Tuesday, Oct. 16, 42 A.D.

Panning For Wisdom, Settling For Words

Some Perspective:  An historian was on the Charlie Rose show late last week.  He said that if you drew up a list of the worst things to happen to a city in the last 100 years, the Sept. 11 attack on New York wouldn't make the Top Ten.  San Francisco, Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo among others, he said, have all had much worse things happen to them - most of which have now been forgotten.  The Sept. 11 attacks weren't even the worst thing to ever happen to New York.  An 1835 fire destroyed much of southern Manhattan.  Various disease epidemics have killed a much higher percentage of the total population.  Yet people and their cities always seem to bounce back.  The 1871 fire which wiped out much of Chicago did little to prevent that city from becoming the premier city of the Midwest a few years later. As tragic and painful as the events of Sept. 11 may be, their significance in the overall scheme of things might well prove to be very minor. 

Some More Perspective:  Anthrax is much in the news now.  In fact, some might say anthrax hysteria is gripping the country - and spreading to other countries.  Yet exactly one person has died of anthrax in the U.S. in the last 25 years.  In contrast, more than 100 Americans die in auto accidents every day. The man who died of anthrax lived in faraway Florida.  Cars are zooming past just 30 feet from where I now sit. So,  GET A GRIP, Dan.  And be sure to stay within 29 feet of your chair.

Redefining The Problem:  Instead of viewing what's going on now as a battle between Good and Evil, what if we view it as a public health crisis?  If the West Nile virus had killed 5000 New Yorkers, would we now be investing so much time and energy giving and listening to speeches demonizing the virus?  Would we put its photo on targets at firing ranges?  Would we demand that our doctors  hunt down and kill the particular mosquitoes responsible for giving the virus to the people who died?  Would we talk about bringing the virus and mosquitoes to justice?  Would we call up radio talk show hosts and angrily demand our government dump pesticides on every body of water which might harbor mosquito larvae?  Or would we methodically go about the business of doing what must be done to understand the virus and then calmly and methodically take the curative and preventative actions required?  And if those actions basically boiled down to buying and using more mosquito netting, would we refuse to do so on the grounds that using it constituted "giving in to" the mosquitoes?

Redefining The Problem Again:  Suppose you've just been stung by 19 bees.  All 19 died in the process of leaving their stingers in you.  Do you grab a stick and go beating on the hive they came from?  Is that really the best way to avoid getting stung again?

Lessons From The So-Called Real World:  Bombing does not seem to be a very effective way of changing people's behavior or beliefs.  Hitler's bombing of Britain did not break the British will to fight (in fact, just the opposite occurred).  A post-war U.S. Air Force study of its strategic bombing campaign against German cities found that even the incineration of entire urban centers contributed little to winning the war.  The U.S. dropped more bombs on Vietnam than it dropped in all of WWII and it still lost the war.  Despite the fact that Israel has killed several Palestinians for every Israeli killed by suicide bombers over the course of the last year, the Palestinians keep killing Israelis.  No matter how many bombs and bullets Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland lob at each other in retaliation for the last lobbing, the will to fight of neither side seems to diminish.  Today's war against terrorism, like most of these previous ones, seems to come down to a battle for hearts and minds - and bombs have generally displayed a marked inability to win such battles.  Thinking otherwise may have been what prompted the terrorists to attack the U.S. in the first place - and just look at how well that's worked out for them.

Coming To Grips With Bloody Evil:  Although mothers, politicians, clergy, and others love to condemn cold-blooded murder as Satanic or mindless evil, the fact remains that for much of our multi-million-year history as a species, cold-blooded killing probably carried with it a distinct survival advantage.  Nature itself, after all, regularly rewards a wide variety of those killers known as predators.  It seems safe to say that had our species not out-killed many other species, few if any of us would be here today to self-righteously condemn that behavior.  That's not to say that human cooperation and altruism wasn't even more important - not at all; it's just a reminder that things aren't as simple as many seem to think they are.  Osama bin Laden didn't invent evil, any more than Hitler did, or Attila -  or Tyrannosaurus Rex.  The outrageously violent variety of evil probably exists because it confers a survival advantage on those species which engage in it at least occasionally, and anything which does that can be expected to endure regardless of what we think about it, desire, or do.

Coming To Grips With Evil In General:  Suppose we define evil most broadly and basically as "socially unacceptable or abnormal behavior."  A moment's reflection reveals that such behavior also is sometimes advantageous. The first person to eat a shellfish was probably engaging in abnormal, "bad" behavior - in fact, behavior so bad that it might well have turned the stomachs of everyone watching.  And yet such behavior may have made the difference between survival and extinction during a drought.  The first creature to leave the sea and plop up on dry land also was probably engaging in bad, obviously "unnatural" behavior - and yet had such behavior never been undertaken, our species probably never would have evolved to ponder it.

Clearly, separating good from bad behavior isn't as simple as it seems at first glance.  And if it isn't simple for us with all our intelligence and culture, how much more difficult must it have been for small groups of people without a written language?  Without any language at all?  Yet our survival depended on our doing the right thing regardless of its apparent goodness or badness.  How in the world did our species manage to survive during the millions of years of savage conceptual limitations?  Perhaps by evolving the urge to do everything it could conceive of doing.

We can see this dumb yet successful principle at work today.  If something can be done, odds are that someone somewhere is doing it.  If it works, it catches on, it spreads.  If it doesn't work - if laying down on a highway and letting cars zoom past you leads to your getting killed, say, or free-basing cocaine leads to your setting yourself on fire - it's a trend that's very short-lived.  In the millions of years it took us humans to evolve, no more reliable way of separating good behavior from bad seems to have been found than good old trial and error.  And trial and error depends for its success in large part on our species' willingness to try everything - even those things (maybe especially those things) our unreliable brains and fellows merely tell us are bad.

So long as we have enough members to spare - so long as we can afford to lose a few people to poison berries, unassisted flights off cliffs, heroin overdoses and unsafe sex - it's a method which seems to almost guarantee progress over the long run.  Think of it as akin to those plants like milkweed which cast innumerable seeds into the air.  The vast majority of seeds can end up in very bad places which destroy them, but, as long as a few survive, this "cover all your bets" behavior will endure regardless of the waste (and regardless of the pain individual seeds may feel as they disappear beneath the waves, into the hot lava, or up the cheetah's nose).

The Real Problem?  For much of human history, individuals could engage in any sort of "evil" behavior they could imagine without putting the entire species at risk.  If madness or whim sparked the urge to bring a rock down on as many sleeping heads as possible,  fine - one might smash 10 or 20 heads, but odds are one's own head was smashed by a rock before things went much further, and the survival of the species itself was never threatened.  As long as vast numbers of people didn't go mad all at once - as long as human genes and society evolved ways to create and reward conformist behavior to offset individual whims and urges and damp down madness - we could afford a certain level of "evil" and insanity in our kind (especially since that "evil" and insanity sometimes led to good things in big ways).  Today, however, things have changed.  Thanks to modern technology, one 5-pound human brain can bring down a multi-million-ton skyscraper.  Indeed, one such brain could theoretically trigger a nuclear war leading to the destruction of thousands of such buildings, if not all life on this planet.  This is a very different situation than existed for millions of years of our history - and it's this situation, rather than human "evil" in and of itself (let alone Osama bin Laden), which demands a more sophisticated response than war and bombings.

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(©Now by DJ Birtcher - just because he can)


Sudden Thought:  Attila was a male.  Genghis Khan was a male.  Hitler was a male.  Osama is a male.  The 19 hijackers were all male.  The people behind virtually all of the school shootings in recent years have been males.  The odds of this being a coincidence?  Less than one in 134,000,000.  Is it possible that evil is actually little more than testosterone poisoning?  Maybe we ought to use a few smart bombs to flush the testicles out of the human scrotum and see....