Category Archives: Science

The Nature of Evidence

Home alone on a Friday night, I turned to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Not a typical horror film, this art house production is an updating and remaking of F. W. Murnau’s technically illegal 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has been a few years since I’ve watched it, but the beauty of the cinematography kept coming back to me at unexpected times. Klaus Kinski is an unforgettable Count Dracula, hideous and compelling simultaneously. He draws pity and revulsion. When he’s not on camera you can’t wait for him to appear. There’s not much new in the story, of course, as it follows Murnau pretty closely, with some shots being nearly identical. One exception to this is the plague. Wherever Dracula appears the Black Death accompanies him. This leads to one of the most unusual twists of this retelling—the role of Dr. Van Helsing.

Instead of being the authority on vampires and leader of the attack, Van Helsing is here a reluctant rationalist who doesn’t accept superstition. He encourages the town elders to respond calmly to an outbreak of the plague. When Lucy Harker insists that Jonathan has been the victim of a vampire (which he has) the professor again urges caution. He insists that this must be approached scientifically, empirically. You don’t pull up wheat to see if it’s growing, he notes philosophically. Take time, trust science, and all will be well. Meanwhile the audience knows the reality of the vampire. There is a supernatural threat and it is moving fast. Lucy knows they must strike against Dracula before the vampire destroys the whole town. Despite the mounting number of deaths by plague, Van Helsing still clings to slow and steady evidence, only realizing after Lucy’s death that she had been right all along.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this retelling after all. A female takes the lead. Lucy is the one determined to stop the vampire. She does so out of belief. Van Helsing rightly points out that this is a dangerous way to approach a problem. One ponders what might’ve happened had science been allowed to run its course. Van Helsing, if science be science, would’ve had to at last come to the same conclusion that Lucy had experientially. She’d read Jonathan’s diary and she had a late night conversation with Dracula where he did not appear in her mirror and did shy away from her crucifix. She too is evaluating evidence, only she has to allow for the reality of the supernatural. Since the story is old and the production artistic, this is no bloodbath horror spectacle. It is a thoughtful, almost quiet reflection on how we perceive reality. Even among the many vampire films it remains a thing of beauty.

Sea Around Us

Re-reading books is something I do somewhat too infrequently. One of the obvious reasons is that I won’t possibly finish everything I want to read in my lifetime as it is, and once something’s in the vault I tend to move on. I keep books, however, because I frequently go back to them to refresh my memory. Wholesale re-reading takes commitment. I just finished re-reading Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. It’s difficult to describe the impact this book had on me when I first read it, years ago. Even though modern editions state that it retains its authority (broadly it does) I couldn’t help but be struck by a number of things this time through. Carson thought of herself as a writer. In her day that meant adhering to the conventions of language, which was, I admit, embarrassingly masculine. The assumptions of the 1940s and ‘50s against which Carson struggled set the very frame for the discussion. I recall being told in school, by female English teachers, that the only proper pronoun to use when the subject was of indeterminate gender was the masculine. I raised my eyebrows, but being good at following rules, I didn’t raise my hand.

Not that this takes away from the poetry and mastery of The Sea Around Us. It is a wonderful book. It also made many people stop and think about the ocean for the first time. Really think. And that’s a second observation about my re-reading. Hearing the recitation of how, historically—or prehistorically—the oceans covered much of North America. Thinking about how my hometown, far, far inland would’ve been underwater for eons really made me ponder. We’ve built our coastal cities rapidly, and with typical human short-sightedness. Even without our generous input, global warming has been ongoing for centuries. Sea-levels have been rising. Our desire for wealth, settling as close as possible to the water to facilitate trade, didn’t take into account what would happen in the perhaps foreseeable future. Even now when the warning is loud and clear the businessmen of the White House are in full denial.

There’s a kind of strange justice to this. You see, one of the other features of The Sea Around Us, and one of the most compelling aspects of the book, is Carson’s narrative of how we came from the sea and our desire is to return to the sea. Our blood evolved from ocean water. We rely constantly and in significant ways on the oceans. They, for example, are the powerhouses and condensation points for almost all of our weather. They separate us and bring us together. The very origin of life itself basks in pelagic profundity. Indeed, the ocean supplies the very concept of “profound.” The deeps. Although it had a beginning, it seems the world ocean will outlive our tribal little race. Damaged and poisoned by our greed, in eons it will recover. And those beings that survive will find their own wisdom beneath the waves.

Ellis Island

A few years back we made a trip to Ellis Island. This is a common field trip here in New Jersey, although none of my immediate family passed through this portal. The most recent immigrants in my own heritage seem to have arrived by the early 1800s. In any case, Ellis Island is an impressive location. Now a museum, you can wander through the rooms and get an idea of what newcomers faced after a long and trying ocean voyage. What struck me the most was that large numbers of people were turned away for mental problems. I suspect mental illness of one sort or another is unnervingly common among human beings, and our current frenetic pace of life probably only exacerbates the situation. Still, I wonder if we really have a clear grasp on what is “normal.”

As humans become more adept at understanding their own brains, a need for more precise definitions asserts itself. A friend recently sent me an article suggesting “Neurologists Have Identified Brain Lesions That Could Be Linked to Religious Fundamentalism” on Science Alert. The article my Mike McRae ultimately doesn’t suggest that brain damage is the answer to Fundamentalism, but the story reminded me of an unscientific observation by one of my seminary professors decades ago. Harrell Beck once said something along the lines of Fundamentalism isn’t a theological position, it’s a psychological problem. Indeed, those who fall into the literalist camp have a preternatural urge to see things in black and white. Rules that can’t be violated, even if it means your deity’s an angry old God. With literally Hell to pay if you’re wrong, the right course of action is strikingly clear. Only life’s seldom so simple.

We study our brains but we don’t have a baseline for normal. I can’t believe that waking before dawn to catch a bus to work a job that pays less than a successful high school degree in other states is a good bet by anybody’s standard measure of normalcy. Those who read probing biographies find that even our brightest and best have quirks they didn’t wear in public. Surely the physicians on Ellis Island had some guidelines in mind when they were turning away those who didn’t measure up to the standard of what an ideal American mentality should be. Although Ellis Island shut its doors over half a century ago, it’s clear that even if we kept some unstable candidates out, we’ve done a stellar job of growing our own. And that can be taken as truth by faith alone.

Human Omniscience

This might take some thought, but please bear with me. I’ve been reading about how some scientists are eager to promote rationality only as the true understanding of the universe. The flaws in this logic are immense. The greatest gaff here is assuming that evolved biological creatures with only five senses have come to comprehend the vastness of a universe in which we matter very, very, very, (and some scientific notation may be helpful here) very little. And we assume that’s all there is to know. Consider that when you want to spot the Pleiades in the nighttime sky, the best way to do it is not to look directly at the constellation. Our rods, which are far more sensitive than our cones, are not concentrated in the center of our field of vision. That means, in some circumstances, you see something better by looking slightly away from it. Don’t take my word for it, test it yourself on a clear night.

We also know that some animals have senses that we don’t. When’s the last time you picked up the earth’s magnetic field? We know it’s there and we know that some animals sense it. We don’t. Or consider the ant. If ants make you itchy, any hive mind will do. There are creatures right here on earth that think collectively, not as individuals. As humans we’ve evolved to think that our limited experience tells us everything there possibly is to know about truth. We don’t know how living under water influences perceptions because we can’t do it. No, we’re a race of surface dwellers. (There’s a metaphor there for those of you who believe in such things.) We’ve learned some basic laws of physics and suddenly we preside over the courtroom of the universe since our evolved logic is the only and the best the cosmos has to offer.

Evolution, however, also made us religious. If logic is at all what it seems we have to admit that study after study has shown the benefits of religious belief to the beleaguered human psyche. If we try to measure it empirically it crumbles in our fingers. Only logic would tell us simply to ignore it then. I’m no enemy of reason. It’s the best way we have of getting along in this world. I love science and support its evidence-based health. It’s just that as I’m standing here in the dark wondering where the seven sisters are, I sometimes have to trust my rods instead of focusing on what I can see plainly with my everyday sight. Logic tells me there are other things outside my sensory range as well.

Photo credit: NASA

One Size Fits All

The divide between religion and science is often artificially widened by one side or the other. Of course the divide’s artificial—both science and religion are human constructs, after all. This is illustrated well in the sense of wonder in an article titled “True Story Of Volcanic Eruption Told By Aboriginal People For 7,000 Years” by Robin Andrews on IFLScience!. The very concept that a scientifically verifiable event survived in oral tradition for thousands of years completely unbalances those accustomed to think that the ancients were superstitious dupes who looked to the gods to explain everything. What’s often not realized is that the gods were an early version of science. Think about it—ancient people observed their environment for cause and effect. They couldn’t use the empirical method because it hadn’t been invented yet. That didn’t mean they were unsophisticated.

We look at the pyramids and wonder. How could such archaic people construct such advanced monuments? The rudiments of science actually begin to appear in the human record very early. Our species is a curious lot. The explanations for the close observations tended to be mythological. Gods are great for filling gaps. What we don’t see is any conflict between knowledge acquired by reason and ideas conjured by imagination. They fit together nicely. Human brains evolved that way. Belief is a strange thing—it influences reality, at least on a quantum level, but somehow it must be denigrated when compared to “pure science.” A large part of the blame, of course, has to go to those who had learned to take the Bible literally, particularly beginning in the eighteenth century.

The Bible had a disproportionally influential role in the founding of European empires. From the regular Roman under Constantine to the Holy Roman under Charlemagne, what became Catholicism informed political structures. In the British Empire, ever vacillating between Catholic and Protestant, the Bible played a major intellectual role. Real problems developed, however, when the idea of science alone took over. This was after Newton, Galileo, and Darwin. None of these lights suggested religion had no place. The real issue isn’t vanquishing, but finding proper balance. No matter how well calibrated our instruments may become, until we learn to detect “spirit” we have to admit that science can’t replace religion. Such harmful ideas as eugenics and behaviorism indicate that we need a balance and not a slam dunk. Who knows? Some of even the Bible may be true. Unless we learn to admit we don’t know all, those sitting around the fireside telling stories should be given credibility regarding what they’ve seen.

Size and Its Matters

Have you ever wondered where your Bible came from? No, I mean physically. There are many possible answers to such a query, so the other day I was searching for Bible printers on the web. A great many Bibles are printed by Royal Jongbloed, in the Netherlands. They specialize in the super-thin paper used in much Bible printing. The reason the paper is thin is purely pragmatic. The Bible is an economy-sized book and if printed with “regular” paper it would be large and unwieldy—something desirable only by those with nefarious purposes, I suspect. Bible paper, by the way, was developed originally by Oxford University Press. And in case you’re wondering, the convention of printing Bibles in two-column format is also a space-saving convention. So I was looking over the Jongbloed site, wondering if they’re nervous at all about the increase of Nones. Then I remembered that in many parts of the world Christianity is actually growing, so there should be security in the Bible printing market for some time.

The Netherlands had a large role to play in the development of Protestantism and its love of the Bible. Many English non-conformists found it a welcoming place. Bibles were welcome. But Bibles aren’t all that Jongbloed does. They print scientific manuals too. Now that caught my attention. There’s nothing mercenary going on here—some scientific manuals are really big and are printed on (of all ironies) Bible paper. Is there some kind of conflict on interest going on here? I mean, which is it—science or religion? Or maybe there’s a third way. Maybe it’s not an either/or proposition. Maybe Occam shaves a little too closely.

The craziness flooding out of the District of Columbia has us all worried. Science is being attacked. If you’re being attacked you look around for your enemies. Religion! But wait, is religion really science’s enemy? How easy it is to forget that science developed from alchemy and astrology, both religious practices. Even today many scientists see no inherent disagreement between the two. If we want to be effective in warding off the pressing insanity we need to realize who the real enemy is. Science and religion can both be honest searches for the truth of this universe we inhabit. No, the natural enemy of science is personal greed. It’s also, if we take any kind of religion at it’s word, the enemy of religion as well. What we see bursting the floodgates of Foggy Bottom is the desire for personal gain cloaked as governance for the masses. We should never forget that the Netherlands facilitated a movement that changed everything. Besides, it’s just too expensive to print Bibles in a land badly in need of a Reformation.

Spiritual Spelunking

Looking at the headlines it’s sometimes difficult to believe we’ve evolved. I still trust evidence-based science, despite official government policy, however. So when a friend sent me a story about a new human cousin I knew it was worth a look. Homo naledi bones date from much more recent times than they should. At less than 400,000 years old (which means they might fit GOP ideology pretty well) they are almost contemporary with Homo sapiens. And, apparently, they buried their dead. Now much of this is still speculation. The bones were found in caves with openings so small that onlyfemale spelunkers could fit in, and the question of whether dropping bodies in a hole counts as burial has raised its head. Still, the human family tree is being redrawn, and in a way conservatives won’t like.

I became interested in evolution because of Genesis. My mother gave us a few science books as children even though we were Fundamentalists. One of them talked about evolution and I was intrigued. Clearly it didn’t fit with the creation story—I was young enough not to notice the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2—and yet scientist believed it. They likely weren’t Christians, I reasoned. College gave the lie to that deductive thinking when I ran into Christians teaching the required “Science Key” who believed in, and yes, taught, evolution. I’d missed something, obviously. Once I discovered evolution could coexist with Scripture I was eager to learn as much as a non-biologist could. In my teaching days I focused on the early part of Genesis and even began to write a book on it.

Image credit: Margaret A. McIntyre, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s much more honest to admit that we’re related to the rest of life on this planet than to set ourselves aside as something special. Evolution has done something that the Bible never could—brought all living things together. There are too many towers of Babel and chosen people themes in Holy Writ to allow for real parity with our fellow humans, let alone other creatures. Yet the human family tree is wondrous in its diversity and complexity. We now know that Neanderthals were likely interbreeding with Homo sapiens and I wonder how that impacts myths of divine chosen species. Did Jesus die for the Neanderthals too, or just our own sapiens sapiens subspecies? You can see the problem. For a literalist it’s just easier to crawl into a cave. But only if the opening is large enough to admit males, since the Bible says they were created first, right?