Frank R. Zindler: The Probing Mind
Science would provide miracle-like improvements in health, living, and knowledge in just a few short decades -- or years. But religion and superstition may blockade its way.
FRANK ZINDLER Links: How do you loose a steel mill ? | Whence and whither science ? | An Atheist's Guide to Mohammedanism
... has a distinguished academic career as a former biology and geology professor, science writer, linguist and bible-era historian. He has authored numerous books and articles dealing with a wide range of subjects, everything from the alleged historicity of Jesus to the on-going controversy over teaching creationism in our public schools. His tenure as an activist with American Atheists goes back over 30 years. Frank is a nationally-recognized speaker and debater, and has served as an eloquent spokesperson for our organization.
He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, and the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is the Ohio Spokesperson for American Atheists. In 2008 Frank served as President Pro Temp for American Atheists.
Whence and whither science?
Like religion, science has its roots in the superstitious primal substratum of human prehistory. Like religion, science seeks to discern the causes of things and to understand why the world is the way it is. Indeed, in the earliest stages of recorded history, as in many nonliterate, tribal societies yet today, no distinction can be made between science and religion.
As time went on, however, science and religion began to diverge-ultimately to become mutually exclusive cognitive phenomena. While superstition-in its essence, the false association of causes and effects - has never ceased to be an integral component of religious thought, science progressively has sought to eliminate false causal associations and to discover the true causal relations hiding in the confusion we call nature. Success in discovering the real laws of cause and effect progressively made science extremely accurate in predicting certain aspects of the future, such as eclipses of the sun. Much to the annoyance of the would-be prophets of religion, whose predictions repeatedly are falsified by history, scientists routinely and correctly predict the outcomes of numberless experiments and natural situations.
The Jesus the
Jews Never Knew:
But there is a further fundamental difference between science and religion. Science is reductionistic in that it tries to explain the unknown in terms of the known. Contrariwise, religious explanations frequently explain the unknown in terms of the even less known-the old fallacy of ignotum per ignotius. Thus while Benjamin Franklin explained lightning in terms of electricity (something that had already been studied in the laboratory), religionists explained it as an expression of the wrath of Thor, or Zeus, or Jehovah. Some still do, despite the fact that the psychodynamic principles underlying Jehovah's alleged behavior are completely unknown-and will forever remain so!
The long struggle of emerging science with change-resistant religion in the West is too well known to require recounting in detail. The Christian burning of the library at Alexandria, the papal closing of Plato's academy, the outlawing of the study of astronomy and mathematics, the prohibition of dissection of the human body-in short, all the Christian contributions to that benighted era known as the Dark Ages are part of the stock in knowledge of most Atheist readers of this column. The war of the Roman Catholic church against Copernicus and Galileo, the war of Protestants and Roman Catholics alike against Edward Jenner and his lifesaving vaccinations, and the ongoing crusade against Darwin are also well known. Science and its applied incarnation, technology, have come a long way after great struggle with the forces of superstition and are now poised to make discoveries and inventions of awesome significance.
Most mind-boggling of all, medical research building upon biochemical research in general is providing a profound insight into the most basic and lethal disease of all: aging.
On the edge of breakthrough
Space permits mention of only a few of these imminent developments, and I shall have to content myself with the discussion of some I see beckoning in astronomy, medicine, psychology, anthropology, and biotechnology.
Now that the Hubble space telescope is finally working, it is retrieving information of great significance for understanding the origin and early evolution of our physical universe. It is entirely possible that further discoveries from space, coupled with experiments in particle physics here on earth, within our lifetimes will be able to answer weighty questions such as, Was there a time before the Big Bang? Will our universe expand forever? Did the world begin as a quantum fluctuation in a void? Did time itself begin? It may even tell us that all these questions are meaningless.
In medicine, it seems inconceivable that a cure for AIDS will not be found if research continues even at the grudging pace of the present. Coupled to the discoveries in AIDS research will be fundamental improvements in our understanding of how the immune system works, which should result in breathtaking power to fight diseases of all sorts, including cancer. Cancer research itself has entered a new, exciting phase as the chemical and genetic bases for cancer development are being worked out in minute detail. Increasingly, gene therapies for reversing the genetic accidents causing cancer seem feasible. Indeed, some already exist and I have had occasion to read reports of such research that make me quite optimistic that the scourge of cancer may soon go the way of smallpox.
Most mind-boggling of all, medical research building upon biochemical research in general is providing a profound insight into the most basic and lethal disease of all: aging. The disease of senescence is not the result of a single dysfunction, and so efforts to control or reverse it have been largely futile in the past. But increasingly we are coming to understand what aging is all about, and biochemical and biotechnological interventions to halt or reverse it seem altogether plausible. The discovery of "suicide genes," which when activated cause cells to self-destruct, along with the mechanisms that activate or inactivate them, has been of immense significance. The discovery of the chromosomal mechanism that eventually causes, cells either ' to stop dividing (and thus become incapable of making up for the loss of neighboring cells that die) or to start dividing uncontrollably (and thus become a cancer) is literally of life-and-death importance. To live as long as one desires should not remain impossible too much longer.
In psychology, the most basic breakthrough of all is on the verge of being made: explaining the nature of that dynamic process we call mind and understanding how it relates to the electrochemical fluxes that shuttle back and forth within that enchanted loom we call the brain. The practical implication of this development, of course, is that we shall become increasingly capable of "fixing" minds that come unraveled or go astray. Readers will agree that this is both a promise and a threat. It will be wonderful to be able to cure mental dysfunctions such as autism and the destructive psychoses that drive people to pluck out their eyes or bake their children in the oven to drive out the devil. But what about "cures" for homosexuals or Roman Catholics? Or for people who vote Libertarian? This all seems not impossible.
In anthropology, a great number of long-standing puzzles seem poised for solution. The dating of the arrival of the first humans in the Americas is being nailed down, and an understanding of how native Americans are related to each other and to Asians and other human groups is beginning to develop. The evolutionary stages though which Homo sapiens has come to be are becoming ever more clear, as fossil after fossil discovery is wrested from the silent soils of the Old World continents. But even more significant than the fossil finds have been the insights gained from the application of molecular genetics in the service of anthropology.
Comparison of DNA sequences in most of the living "tribes" of human beings has allowed reconstruction (still somewhat tentative) of our evolutionary relationships with each other and to discover the migrational histories of various groups-such as what are now recognized as the three major groups of Native Americans. The degree of genetic relatedness among all people has proven to be surprisingly close. The human genome project, devoted to the mapping of all genes on the 46 human chromosomes and to the sequencing of the DNA of which each gene is made, is now in full swing, and tremendous progress should soon be made in understanding how our genes result in that marvel of the world, the human body with its brain. Spin-off from the genome project already has provided the sequences of defective genes associated with particular diseases. Part of the same genome technology is teaching us to transfer genes, to replace disease-causing genes with their normal counterparts.
Because all living things are products of messages spelled with the same four-letter alphabet, it is possible to combine features of one species with those of another. It is possible, in fact, to design completely new forms of life.
Even more surprising than the discovery of the close interrelatedness within our own species, however, has been the finding that we are also very closely related to our first cousins, the African great apes. Our genes are 99 percent identical to those of the chimpanzee and 98.5 percent identical to the genes of gorillas. This has been a bitter pill for the creationists to swallow. They still believe humans were divinely created, completely separate and unrelated to all other living things!
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When the human genome project is completed, anthropology will be in a position to embark upon one of the most audacious projects ever imagined -the recreation of a living common ancestor of apes and humans. With the human genome sequenced and stored in computer databases, it will be comparatively easy to sequence the genomes of the great apes as well. By comparing the variant DNA messages that store the information on how to make orangutans, chimps, and humans, it should be possible (using the same sort of techniques Bible scholars use to reconstruct the ancestral texts from which variant biblical manuscripts are descended!) to figure out how the genetic "recipe" read that once produced the last common ancestor of chimps and humans, or the last common ancestor shared by gorillas with chimps and humans. Then, a la Jurassic Park, the ancestral sequences could be synthesized, bundled into chromosomes, and inserted into a primate egg for incubation in a surrogate mother (perhaps a gorilla). Creationists would be able to shake hands (and perhaps prehensile feet!) with one of their ancestors.
The ethics of such an undertaking are controversial, to say the least. But if it were decided to attempt such an adventure, major breakthroughs in genetic engineering and biotechnology would be needed-breakthroughs that may or may not be imminent. Although artificial transfer of genes from one organism to another is now a daily commonplace, transfer of whole chromosomes does not yet work very well. Creation of an entire cell nucleus with all its genes has never been done. Even the transfer of naturally formed nuclei to mammalian eggs has yet to be done successfully, i.e., in such a way as to produce a "clone" of the animal from which the nucleus was taken. Although frogs and fishes were cloned successfully by nuclear transfer experiments back in the mid-sixties, to this day no warm-blooded animal has been cloned. For a living primate to give birth to her ancestor, major developments in biotechnology and genetic engineering will be needed.
Which brings us to consider more specifically the subject of genetic engineering, or "biotech" as it most commonly is called. It is possible to hybridize human cells with chicken or mouse cells and get the products to reproduce in tissue cultures. Fertilized eggs can be fused, and babies can be produced which have four or more parents. Human genes can be transferred into bacteria or yeasts and made to produce normal human proteins such as insulin in great quantity. Viruses have been harnessed to drag normal human genes into cells which lack them or have defective forms of the genes. Genetic diseases are being cured. Genes are being transferred among our crop plants as well, and we are engineering fruits and vegetables with hitherto unknown combinations of characters and qualities.
Biotech is possible because of the fundamental discovery that the main difference between a man and a mouse and a moss is that they are spelled differently-or rather, the genetic messages that encode them are spelled differently. When the A, T, C, and G components that make up a DNA molecule are arranged in one way, they spell out the instructions for making a human being. Arranged in a slightly different way, they code for a chimpanzee. Considerably greater differences in arrangement code for monkeys and gibbons. Still greater differences produce mice and whales-and mosses and molds. It is precisely because humans have not been specially created that they share the same common chemical currency with all other living things. Because all living things are products of messages spelled with the same four-letter alphabet, it is possible to combine features of one species with those of another. It is possible, in fact, to design completely new forms of life.
The stultifying effect that creationists have had on the teaching of biology in U.S. schools is both pervasive and pernicious. Quietly and insidiously, the subject of evolution has disappeared from most school rooms in the United States.
Roadblocks in the way
The developments that glimmer just beyond our time horizon may very well come true. Then again they may not. There is no guarantee that the pursuit of science will continue unabated. No man has walked upon the moon since December of 1972, and the future of particle physics (needed as an adjunct to astronomy for understanding the early history of the universe) appears bleak since Congress killed the Texas Super-Collider project. Newt Gingrich and his fellow savages may succeed in abolishing the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Education. And many antiscientific forces have emerged which may very well prevent many, if not all, the breakthroughs discussed above from becoming reality.
The stultifying effect that creationists have had on the teaching of biology in U.S. schools is both pervasive and pernicious. Quietly and insidiously, the subject of evolution has disappeared from most school rooms in the United States. Because biology makes no sense except in the light of evolutionary theory, fewer students enter college understanding the biological foundation upon which so many of the expected breakthroughs depend. But creationists aren't the only anti-intellectual roadblocks in our path.
Twenty years ago, no one would have expected or predicted the recrudescene of Native American religion and superstition that has all but brought North American archaeology to a halt. Five years ago, yielding to pressure from what one can only describe as ancestor-worshipping Indian groups, the federal government passed NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The many pre-Columbian skeletons and artifacts that have been collected and studied by our great museums are now being surrendered to shamans and medicine men for magic ritual-assisted reburial. In many cases, much could be learned about America's past by restudying these remains with new techniques now being perfected. But alas, Native Americans have gotten the crazy notion that these remains are "sacred" and are in fact their own ancestors-despite the fact that in most cases the possibility of a given bone being related to a given claimant is vanishingly small or altogether impossible.
In Idaho, where a state law similar to NAGPRA has been in effect for some time, a 10,675-year-old female skeleton was returned to the ground in 1992 after having been studied only three days by a single physical anthropologist. The skeleton and associated artifacts were buried on the Shoshone-Bannock reservation, a hundred miles away from the place where they were discovered. Diana K. Yupe, incredibly an anthropologist as well as a Shoshone-Bannock Indian, has been quoted in the pages of Science as saying that the skeleton is "our Mother; the Mother of us all.... To us, she is our ancestor, and hers is not just a decomposed body; she is alive." How could an "anthropologist" come to be so abjectly unscientific?
In Arizona, where construction of a giant telescope on Mt. Graham has been vociferously opposed by Native Americans who claim the mountain itself as a sacred object, a similar state law in 1991 forced an archaeologist to surrender eight hundred skeletons and two thousand Hohokam funerary vessels when a tribal council objected to the study of human remains. Everything was reburied on the Ak-Chin Reservation. Nothing shall be learned about those Indians! At the Smithsonian in Washington, two thousand skeletons have been returned for inhumation, and fourteen thousand more are soon to go.
As gloomy as the future is for anthropology, the forecast for medical science -and the possibility of its finding a cure for old age-seems even more overcast. The reason may surprise many readers. All the expected breakthroughs in understanding the human brain, the nature of AIDS. cancer. and other diseases including senescence, depend on experimentation upon live animals. Increasingly, however, animal experimentation has become more difficult or actually impossible due to lobbying (with the resultant hamstringing legislation) and terrorist attacks from various animal rights organizations. Originally founded for the admirable purpose of preventing cruelty to animals, some groups have become fierce and misanthropic enemies of medical science.
Aided by the fact that there are admitted abuses of animal experimentation in the cosmetics industry and elsewhere, some animal rights activists have waged war against animal research of all kinds, no matter how noble its purpose. Dozens of laboratories have been bombed, burned, and trashed by these terrorists, and in England at least one researcher has been assassinated. At the Ohio State University (my own backyard!), a court has just ordered the university to release to animal activists a list of all professors carrying out animal research, so that they can be harassed at home as well as in the laboratory. Considering the fact that several laboratories here have been vandalized in the near past, and considering the fact that I myself was physically attacked by an activist when she learned that I formerly conducted experiments involving brain surgery on cats, the prospects for medical research in Ohio do not seem bright. Nationwide and in Europe as well, physiological research is being hindered legislatively to the point where it could very well come to a halt before long. The prospect of physical immortality-so clearly possible and attainable by developments now taking place in biochemistry and physiology-may prove to be a will-o'-the-wisp. An Olympian life span may elude us not because it really is a phantasm, but because the powers of irrationality and misanthrophy may prove more powerful than reason and philanthropy. A battle is engaged. I believe it is the most momentous war our kind has ever fought.
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We may suppose that common superstitions, such as the notion that black cats bring bad luck, have their origins in actual events. If a black cat crosses one's path shortly before disaster strikes, a causal relation is easy to infer. So "natural" is this proclivity to infer causal relations between events closely associated in time, it even seems to be found in non-human animals. It occasionally happens that a rat beginning to be trained in a Skinner box to press a lever to receive food rewards just happens to turn around clockwise (or counterclockwise) immediately before pressing the lever. The instantaneous appearance of a food pellet (reinforcement) is then followed by another twirl of the rat and another lever press. It is as though the rat has made the false association "twirl + lever press = food." Of course if the rat had read the laboratory manual it would know the correct equation is "lever Dress = food"!
Unfortunately, none of this is likely to be known by other classes of readers. The religious control of the public schools is now so oppressive that no history teacher would dare to teach any of this story. Worse yet, schools are now under pressure to teach "about" religion-i.e., about all the good things religion has done. It is unclear, however, just what "good things" will be left to teach after students are told that once upon a time the Roman Catholic church brought about reform of the calendar.
Virginia Morell, "State Laws Provide a Glimpse of the Future," Science, vol. 264 (1 April 1994), p. 21.
Construction of the telescope has also been halted because an endangered species of squirrel inhabits the mountain top. As far as I have been able to learn, however, studies have not shown the telescope would be a danger to the squirrel. Meanwhile, park authorities at Devils Tower in Wyoming are trying to bar climbers from the mountain during June, when the volcanic remnant is especiallv sacred to another Indian group.
August 1995 American Atheist magazine
Htmlized with the Author's permission