Grasp and reach for a leg of hope
So, I've been reading The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America and thoroughly enjoying it, though perhaps not for the reasons the author intended. I find that it gives me a little hope.
It is so easy for us to look at how much destruction we as a society have caused to the earth in such a short time. It is easy to be frightened and disgusted at some of our leaders' and industries' lack of respect for scientific evidences.
But, I forget (or maybe it's more accurate to say 'never really learned') how bad it was in the very recent past. I'm encouraged to see that only a century and a half ago, even the best main-stream scientists readily discarded evidence because it did not fit with their personal philosophy and religious beliefs. How (even more than today) it was perfectly acceptable to use religion as an excuse to deny science and actually support discrimination.
[T]he Lawrence Scientific School was established as an institution that trained researchers. At a time when almost every American scientist received the specialized portion of his education in Europe ... One of the things that had held back scientific education in American colleges (there were no graduate schools, strictly speaking, in the United States before the Civil War) was the dominance of theology in the curriculum, which obliged scholars in every field to align their work with Christian orthodoxy.
Morton had published two major works on his skulls. Crania Americana, which appeared in 1839, was a study of the skulls of Native Americans; Crania Aegyptiaca, published five years later, analyzed skills that had been retrieved from ancient Egyptian tombs. Morton's method, like Agassiz's was empirical and comparative: he measured the interior capacity of the skulls and then he compared the results by race. His conclusions ... ranked the human races (as Morton classified them) by cranial capacity. In descending oder of volume these were: Caucasian, Mongolian, Malay, Native American, and Negro ... Morton correlated these measurements with generalizations about the attributes of the different races as he had gleaned them from anthropological and travel literature.
Morton's data were completely unsound. Since he possessed only the skulls and whatever information their donors chose to send along with them, he had no way of checking the reliability of his racial attributions. He failed to factor gender and overall body size -information he somethines did not even have- into his calculations. And he dealt with skewing in his samples by making sear-of-the-pants adjustments. Some of his Caucasian skulls, for example, had belonged (as one might expect) to men who had been hanged for murder; Morton argued that the Caucasian mean should therefore be adjusted upward, on the assumption that murderers have smaller cranial capacity than law-abiding persons. He dropped the Hindu skulls from his calculation of the Caucasian mean because the Hindu figure brought the overall average down, but he retained a disproportionately high number of Peruvian skulls in his calculation of the Native American mean, even though the Peruvian average was the lowest within the category. And he made elementary statistical errors. but his studies, published in oversized volumes with elegantly designed plates and charts were widely circulated, and his results were cited as authoritative by scientists in the United States and Europe.
Two theories of racial difference predominated in Western science in the century before Darwin; neither was egalitarian. People who believed that all humans are descended from a common origin (a position known as monogenism) attributed racial inequalities to differing rates of degeneration. The entire species has declined since the creation, monogenists thought, but some groups, due (usually) to the effects of climate, had declined farther than others. Polygenists, on the other hand, believed that the races were created separately and that they had been endowed with different attributes and unequal aptitudes from the start.
The Bible, [Samuel Cartwright] explained, describes two creations, a black one, (with the animals) and a white one (Adam and Eve). The Hebrew word for the serpent who tempts Eve is Nachash, meaning "to be or become black": the Biblical serpent is, Cartwright was thus able to reveal, "the negro gardner."
Yes, yes, I know. Discarding evidence because it doesn't fit with personal, political, or religious beliefs is still a major problem today, and yes, yes, Christian orthodoxy is still fighting hard to get itself in the science classroom, but obviously that the problem is no longer as prevalent, and certainly not among main-stream scientists. It seems that it's only a problem because the fringe scientists who do disregard evidences are visible because they are so well funded by those who benefit from creating confusion.
Anyway, my point should not be taken as anti-religion, but point out the obvious -just how much religion shaped the minds and attitudes of the people then. But, we can rejoice in the fact that, as a historical trend, true science has, in a way, succeeded in changing views that oppose it, rather than the other way around. Even the "science" that was once seen as backed by scripture has gradually given way to true science -and faced with the evidences, people interpret scripture in much different ways than just one-hundred years ago. My more modern religious training certainly never made any mention about the serpent being "the negro gardener".
The examples above deal with science making it almost impossible for thinking people to justify racial and gender prejudice (and, except for an unfortunately powerful group of holdouts, has made it difficult for a rational person to justify discrimination based on sexual preference as well). But what it also illustrates to me is that eventually, the more we know and discover, the more evidence builds illustrating our unsustainable ways, the more difficult it will be for people to seriously reconcile their previous beliefs with reality -no matter how much they profit from denial of that reality. I would like to go so far as to say that there has already been a huge shift in just the past decade, as companies realize that sustainability is an issue that has to be dealt with, just as huge strides have been made in the area of human rights in just the past century.
To think that this has happened within only a few generations gives me hope. I just have to find some way to feed the hope that we have a few more generations left before it's too late because it does seem that critical mass of understanding is growing faster than the pessimist in me likes to see. But then again, I have not tested this hypothesis. Perhaps it is based simply on denial.