Monday, December 13, 2010

Learning to believe.

I watched Religulous this weekend. Didn't care for it much. Seeing it was a chore to be performed so I can call myself educated. I watched Passion of the Christ for the exact same reason. These movies helped me re-learn things I already knew. The Mel Gibson mess reminded me I don't like torture porn. The Bill Maher mess reminded me I don't like comedy based on embarrassing people.

Maher says he wasn't the best candidate to become a skeptic because he was raised Catholic by his father, with no noted objections from his Jewish mother, until one day his father stopped going to church when Maher was a teen. Actually, when he talks about how much he hated church as a kid, he sounds like an excellent candidate.

In all modesty, I am a better candidate for skepticism, though I tried Christianity for a few years as an adult. My parents were not churchgoers, but they didn't forbid us to attend if friends asked. I tried it a few times, but I didn't like it at all.

And yet I believed in the unseen, in forces greater than myself. They were called dinosaurs, and it took some faith to accept their existence, seeing as they had been extinct for millions of years before humans walked the earth. My parents bought me a bunch of natural science books, including the one pictured here, the cover art by the most famous dinosaur artist of the day Rudolph Zallinger, best known for his Age of Reptiles mural which is still on display at the Peabody museum at Yale. The museum asks folks not to reproduce the enormous painting, and that request makes sense, in large part because no reproduction can convey the sheer size of a painting 110 feet wide.

The quibbler in me can't resist this. The painting above is from a bygone era and our beliefs about the dinosaurs have evolved. We know longer think the Brachiosaurus (not a Brontosaurus, different shaped head) was a swamp dweller and most paintings today of an Allosaurus (like a Tyrannosaurus, but smaller) would make it a lot thinner and not putting any weight on its tail, using it instead as a counterbalance to stay low.

I didn't just love dinosaurs. I loved all kinds of natural history. I learned about the mammals that wandered the earth after the dinosaurs went extinct. Most people would know a few of these species, notably the Mastodon and the Sabretooth Tiger (Smilodon), but I read about many more, sloths the size of bears and massive rhinoceri from Asia who were as tall at the shoulder as the top of the head of a modern day giraffe. Maybe my love for the big girls is an extension of my love for big creatures in general when I was a wee lad, I don't know. The only small critters I can remember from the Age of Mammals were the a prototype species of horse about the size of a small dog and a small pig-sized ancestor of the elephant.

And then there were the creatures who went extinct during the Time of Man, often because of man's hunting or sometimes due to man's heedlessness. Everyone knows the Dodo, a flightless bird about the size of a turkey but related to the pigeon, but only a few will know about the Moa, the Elephant Bird, Steller's Sea Cow, Ivory Billed Woodpecker and the Tasmanian Wolf. Many of these animals were hunted out of existence but others died because their habitats were destroyed. It was just over 100 years ago the species known as the Passenger Pigeon ceased to exist. Humans hunted the creature for food, but there were so many of them there would not have been enough bullets to kill them all. The widely accepted view today is the destruction of their habitat caused by the westward movement of Americans in the 19th Century brought doom to this species.

These creatures were like my own self-made catechism. I gladly committed to memory the particulars of their lives, when they lived, how they died. And they instilled in me a faith that lives to this day, a awesome feeling of both respect and disgust for the power of human heedlessness. Einstein is given credit for the clever quote "There are only two infinite things, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the first one." I think it's wrong to call it stupidity. It's more like a character flaw that the bad things we have seen are not going to happen to us, that we are somehow the exception to the rule we have seen repeated over and over again.

There are some social conservatives who believe that we cannot destroy the earth because God promised us it wouldn't happen again after the Great Flood. My catechism teaches me a different lesson. Human heedlessness is a force greater than a hundred hurricanes a year, and unlike hurricanes, it has no off-season.

It will exist for as long as we do.


Margaret Benbow said...

Thank you for this excellent, thoughtful post. I enjoyed it--if that's the right word for a post which also makes you shiver with dread.

Matty Boy said...

I teach for a living, which is an optimistic calling, though many I know in the profession are deeply pessimistic. I suppose I am, too, though not about the effectiveness of teaching in general but in the fate of humanity.

It's like being on a boat that's filling with water. Whatever help you can give, you give. It would be rude to do otherwise.