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Science and consience

Didn’t we all, growing up, want to be wildlife biologists, or archaeologists, or paramedics? Of course the imagined opportunity for swashbuckling was the main appeal of such jobs, especially for those of us raised on TV’s Wild Kingdom, Daktari, and Emergency. I also ate up the heroic ideal of braving danger in the service of others—protecting animals, befriending a lost tribe of headhunters, warning people to flee a volcano in the nick of time. Another draw for me was simply competence: wielding skills and knowledge that not everyone shared, that would enrich my experiences, and that would make my work important and impressive.

The fact is, I even dreamed of being just a sedentary lab researcher, as long as I could become the foremost expert on something—fruit fly genes, bacterial cultures, anything. I may lean toward the nerdy end of the spectrum, but all humans have a hard-wired drive for some level of science. Equally primal as our urges for derring-do or moral glory is our cognitive imperative to solve a puzzle, learn a pattern, or make a discovery. The desire to learn more about our world than is necessary for mere survival, and to devise tools by which we can manipulate and rejigger our world, is central to the very definition of being human. No wonder sciences have been formally studied for millennia and are still premier players in modern curricula. (Click here for Skidmore's take on science education.)

The only problem with our thirst for knowledge is that our cerebral cortex is too big for its britches—not just materially (as anyone who’s birthed a baby can attest), but spiritually as well. We learned to farm, and now we act like we own the place. We learned to extend our lives, and we’re overpopulating the globe. We invented thalidomide and PCBs, and we gravely injured ourselves and others. We’re so damned inventive—and our egos get such an adaptive kick from fulfilling that innate impulse—that we’re forever inventing juggernauts we can’t control. Icarus and Dr. Frankenstein were just the tip of the cognitive-hubris iceberg that is the human race.

My own pursuit of science skidded to a halt in eighth grade, when I realized the worms and frogs in our dissection lab were bred and killed for just that exploitive purpose—to indulge human curiosity. We’ve got no natural right, I decided, with all the burning piety of rank adolescence. Now I see that, right or not, we’ve got a very natural instinct, and part of me wishes I’d followed that instinct into further science study. Certainly I’m entranced and impressed by science, both as pure intellectual stimulation and as a tool for comfort and convenience (from central heating to railroads to movies). As logically leaky as my reasoning may be, I’m pinning my hopes on science to extricate us from the predicaments that science got us into: climate change, nuclear-waste disposal, antibiotic resistance, and a hundred other unintended consequences we were smart enough to unleash but not smart enough to rein back in.

So I hang around the sidelines of science, cheering on the researchers yet harboring a deep moral doubt about their prying and probing. I’m a camp follower who hopes to benefit from the warriors’ exploits without fully embracing the justness of their cause. I guess as humans we’re destined to pursue science ever more intently. And as humans we’re destined to fret over the implications. Good thing we’re also naturals at ignoring such internal psychic conflict. —SR