Stone-Agers in the Fast Lane

Professor Michael Abruzzo, Biological Sciences (photo KM)
Every college student should be able to answer this question: What is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare? Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as it appears through the lens of ideology and religious dogma, or as a myopic response solely to immediate need.

—E. O. Wilson, "Back from Chaos," The Atlantic Monthly (March 1998)

Part way through his talk, "Genetics Is Diversity," the most recent of the ongoing Conversations on Diversity sponsored by the Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies, Professor Michael Abruzzo, Biological Sciences, paused. "Do you ever say to yourself, "I'm going to go get close to nature?" he asked. "You are nature." Conceptually placing ourselves outside or "above" the natural world, he suggested, imperils our ability to understand it or, for that matter, ourselves. "What if we don't observe humans in nature? What difference does it make? Well, I'll submit to you that sexism, racism, prejudice, bigotry, and, in general, intolerance are all outgrowths of the biased world views we hold about our origins."

Drawing from the recent work of Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson, an outspoken advocate of global conservation and author of the forthcoming Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Knopf), Abruzzo focused his talk around the tiny bit of matter that bears forth the blueprint for all living organisms on earth: the gene. "You only need to look around the room," he said, "to know that genes are very diverse. They come in all sizes and shapes, personalities, IQ's." The basis for this diversity, said Abruzzo, "is the dynamic environment in which we live, and the environment that has existed on this planet for the last three to four billion years." Citing El Niño as one of the most recent environmental events affecting the survival of certain organisms, he said, "Some things aren't going to make it this year because of the extreme rainfall. Other things are going to be able to make it only because of the extreme rainfall." In the fight for genetic continuance, in other words, there are "winners and losers." But the fight is apparently very much uphill. According to Abruzzo, whose specialty is human genetics, genetic disease, and chromosome abnormalities, "99.8 percent of all species that ever existed on the planet are extinct."

By that yardstick, humans are winners—for the time being, at least. Unfortunately, our ignorance about our place in nature may ultimately make us losers. As Abruzzo quipped, "It's possible to view us as Stone Agers living in the fast lane. At one time we tossed spears, but now we toss missiles. Our brain isn't as developed as our technology. So something simple, like territoriality, which is a basic behavior, is bringing us to the brink of world destruction." Population growth, he said, only intensifies territoriality, and while he was careful to point out that some other species will go on even if humans wipe each other out, E. O. Wilson has written that "on land at least and on a worldwide basis, species are vanishing 100 times faster than before the arrival of Homo sapiens." The ongoing loss in biodiversity caused by human population growth may very well lead us, Wilson writes, to "the Eremozoic era, the Age of Loneliness."

Professors Abruzzo and Wilson both argue for a fundamental shift in education that integrates the study of the humanities and social sciences with the study of natural sciences in such a way that their underlying unity is revealed. Abruzzo, quoting Wilson: "The vast majority of our political leaders are trained primarily or exclusively in the social sciences and the humanities, and have little or no knowledge of the natural sciences. The same is true of public intellectuals, columnists, media interrogators, and think-tank gurus. The best of their analyses are careful and responsible, but the substantive base of their wisdom is fragmented and lopsided."

During the discussion following his presentation, Abruzzo suggested that the challenge is "how we take destructive energy and channel it in a productive way." Asked what kind of ethical reasoning might emerge from taking the "biological, genetic, evolutionary" perspective advanced by Wilson in the April '98 Atlantic ["The Biological Basis of Morality"], Abruzzo answered that Wilson's claim is that "right now we do not consider that there is a biological basis to our being and because of that, everything we do has been biased. Until we accept that we're not above [our biology], that we're part of it, it's very hard to go any further."


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