By R. Gary Raham
A biologist-artist’s ruminations about our roles in a science-inspired world
The column Bio Bites will chew bite-sized topics in current science and invite readers to digest the implications for growing their own futures in a complicated world. The scientific way of thinking about nature has built and shaped our modern world, and will continue to do so as long as the human (melo?)drama continues. The Royal Society in England, founded in 1660 as one of the first scientific forums, has as their motto Nullius in Verba—Latin for “Take no one’s word for it.” In other words, truth can’t be dictated. It has to be discovered through observation and experiment.
Words have great power. Humans have used the power of language to remember what others have achieved before them, and build civilizations. But words can also turn toxic in strange ways. Sometimes words become associated with individuals, philosophies, and cultures to such an extent that a given word’s original meaning gets buried in an avalanche of irrelevant social and political rubble.
Take the word evolution, for example. It has become so noxious in this country that I’ve known science teachers to substitute “change over time” to describe Darwin’s brilliant epiphany (backed by copious data collected during his voyages on the H.M.S. Beagle) about how life alters form over time as the result of nature’s selection of reproductive winners. Biologists have no doubt that evolution occurs. They see disease organisms genetically transform when exposed to antibiotics while plants and insects morph their forms and biochemistry in response to pesticides, to site just two examples. But the word evolution became mired in controversies over literal interpretations of words written by prophets millennia ago to other audiences in different cultures and times.
The phrase human-induced climate change suffered a similar fate even though the evidence is clear that human beings have altered climate through their heavy use of fossil fuels over the past two centuries. To admit to the reality of climate change means we all have to change the way we do business (in a very literal sense) and live our lives. That’s hard to do. Some revert to denying that it happens. Addressing climate change in our century is as fundamental as addressing slavery in the 19th century. Facing the reality of climate change and facing the inhumanity of enslaving other human beings means facing the necessity of changing the way we live, the way we work, and the way we see ourselves in fundamental ways.
Do you let baggage-laden words turn off your mind to new ideas?
Let’s chew on some other aspects of how science impacts our lives today and tomorrow, one Bio Bite at a time. Shall we colonize Mars? Genetically repair and/or design our own children? Meddle with our memories? Regulate our birth rates? Bio-engineer our food? We should at least be aware of the potential for change that science brings, talk about it, and be prepared to suggest ways to make changes that synergize the creation of satisfying and productive futures.