Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World Part 2: Starstuff and Our Connections to the Natural World…..
In The Most Precious Thing, the opening chapter of Sagan’s masterpiece The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, he discusses the appeal of pseudoscience and the various belief systems held by humans throughout history. All of us try out different belief systems at one point or another as we progress through life, generally because they fulfill our emotional needs. Many of these are encountered during childhood and adolescence, but most adults try out new beliefs as well, whether it is a new religion, astrology, psychic powers, the charismatic story of a self-help guru or even an alternative medical practice like chiropractic or acupuncture.
Sagan describes how these beliefs fulfill our desires for personal powers, our hunger for spirituality and our desperate yearning for cures for diseases. They can calm our fears and reassure us that death is not the end. They can buttress our feelings of importance in creation and ensure that we are tied to the universe, if not the center of it. They can serve as a gateway to the feelings of wonder and majesty that we crave while going about seemingly mundane existences.
Sagan, as he so often does, perfectly encapsulates the feelings of folks like myself, who look to science rather than the supernatural or pseudoscientific to satisfy that aspect of human nature that has come to be known as spirituality or to provide a sense of wonder in our lives. As a counterpoint to Sagan’s approach, I always think of Yann Martel, who in his otherwise excellent book The Life of Pi takes a different tack. In the story, the main character tells two versions of his travails on the high seas on a lifeboat accompanied by an unsavory cast of characters such as a Bengal tiger and a vicious hyena. Or was it simply himself and a deranged cook? He asks which is the better story and I certainly agree with the characters in the book that are posed this question when they say that the story with the animals is. Martel then writes, “and so it goes with God.”
Martel implies that the supernatural or pseudoscientific, in this particular case the existence of one particular version of a higher power, is the better story and is therefore more worthy of belief. To be fair, some in the religious community have not taken kindly to this assumption, equating it with postmodern claptrap, but it speaks to what the vast majority of believers, if not virtually all of humanity, is heavily influenced by. We all are emotionally impacted by a “better story” when it comes to spirituality and our connection to the natural world. Unfortunately, as countless polls over the past few decades continue to reveal our decreasing understanding of basic scientific concepts, the question is likely being begged by Martel and many others that the average person in America knows enough about science to make a fair comparison.
Sagan responds to the reality of the supernatural and pseudoscientific appealing to our human nature in typical and illuminating fashion:
“Although it’s hard for me to see a more profound cosmic connection than the astonishing findings of modern nuclear astrophysics: Except for hydrogen, all the atoms that make each of us up – the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the carbon in our brains – were manufactured in red giant stars thousands of light-years away in space and billions of years ago in time. We are, as I like to say, starstuff.”
Although it helps to reveal the astonishing and awe-inspiring reality behind our existence, Sagan’s astrophysics inspired sentiment is far from enough to fully grasp the grandeur of human existence as revealed by scientific inquiry. Evolutionary theory, the linchpin of our understanding of life on Earth, describes the next phase of how we came to be here on Earth. But when Darwin published his own masterpiece in 1859, he didn’t just set in motion the means to which we might understand why modern humans are what they are. Evolutionary theory explains, simply and elegantly, how we are related in fundamental ways to all life from the bonobo and chimpanzee to the sea cucumber and even to unicellular bacteria. It reveals how, bit by bit over billions of years, life has struggled to survive in varying environments. How it has evolved countless mechanisms to improve its reproductive success via a sloppy process with no specific goal in mind. And yet here we are. No claws. Weak. Naked and soft. Flightless. Completely incapable of survival for years after we are born. Yet here we are. Social. Communicative. Resourceful. Masters of a variety of environments through our ingenuity, drive and a thin rim of neural tissue built upon a forebrain shared by all other vertebrates. Not by magic or divine whim. Not because of a universal directive or a undetectable vibrational field. Evolution, properly understood, is by far the better story and science is the key to that understanding.
I often discuss so-called “big picture” concepts such as this with my oldest daughter who has only just made six years of age. My goal is for her to grow up having a firm grasp of the beauty and majesty of science, even if she does not come to care about the specific details as much as her daddy. A few weeks ago, while watching a television program about the human body, I explained to her how we are all starstuff, born in the hearts of enormous balls of plasma held together by one of the fundamental forces of nature, and how one day our individual components will return whence they came. How in a few billion years, when the star at the center of our solar system burns up the last of its hydrogen and enters its own red giant phase, the Earth will be engulfed. Showing no signs of fear, she sat quietly for a moment. I could almost hear her brain working its way around the information.
Children are born scientists because they innately know to perform the most basic and most vital of the components of the scientific method, and they are better at it than most adults. They ask questions. A question is a celebrated occurrence in my house and it is always met with an honest answer, even if it is “I don’t know.” It is okay for children to learn that their parents are not the repositories of all human knowledge. It does them a disservice to make things up or to suppress their curiosity by dismissing their inquisitiveness. But it is only truly valuable if the “I don’t know.” Is quickly followed up by “But let’s find out.” My daughter didn’t have a question this time, although they would come over the days and weeks that followed. She thought deeply for a while, smiled and replied, “That’s really nice.”