By Milos Radovic, Serbia, 1997.
I grew up with COSMOS series; I loved Carl Sagan, with his calm voice and eloquent but simple way of expressing the truths of science and the power of genuine curiosity about the world. His work has had a profound influence on me. What for some was the bible, or Snowwhite fairytale, for me was the Cosmos book. I still can vividly remember the day when I got it as present from my grandmother: she took me to the book store and bought the book for me, knowing how much I liked the series. I was around 10 years old.
It is rather astonishing today, with all the scientific advances and evidence amassed since the release of Cosmos series, that the creationists, religious leaders and charlatans seem to gain upper hand against scientific approach and logical view of the world. It is frightening how many Americans, for example, are ready to dismiss evolution and require that creationism be taught in schools, alongside, or instead of, scientifically proofed theories. Is the science today reaching its zenith but in the same time loosing battle against simple and comforting explanations offered first-hand by pseudo-scientists? How can it be that even some college educated friends I have are not able to distinguish the difference between faith and science, and are seriously discussing about putting equation sign between the two?! It can not be just lack of knowledge, although it certainly can play a part in it; it seems to me that there is a serious flaw in the education systems around the world. The scientific method, based on endless and arduous “experiment-theory-proofs” cycles is not properly taught. The most exciting voyage of Homo Sapiens, the adventurous quest for truth based on reason and observation of the world as it really is and not as we would want it to be, the long way of how we came to the knowledge of today and how much more there lies ahead to be discovered, is per default not taught in schools at all. What we learn in school are only the names of the scientists and their laws, rules and results, endless equations and discovery dates, but nothing more. More often than not we are taught not to reason, but to adopt. Not to ask questions, but to believe in answers. Not to experiment, but to accept. Who was trained in this way may naturally have difficulties in distinguishing science from faith.
For most people science is becoming similar to shamanism, something that “common” people can not understand, due to its supposed complexity and distance from life. Math is literally THE Horror for almost each pupil and his parents; many will even question its necessity for everyday life. Some of the most significant scientific theories of today, theories of Evolution and Relativism, for example, are considered “just another theories”, although firmly confirmed by strong evidence. Many people are afraid of science, because of its potentials to destroy our world, forgetting how much it already improved our lives and longevity. It seems that science is becoming a monster who has to be tamed and put away, the frightening oracle who is unrelentlessly revealing the astonishing complexity of life and the world around us. The simple answers and “truths” of religion, the rules of superstition, the astrology revelations and transcendental swindling seem much more attractive in respect.
But science is no monster. It is one of the most beautiful achievements of free human spirit and persistence. Its basic principles can be understood by everybody, its methods we unconsciously apply to our surroundings every day, and its countless results we wear, use and live with, without ever thinking about it. When properly taught, math, physics, astronomy, linguistics, history and philosophy, to name just some faces of science, can be deeply thought provoking and influential. It is our duty as intelligent beings to use our most powerful evolutionary tool to examine and understand the world around us. It is in our nature to ask questions, to be curious, to look for interconnections in the reality we live in. Everyone of us can be a scientist. The only requirement is to have the courage to wide open the eyes and see the world as it is, and not as we would like it to be.
It makes me sad to see that the tidal wave of faith is raising, seriously threatening to drown the remarkable achievements of human curiosity for knowledge. Furthermore, it is deeply disturbing that the people who despise science, its methods and its results, may come in the possession of its powers; by this I am not only thinking of Middle East dictators thirsty of nuclear power, but also about leaders of westerns democracies who consult fortune-tellers before making decisions, or whose most important book is the bible. If the majority in one society dismisses reasoning in favour of faith, the basic principle of democracy will bring the most eloquent faith-based populists in power. The change they would be able to enforce, using democratic means, could have had immense consequences not only for us but also for generations to come.
I want to believe that such scenario is not really possible. Against all previous challenges in history, some of which had thrown us back for hundreds of years, human curiosity, courage, and the quest for logical explanations brought us here today, to the best of all previous worlds, and it is highly unlikely that we will all choose another way now. Although there is still unbearably much suffering in our contemporary world it can not be argued that human beings in general never enjoyed the better quality of life than now. Using science and our compassion to improve the life of all people on this planet will not only save lives but also disseminate the power of reason. But we have a lot to work on it, and we have to teach scientific approach, encourage discussion, ask questions, exchange knowledge, and firmly defend our convictions in every situation. And we must never stop discovering the beauties of the universe around us revealed through science.
When I was in India last year I really enjoyed Indian cuisine. It is mainly vegetarian, but they also make delicious meat based meals, all of them consisting of small chops of meat cooked and served in diverse thick sauces, sometimes very spicey. You can eat it with rice or with Indian bread, a crÃªpe-like pastry. The meals offered were mainly of chicken meat, but also of goat, fish, and pig. No cows, of course.
During one lunch I praised to my hosts the meal I was eating. Content to hear it they hurried to explain me that I will not find cow meat in Indian menus: “We Hindu do not eat cows, you know. Cow is our holy animal.” I knew it – who doesn’t? – but I just nodded politely. Then it occurred to me that Muslims do not eat pigs: “And your neighbours, Muslims…? Isn’t it so that they do not eat pigs?” – “Right”, my host nodded in approval, “in their religion the pig is holy animal!”
Now that was not the way I knew about it! Pig is supposed to be a dirty animal in Islam, and therefore prohibited. I have never heard that it was regarded as a holy animal. Nevertheless I was not in the mood of correcting my kind host in theological matters, so I just said what was obvious: “So it means that you are eating their Holy Animal, and they are eating yours, right?” – “Well, yes…” he answered reluctantly, with an unsure expression: “now when you put it that way, yes… we eat holy animals of one another.”
For the rest of the lunch no more words were spoken.
Video by John Boswell: www.symphonyofschience.com.
(Carl Sagan’s lyrics written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter)
All life is related
And it enables us to construct with confidence
The complex tree that represents the history of life
Our planet, the Earth, is as far as we know
Unique in the universe; it contains life
Here plants and animals proliferate in such numbers
That we still have not even named all the different species
Darwin’s great insight revolutionized the way in which we see the world
We now understand why there are so many different species
Every cell is a triumph of natural selection
And we’re made of trillions of cells (Within us is a little universe)
Those are some of the things that molecules do
Given four billions years of evolution (We are, each of us, a multitude)
Now how did the molecules of life arise?
It began in the sea
Some 3 thousand million years ago
Complex chemical molecules began to clump together
These were the “seeds”
From which the tree of life developed
They were able to split, replicating themselves
As bacteria do
The secrets of evolution
Are time and death
There’s an unbroken thread that stretches
From those first cells to us
There isn’t a sharp line dividing humans
from the rest of the animal kingdom
It’s a very wuzzie line
It’s a very wuzzie line,
and it’s getting wuzzier
All the time
We find animals doing things that we,
In our arrogance,
Used to think was “just human”
Its continued survival now rests in our hands