but I think that unlikely. Even as our wealth fades, technology will compensate for it. The invention of the internet is underestimated in how much it has improved people’s lives. Too many people still fear it. The approaching environmental crisis will force us to change, but we can and will adapt. I would never bet against the ingenuity of all of the world’s scientists. How could you when they’re the people who turned invented the computer, and landed on the moon and even turned matter into energy. Nothing is impossible (even sending information faster than the speed of light!). And now, we have more scientists and engineers than ever before; Vegas has the odds as dollars to donuts for them.

I‘m not necessarily suggesting that humankind is progressing and will soon reach some perfectly happy state of being. Science in inherently incomplete and flawed. It will never be perfect. Even if it was, human beings sometimes harm each other out of boredom as often as pain and those tendencies are a part of our race. Suffering and tragedy are in our DNA (bleh), but as technology and science advance, some of the needless pains that we suffer through disappear. When Montaigne wrote about his kidney stones, he said the treatments in the 1500s tended not to work and would require drastic shifts in his lifestyle. He decided that he would rather continue to enjoy his way of life and deal with the pain of his stones. He was choosing to accept some of life‘s pains to keep his more valuable pleasures. In modern days we can break stones down instantly and, though I‘m told passing them is still a bear, we are freed from the pain without changing our lives. The modern kidney stones might be migraines or some other ailment, but there will always be some pains that cause us trouble, but the more of them we eliminate, the rarer they become.

As we eliminate the problems of humanity, it’s hard not to look at the modern world and be amazed. Sure people are still assholes sometimes and sometimes life is tough, but as I walk through my city and look around to see all the building and the millions of people who coexist without feces on the streets or suffering from bubonic plague, it strikes me as wonderful. The only reason that this marvel is possible is because of the single largest collaborative undertaking in human history: the advancement of science. The world as it is has not come about because of the greatness of a few men, but through the greatness of many who are willing to share what they've discovered with the world. Science is not an occult teaching designed only for the few, but everything that people know is available to anyone who would learn it.

One could say I have faith in science, but it’s not really faith. Even as I sit here and type I know that technology has made my life easier at least, and I’d argue for better as well; statistics are on my side. Who needs faith when I’m surrounded by proof of the wonders of science. The scientists out there trying to tackle some problem, or cure some disease must be thinking the same thing (at least every once in a while because, let’s face it, the progress of individual researchers tends to be oh so slow). They’re working to improve the world in a tangible way and its comforting to think that the people who follow us will have even more wonderful lives because of it. This isn’t the kind of optimism where the glass is half full or empty, because science is a pitcher of water filling the glass all the time. We’ve no idea how full the glass is, but we’re certain it’s getting fuller all the time.

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