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Marilynne Robinson on Science, Religion, and the Truth of Human Dignity
Jefferson says that we are endowed with “certain” rights, and that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are “among these.” He does not claim to offer an exhaustive list. Indeed he draws attention to the possibility that other “unalienable” rights might be added to it. And he gives us that potent phrase “the pursuit of happiness.” We are to seek our well-being as we define our well-being and determine for ourselves the means by which it might be achieved.
This epochal sentence is a profound acknowledgment of the fact that we don’t know what we are. If Jefferson could see our world, he would surely feel confirmed in the intuition that led him to couch his anthropology in such open language. Granting the evils of our time, we must also grant the evils of his and the cultural constraints that so notoriously limited his vision. Yet, brilliantly, he factors this sense of historical and human limitation into a compressed, essential statement of human circumstance, making a strength and a principle of liberation of his and our radically imperfect understanding.
This is preceded in the Guernica excerpt by this:
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is the kind of thinking I would like to recommend. We don’t know the nature of Jefferson’s religious beliefs, or doubts, or disbeliefs. He seems to have been as original in this respect as in many others. But we do know he had recourse to the language and assumptions of Judeo-Christianity to articulate a vision of human nature. Each person is divinely created and given rights as a gift from God. And since these rights are given to him by God, he can never be deprived of them without defying divine intent. Jefferson has used Scripture to assert a particular form of human exceptionalism, one that anchors our nature, that is to say our dignity, in a reality outside the world of circumstance. It is no doubt true that he was using language that would have been familiar and authoritative in that time and place. And maybe political calculation led him to an assertion that was greater and richer than he could have made in the absence of calculation. But it seems fair to assume that if he could have articulated the idea as or more effectively in other terms, he would have done it.
What would a secular paraphrase of this sentence look like? In what nonreligious terms is human equality self-evident? As animals, some of us are smarter or stronger than others, as Jefferson was certainly in a position to know. What would be the non-religious equivalent for the assertion that individual rights are sacrosanct in every case? Every civilization, including this one, has always been able to reason its way to ignoring or denying the most minimal claims to justice in any form that deserves the name. The temptation is always present and powerful because the rationalizations are always ready to hand. One group is congenitally inferior, another is alien or shiftless, or they are enemies of the people or of the state. Yet others are carriers of intellectual or spiritual contagion. Jefferson makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization.
My point is that lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said. Jefferson’s words acknowledge an essential mystery in human nature and circumstance.
As it happens, Robinson lectured Sunday at the Congregationalist church in Iowa City and included something close to these passages in her prepared remarks. Robinson is perhaps best heard in a church. She is a stately woman given to authoritative, oracular pronouncements on grand topics in a tone of high moral seriousness. I've heard her referred to as "Saint Marilynne" here in Iowa City. A friend once deigned to criticize Robinson and afterward admitted it felt "blasphemous." Her lecture was audaciously titled "What Is Truth and How Do We Recognize It?” She hardly approached an answer to either question, but she circled around them beautifully. Lovely sermon, but frustrating.
Robinson's main point was that the truth of several related propositions -- that we are all part of a single human family; that we are in some sense equal; that there is inherent human dignity -- ought to be treated as fixed points in the web of belief. "Human dignity is the one truth against which all other claimants to truth must be measured," she said. But these truths, Robinson argues, are essentially unverifiable, and we cannot count on either religion or science to get them right.
After her talk, Robinson fielded questions from the congregation. When the microphone came to me I said that I did not understand what she takes to justify such confidence in the truths of equality or dignity, if both science and religion are supposed insufficient to support our confidence. "When acted upon," Robinson said, "they demonstrate themselves to be true as things get in this world." The idea seemed to me to be that communities that act upon an ethos of equality and dignity demonstrate by their health and humanity the truth of the tenets of that ethos.
That is, Robinson thinks a relatively dogmatic widespread conviction in equality and dignity produces good consequences. This sort of pragmatism fits snugly in the venerable tradition of American pragmatism. But it seems to me starkly at odds with Robinson's misgivings about empiricism.
Robinson spent most of her lecture making the case that the authority of science was invoked to justify the doctrine of natural inequality at the heart of the secessionist South's founding ideology of slavery. She's right, of course.
Robinson is impressed with the possibility that there are facts about the elemental constituents of the universe -- she mentioned dark matter -- that may be forever inaccessible to human intelligence. This would mean that there are truths about our world beyond the reach of empirical validation. She does not then tend to suggest that revelation or faith is well-equipped to fill the gap. Rather, Robinson seems to want to establish that our relationship to the natural world is one of ineradicable mystery. Religion is no less likely than science to get the facts wrong, and religious dogma is no less likely to justify evil. Robinson's point seems to be that religion offers a vocabulary in which to speak of unverifiable truths.
So we see her ask above "What would a secular paraphrase of this sentence look like? In what nonreligious terms is human equality self-evident?" She wants to say that there isn't one. And she's surely right that there is no secular case for the self-evidence of human equality. Yet if pushed ever so lightly she happily provides a what seems to me a nonreligious justification for belief in fundamental human equality: communities that believe it turn out better than communities that don't. Is this an essentially unverifiable proposition? I don't see why it should be. I think it's true, and well-verified.
It may even be true, as the Strausseans would have it, that we're better off if our convictions about equality and dignity are codified in religious language and treated culturally as articles of faith. But if this is the truth, it's not like the truth about dark matter, empirically inaccessible and unsayable in the human language of "medium-sized dry goods," to use J.L. Austin's phrase. That there is indispensable utility in religious vocabularies of mystery and enchantment--that without them, "essential things cannot be said"--obviously is not itself something that cannot be said without them.
Here's why I find Marilynne Robinson really frustrating. Robinson is at pains to communicate that she is the furthest thing from an enemy of science--that she keeps a foot planted firmly in each of C.P. Snow's two cultures. She repeatedly tells us that she keeps abreast of all the latest science news, and actively casts herself as an amateur authority on what science does and does not encompass and comprehend. Thus her rather caustic remarks about the narrowness and irrelevance of the social sciences, and especially economics, are presented as though they spring from knowledge rather than ignorance. Her audience, mostly composed of bookish liberal Christians more likely to get their science news from Marilynne Robinson than Scientific American, is therefore inclined to take her word for it. But her comments Sunday to the effect that the social sciences so far have had almost nothing to say about the basis for human morality and decent community shows her to be barely better informed than the typical novelist and gives the lie to her pose of insatiable curiosity about the bleeding edge of scientific discovery. (In the Guernica piece one can see her taking pointers about the ideology of economics from David Brooks. Not a good sign.) Robinson seems to want to open a rhetorical space in which gauzy platitudes of rote liberal humanism take on the authority of both religion and science without needing to defer to either. It would be a neat trick if she could pull it off. It would certainly help if she actually knew what she was talking about. She could sound much more authoritative if she went no further than reading Herb Gintis' Amazon reviews, though reading a few Herb-endorsed books sure wouldn't hurt.
That said, I like amateur philosophizing from eminent novelists and think it ought to be encouraged. Marilynne Robinson is more intelligent, penetrating, and stimulating than all but a handful of academic philosophers and social scientists, and it would be a better world if scientists paid half as much attention to the New York Review of Books as Robinson seems to pay to New Scientist.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.
- A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
- The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
- The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."
How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.
Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.
Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.
The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.
The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.
"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."
The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.
A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.
Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP
"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."
The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.
You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-26/fidelity-launches-inaugural-bitcoin-fund-for-wealthy-investors" target="_blank">(minimum investment: $100,000)</a>. Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)<br></p>
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."</p><p>Sanja Kon, vice president of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."</p><p>Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.</p><p>Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."</p>
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'<p>Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value—digital gold, essentially.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-23/novogratz-says-bitcoin-is-digital-gold-not-a-currency-for-now?srnd=markets-vp" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a>. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."</p><p>There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gold-inflation/gold-as-an-inflation-hedge-well-sort-of-idUSKCN1GD516" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relatively invulnerable to inflation</a>. The obvious objection is that the price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.</p><p>But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."</p>
Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.
Approve for your dining pleasure<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd3f57f8baf14e654812d30a309d1f17"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/307gysA18_E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><a href="https://www.ju.st/en-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Eat Just</a>, a company that produces animal-alternative food products, announced the news earlier this week. In what the company is calling a world first, Singapore has given it permission for a small-scale commercial launch of their GOOD Meat brand product line. For the initial run, the cultured chicken meat will be sold as an ingredient in "chicken bites."</p><p>"Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system. I'm sure that our regulatory approval for cultured meat will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe," Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201201006251/en/Eat-Just-Granted-World%E2%80%99s-First-Regulatory-Approval-for-Cultured-Meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said in a release</a>.</p><p>According to the release, Eat Just underwent an extensive safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. It provided officials "details on the purity, identity and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, as well as a detailed description of the manufacturing process which demonstrated that harvested cultured chicken met quality controls and a rigorous food safety monitoring system." It also demonstrated the consistency of its production by running more than 20 cycles in its 1,200-liter bioreactors.</p><p>While Eat Just did not offer details on its propriety process, it likely follows <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032080-400-accelerating-the-cultured-meat-revolution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one similar to other lab-grown meats</a>. It starts with muscle cell samples drawn from a living animal. Technicians then isolate stem cells from the sample and culture them <em>in vitro</em>. These cultured stem cells are then placed in a bioreactor, essentially a fermenter for fleshy cells. The bioreactor contains scaffolding materials to keep the growing tissue from falling apart as well as a growth material—the sugars, salts, and other nutrients the tissue needs to grow. As the cells grow, they begin to differentiate into the muscle, fat, and other cells of meat tissue. Once grown, the tissues are formed into a meat product to be shipped to restaurants and supermarkets.</p>
An abattoir abatement?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg2Mjg5OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1NDI3N30.AYmFJfWQbPjK-o1IatyFHL-OLjcfXBMmQKYyvz4oT3s/img.jpg?width=980" id="8a82d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="93f824fe4c6f397ab2b65e4665847e71" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A graph showing the number of animals slaughtered in the United States per year from 1961–2018.
Credit: Our World in Data<p>Singapore's approval is an important step in support for clean meats—so-called because they don't require animal slaughter and would likely leave a reduced carbon footprint—but hurdles remain before widespread adoption is possible.</p><p>The most glaring is the price. The first lab-grown hamburger was eaten in London in 2013. <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-23576143" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">It cost roughly $330,000</a>. As with any new technology, investment, iteration, and improved manufacturing will see the price drop substantially and quickly. For comparison, Eat Just's chicken will be priced equivalent to premium chicken.</p><p>Other hurdles include up-scaling production, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00373-w" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the need for further research</a>, and developing techniques to reliably produce in-demand meats such as fish and beef. Finally, not all countries may be as receptive as Singapore. Countries with large, entrenched meat industries may protect this legacy industry through a protracted and difficult regulatory process. Though, the meat industry itself is investing in lab-grown meat. Tyson Foods, for example, has <a href="https://euromeatnews.com/Article-Tyson-Foods-announces-investment-in-clean-meat/697" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">invested in the food-tech startup Memphis Meats</a>, the company that debuted the world's first beef meatball.</p><p>"I would imagine what will happen is the U.S., Western Europe and others will see what Singapore has been able to do, the rigours of the framework that they put together. And I would imagine that they will try to use it as a template to put their own framework together," <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eat-just-singapore/singapore-approves-sale-of-lab-grown-meat-in-world-first-idUSKBN28C06Z" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetrick told Reuter's during an interview</a>.</p><p>Regardless of the challenges, the demand for meat substitutes is present and growing. In 2020, plant-based substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible foods <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/plant-based-meat" target="_self">gained a significant foothold in supermarkets</a> as meat-packing factories became coronavirus hotspots. The looming threat of climate change has also turned people away from meat as animal products. Livestock production is environmentally taxing and leaves <a href="http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a much larger carbon footprint</a> than grain and vegetable production. </p><p>Then there's the moral concern of animal cruelty. In 2018 alone, 302 million cows, 656 million turkeys, 1.48 billion pigs, and a gob-smacking 68 billion chickens were <a href="https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/animals-slaughtered-for-meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slaughtered for meat worldwide</a>. And those figures do not include chickens killed in dairy or egg production.</p><p>If brought to scale and widely available, clean meats could become serious competitors to traditional meat. <a href="https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/meat-alternatives" target="_self">One report has even predicted</a> that 60 percent of the meat people eat by 2040 won't come from slaughtered animals. It could be just the thing for people looking for a meat substitute but who find tofurkey as distasteful as, well tofurkey.</p>