Written by Kevin Hower Wednesday, 24 October 2007 10:54
This seems like a great time to address two of my favorite subjects: science and monsters.
Monsters exist within us all and symbolize aspects of human nature. They allow us to conveniently distance ourselves from those things we dislike about ourselves, and enjoy entertaining them without the negative consequences imposed by reality.
Werewolves represent not only aggression, which humanity has still not conquered, but a loss of control over that aggression. We’ve built civilizations on rules grounded in our ability to consciously choose our actions. Lycanthropy offers a sort of freedom from that responsibility since, unlike humans, wolves don’t seem to suffer any angst over eating meat.
Vampires are the freeloaders and con artists within society. They prey on those either incapable of defending themselves or who are all too willing to subjugate themselves to authority. They also represent a longing for immortality, the source of belief in ghosts and immaterial souls.
Zombies could represent the masses consumed with consumption, and having no other concerns but satiating their immediate hunger.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein illustrates something important as well. He was made fully formed from various parts of cadavers animated with electricity. We’re assembled one cell at a time though, each cell in turn made from atoms that formed in stars, which went supernova billions of years ago. Each of us grows from an intricate, yet fantastically variable, genetic blueprint which required many hundreds of millions of years of random mutations to arise through natural selection. As awe-inspiring as those facts are, does accepting them in any way change what I am? I don’t think so.
I draw a lot in my spare time. When drawing people from imagination, I tap a modest puddle of anatomical knowledge. When I visit doctors, I want them to have at least a pond––if not a great lake––of knowledge about how my body works, including the individual cells I normally ignore while drawing.
On one hand, I can recognize that people are staggeringly complex organic machines—driven by gradually evolved tendencies—who can learn, dream, plan and build. Perhaps, in light of what neuroscience tells us, the saying “I think, therefore I am,” should be “I think, therefore I think I am.”
On the other, I could believe that everyone has a soul handmade by an undetectable and omnipotent being.
Neither of those views change what I am one bit, but the first is supported by science. The second remains outside of what’s testable by humans and so must remain a matter of faith.
None of this absolves me of personal responsibility toward society and myself. I still have to exercise self-control in order to prevent myself from suffering the very real and tangible consequences of certain actions, ranging from fines all the way to death.
Nor does any of this change the reality of my actual place in the universe. We humans are very capable of changing our environment within limits. Compared to the universe though, the human race is nothing but a speck. This should be painfully obvious from the casualties each year due to natural disasters. We can adapt to our world, but not master it totally.
There are about six billion of us living on earth, give or take. There are, however, estimated to be about 750,000 species of insects. The number of individual ants alone is roughly 10,000 trillion.
The number of stars in the universe is estimated to be around 10 billion trillion. It’s far too big a number to truly visualize, but Carl Sagan tried when he said “ ... the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.”
The awestruck feeling I get when I think of that is one reason I love learning about science. If, in some unimaginably distant time, we’ve spread our species among the stars and have achieved insect-like numbers, we’ll still collectively be a speck––but at least we’ll be a larger speck.
No sense procrastinating. The sooner we get out there, the greater our chances of surviving our own ignorance.