To contemplate the nature of humanity, there must exist endeavors from both the sciences and humanities. Each branch of knowledge brings to the table its own unique perspectives, assumptions, and models of learning. The sciences teach us about the natural world and it’s functioning. From the microscopic investigations of DNA to the search for exoplanets, science has defined the latter part of the Anthropocene – the epoch in which the global ecosystems have been subjugated and forever changed by human activities. Science ushered technology into a dimension that was previously unimaginable, where there seems to be no end to the artificial extensions of our biological domains.
With its jumpstart from the 17th century Enlightenment, scientific inquiry and discovery has revolutionized our world. The Age of Enlightenment saw a rising of reason, skepticism, and individual thought from which there was no precedent. The Cambrian Explosion of scientific knowledge, the Enlightenment brought about scientific discoveries that rewrote the trajectory of human existence. Philosophes, freed from the dogmatic ideology of the past, drew up the blueprints of our future. However, as successful and revolutionary as the Enlightenment was, it proved unsuccessful at reaching the core of human spirit, unable to tap into the emotional side of human nature.
In an attempt to fulfill the unsatiated desire to understand the core of humanity, the Romantic era was ushered in. The 18th century champions of creative arts filled the emotional gap left by scientific endeavors. Expressions of individuality, residues of the Enlightenment, flooded the arts. The importance of aesthetic value was stressed, and the human imagination was extended in all directions. Romantics attempted to divulge the secrets of the human experience, the continuum on which humans ride in the cosmos. A more focused and anthropocentric approach, Romanticism succeeded where the Enlightenment had failed, but failed where the Enlightenment had succeeded. As science and the humanities grew increasingly complex, their existence seemed to be a fixed dichotomy, henceforth irreconcilable.
Answering two fundamentally different types questions, the humanities and science are both essential to a holistic understanding of our existence in the larger cosmos. As our technoscientific advances increase at an astounding rate, our defining of the Anthropocene becomes ever more acute. Advances in science and technology drive our imposition on nature; our ability to repurpose the existing and to create anew are changing the landscape of Earth. To counteract the effects of science and technology on nature, we turn to… science and technology. Science shows us how to do things, however, it lacks in the ability to show us what we should do. This requires a taste of the humanities.
The humanities represent the venture into and extension of our human continuum. They attempt to unveil and explain the idiosyncrasies of human thought, creativity, and overall existence. Much like the scientific endeavor, the humanities’ endeavor is a never-ending quest. There is always something new to discover that has the potential to shift our way of thinking or understanding. As we penetrate deeper into the depths of nature, we must apply the knowledge and revelations from the humanities to our excursion. As we continue dominion over the Earth and extend our understanding of nature, we must give ourselves a course to follow. As the humanities explore and explain our specialized place in the cosmos, they are in the best position to evaluate our intrusions upon nature. Questions of value cannot be answered by science. As prescient and imaginative as science is, it still follows the shadow of the humanities. Science fiction drives the frontiers of science. Our explorations into human nature and creativity are the precursors of scientific explorations.
A coalescence of these two primary branches of learning is essential to our continued existence. Each serves as its own weight in the balance. To see the larger picture of our existence in the cosmos, we must turn to science. To understand our own existence and the intricacies from which it is fueled, the humanities are irreplaceable. To wisely advance in our existence, we must amalgamate the two into a functional framework.
NPR recently wrote a story titled, “When Scientists Give Up.” The story revolved around scientists that, in the middle of their career, decided to switch professions entirely due to issues with funding. Now, I am a bit biased when it comes to the importance of science, and I’ll be the first to admit that. However, I think it’s clear what role science has played, and must continue to play, in our society (unashamedly using this as a plug for a previous blog that I wrote concerning science in society, which can be found here). And, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with a change of career, whether it’s due to poor job prospects or simply a change of interest. That being said, what on Earth is an individual who spent a minimum of 8 rigorous years at a well-respected school – gaining knowledge for a very particular career – doing switching careers at 40? On that same note, why is someone in whom the US has invested millions of dollars in grant money changing career paths? Clearly, there is something wrong with this picture.
Science doesn’t prove facts – it explains them. Science doesn’t prove evolution, science explains evolution; science doesn’t prove gravity, science explains gravity; science doesn’t prove that cells form the basis of life, science explains how cells form the basis of life. All of these things are already taken as facts (so, yes, evolution is a “fact” in the same sense gravity or cell theory are “facts.” It’s an observation that science attempts to explain in a systematic, reviewed manner). Now, if science never proves things, how long does it need to work on an explanation before it can be taken for granted? There’s no real answer to this question, though it does require a decent amount of time. The answer is more a function of how well it stands the test, rather than the how long. Gravitational theory has been standing for nearly 400 years, evolutionary theory, cell theory, and germ theory (that is, the theory that microorganisms can cause disease) for about 150 years. Does that mean that these theories have went un-amended? Of course not! That’s what science does: it pokes and prods at our ideas, refining them until they are able to stand the test – any test. To pervert Scripture – As iron sharpen iron, so one scientist – or a large community of them – sharpens another. (There you go: the scientific method is Biblical) Each of the previously mentioned theories were rather radical at their time, outside the common consensus and understanding of the time. Galileo’s ideas were so radical that he spent the last decade of his life under house arrest. All because he was trying to explain what he was seeing, and that explanation was regarded as too radical.
Money is a precious thing, not to be thrown around lightly (unless of course, it’s being blown on military-related projects, but that’s another story). Grant writing is tough, and the competence is incredibly fierce. As such, corporations that shell out grant money – hereafter referred to as “grantfathers,” a term I want credit for coining – are careful about to whom they choose to give. Unfortunately, it seems that more and more grantfathers are becoming conservative with their wagers. They’re spending their dollar playing the penny machines rather than the quarter-slots. While I understand the safe approach, it’s destroying the very essence and character of science. Yes, ideas must be rigorously tested and stand the test of time – even the boring ones. However, focusing only on this area of science, and ignoring the frontier-busting, trailblazing, imagination and passion driven areas of science is doing an injustice to the scientists, the field of study, and the country.
We didn’t get to where we are by playing it safe. Science – and by extension, technology – demands innovation. Innovation breeds errors. Errors, in the scientific community, breed precision. The current generation is afraid of failure. We are willing to stand up for a cause, maybe more so than most generations hitherto, but we are afraid to actually act upon the cause. This culturing of “skittishness” is driving science and technology into a plateau, shrinking the branches that emerge from the trunk of discovery. The innovation is there – the action is missing. But, who can blame them? You can only study what someone is willing to give you money for. In the competitive field of science, you have to look out for numero uno, even if it flies in the face of everything you got into science for in the first place.
If government funding stays its conservative route, the future of the US as a leader in science and technology will grow dimmer and dimmer, overshadowed by more daring countries. Now, as a scientist, where will you go? Do you stay in the US, where funding is tight and sight is narrow, or across the pond, where funding, while still competitive, is more open-minded and nurturing of scientific curiosity? As the worlds’ greatest minds begin to reconvene outside of the US, our position as a global leader will diminish into something more second-rate. Once the scientists are gone, it will prove to be a difficult task getting them back. Students will seek degrees overseas, where the funding and mentors are to be found. The US has held this position for a long time, but is slowly slipping as king of the mountain. Once the avalanche starts, it will be difficult to reverse. If the way we currently handle pre-emptive tasks – such as global warming – says anything about how we will handle this issue, it may already be too late.
If I told you that monkey social behavior evolved the to become the way it is now, would you disagree? Probably not. It seems pretty obvious that other animals’ behavior is a result of their evolution. Everything from traveling in social groups to mating patterns seems to derive from genetics. This is really pretty logical. Species evolve as a result of interaction with the environment. If other animals, including members of your species, are a part of your immediate environment, then it makes sense that social behavior would also derive from evolution, and thus is based in genetics. It’s important to understand that I am only making the claim that behavior is based in genetics, not necessarily, exclusively situated within genetics.
Now back to the original question, but with a different spin: If I told you that human behavior evolved to become the way it is now, would you disagree? Many people have an initial hesitation to this. I mean, after all, humans have incredibly complex and seemingly idiosyncratic social behaviors. However, the logic remains solid, even with regards to humans. E.O. Wilson, a world-renowned scientist and one of the founders of the field of sociobiology, describes sociobiology as simply “the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization.” We already believe this to be true in a folk sense; Instead of calling it genetically determined behavior, we just call it “instinct.” Even regarding humans, we often refer to an “instinctual” reaction or behavior.
It’s important to understand that sociobiology is not social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is a 19th century belief that evolution should apply to sociology writ large. In other words, the wealthiest and most powerful are the “most fit.” Sociobiology, on the other hand, might argue that genetics influence certain behaviors that are then utilized in order to become powerful in a particular society. The main difference is that an essence of value is present in Social Darwinism while it is absent in sociobiology. Sociobiology aims to describe behavior, while Social Darwinism fits an idea of value to pre-existing social system (Not to mention it solidifies the status quo. There probably weren’t too many poor – or non-Western white – people who embraced the idea of Social Darwinism. On the other hand, because it aims to describe behavior rather than a socioeconomic construct, sociobiology makes no claims of value or “fitness” to social hierarchy.
The sociobiology vs. culture debate is really just a rehash of the “nature vs. nurture” debate. Both are clearly a false dichotomy; the two are not mutually exclusive. Sociobiology isn’t claiming that each and every thing a person does is predetermined by their genetics. Sociobiology is saying that there is a genetic basis or predisposition to act a particular way. Again, we use the idea of “genetic predisposition” on many things – it’s no stretch to say we have genetically-based behavioral predispositions.
Probably the most debated – and most misunderstood by the public – is the idea of a gene controlling a behavior. You’ve heard the stories about the “gay gene” or the “war gene.” Unfortunately the media is really bad at delivering accurate information – particularly with science.
The easy fix is to always remember that, when it comes to behaviors, genes don’t cause, they predispose. Of course there are genes that could predispose one to be homosexual or violent, even if the gene simply alters levels of certain bio-chemicals. In other words, the gene may cause a biochemical imbalance, and said imbalance may predispose the individual to a certain behavior. Genes give a base upon which the environment – and in the case of humans, the sociocultural context – can act.
Sociobiology, as it has been explained here, seems to be rather harmless, and even common sense. However, people get edgy once human actions such as altruism and criminal activity are brought into the picture. Regarding criminal activity, the conversation requires an interesting segue into criminal justice and the legal system – something that needs to be discussed in a more thoughtful manner more often. The consequences tie in to the manner in which we conduct punishment vs. rehabilitation. Ultimately, a sociobiological perspective is a poorly misunderstood position that needs to be taken into consideration in tandem with a sociocultural perspective in order to attain the most full picture of “human-ness.”
Carl Sagan once stated, “… the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any time that has come before.” This statement becomes truer every day, as scientific and technological innovations are occurring at an ever-increasing rate. Studies suggest that less than 30% of Americans are “scientifically literate,” meaning that over 70% of Americans would have trouble reading – and understanding – the science section of the New York Times. So, why is this important? After all, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, right?
The problem is that science is a driving force behind our sociocultural evolution. New ideas and new inventions are constantly redefining how we live our lives. As time goes on, science and technology will define most of life as we live it. Already, this is true. 100 years ago, people often lived day by day without electricity. Today, the most frightening thing most people could imagine would be a total loss of electricity. Imagine all of the things that simply wouldn’t work without it: phones, televisions, the Internet, lighting, heat and A/C, automobiles, and virtually anything that is manufactured. We have built a society in the United States that is almost entirely dependent upon electricity. Personally, It’s difficult for me to imagine a world without electricity because everything I know is based on upon it. The Internet is the “electricity” of the 21st century. Much of what we do relies on the Internet, which in turn relies on electricity. These are just the two biggest examples. Life has become relentlessly complex and multifaceted. Most people have no idea how the world around them – that is, this artificial world, or anthropogenic matrix – functions.
As time goes on, our day-to-day lives will become less and less “natural” and more and more artificial. This is not inherently bad. However, it does raise the standards for what we must understand about how the world – especially our anthropogenic matrix – works. Failing to keep a basic understanding of science and technology is destined to segregate the population, facilitating the rise of an “elite” few, resembling more of an oligarchy than a representative democracy. Now, I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think the New World Order is going to secretly control our lives. I do, however, think that, if nothing is done about our general ignorance of science, we will slip away from the Democracy that we claim to love so dearly. How? How can ignorance of science and technology lead to the failure of democracy? After all, you can vote regardless of your scientific literacy. It’s true, you can vote while being grossly ignorant of how the world works, and that’s the problem.
Now, before you accuse me of something that I am not claiming, I do not think that there should be any kind of scientific literacy test in order to vote. All this will do is fuel the ever-broadening gap between those who understand and those who don’t. As I said before, our world and the day-to-day workings of our lives are almost entirely dependent on the functioning of modern science and technology.
A Little Politics
Politics is, in its most basic form, the practice of influencing a population. This is done by verbally persuading people to get behind an action that will be set in motion order to guide the population down a particular path of life. The United States is a representative democracy, which means officials are elected by the public to govern the public. The United States is not a simple representative democracy; many modifications are set in order to give the minority a voice. However, in light of these modifications, “majority rules” is still the rule of thumb. On its surface, a “majority rules” system of operations seems ideal. Do what most people want or believe is the best thing to do, right? I certainly agree that this is typically a good philosophy – given that the public is educated on the matter at hand.
The Modern Intersection of Science and Government
The base of everything in our lives is built from science; it makes up our infrastructure. When a politician makes a motion to change or regulate something, he or she is making a change that affects our anthropogenic matrix, and, consequently, the natural world in which our matrix operates through such acts as deforestation, ozone depletion, species extinction, etc. If an individual does not have a basic understanding of how the world works, then how can that individual possibly make a good decision on electing a public official? Even worse, ignorance of science and technology (not to mention poor reasoning and logical evaluation skills) leads to a vote based solely on emotion and surface similarity. If you know nothing about a subject, you cannot make an educated decision regarding that subject. If not based on an educated understanding, something else must be the base on which you make decisions. The next best choice would be decisions based on reason and logic. Unfortunately, critical thinking is MIA in many educational settings. Science acts as a major source of training by which people learn to reason and form logical conclusions. In turn, many – though not all – who base their decisions on logical reasoning are in the same group of people who base their decisions on knowledge of science. With less than 30% of the public being scientifically literate, at least half of the population’s base for political decisions is unaccounted for.
If you don’t use a knowledge of science to aid in political decision-making, it’s likely that you are more swayed by charisma and emotional triggers. Those candidates who are more like you – or at least are ostensibly like you – are more likely to sway your opinion. After all, that’s what politics is all about – persuading people to get behind an action that will be set in motion order to guide the population down a particular path. As a politician, if most of your constituents are not scientifically literate, then you are less likely to use science as a persuasion tactic and more likely to use charisma and emotionally charged wording that harks back to a tradition familiar to many of your constituents. Though not a valiant method of persuasion, it is a smart one. Unfortunately, this only perpetuates the current “epidemic,” as it has been called, of scientific illiteracy.
Why Public Knowledge of Science Matters
One major problem with scientifically is that politicians can make a poor decision – intentionally or unintentionally – with no one to call them out. Regulations or the lack thereof concerning issues such as climate change, medical research, and irresponsible use of resources must be made based on science, as this is the process by which we understand these matters. Thus, if a politician uses a non-scientific basis for creating laws (a basis fueled by a constituency who is scientifically illiterate and, perhaps, an ulterior motive such as monetary stock in the decision), then consequences are sure to ensue. The effects can be immediate, such as lack of funding for medical research, or delayed (and perhaps even more disastrous), such as not addressing anthropogenic climate change.
Politics aside, understanding science and technology are imperative to functioning in our ever increasingly technological world. 100,000 years ago, one had to be an adept hunter in order to be a contributing member of society; 10,000 years ago, one had to be adept in agriculture; today, we must stay informed on, at the very least, the basics of science. This includes environmental science, molecular biology, conservation biology, and genetics, among others. You do not have to be an expert, you simply need to be able to evaluate a situation from a scientific lens when necessary.
About 900 people have died of Ebola in the last 6 months. Should you be worried? If you don’t want to read the post, and are just looking for an answer: NO!
If you’re one of the people who is saying, “But they are bringing 2 Ebola patients to the U.S., and a man in New York is suspected of having the disease!!” then please, for the sake of everyone around you, keep reading.
Let’s take a look at Ebola first. What exactly is it? Ebola Virus Disease (in humans) is caused by one three species of Filoviridae viruses: Zaire, Sudan, and Bundibugyo. There are two other Ebola species, but they do not affect humans. Of the three species mentioned, Ebola Zaire is the nastiest, with anywhere from a 50-90% fatality rate – closer to 50% with supportive care and closer to 90% with no supportive care. Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever disease, characterized by high fever, shock, multiple organ failure, and subcutaneous bleeding. Typically, the patient first shows flu-like symptoms before progressing to the more characteristic bleeding symptoms. If the virus itself doesn’t kill you, oftentimes your own immune system will spiral out of control and send you into shock, and, most often, death.
Now that the bad part is over, let’s look at why it’s not as scary globally as you might think.
High mortality rate Only spread through body fluids
Ambiguous early symptoms Lacks a ubiquitous vector (e.g., mosquito)
3 – 21 day incubation period Impairs victim
No treatment or cure
Although the number of strengths outweighs the number of weaknesses, the quality of the weaknesses far outweighs the strengths. Without being airborne or transmitted by some ubiquitous vector, it is unlikely that any disease will ever cause a pandemic (meaning, global effects). In addition to this, Ebola impairs its victims. Even the flu-like symptoms are enough to sway you from much human contact. The scariest part about Ebola is the incubation period. Someone may not show symptoms for up to 3 weeks after being exposed to the virus. While this, in concert with the ambiguous early symptoms, might keep the flame flickering, it isn’t enough to start a wildfire. Still not convinced? Let’s put the outbreak into perspective:
We are currently experiencing the largest and most deadly Ebola outbreak in recorded history. The death toll is almost to 900 in 6 months – less than the number of people who die every 6 months from hippopotamus attacks. The Spanish Flu of 1918, undoubtedly the worst pandemic in the history of mankind, infected about 30% of the people in the world and killed anywhere from 3-5% of the global population in a single year. If you see a grave marker with a death date anytime in 1918, chances are greater than not that the individual died from Spanish Flu. This astounding death toll was accomplished WITHOUT the advent of modern travel, i.e., no airplanes. The current Ebola outbreak has killed 900 people, or about 0.0000001% (1/10 millionth of a percent)of the world population. 900 out of about 7.3 billion people worldwide. Oh yea, the other thing? Ebola isn’t worldwide. It’s in Western Africa.
The only time Ebola has ever really been outside of Africa is… well… never. The closest we’ve come to that is recently bringing two patients to the US for treatment. 2 patients that will likely not even be exposed to US air or land for the next 2 weeks, as they were flown in on a plane with a quarantine chamber and are now isolated in a hospital ward in one of the top hospitals in the US.
I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of Ebola from the safety of my suburban coffee shop. Yes, it would be scary if I were living in Sierra Leone. Not so much because I have a high chance of contracting Ebola, but because I don’t know where it might be lurking. And, if I did contract it, I’d be more miserable and frightened in the next two weeks than I’d ever been in my life. I would only be relieved of this misery by multiple organ failure and bleeding out of eyes until I died, or the less likely chance that I survive. Ebola is a terrible, nasty disease, but it’s not a global threat nor is it a U.S. threat.
When looking to the Bible for information on mankind’s purpose, many modern Christians tend to overlook Genesis. On its surface, the articulation of Genesis 1 appears as an account of material ontology, or material creation. However, this understanding of the creation account is superficial and requires no investigation into the text, or more importantly, the sociocultural context of the literature. In fact, I will make the argument that reading Genesis 1 as an account of material ontology is not faithful to the original intention or reception of the passage. In lieu of a material ontological reading, I argue for a functional ontological reading of Genesis 1 that stays true to the text and dispels much of the contemporary debate in Christian cosmogony (belief of universe origins).
The purpose of a functional interpretation of Genesis 1 is not to abolish inconsistencies in Christian cosmogony (though this is accomplished in the process), but rather to give a more insightful and meaningful reading of the text that communicates to the modern reader the same message that it communicated to the ancient Hebrew listener. In order to fully appreciate the intention of the text, the reader must explore the culture of the ancient Hebrew people, understand the divergence between several Hebrew words and their English translations, and be mindful not to cast their post-enlightenment, materialistic perspective of the world into the reading of the text. Taking this approach to the text will not only render a functional ontological interpretation of Genesis 1 probable, but will also disavow a material ontological understanding of the creation account.
Cosmology, or the understanding of the universe, has drastically changed over the span of recorded history. The currently accepted cosmological model is an expanding universe following the implosion of an original singularity – the Big Bang. Though there are still many unanswered questions about the Big Bang, most of which will likely never be fully elucidated, there has been a steady flow of empirical evidence supporting the theory since the 1960’s. This “creation account“ is representative of how cosmology functions in the 21st century Western World – namely, accumulation of empirical evidence supporting a hypothesis. A relic of the 16th century Scientific Revolution, our empirical worldview in the West has lead to astounding advancements in science, medicine, and technology that has propelled humanity forward at a remarkable rate. However, this empirical approach to the world is so infused with the Western worldview that it is often difficult for one to step outside of this perspective.
We in the Western World tend to see any non-empirical approach to knowledge or truth as primitive and often not worthy of pursuit. This naïve approach becomes problematic when studying the writings of ancient societies that had a different cosmology and cosmogony than our own; the Bible, containing a library of ancient Hebrew and Greek writings, is no exception. The cosmology and cosmography (physical arrangement of the cosmos) of the Biblical authors and their contemporaries differed profoundly from modern day ideology. This difference is expressed in the literature of these times, including the books of the Bible. Though perspicuous to its contemporaries, the intentions of Biblical literature, particularly that of the Old Testament, require deliberation from modern day Christians.
No sensible person today would deny that they are sitting on a spherical planet that orbits a star in the center of a solar system. In fact, nearly everyone today would agree with the fact that our solar system is just one of a countless number of solar systems in the Milky Way galaxy, which is, in turn, but a single galaxy among countless others. This belief is not held by a single ethnic group, religion, or country, but rather is held by humanity writ large. This is our modern cosmography, and it’s difficult to rationally deny given our current understanding. Mankind’s cosmography has undergone several paradigmatic shifts since the Biblical (or Babylonian) cosmography of the Old Testament authors.
The name “Genesis” actually derived from a 3rd century Greek transliteration. The Hebrew name for the first book of the Bible, “Bereshit,” means “In the beginning,” alluding to its opening words. These opening words set up the theme of the chapter, namely, the cosmogony of the Hebrew people. This brings up an important point. It must be understood that the Bible was written for all people of all times, but was not written to all people of all times; the Old Testament was written to the ancient Hebrew people. When a work of literature is written, the author employs imagery and ideas that are familiar and relevant to the intended audience. Genesis, being an origins account, includes cosmology in its narrative. The image below is representative of a typical Babylonian cosmology, of which the ancient Mesopotamian people, including the Hebrews, embraced.
It’s evident that ancient cosmography was very different from modern cosmography. To the ancient Mesopotamians, however, this cosmography made sense. This was how they understood their world. When the author of Genesis speaks of the “firmament,” we cannot translate it as sky, as this is not what it meant to the ancient audience. Firmament, to the ancient Israelites, was a solid structure holding back the waters above. This belief in a firmament and waters above was common among all Babylonian cosmography.
So, is the Bible wrong or untruthful for mentioning a firmament that we now clearly know is not there? I don’t think we can make the claim that the Bible is “wrong” about this if we keep in mind that it was written to a specific audience at a specific point in time. A material ontological reading – what many today mean by “literal,” though this is a misnomer – presents a problem: the Bible is supposedly unwaveringly truthful, and it claims that there is a firmament in the sky, above which lies some sort of ocean. Now what? Do we accept that there is a firmament in the sky and stop paying our half a penny per tax dollar for NASA, or do we investigate a little more? If we accept a material ontological reading of Genesis 1 but do not accept the cosmography of Genesis 1, then we have quite the theological conundrum. If the intention of Genesis 1 was to communicate material ontology, then it would need to be written using an understanding common to all people of all times in order to get the message across while also preventing falsehood from arising within the text. Perhaps, then, the message of Genesis 1 is not material ontology.
Function and Existence
The nature of existence is not something people contemplate on a regular basis. In a modern Western World mentality, the nature of existence is intrinsically tied to biological life. However, “alive” and “existence” are communicating two different ideas. A rock exists, but we would not consider it “alive.” So, what does it mean to exist? In ancient Mesopotamia, material properties were not a sufficient condition for existence; an object or being’s existence was contingent upon function. This reality was true for cultures writ large, including the Israelites. This notion of functional existence was also expressed in creation stories in the ancient Near Eastern world. In essence, creation stories, including those of the Israelites, were stories about the gods giving function and order to a system.
When investigating the idea of existence, a hermeneutical approach must be incorporated in the analysis. One example of this is the Hebrew word “bārā’,” which is translated as create. In the Bible, bārā’ is only used in reference to God. Also, there are a number of instances in the Bible where bārā’ must be understood as functional creation; correspondingly, there seem to be no instances where bārā’ mandates material creation. Exegetical work on bārā’ seems to suggest a functional connotation. It might seem odd at first to have more than one word for an action, but this is common among languages. A language belonging to a culture that relies on the phases of the moon might have a dozen or more words for “moon” depending upon the context in which it is used. Language is a tool that is molded based on what is important to the user. The idea of a word for creation, used in the context of function, follows suit with a functional ontological reading of Genesis 1. Functional creation is not only an ancient notion. Even today there are examples of existence that rely on function.
John Walton gives a clear, modern example of modern functional creation in his book “The Lost World of Genesis One.” Imagine a restaurant. When does a restaurant come into existence? Is it a restaurant when the building is constructed (i.e., the material creation)? A building can be or become anything, so this cannot be the case. The most sensible answer seems to that a restaurant becomes a restaurant after a safety inspector deems the restaurant fit to conduct business. A restaurant that is closed, for one reason or another, is not in “existence.” Business, which is the function of the restaurant, is required for existence; thus, its existence is defined by its function. Naming is also related to function. The name Yahweh can be translated as “I am,” which speaks to God’s function as an eternal and omnipresent being. Of course, material properties must precede function as a necessary condition for existence, but material properties alone may not be a sufficient condition for existence. Restaurants aren’t the only example of functional ontology today. Many things, including corporations, businesses, stocks, the Internet, and governments require, in one-way or another, functional ontology. It is no stretch of the imagination to envision how a culture, void of modern science and empirical based thinking, could have ontology rooted in function. Consequently, this provides support for the functional worldview of the ancient world, specifically with the Israelites.
Can Genesis be Material and Functional Ontology?
Given the evidence, it seems to follow that Genesis was written as functional ontology. However, this does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of also reading it as material ontology. Many Christians argue that a “literal” reading of Genesis 1 is required if we are to take the Bible seriously. This proves problematic, as everything we know and understand about life, the universe, and much of science in general, is not in accordance with a material ontological reading of Genesis. Many arguments exist to reconcile the discrepancies between science and a material ontological reading of Genesis 1, however all of them rely on some sort of ad hoc modification leading to a concordist view of the Bible. Concordism, in this context, is the belief that Genesis 1 can be read as material ontology and still be in concordance with modern science.
Concordist views come in many forms, including young earth arguments and old earth arguments. For an old earth argument, the most common approach is to place long periods of time either between the “days” of creation or between the first and second creation account. One main problem with this kind of approach is that it ignores what we currently understand about the ancient Israelite culture. It is not that the concordist hypotheses are too far-fetched (though I would argue that they tend to stretch science and hermeneutics quite thin), but rather that they are missing the point of the story. I am not making an attempt to disprove the science in their arguments; I am trying to show that the science does not matter. The arguments do not seem to take into account the fact that the Bible was not written to us; it was written to the Israelites. Science as we know it today did not exist when the books of the Bible were written, therefore it does not make sense for the Bible to be written with science in mind. The efforts to reconcile modern knowledge with a material ontological reading cause the reader to lose sight of the intention of Genesis 1.
A young earth creationist (YEC) would tend to agree with many of my critiques to concordist views. They see the Bible as an absolute truth, and man should not invoke into the text his finite understanding of science and theology. If Genesis 1 speaks of 24-hour days (yom, in Hebrew), then the creation account must have taken place in 6 literal days, they argue. Attempts at stretching the meaning of words such as yom do not enrich the authority or veracity of the text by accommodating modern cosmology. Because we have a finite understanding of the world and certainly of God, perhaps we should take the text of Genesis 1 as a literal account of material origins, as the readings seems to suggest. This YEC argument seems fair, and it does not have the problem of concordism, but there are some major issues.
By affirming Genesis 1 as material ontology, YEC proponents are, by default, reading their culture into the Bible. The creation account only seems to suggest material ontology to a reader who has the cultural bias of empiricism. Those of us born into the 21st century Western World are encultured to see things in a physical and empirical manner. This becomes a problem when we read a work of literature from a culture that did not have this same mentality. A “literal” reading of Genesis 1 means something different for us today than it would have to the ancient Hebrews. The most “literal” reading of the text would be a reading that comprehends the text through the mind of the author. The best way to attain this understanding is to study the culture and recognize the biases that would be present in the author’s writing. In the case of the ancient Hebrew literature, there would be a cultural bias against physical descriptions. We must take into account the cosmological and epistemological views of a culture when we read the literature. Along with eschewing modern scientific understandings of the world, this absence of culture interpretation is perhaps the biggest failure of YEC theology.
The ancient Israelites were not concerned with the physical details of creation, and a Genesis 1 would not be written as material ontology. The Israelites were concerned with who created them and why mankind is on earth. A functional ontological reading of Genesis 1 answers these questions and clears up most of the modern day cosmogony confusion. When viewed as a functional account of origins, the age of the earth, which tends to be at the heart of many concordist beliefs, is not an issue. There is no longer a need for God to be a charlatan, He does not need to hide in the gaps of knowledge, yom can mean a literal 24-hour day, evolution is no longer a threat, and the universe can be 13.7 billion years old. A functional ontological view allows Genesis 1 to succeed in its intention, namely, communicating to the reader who God is and the nature of His relationship to mankind.
We must be careful not to come to Genesis 1 thinking of it as a modern metaphor just because the language or structure is strange to us today. Metaphor and functional origins are qualitatively different characterizations. There are instances of figurative language within the creation story, but this does not mean the story itself is metaphor nor does it say anything about the meaning of Genesis 1. It is important to understand that this style of writing was the method of conveying truth in the ancient world. Today, we use an empirical method to convey truth; Hebrews did not see truth in this way, and used the meaning of the story to convey a truth about the nature of story’s subject. Many Native American tribes convey truth in a similar fashion. Chronological or historical matters are not of significance. Rather, what matters is what the story says about the subject’s character or its relationship to mankind.
Many instances of odd structuring or bizarre language likely occur because of the vast cultural differences. For example, the ordering of events in the creation account stems largely from the Hebrew use of block logic as opposed to the step logic to which we are accustomed. Similarly, early Hebrew writers emphasized theological points and were more concerned with the significance of events than they were with historical linearity. Historicity in Genesis would not have been in issue to the Israelites. Genesis was told as a story of functional ontology, expressing the importance of mankind’s place in relationship with the Creator. These differences in perspective and writing style do not make the story metaphorical or untrue, they simply express perspectives of the ancient Hebrew people.
Given our cultural disposition to seek empiricism, we must take careful deliberation when making assumptions about the meaning of Scripture. The reader must accept that the text was not written with their culture, including notions about the nature of truth, in mind. The text was written in a manner that reflects the culture of the time, thus the culture must be “translated” alongside the text. The ancient Hebrew audience would have understood the message that was being communicated through the creation story. It was written as a testament to God’s power and glory. It enlightens the reader on who God is and where mankind is in relation to God; mankind is on earth as the image-bearer of the Divine. The mentioning of physical things in Genesis 1 is to give the story context within the ancient Israelite culture. Reading Genesis 1 as an account of material origins is simply missing the point. In turn, it causes the text say something that was never meant to be communicated, and flies in the face of our current understanding of nature and cosmology. Christians today must approach Genesis 1 not as material ontology that our culture has taught us to seek, but as a functional ontology that speaks more truth about God, creation, and mankind than any empirical description ever could.
For more reading on this subject, check out the following from John Walton:
Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible
The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.
“What’s the point of bringing back some pigeons that have been gone for a century, or some hairy elephants that disappeared four millennia ago? Well, what’s the point of protecting unhairy elephants in Africa or over-specialized pandas in China or dangerous polar bears in the Arctic, or any of the endangered species we spend so much money and angst on preserving?”
- Stewart Brand
It’s difficult to argue with that logic. In 2012, the US spent over $3 billion on conservation efforts.
I don’t know about you, but I always dreamt of a real-life Jurassic Park. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like dinosaurs will ever have the chance to roam the Earth again. Quite frankly, with new research showing that most dinosaurs probably had feathers, I’m not sure it would even live up to what our minds are conditioned to believe dinosaurs to look like anyway. They’d be giant, carnivorous chickens, more or less. But what about a mammoth or a thylacine?
While the DNA that once inhabited a dinosaur bone is long gone, victim to over 65 million years of radiation, hydrolysis, and other forms of degradation, DNA can be found in some more recent specimens. But how would it work? How could we possibly bring back – that is, De-Extinct – an organism. Well, actually, it’s already been done.
The Sad Saga of the Pyrenean Ibex
The last surviving Pyrenean Ibex died in 2000. Of all the ways for a species to go out, this one was found dead underneath a fallen tree. It seems as though Mother Nature was just out to get them. So, naturally, humans did what humans do best – try to one-up Mother Nature. Pre-emptively thinking in 1999, biologists cryogenically froze a tissue sample of Celia, the last surviving member of her species. When Celia died, scientists were ready to bring her back.
The technique used is called somatic cell nuclear transfer. You can find a short video of it happening in real time here. Essentially, an oocyte – egg cell – from a domestic goat was de-nucleated and the nucleus from one of Celia’s somatic (body) cells was inserted into the empty oocyte. The resulting cells were then transferred into a domestic goat surrogate. Unfortunately, the process proved technically difficult. 285 embryos were reconstructed. Of those, 54 were transferred to 12 ibex and ibex-goat hybrids. Only two survived the two months of gestation before they too died. One clone was finally birthed in 2009 – the very first de-extinction. Unfortunately, the clone had a lung defect, and died of a collapsed lung only 7 minutes after birth. One of the problems was likely the fact that Celia was already 13 years old – old age for a goat – when the tissue sample was taken. This means that her telomeres, the caps on chromosomes that protect the supercoiled DNA, were already very short. As DNA replicates, the enzymes cannot make it to the very end of the DNA (where the telomeres are located), so the telomeres are truncated. They act as a sort of buffering system to keep the actual genes from being damaged (on a side note, your age is essentially a function of your telomere length).
The procedure seemed to doom any idea of de-extinction. After all, if we can’t even bring back a species that has been dead for under a decade, how can we ever hope to bring back a 30,000 year-old wooly mammoth? Fortunately, scientists are incredibly stubborn, and didn’t just drop the idea all at once. With advances in technology, science fiction often becomes reality. In the field of de-extinction, the limiting factor is DNA extraction and sequencing technology, which seems to be growing faster than Moore’s Law predicts it should.
A New Method
So, is there another way – a better way – to clone an animal than by somatic cell nuclear transfer? Maybe, and it’s called induced-pluripotent stem cell (IPS)-Derived sperm and egg cloning. The idea behind this is to splice your target species DNA (say, from a mammoth) into a surrogate stem cell genome (say, from an Asian elephant). Because these are stem cells (or pluripotent cells), they can become anything. So you coax the newly modified stem cells into becoming germ cells – those that will make the testes and ovaries. You then insert the germ cells into the embryos of a male and female surrogate (Asian elephants, in our example). Now you have a male and female Asian elephant embryo with mammoth precursory germ cells. You grow up the two surrogates, and they will exhibit target species (mammoth) gonads (testes and ovaries). So, you then mate the two and out comes a “full-blood” mammoth (click here and skip ahead to about the 10 minute mark to see this example with falcons and chickens. I recommend watching the entire TED talk. It’s my favorite one, and will explain a lot about De-Extinction).
You will see a second De-Extinction in your lifetime, and hopefully more to follow. Expect it from – Passenger Pigeons, Gastric Brooding Frogs, and, hopefully, Mammoths.
Maybe We Can… But Should We?
This, to me, is one of the biggest hurdles. You have to convince people that something, at least of this caliber, is a good idea. I began the post with a quote from Stewart Brand that I think idealizes the argument for De-Extinction. Hank Greely, a Stanford Law School professor specializing in biomedical technology ethics gives an excellent TED talk on this (found here). To outline his talk, here are the 10 things we must consider, 5 risks and 5 benefits:
- Animal Welfare
- Political Concerns
- Scientific Knowledge
- Technological Progress
I will flesh these out quickly, but won’t spoil the TED talk.
- Cloning isn’t a very “safe” process. It can take hundreds of embryos, and often the few who survive don’t last long. We need to ensure the welfare of the animals that we try to bring back.
- What if we bring back an animal and it happens to be a great vector for a terrible disease? Oftentimes the beginning of an epidemic is a new, better vector.
- If we bring back a species, is it going to cause ecological problems?
- If we make De-Extinction a plausible conservation effort, will it undermine current efforts to preserve what we have? Why try to save them if we can just bring them back? Similarly, is it worth it financially?
- To be short, we are playing God. We are doing something that, presumably, has never really happened in almost 4 billion years of life. We are redrawing the branches of the tree of life. It’s not something to be taken lightly
- We could learn things previously unknowable about genetics, evolution, and biology.
- De-Extinction is the edge of science. It is pushing technology to its outer bounds, making technological development increase faster than it normally would. This provides technological offshoots for many medical procedures.
- Bringing back a species can actually be good for the community. See, for example, the effect of wolf reintroduction at Yellowstone.
- Are reparations due? Its arguable whether or not we caused megafaunal extinction – mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, cave bear, etc. – but there’s no doubt that some species, such as the passenger pigeon, went extinct due to human activity, namely hunting. And, sadly, we continue this destructive path, which is stripping the Earth of some of its most precious large mammals – tigers, elephants, and rhinoceroses, just to name a few.
- My favorite. This is what science does. It inspires us. It awes us. It brings our imagination outside of our minds and places in front of us. Wonder isn’t all that impractical either. Wonder is what drives scientific knowledge further. It’s a self-perpetuating field that is snowballing into the ever-decreasing realm of science fiction.
The “can we” of De-Extinction is coming to a close. It’s time to start discussing the “should we” aspect. The technology will be here very soon, but are we ready?