Owen Gingerich: “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times”
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
As we approach a new millennium, it’s ever harder to avoid some sort of assessment of the times we live in, and when I’m in a pessimistic mood, I think perhaps we live in the best of times. We’ve watched our material standards rise ever higher—little things we take for granted would have been a king’s envy a century or two ago. But as we peer into a new millennium, we have to ask, will our children, and our children’s children, have it as good? Or will the best of times have come and gone?
I’ve been invited to reflect in the context of cathedral and of science on the prospects and challenges of a new millennium. But all this fuss about a new millennium seems to me a bit phony. We have ten fingers, and ten times ten tens is a thousand or a millennium. Aliens from a distant planet where they happen to have a dozen fingers would think our fixation on a thousand is a bit idiosyncratic. Besides, I’m from the school of thought that believes you don’t finish a century until you’ve counted from one all the way through 100, so the next millennium won’t start until January 1, 2001. Those celebrating at the end of this month are victims of the odometer syndrome, the excitement of watching all those numbers roll over. So there is a touch of fraud in my standing here, since I don’t think we’re quite that close to a new millennium, But I’m mellow about the calendar. My advice is, why not celebrate twice? (I spoke about the millennium a few months ago to the cadets of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and for that proposal I almost got a standing ovation!)
In any event, if you feel pious about the millennium and think you are celebrating precisely 2000 years since the birth of Christ, I’m sorry to disillusion you: you’ve already missed it! The year of his birth is still controversial, but all of the experts agree that it fell somewhere between 3 and 7 B.C., so the 2000th birthday came a few years ago.
Yet, despite my misgivings, it seems to me that there is something very significant about a millennium, something that may well be getting lost in all the millennial brouhaha. A thousand years is a number that can still be grasped in human terms. That’s 30 to 50 human generations, a number small enough to feel comfortable with. Six millennia take you back past King David and the prophets to Noah and Abraham. As human beings we can almost comprehend the sweep of written history.
Not so with the vast eons brought in by the geologists in the last century or the even more mind-boggling numbers introduced by astronomers during the 1900s. Today the most commonly reported number for the age of the universe is 12 to 13 billion years. Nowadays it’s relatively easy to think of in such enormous quantities. Not long ago I asked my class if they could come up with some numbers in the billions that everyone should know, and to my surprise they got them right away: 6 billion, the current world population, and 250 billion, the annual Pentagon budget in dollars. Incidentally, they also mentioned Bill Gates’ fortune and Harvard’s endowment. Still, none of us are entirely comfortable imagining how big billions really are, and it’s much easier to cope with thousands. One can even have a little sympathy for the young-earth Creationists, who cling to an age of the earth of only 6,000 years, with its much more human dimension.
Astronomers calculate not only past ages in terms of billions of years but the future as well. How long will the universe last? Tens if not hundreds of billions of years. Our sun? About five billion years before it runs out of its hydrogen fuel and swells up into a bloated red giant star, huge enough to swallow the earth. And Homo sapiens? No life on earth has lasted five billion years, The first of the genus Homo appeared on earth about four million years ago, and already half a dozen species are extinct. Homo habilis, Homo erectus, neanderthalensis, they are all gone. A million years is a fleeting instant compared to the lifetime of the sun, but a very large number indeed in terms of human generations. Yes, even a millennium into the future stretches our imaginations.
Think with me for a few minutes about how rapidly our world is changing, My great grandfathers, who were alive and farming a century ago, would probably have had more rapport with their farmer forebears nine hundred years earlier than with us today. They had no indoor plumbing, no telephones. When it got dark, they lit kerosene lanterns. They rode in their buggies on unpaved, muddy roads. As often as not, their infants hastened from crib to casket. The world population stood well under two billion.
By the time I was a graduate student in the 1950s, the world population was pushing 2 1/2 billion. Biologists did not yet know for sure how many chromosomes were in each human cell. Today they are decoding the entire human genome, and this past week biogeneticists announced that all of the genes on one of the 23 chromosomes have been mapped. Meanwhile, in the past 35 years the world population has doubled.
With a still-increasing supply of people and a diminishing supply of energy reserves, humankind seems headed, if not to extinction, at least to a bleak and even brutish existence. The biblical story of the Apocalypse and a final millennium seems all too real. Reluctant as we are to concede it, perhaps now really is the best of times.
But let us be genuinely optimistic, and imagine that somehow we will make the perilous transition to a sustainable future with the runaway population explosion under control. To harness the vast and generously distributed energy of sunlight, we’ll need a thriving scientific establishment. This will surely bring an exponential increase in biological knowledge, how genes work and how they can be changed. Genetic engineering is already shaping grains in our fields and vegetables in our shops. Correction of crippling genetic diseases should soon be possible, a welcome gift for modern medicine. In another fifty years, barring major nuclear catastrophe, geneticists will surely be able to manipulate the genes to create a stronger, healthier, smarter superman. Within a millennium Homo sapiens will be indeed be smarter—if it even exists as the same species!
Scientific progress seems inevitable as the new millennium dawns, but will there be spiritual progress? In the special millennium issue of Business Week, reporting on religion, the sixth of twenth-one ideas for the twenty-first century, reporter Karen Penner wrote:
“Theologians will welcome scientists’ insights into religion’s physical manifestations, but they will not cede the role that religion plays in providing solace, in mediating ethical disputes, or in celebrating moments when a relationship to the unknowable fills worshipers with humility…. For that reason, in the 21st century nothing will easily attenuate the tidal pull that religion holds for most humans.”
Lofty words, those, and I pretty generally agree with them. But is she just making it up about religion still exerting a tidal pull for most humans in the next century?
A hundred years ago sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists did not foresee such a continuing role for religion. August Comte, in tracing the course of cultural evolution, had described the religious stage as the most primitive. During this stage, he declared, human culture was held in thrall by hallucinations and was at the mercy of passions. Science, and particularly his science of sociology, would enable mankind to acquire a more rational understanding of the world.
Psychologist James Leuba, writing in 1914, predicted that progress in science would demand a revision of public opinion about the two cardinal beliefs of Christianity, and that without these Christianity would not survive. Leuba went further, attempting to document the decline of religious belief among scientists. In 1914 and again in 1933 Leuba surveyed a cross section of American scientists, using a statistical sampling of those represented in American Men of Science. (Today the title has been changed to American Men and Women of Science, but in those days women were also included in the compilation.) Leuba asked first, “Do you believe in a God in intellectual and affective communication with man…to whom one can pray in expectation of receiving an answer?” and second, “Do you believe in personal immortality?” Yes, no, or agnostic were the only options. Last year Edward Larson and Larry Witham re-asked those same questions to a group statistically selected from the current reference volume, and eight decades after the first survey the answer to the first question, about belief in a God who answers prayer, was essentially the same: 40%. Somewhat more answered the second question affirmatively back in 1914, about 50%, and today that number has dropped, but not very significantly, to about 40%. “Thus,” the authors conclude, “one of Leuba’s predictions, his general theory of disbelief, has failed.”
In 1969 the Carnegie Commission sponsored a mammoth survey with 60,000 college faculty respondents, and as a trained astronomer I was fascinated to discover that their results showed that scientists were on average more religious and attended church more regularly than those in the humanities or social sciences. I will not argue that scientists are in a closer position to see that the heavens declare the glory of God. Scientific findings have undoubtedly been destructive of some of the once-traditional notions about the universe in which we find ourselves. But at the same time, scientists perhaps are in a better position to appreciate the subtlety and grandeur of creation. They can understand that the billions of year of creation are necessary for the slow preparation of the elements required for life, elements that could not form in the first three minutes of the big bang, but which are gradually cooked up in the interiors of evolving stars. They know, too, that the whole structure of the universe is astonishingly congenial not just to the formation of life, but for thinking, self-conscious life.
Somewhat to my surprise, my paleontologist colleague, Stephen Jay Gould, recently published a book, Rocks of Ages, dealing with the relations of science and religion. These are two great magisteria, he wrote, each with their own way of dealing with aspects of human existence, but, he suggested, with very little to say to each other. Of that conclusion I am not convinced.
Why? Because it seems to me that in thorny questions of genetic engineering, of using science to build star wars shields, of deciding who gets the medicine and who gets to be guinea pigs, religion has something to add to the dialogue. In the Gospels Jesus has a great deal to say about salvation. Now at this point I decided to follow the advice of Alistair Cooke, that if there’s something you don’t know much about, like “salvation” you look it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I tried the eleventh edition, and “salvation” wasn’t there, which immediately gave the clue that this is not an easy subject. But the current edition was bolder—it gave a definition: “Salvation is the redemption of man from such fundamentally negative or disabling conditions as suffering, evil, and death.” Traditionally within Christianity that has meant the restoration of body and soul. For me, that restoration is a great mystery, philosophically baffling, something that can only be approached in a spirit of trust.
But Jesus did not simply urge his disciples to think of some future paradise, but he taught them to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He taught a gospel of loving one’s enemies, of selfless sharing, even of ultimate sacrifice as he showed by his own example.
As we look into the next millennium, we can see some redemption from suffering and evil in the hands of scientists. They can stem the scourge of plagues, can help bring forth more abundant produce from the earth, can tap the abundant energy of sunshine. Yet, some of those same keys also unlock biological warfare, can generate monsters, can destroy our atmosphere. Salvation doesn’t come from science. Salvation comes from age-old insights into human nature and the ongoing quest to be reconciled to God. It comes from Jesus not only reminding us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but with the parable of the Good Samaritan, where he told us our neighbors can be strangers anywhere. That path of salvation is not an easy one. There will be difficult issues to confront in the next century. Experts tell us the next round of wars will be fought over water resources. Can we learn to share? Let us hope that in this and many other conflicts religion and science can dialogue, that our religious insights into sacrificial love can progress and that they might steer our precocious, self-conscious species from mutual extinction to eternal life. May the millennium be the best of times!