I. Two days ago I was in Harvard Square. Harvard University employees were holding a protest rally in the street next to Au Bon pain. One of the posters read, Many faces, one voice. Good luck, I thought. That’s not the situation in the world today, where there are many faces, 5 billion of them, and almost as many voices. Do people anywhere speak anymore with just one voice?
Here’s a few examples of what’s happening in the world: And you all know there are thousands more:
The civil war in Yugoslavia which has already cost 10,000 lives, countless maimed and wounded, an estimated 1.5 million left homeless, let alone the material damage to cities and towns, and to the jewel of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik.
In Sri Lanka last month it was the start of a week of festivities celebrating the new year. The two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, were celebrated with family gatherings and exchange of gifts, as they have done on this occasion for centuries. On the very eve of the celebration 20 soldiers were killed in ambushes. On the first day, a bus was blown up and 25 people died. On the same day a bomb went off in a bazaar in the outskirts of the capital, Colombo, killing another 15 people. It is assumed that the attacks were the work of the Tamil Tigers, a guerrilla group fighting for a separate Tamil state in northeastern Sri Lanka.
In present day Somalia on the horn of Africa a number of clan-based guerrilla groups are engaged in internecine warfare. There is no legitimate government. The following conditions are typcal: An idle pharmaceuticals factory built by the Soviets is now a “refuge” for thousands of refuges from wars; they are waiting for help and they are watching their children die from the lack of proper nourishment. Around the capital, Magadishu, alone there are over 100 such sites, rude havens for unarmed civilians forced to flee their homes.
For nearly six months the refugee camps, like the city itself, have been cut off from food as warfare and chaos have stymied all international relief efforts. Uncounted hundreds, perhaps thousands, have already starved to death. Tens of thousands of others have been killed or wounded. Central Mogadishu, once a gracious district of shaded streets, pastel villas and modest office towers, is now a tense and deserted no-man’s land of buildings defaced by shellfire and laden with rubble. A Somali, who is now professor of history at Rutgers University has described the situation there as follows: Modern Somali politics is nothing but traditional clan politics writ large, with the difference that the clan members are now armed with modern, mass-destructive weapons.”
In Peru, a black woman, Maria Elena Moyano, helped to create in the suburbs of that city a haven for the poor, called Villa. Now Villa is home to over 300,000 people. They have their own local government, schools, health clinics and industrial park. They have become a model for other Third World city planners. Last September, 20 years after the creation of Villa, Moyano was murdered by Shining Path guerrillas. The guerrillas also blew up the warehouse that supplied 92 Villa soup kitchens.
A man who tried to stop them with a loudspeaker in hand was shot in the head, a friend who tried to help was stoned to death. Shining Path spokesmen say that they are engaged in a “people’s war.” Rather than feed, educate or heal people, which was Moyano’s vision, they want to “deepen the contradictions”—that is, create more hunger, disease and death. Then, the theory goes, people will feel compelled to fight on the guerrillas’ side. That’s why they murdered Moyano.
Much closer to home there is Los Angeles. Admittedly not the same thing, but also with a large part of ethnic strife and grinding, inner city poverty.
First of all there was the white jury’s verdict flying in the face of everyone’s idea of justice, if not of justice itself, acquitting the four Los Angeles policemen accused of excessive brutality in the arrest of a young black man.
Then there was the white man being dragged from the cab of his truck and being brutally beaten by four black men while down on the pavement.
Then a mob of rioters storming shops and business, looting and setting fires, mostly in the absence of any police protection. We are told that it was the most violent American civil disturbance since the Irish poor burned Manhattan in 1863.
Two days of rioting left thousands of burned out buildings, including nearly 2000 business owned or operated by Korean Americans, more than 60 fatalities, thousands wounded, nearly 17 thousand jailed, an estimated 1 billion dollars in damages.
The blame fell everywhere: Legitimate black anger over the King decision, the devastating poverty of all those weak in skills and resources, the flight of a stable and responsible middle class to the suburbs, the loss of manufacturing jobs, a 40 to 50 % unemployment rate for minority youth, the Kennedy and Johnson social policies of the 60s, the Reagan and Bush neglect of the 80s, a conspiracy on the part of the Crips and the Bloods, Black vengeance taken on the Korean community for the death of 15 year old Latasha Harlins, shot to death last year by a Korean grocer in a dispute over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, the marginal types, the riff-raff, the havenots all just spoiling for a chance to pillage and burn the haves, the heat and the boredom as in Watts in 1965. But it’s not so much the number of causes as the lack of solutions that is appalling.
A good part of the problem is that America is still the land of opportunity. There are countless immigrants at the gate. Many of them are in the country many of them are in Los Angeles.
The outburst of minority assertiveness in Los Angeles may be seen against the background of similar explosions within nation-states around the globe. The outbursts abroad are often marked by old hatreds, such as in Yougoslavia, and deeply entrenched linguistic and religious differences, such as in the former republics of the Soviet Union. These outbursts take separatist forms, and use organized violence, such as in the Basque region in Spain and in Northern Ireland, threatening the very existence of the nation or region in which they occur. With many variations there are other examples in South Africa, Canada, Lebanon, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Myanmar (or until the summer of1989, Burma), Indonesia, and even the most recently liberated generation of nation-states, such as Czechoslovakia.
Has the whole world gone the way of India, with its large population of “untouchables,” that is, those at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid, those who, if they do get work, do the dirty work of society. Mahatma Ghandi called them Harijan, or children of God, a term we haven’t heard used in referring to the rioters in Los Angeles. We call them, or we used to, the underclass. They really are becoming the new untouchables. Does anybody care?
Someone has said that history is no longer made primarily by what nations do to each other, but by what is done to nations by divisive ethnic feuds within.
Has the world always been like this? In the underdeveloped countries civil wars and guerrilla movements seem to be the norm. In the developed countries, there is terrorism, but most often a kind of insurgency, or low intensity conflict, LIC in army language. This may flare up into something more, as in Los Angeles.
When I was in France two weeks ago the French were asking themselves could or would it happen there. They were no more secure than we are. And I’m sure citizens of London and Berlin were asking themselves the same question.
There is no center, there are only many voices, and these voices are worlds apart. Do you remember the first stanza of Yeats poem, The Second Coming, written during the first world war, or in its aftermath, but perhaps even more topical now than then:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere [pure] anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Should we now expect the world revolution that Marx and Lenin talked about in the concluding years of the past century? As has been often said the end of the Cold War has released a thousand demons from the box.
What’s going on? On the most human level people want to be heard. They want to be recognized. On another level they want a larger share of the pie. Given the constant pressure of a growing world population on the world’s limited resources can we not expect a growing pressure from those without upon those within, a constant knocking at the gates with the everpresent threat that the gates will be knocked down. The lid is always about to be blown off. Is our only recourse to find additional safety values (enterprise zones, weed and seed programs—an expression I couldn’t believe when I first heard it) and keep on muddling through, postponing a day of reckoning?
Some people feel that this is the 11th. hour, that by these and other signs we are being told that civilization is in great danger—other signs are global warming, holes in the ozone layer, mass extinctions in the tropical rain forests, the AIDS epidemic, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the depletion of the mineral resources of the planet. Man seems to be aware of what’s happening, but unable, so far, to change the way he lives.
II. Just one week prior to the riots in L.A. when I was still in France, George Smoot of the University of California at Berkeley announced the findings of the COBE satellite, in orbit since November 18, and and in possession of some 300 million measurements taken over sky arcs of no less than 7 degrees. (The full moon measures one half of a degree across.) We all saw the pictures of the early universe, on our television screens, of a time somewhere between 300,000 and 1 million years after the Big Bang. This was the moment of the possible birth of stars and galaxies.
The COBE satellite findings are the last piece of the puzzle, or if you prefer the the third of three important discoveries confirming the Big Bang theory.
1) The first in 1929 was Edwin Hubble’s announcement of a relationship between the redshift in the spectra of galaxies and their distances. The only known consistent explanation for the red shift of the light of the distant galaxies is that the redshifts are produced by the recession velocity of galaxies in an expanding universe. The furthest galaxies were moving further away and, the further away they were, the faster they were moving. Now one can reverse directions so to speak and extrapolate a point in time when the expansion must have begun. This turns out to be sometime between 10 and 20 billion years ago. (This fits with the age of the oldest stars, some 12-16 billion years.)
The astrophysicist, Fred Hoyle, coined the term, Big Bang. Lemaître, a Belgian mathematician, had seized on Hubble’s findings, and theorized that in the beginning all matter was concentrated into an infinitely small point, the “singularity,” and that there was an initial explosion which must have made a big noise (although, in this case, not only was there no one to hear, as in the case of the tree falling in the forest, but there was no atmosphere to carry the sound). Hoyle, disliked the Belgian mathematician’s, theory that all matter in the beginning was concentrated into an infinitely small point and coined the intentionally ugly expression, Big Bang, for the event.
Next came a truly extraordinary prediction by the Russian expatriot mathematician, George Gamov. He reasoned that there must be now in space a cosmic background radiation, a ubiquitous, simmering energy left over from the big bang. Gamov’s notion was that, if the universe began hot and has been expanding and cooling ever since, its temperature today, though cold, would not be absolutely cold. There should be some residual heat remaining from the big bang.
The prediction was verified in 1964. This was the second discovery. The so-called background radiation, a kind of fossil remnant of the Big Bang, was detected by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, by accident—at the time they were working at Bell laboratories in New Jersey and trying to measure the faint radio waves coming from the outer parts of our own Milky Way galaxy.
The discovery showed that, fairly early on you remember, between 100,000 and 1 million years after the beginning, the universe was a uniformly hot cloud of gas not unlike the sun. As space expands it stretches the wavelength of the radiation, making it appear that the radiation has come from a correspondingly cooler body. By the time we detect the radiation it should correspond to a temperature of a few degrees above absolute zero. The cosmic background radiation found by P. and W. fitted this idea perfectly. It was the right temperature, and the radiation had the same temperature all over the sky, because every direction points back towards the big bang.
But this discovery raised a conumdrum. The background radiation indicated that the gas 100,000 years after the big bang was extremely smooth: if there had been any large lumps or holes in the gas these would have showed up as hot and cold spots in the distribution of radiation over the sky. In the data of Penzias and Wilson they didn’t. Now the Universe today is very clumpy. It consists of individual galaxies (100 billion of them) that are bunched together into clusters and long filaments, with empty voids in between. These large structures must have grown from lumps in the original gas, like milk curdling into lumps of cheese.
Cosmologists believed that if they looked hard enough at the background radiation, they ought to be able to find some evidence of lumps or holes, some fluctuations in its temperature that would indicate such irregularities.
Now to the most recent of the three discoveries, that of the COBE satellite.
On board the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite were three instruments, one to measure the average temperature of the background radiation (2.735 K), one to map the sky at long infrared wavelengths, and the third to look for the fluctuations in brightness in the background radiation. By last December over 300 million measurements had been made and they were analyzed. Three weeks ago, just prior to the riots in South Central Los Angeles, the results were announced. (Evidently this had no influence on the riots, although we don’t know what it would have been like without.)
In terms of temperature, there were fluctuations, bright spots on the computer screen, that were 30 millionths of a Kelvin warmer than the average temperature, with an error of 5 millionths of a kelvin, enough to allow for the creation of the galaxies.
Cosmolgists everywhere were, in the words of the writer for the Economist, cock-a-hoop. They had had trouble reconciling the picture of early smoothness painted by the microwaves with today’s lumpy, galaxy-filled universe. A little youthful acne was just what they had been looking for.
Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge theoretician, calls the COBE discovery “the discovery of this century, perhaps of all time.”
Perhaps this is because observations like COBE’s mark the limit of astronomy. Before the time pictured the universe was opaque, no light was omitted—photons, the carriers of light, were tied up by freely moving electrons. Nothing earlier than this can be seen by our instruments. Therefore, everything before the release of the microwave background radiation—which means almost all the most significant developments in the history of the universe—can only be inferred.
Does this story represent the very best that man can achieve? Well, maybe not, but almost? Is it a new Genesis story? Yes, that it certainly is.
But what about Somalia, Peru, Sri Lanka, south-central Los Angeles? Do they represent something else, perhaps, man at his very worst?
Isn’t this the great irony of the present time, at the very moment when we seem to be most threatened by dissolution, by the dismemberment of our cities and nations, the last pieces of the great puzzle that is the universe seem to be falling into place.
III. We might ask what is the place of science in our lives? Does it help us to live better lives? If not, what does it do that is necessary and beneficial?
Scientists themselves are fond of using the expression, the Holy Grail. Both the COBE launch and sky search, and the $3 billion Human Genome Project are referred to as quests for the respective cosmic and biological Holy-Grails. Scientists talk as if science was the new religion. And in many ways it is.
Of the COBE discovery, a Berkeley astrophysicist has said: “This is an enormously important discovery. If you are a believer, it’s like seeing the work of God up close.”
But what is the relevance of science to the “real worlds” described above? Is there any? I keep returning to this question.
Is science like education and many forms of organized religion, like most schools and churches, with apparently little or no power to bring those who most are in need of help, who are in general excluded from the wealth that is yours and mine, back into the local, national and world communities?
In fact, for over 500 years science is telling us some amazing things about ourselves, but who is listening. For example, the elements of which we are made were themselves made in the bodies of dying stars. Therefore, it’s true that we are made of star dust.
Science is also saying that life began, or at least appeared on this earth, some 3.5 billion years ago in the form of single celled bacteria-like creatures, and that we and every living thing on this earth are their descendants, and that we share with these first life forms, and with all life since, a single genetic code that makes us what we are. Science is saying that the species homo sapiens is unique, and that all races of men are in fact 100% men, that is, none of us is less of a man than anyone else. Racial differences are only skin deep, and are easily explained by long periods of geographical separation and isolation. Racial prejudice has absolutely no basis in fact. It ought to disappear from the face of the earth.
Science is also telling us that man, for the very first time in 90,000 years, has it within his power to poison and even destroy the earth, at least the biosphere, certainly to render it uninhabitable for his descendants. Science is telling us this by making us aware of just how dirty an animal we are. Science is measuring all that we throw away and telling us that either we stop or at least cut back, or, if we don’t, in a relatively short period of time homo sapiens also will become extinct. In other words if civilization is to persist, the physical scale of human activities must be diminished.
But we don’t seem to listen. We go on acting as if the world’s resources were inexhaustible, and as if some people were better, or at least deserved more than others. We go on tolerating incredible discrepancies of wealth between the rich and the poor, nations as well as individuals. We continue to pray at the altar of perpetual economic growth without regard for its consequences.
And on a more ugly note we continue to shoot people in the back of the head, and to pommel people while they are lying on the ground.
What science has taught us about ourselves and about our truly extraordinary position in the universe ought to have much more influence than it does on how we live our lives. Is knowledge, like religion in the early years of this country when, in some respects, it was most abundant, destined to be almost powerless in making us better people?
Will science be like religion that for nearly 2000 years has given us many products, cathedrals and temples, works of music and art, habits of prayer etc., but otherwise has failed to halt the growing discrepancy between the rich and the poor? The irony is that the words of the Prophet Micah, “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God,” would have been enough to save us if we had listened and heard.
I think of the Catholic priests who accompanied the early Spanish settlers to the New World in the 16th. century and were witness to the slaughter and death by disease of nearly 50 million native Americans in 50 years time and were unable to stop it, although one among their number, Bartolomé de Las Casas, who tried, in a public debate in 1550 in Valladolid, Spain, before the King, on the intellectual and religious capacity of the American Indian defended the Indian and is now a hero to the Latin American landless peasants.
I think also of the destruction of the Powhattan and Pequod Indian tribes by the protestant English settlers in the Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay colonies. And I think of the Russian Orthodox Church fathers, powerless to stop the murder of 10s of millions of Russian peasants victims of the cruel and mistaken agricultural and industrial policies of Lenin and Stalin in the 1920s and 30s.
Perhaps in part because of its failures in these three instances religion is no longer the dominant factor in our public lives. Science, for better or worse, has replaced it. Now we, we of the North Shore of Boston, and they of the Crips and the Bloods youth gangs of south-central Los Angeles, are dominated by the products of science—automobiles, televisions, telephones, stereos, computers, and, soon to come, robots. (At least we have this in common.) But again, the same question, will science be no more capable than religion to combat the evil that men do to one another? to bring together the family, the neighborhood, and the larger community of multivaried races and ethnic groups.
Again, this is the great irony of the present day. South Central Los Angeles and the COBE satellite’s verification of the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe.
The coming together of what we know about the universe, and the coming apart of how we live together (the statistics of the family).
IV. Just this past Monday I was in my car going from one place to another, spewing out carbon dioxide into the already overloaded atmosphere, and I happened to tune into WBUR just as President Silber of Boston University was introducing the commencement speaker, the renowned Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Great, I said to myself, not yet having a speech of my own, (I didn’t have one at the time) I’ll get some ideas.
But as it turned out, they were ideas as to what not to say. If you’ve been to other graduations you’re probably familiar with the kind of things he said. For example: “this great [school], your alma mater, is an example of the best that our culture has to offer. It has equipped you to face great obstacles in many areas. Now it is your opportunity to stand up to the occasion and make the world a better place.” And this coming from a writer! What would our teachers have told him if they had had a chance to look at his speech before Monday? Why, as if this wasn’t enough, he concluded his talk with such things as “Liberty ought to be cherished with the fierceness of those who have lost it [alluding here to his own country, Peru where the democratic government has just been dissolved] and of those who have just regained it [alluding here to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union]. Liberty, still in his words, is the driving force of progress. and finally, “Cruelty must be condemned wherever we find it.”
But then I remembered that Llosa was also a politician. He had lost the 1990 presidential election to Fujimori, but he hadn’t yet lost the rhetoric.
You know, if there is one thing that I’ve learned by being a teacher for nearly 35 years, it’s that my words, no matter how impressive sounding they might be, have done little or nothing to change my students values, the way they think, the way they act. Students, in spite of appearances are not by and large in the power of their teachers. That’s why at Waring discussion rather than lectures are the heart of the program, the exchange of ideas.
Another “graduation speaker” was Mikhail S. Gorbachev recently at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri, who urged such gripping things as “a global alliance against common problems that would involve the whole of humanity.” In the same town where Winston Churchill on March 5, 1946 warned of “an Iron Curtain that had descended across Europe, trapping Eastern European nations in the Communist sphere,” Gorbachev said such catchy things as. “the problems that the whole world faces today include terrorism, crime, abuse of drugs and alcohol, environmental damage and hunger.” (Blah, blah, blah…)
Now, Vargas Llosa, I’m sure is better than most graduation speakers. But while he was talking I remembered a line I had read in Esquire magazine on the plane just two weeks earlier. It was an article about James Dean. James Dean, the writer said, is what’s going on inside you, underneath, while old men in suits are up there [here] on the podium telling lies. And I hoped I wouldn’t be such an old man.
V. What rules the world.
Science and religion are not enough. What is necessary is liberal democracy (which, since the break-up of the Soviet Union is, we are told, although I don’t believe it, is sweeping the world), and more specifically the free exchange of ideas in the market place. Such an exchange is probably what brought about the demise of the Soviet Union. Andrei Sakharov understood this. Gorbachev and Soljenitsyne did, do not. I believe that the quality of our religious and spiritual lives, the growth of our scientific knowledge, and our ability to find solutions to some of the social and environmental problems that we face depend on it.
My conclusion is that neither science (which may rule our minds), nor religion (which may our hearts and souls) but rather ideas rule the world. In fact, if I had the time I believe I could trace all progress to them.
You all aware that this year, 1992, is the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America. However, have you wondered why there’s not much talk about celebration? In fact, as far as I know there will be no celebrations. The United States does intend to switch on a 15 acre extraterrestrial listening post in Puerto Rico on October 12. In celebration? Some sort of antenna like that Columbus should have had with him when he went to the new world—he might have heard the people of the new world speaking.
Why is it that in Seville, Spain, that city from where the Spanish ships that went to the new world set out, and where today there is a world’s fair, —why is it that there is no mention of Columbus’ voyages, or even his name? The Seville world’s fair will end on October 12. The celebration is over on the same day that Columbus’s arrived in the Bahamas. Is this because on that date 500 years ago, for the American Indians, grim reality set in?
In 1492 300 million people were alive on the earth. More than half lived in Asia, most of these in China and India, which were by general agreement the most civilized countries of the world at that time. About one quarter, 80 million people, lived in the new world, and a fifth, or 60 million in Europe, 17 million in France, the most populous European country of the time. Only 2 million Europeans knew how to read their name, probably about 500,000 could read a book.
The discovery of the new world brought about the greatest genocide in the history of man. Of 80 million American Indians, three out of five died in a very short time, probably less than one generation.
The island of Hispaniola, where Columbus established the first colony in the new world, counted 7 or 8 million people in 1492 (by the way, many of these numbers come from the writings of Las Casas who was a Dominican monk and an eye witness). Four years later half of these people were dead. Eighty years later there remained only 125 members of the original Arawak natives whom Columbus first encountered. Celebration? Survivors of the Indian races are demanding memorial services.
Quatre ans après que Christophe Colomb eut foulé, pour la première fois, les plages de l’Amérique son frère Bartolomé alluma le premier bûcher de Haïti. Six Indiens, condamnés, pour sacrilège, y furent brûlés vifs. Ils avaient commis le péché d’enterrer des images de Jésus-Christ et de la Vierge. Mais ils les avaient enterrées pour que ces nouveaux dieux rendent plus fertiles les semences de maïs, et ils ne se sentaient donc pas coupables d’une offense méritant la mort.
A Salvadorean priest, Father Ignacio Ellacuria, a few months before his assassination in 1989, wrote:
“That which was really discovered in 1492 was the true nature of Spain, the nature of western civilization at that moment. Another world wasn’t discovered, rather it was covered up. What we have to do today is now, at long last, discover that other world, the one that was not discovered in 1492, in order that a truly new world may come into being, not one that is simply a repeat of the old. Is it possible?”
Scientific discovery is one kind. What father Ellacuria is talking about is another and much more important kind of discovery. This is the discovery by human beings of one another. In this sense 1492 was a tremendous opportunity, but this discovery never took place.
The Europeans had much to learn from the Arawaks in Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), from the Aztecs in Mexico, from the Incas in Peru, to mention just the most well-know pre-Columbian peoples, but we (by we I mean Western, European man, and I say we because we, you and I, are still by and large the descendants of the conquerors and not of the conquered, although this is changing, in Los Angeles, for example, where over half the population is now Hispanic) gave them our diseases, put them to work in our mines, and took from them their agricultural products.
Nor have we yet listened to the Rain Forest. Although we are beginning to. Columbus came close to “discovering” the Venezuelan Amazon rain forest when on his third voyage he passed very close to the mouth of the Orinoco River. Later in his journal because of the enormous quantity of fresh water he encountered near the river’s mouth he wrote that the land drained by the Orinoco must have been the original garden of Eden!
In a world where ideas rule, listening to the ideas of others is essential.
Talk about Darwin and biological evolution and then about Dawkins and memes and cultural evolution.
Each individual member of any given species is different—each has a distinct genetic makeup.
All living creatures tend to produce more offspring than the environment can support.
By natural selection the fittest survive, not because they are in some sense superior to their colleagues, but because they better “fit” their environment.
His conclusion: the process of natural selection leads to the formation, the origin of new species. The degree of individual variations found within a given species tends to increase with the passage of time, until some groups have become so different from others that they can no longer mate and produce fertile offspring.
Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene goes so far as to describe units of information—ideas expressed in words, a song or a book or a play—as “the new replicators,”dubbing them “memes” (rhyme with genes):
“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves i the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain…if a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. .” [Dawkins also says:
Language seems to ‘evolve’ by non-genetic means, and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.
Not only does our understanding of the universe change as the centuries go by: it improves.
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.… mimeme or meme. …when you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. … Whenever conditions arise in which a new kind of replicator can make copies of itself, the new replicators will tend to take over, and start a new kind of evolution of their own. Once this evolution begins it will in no necessary sense be subservient to the old. … As in the case of genes , fecundity is much more important than longevity of particular copies. …
Qualities that make for the high survival value among memes must be the same as those discussed for genes: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity. The meme seems to have greater longevity, greater fecundity but less copying-fidelity, hence the heightened speed of cultural evolution. It looks even as though meme transmission is subject to continuous mutation, and also to blending. … An idea-meme might be defined as an entity that is capable of being transmitted rom one brain to another. …Is there a general principle which is true of all life? If I had to bet, I would put my money on one fundamental principle. This is the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene, the DNA molicule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet.]
Dawkins even goes on to consider competition between memes for available space in books, computer systems, or even in human memories. The analogy is imperfect when pushed to extremes. But it does clearly show the emergence of something different in our culture which, barring overwhelming catastrophe, may make the culture, or its information content, more durable than the genes of, say, the large dinosaurs. However we may change, or even if we are “superseded” by computers and robots as in some science fiction scenarios, the memes of human culture—and of human individuals such as Einstein or Shakespeare—may persist. And if we ever establish communication with other intelligent species on other planets circling other stars, then human memes may spread across the Universe even if physical interstellar travel remains impossible.
Our school is founded, not on religion (some of you have questioned us about the place of religion in our school—it has a place, and an important one), nor is it based on scientific knowledge, rather our school, like the world, is ruled by ideas. (In the school and in the world there are good ideas and bad ideas, and sometimes, unfortunately their power is inversely proportional to their goodness.)
In regard to our school, there are many of our founding ideas with which you are probably familiar, since you and your children have chosen to come here to school. Most of these ideas (actually most of the ideas in every thing that I write and say today did not originate with Josée and myself—remember they are memes, like genes passed on from one to another, but with the speed of light).
A few examples of Waring’s founding ideas to let you know what I mean:
You cannot teach a child anything important, you can only help her and him to learn by themelves.
Extrinsic motivation, such as grades and competition, is never as effective as self-motivation, or the spark that comes from within the child.
Different children learn in different ways.
Self-confidence and self respect are essential preconditions to learning.
Teachers are also learners, and they teach best when they are learning themselves.
Now if our school is changing, evolving, it is because our ideas are constantly changing and evolving, and, I trust, getting better.
Finally, I want to talk about two ideas that may be more important than all the others, at least in respect to their being primarily responsible for man’s improving his lot, for making progress. Whatever we do in Los Angeles to relieve that terrible situation we must start with them. Whatever we do in the world to relieve the interethnic feuding, we must start with them.
The first is the idea that man, in Hamlet’s words, is quite a piece of work, “how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving! How express and admirable in action! How like an angel in apprehension! How like a god! This is the man (men) who put the COBE satellite into orbit and then read from the data the story it told. This is the man (men) who in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, wrote the constitution of the United States. You know and recognize this man, but you have to believe it’s you also. This needs to be said, because many of those who are of the have not party, perhaps the majority of the people on the earth today, let alone the majority of the residents of Los Angeles, probably do not believe this about themselves. Without this belief it’s probably impossible to improve one’s own lot.
The pictures of the beatings and shootings in Los Angeles do not necessarily tell us something different, that we are creatures of little or no intrinsic worth, but they do make us aware of how far we have fallen from being that wondrous being. (This, by the way is what religion has always told us.)
Some 2000 years before Shakespeare the Greek playwright, Sophocles, made the same discovery. The passage that follows is from the Antigone. It is one of the choral songs in which we seem to surprise the first amazed meditation of man when he realizes how strange it is that he should be what he is, that he should have wrought all that he has wrought:
Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none
More wonderful than man; the storm grey sea
Yields to his prows, the huge crests bear him high;
Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven
With shining furrows where his plows have gone
Year after year, the timeless labour of stallions.
The lightboned birds and beasts that cling to cover,
The lithe fish lighting their reaches of dim water,
All are taken, tamed in the net of his mind;
The lion on the hill, the wild horse windy-maned,
Resign to him; and his blunt yoke has broken
The sultry shoulders of the mountain bull.
Words also, and thought as rapid as air,
He fashions to his good use; statecraft is his,
And the skill that deflects the arrows of snow,
The spears of winter rain: from every wind
He has made himself secure—from all but one:
In the late wind of death he cannot stand.
Of course, in this quotation and in the other from Hamlet, I have omitted what the characters go on to say, that there is another side, a dark side to man also. For obvious reasons, we may neglect the dark side. Nobody needs reminding. Of the light side, however, they do.
The second idea, no less important to man’s improving his lot is this: it is incumbent on this wondrous creature, man, to make the world a better place, that he not rest on his laurel’s so to speak. This is the theory of the “red queen” theory, do you remember, in Alice in Wonderland. Wasn’t it the red queen who had to keep moving in order to stay in the same place. Well man has to keep working. He can’t sit still.
This is the germ of the idea of progress. It is never enough just to stand still, as my father would say, just to exist; we have to go on until everyone’s life, not just our own, is, if not fulfilled, made better. Now, this, of course, is an unending process. The very idea of fulfillment will change as conditions change, as those ideas that rule the world change also. For they will, I hope for the better.
At the end I find myself sounding a bit like the commencement speaker, Mario Vargas Losa.
You can be proud of what you are and what you have accomplished, and you should be ready to go on, because you’ve only begun, and there’s no end in sight.
Jun 25, 2000