When I was a child, my mother spent some of the little money she had on a series of books that came in the mail. These volumes in the Life Science and Life Nature Libraries had titles like Matter, Energy, Mathematics, The Cell, The Mind, Man and Space, Planets, Water, Giant Molecules, The Sea, The Forest, Evolution, The Universe, The Fishes, Ecology, Early Man, Animal Behavior, and so on. They were lavishly illustrated, and though they were for a popular audience, they dealt with serious scientific topics like entropy and heredity and probability. From these books I learned amazing things—that most of the cells of my body were not me, that I was a biome, a kind of walking Great Barrier Reef; that I was moving about in a continuous bath of exotic electromagnetic radiation, only a tiny, tiny portion of which I could see as visible light in various colors; that space itself was expanding, that events led to increasing disorder, and that the universe itself would die a heat death at a predictable time in the future. I would stay up at night and read these books for hours and hours and go to school tired but having learned something, at least, in my bed the night before. Thank you, Mom!
Those books lit a fire in me that burned steadily for many, many years. I started reading all the popular science I could lay my hands on—Robert Jastrow’s Red Giants and White Dwarfs, the many collections of science essays by Isaac Asimov, Einstein and Infeld’s The Evolution of Physics. I imbibed an enlightenment notion: that humans were once terribly primitive and superstitious but that we had climbed, slowly, painfully, out of the darkness and toward the light.
This optimism about human progress became linked, in my mind, with various social and political movements: racism and sexism were evils; so was the Vietnam War. Millions were becoming more aware, more “woke,” as young people say now. What glories lay ahead–peace, prosperity, equity, tolerance, understanding. I expected that within my lifetime, we would slip the bounds of Earth and establish colonies on other worlds.
Now, with many more years on my head, I admit that my confidence in us has been considerably shaken. I look around me at present and think, we are destroying the planet, and most of the citizens of my country—the most powerful on Earth—are so ignorant of science that they don’t even realize this. We fought a war, in the middle of the last century, against two monstrous powers committed to primitive tribalism—Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—and I had thought that the ideas that motivated those powers—racism and nationalism—had been soundly beaten back, but today, half of our citizens belong to the cult of a breathtakingly ignorant, heedless, science-denying racist, nationalist demagogue. Around the world, many other such leaders are emerging, and these frightening people will have technologies at their disposal that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and The Party in Orwell’s 1984 could only have dreamed of. Most people I know remain remarkably superstitious—committed to worldviews hardly more developed or enlightened than those of savages five thousand years ago. I am astonished, all the time, by what grownup, adult persons in the twenty-first century are still capable of believing. Nothing, it seems, is so idiotic that most people won’t believe it based on no evidence whatsoever.
It now seems to me 50-50 whether we shall continue to progress or whether we shall succumb to cataclysms we have brought upon ourselves—ever-increasing extreme inequity of the kind that breeds bloody revolution; famine, plague, war and dislocations of peoples due to depleted and degraded natural resources and inattention to the same.
And, more and more, as I turn my attention to ultimate questions—which I have been doing a lot lately—about the nature of consciousness and the self and reality—the more I realize that as a young man, I vastly overestimated how much progress we’ve made in understanding anything. Our science is still extraordinarily primitive. We have no understanding, even, of what more than 95 percent of the universe is made of, and our current science is completely, utterly incapable of accounting for the most obvious fact about us–our conscious awareness. Scientifically, we literally have no account of this. More and more, I think of us as hardly advanced over people who thought that cancer was caused by evil spirits, that the Earth was flat, and that the sun was a fiery chariot driven daily across the sky. Yes, we have lots of new gadgets—iPhones and GPS and the Internet and Netflix and nifty predator drones and so on–but these merely remind me of the opening to Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
“Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
I look at young people, today, and they seem more woke than their elders are, and this gives me some hope. But there’s not much time for us to change things, and though the young are better than we are and were, they are also terribly distracted. Gotta watch the new episode of Stranger Things! I wish I could be more optimistic, but I think, for real, that our chances of surviving the coming century are about even.
Art: Photo 1: Life Science Library
Photo 2: A fireball rises into the sky during a controlled detonation performed by coalition forces from the U.S. Air Force’s 386th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron and the Australian army at an explosive ordnance disposal range in Southwest Asia, June 20, 2008. U.S. Dept. of Defense.
Copyright 2019, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This essay may be reproduced and distributed as long as this notice is retained.