How little things change

20 07 2007

One of the greatest problems facing evolutionary biology is that many people do not see the economic value of understanding how life came to be as it is. Many sciences suffer from this PR problem, and science in general is typically overlooked in standardized tests and public schools. While we may think of this as a modern problem, it has plagued scientists for centuries, the exploits of the independently wealthy (especially in terms of paleontology) being essential to giving new fields of study adequate investigation. Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adan Beringer, in his infamous 1726 work Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (as translated and printed in The Lying Stones of Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer), appeals to the higher sensibilities of those curious about the natural world;

It is the just complaint of serious men in this age of ours, which is so much more refined in letters and manners than the coarse ages of the past, that men are to be found who so heartily detest all fine literature that they would have only those arts and sciences endowed and accepted in our centers of learning which contribute to gainful employment, while they would have all others perpetually banished as vain and useless. Among the first of the latter they number the knowledge of natural things, and its most noble part, which we call Lithology; they pursue it with an especially censorious rod, and condemn it to rejection from the world of erudition as one of the wanton futilities of intellectual idlers. To what purpose, they ask, do we stare fixedly with eye and mind at small stones and figured rocks, at little images of animals or plants, the rubbish of mountain and stream, found by chance amid the muck and sand of land and sea? To what purpose do we, at the cost of much gold and labor, examine these findings, describe them in vast tomes, commit them to engravings and circulate them about the world, and will fill thick volumes with useless arguments about them? What a waste of time and of the labors of gifted men to dissipate their talents by ensnaring them in this sort of game and vain sport! Does this not amount to neglecting the cares of the realm to catch flies; to sending a mighty army out to collect shells, and then to reward their glorious expedition by building them a triumphal arch or shrine of shells, wherein the high priest is the physician, the idols are stone images of little beasts, the incense and victims are the efforts, the genius, and the expenses of learned men gone mad? To hunt for prodigious pearls, to gather the precious coral from the depths of the sea, to wrest gems and metals and marble from the bowels of mountains, or to transport these things from foreign lands, through countless storms and perils, these are labors worthy of the expenses of princes, of the care and diligence of great minds. Such things fill the treasury, increase the wealth of private citizens, and contribute to the commonweal. The fruits of such labor are never matters of regret. Thus in defiance of all the rules and precepts of sane philosophy do those souls, bent to the ground and tormented by the pseudosacred and insatiable hunger for gold, esteem the dignity and worth of the sublime sciences in terms of usefulness and gain.

While I personally would agree with Beringer and Aldo Leopold (who wrote over two centuries later), both of whom argued that the study of nature should not have to be deemed economically advantageous to be warranted, although those who are not inclined to be awestruck by nature will continue to bang their fists against the table, chanting “Progress!”, and thinking little of any “extracurricular” enlightenment that don’t make their bank accounts more pregnant. I firmly believe that this is part of the reason why many conservatives have a problem with evolutionary science; they see it as arrogant scientists jetting off to tropical locales to go bird-watching, the taxpayer footing the bill for the “fruitless” study. They are completely comfortable in all the trappings of their own society, imagination, wonder, and curiousity being deluded and undermined by prime-time TV and fast food that is to addictive and unhealthy that it could be deemed suicidal to zip through the drive-thru for a burger and frieds (Super Sized, of course).

Even if I am wrong about American society as a whole, my writing here reflects my own personal disconnect with modern society. I simply cannot understand why people do not want to know about the world around them, or even their own history. The wonders and horrors of centuries past can teach us much, but most people I have come to know are only concerned about the future; when am I getting paid? when is the new hollywood blockbuster coming out? when can I eat? Lip service is paid to great minds that have gone before, but their works are largely forgotten or mutated; the name “Charles Darwin” is immediately recognizable, but how many could explain his ideas about evolution?

This is all a bit heavy for a Friday, but tomorrow I’ll be walking the 4th floor of the American Museum of Natural History, admiring the inner architecture of animals that invigorate my imagination, and pose far more questions than one lifetime could possibly answer. While my contemporaries might find it more relaxing and enjoyable to escape into trashy novels, multi-million dollar movies, or tabloid gossip, my refuge is a time that I’ll never see, when there were no protagonists or antagonists in the big picture, only nature producing forms both monstrous and beautiful.


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