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I Wonder as I Wander
Why we need sacred places.
Recently, my friend and 13.8 writing colleague Adam Frank, wrote a moving essay on the joy of finding things out. Today, and in celebration of the nearing holidays, I will consider another joyful aspect of being a human being—the joy of wondering.
Wonder: The word itself is somewhat magical. As a verb, to wonder is to ponder, to muse on, to conjecture about. As a noun, wonder relates to awe, to fascination, to beauty. So, to wonder about wonders is to ponder about beauty, to muse about what fascinates us.
It is a privilege of being human—and one that we often take for granted—that we are curious creatures with a capacity for wonder. Anyone can tell of an experience when they've witnessed something magical, something that resonated with their core essence, however inexplicable or mysterious. It may happen when we behold the countless stars in the night sky, or when we feel small while standing under a huge peak, or the drama of hiking on a high cliff overlooking the crashing waves down below, or watching a mother nursing her baby, or witnessing an ephemeral double rainbow after a storm.
We are the species that sees but doesn't only instinctively respond to what we see; we internalize it, engage with it emotionally, and try to find meaning in the moment. We experience life in a many-dimensional manifold that blends perception with a multicolored subjective response. And we love the way this richness of the now makes us feel, even if we have no clue how it all happens.
Behind our capacity for wonder lies a huge mystery. Why do we do it?
If you are a pragmatist, you must try to answer to what purpose we wonder. How does it serve us evolutionarily? To explore our surroundings has been essential to our survival. That's obvious. Without over-sentimentalizing it, I don't imagine our ancestors would always tour their surroundings in wonderment. The constant need for food and shelter, and the pressures of bad weather or encroaching enemies, were not so evocative.
But on the other hand, they didn't react to their surroundings like a pack of wolves, roaming the fields in search of food without a deeper sense of appreciation for where they were. If cultures across the world and across time deemed certain places as being magical, they weren't simply thinking of them in terms of their practical usefulness as a food source or shelter. There was an intangible quality to them, a quality that led to an inexplicable sense of attachment: This place is not like other places; here, we feel a sense of the transcendent, of deep connection. Here, we will erect a monument, a totem, a stone circle, a temple, so that we can come back over and over again and celebrate our mysterious attraction to it.
Many of us that enjoy being out in the woods, in the ocean, in the mountains, in nature, can relate. We may not call these places magical or relate to them in transcendent ways (although we could, and many do). But we do sense that they are different, that they have a message of some kind to tell us. The ancients would say that here is where the gods spoke; the temple was a marker for the sacred spot.
Beautiful and ominous
Last summer, I was running with my wife in a section of the Appalachian Trail near my home in Hanover, New Hampshire. There was no one in sight. After climbing a steep hill, we reached a solemn pine forest, one that seemed to have been there for centuries (probably not, though). The pine needles along the trail muffled our steps. Somehow, when we reached that part of the forest, we couldn't hear a sound. The chickadees and woodpeckers stayed out; the wind stopped. As we moved deeper into the forest, the trees became denser and it grew darker. It was at once beautiful and ominous.
Suddenly, a beam of sunlight cracked open the clouds and descended through the high branches to illuminate a huge granite boulder. The dark green moss covering the stone glistened in a thousand sparkles. We stopped dead on our tracks and gasped at the simple beauty of the moment. “This is why so many ancient cultures deemed certain places as being magical," said my wife. When life gives you such gifts, it is impossible not to feel a sense of reverence and gratitude. But such experiences are only privy to those open to receive them.
We have moved away from our natural roots and created a fake world of walls around us, walls that keep us away from one another and from the world out there. We have lost our sense of enchantment with Nature, the sense of awe our ancestors had when they experienced the world and deemed it sacred.
To nurture the joy of wonder is to be attuned to the simple beauty of the unexpected. It may reveal itself in the silence of an old dark forest, or in that strange uncomfortable warmth we feel when we witness something that defies rational explanation. As so many explorers, artists, and scientists know, there is endless wonder in flirting with the unknown.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.