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Forgotten dreams? A call to investigate the mysteries of humanity

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The new DOC NYC documentary film festival just ended, and it began last week with a bang, featuring distinguished filmmaker Werner Herzog’s new 3-D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The haunting and remarkable 32,000-year-old drawings filmed deep in a cave that remained undisturbed for tens of thousands of years and in which, since its discovery less than a decade ago, fewer people have walked than have walked on the moon, call out across the eons to us. They challenge our modern sensibilities, and our very notion of what it means to be human.

These are treasures of antiquity that celebrate the long and circuitous development of our modern human spirit from early stirrings in primitive hominids. All of us should celebrate these revelations, so it is disquieting to ponder amidst the cultural delights New York was home to over recent days that instead of basking in the beauty and wonder that these stories unveil, the majority of Americans instead would prefer to believe that none of this rich tapestry ever actually happened.

Rendered in charcoal in ancient times when an Ice Age permeated all of what is now Europe and Neandertals still walked the earth, the paintings are at the same time remarkably modern, reminiscent of Picasso or Weber. Another fact staggers the imagination. Dating of the charcoal suggests that the paintings were added to over a period of 5,000 years—far exceeding the span between the age of the ancient Greeks and Roman civilizations and the modern era, in fact over a period whose length coincides with what many people choose to believe is the age of the universe.

In poll after poll, concentrations ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent of Americans continue to believe that humans have existed in their present form unchanged, as created by God less than 10,000 years ago.

Richard Dawkins has noted that confusing 10,000 years with the actual age of the Universe (13.7 billion years) is like confusing the distance across the United States with the distance spanned by a meter stick. Such colossal innumeracy and scientific illiteracy is indeed worrisome, but I would argue that the saddest aspect of such scientific ignorance is that it demeans the human sense of wonder that thinking about the universe should provoke.

Reality trumps fiction every time. The actual story of our human struggle from near extinction in what is now Ethiopia to the southern tip of Africa—through hundreds of thousands of years of slow and fascinating development, from the first inklings of cognition to the development of sophisticated tools and symbolic representations of reality, from language to the forgotten dreams of our ancestors who drew images of the animals they hunted on the dark inner walls of a cave in what is now the French countryside—is both inspiring and magical.

Just think of the intellectual poverty suffered by those who miss the rich cultural and intellectual opportunities afforded by witnessing our past when they decide the real story of our development must be replaced by an abbreviated and redundant myth. It is a disservice to the spirit of adventure and curiosity that we should nurture in our children to rob them of the opportunity to be inspired by nature, and for some of them, to go on to make profound new discoveries.

There is poetry in the real world and it diminishes the human spirit to deny it or reject it. What goes for evolution is true for the Big Bang, which left a beautiful and rich pattern on the sky that we observe with our many telescopes, each galaxy or cluster providing a clue to a cosmic puzzle that we are still trying to unravel to decode the secrets of our own cosmic origins.

The same can be said for the new wave of climate change deniers who are steadfastly refusing to consider not only the data on current climate change, but the historical record of our amazing past from Antarctic ice sheets going back almost 500,000 years.

Albert Einstein once said, "The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious…It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” Watching Herzog’s film made me wonder what will be the legacy we leave for any future generations living 32,000 years in the future? Will we provide evidence of the peaks of modern minds that could produce the art of Rodin and Picasso, or will those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand hold ultimate sway, leading us back into a dark age of ignorance, fear, and with it, violence, in our dreams of greatness will be destroyed and forgotten?

We owe it to ourselves and our children to celebrate the richness and mystery of being human in all its aspects, from the biological creatures we are, to the social and cognitive wonders that have made it possible for a creative and imaginative species to be caught across the ages in the lens of a creative artist who helps force us to reconsider our own place in the cosmos.

About the Author: Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist, directs the Origins Project at Arizona State University, which will hold a major festival celebrating Science and Culture in April 2011.



The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. aposl3pol 9:15 pm 11/18/2010

    As the son of an Evangelical pastor who’s always been interested in science, the message of this article resonates with me. It took me 10 years to get past the mental trappings that were instilled in me from childhood, to get to the point that I would go back to college to study physics and astronomy (which I’m now doing.)

    I think it would be wiser, however, to leave the Dawkins quotes out, and maybe put Francis Collins in instead. Preaching atheism isn’t going to win the hearts of Americans. What needs revision is the way we interpret sacred texts; that the message of these writings will continue to stand even if they aren’t accurate in every historical detail. Our faith rests not on their essence, rather than the literal historicity of every detail.

    I don’t think that atheism will eventually triumph over religion, but that we’ll see another sort of Copernican revolution, where after all is said and done, faith will emerge clarified and simplified. This process is certainly in agreement with the teachings of Christ.

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  2. 2. aposl3pol 9:18 pm 11/18/2010

    Correction: "faith rests not on their essence" should be "on their essence." An edit option would be nice.

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  3. 3. nogod 12:43 am 11/19/2010

    When one looks around the world, it becomes obvious that we are still living in the dark ages. Or more precise the Dark Age 2.0.

    When so much of the worlds population choose to ignore reality and replace it with old and new myths, then we must accept that, the general world population is ignorant of the ‘real’ world around them.

    Case in point, being that people stone each other to death for religious reasons. Or that people believe they can tell two human beings who they can be emotional or sexual with.

    Its a ass-backwards world ran by primitive cultures and societies. War will never be avoided in such a society. And war is the staple of a dark age.

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  4. 4. tharriss 8:18 am 11/19/2010

    Nice article, thank you!

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  5. 5. yycubed 9:26 am 11/19/2010

    I agree with the first commenter. You are not going to "win hearts and minds" by advocating atheism. Richard Dawkins is a divisive figure who holds an uncompromising position that sets up science as being against faith, a position he holds at least as rigidly as some "fundamentalists" hold theirs. It’s time the scientific community recognizes that it has a hand in the alienation of the faithful.

    That being said, I have to question the statement, "In poll after poll, concentrations ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent of Americans continue to believe that humans have existed in their present form unchanged, as created by God less than 10,000 years ago." I think the author is extrapolating from polls that ask if Americans believe the Bible, or if they believe that evolution is an established fact and not a theory. Most people a) parse out questions on polls pretty carefully, and b) don’t spend their days thinking about all the scientific details of evolution. As a Christian, I took to the phrase "Intelligent Design" before I found out it is identified as "God of the gaps." I believe God created the universe, and man, and if He took 13.7 billion years to create one and used evolution to develop the animal nature of the other, so be it. St. Thomas Aquinas 800 years ago recognized that man is an animal, and for that matter he identified that it was common knowledge the earth is round, for those who don’t know that Washington Irving is the source of the Flat Earth Myth.

    There is always going to be tension between religion and science, and yes, there are religious people who couldn’t care less about scientific evidence because they believe the Bible is the best source for everything. Some of us know the Bible isn’t a science book. But you are not going to convince me that, as Stephen Hawking said, science has proven there’s no need for God, because the physical laws of the universe are sufficient to explain our existence. Of course it’s going to look that way to us, we’re in it. God, by definition, is outside it.

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  6. 6. nogod 10:07 am 11/19/2010

    To science faith is irrelevant. To the faithful science is used as a tool to convert the unfaithful. So yes Atheist tend to be offended by faith in general. After all the faithful treat Atheist as evil servants of Satan. And as a Atheist I treat the faithful as primitive relics that are unavoidable it all societies.

    Maybe thats viewed as harsh or extreme. But just believing that someone is undereducated is worlds apart from someone who believes that you are ‘evil’ for your lack of acceptance in faith.

    The fact is that Xtains invented the term ‘evil’ so in effect created the urge, and excuse for people to be ‘evil’. Without the bibles influence on the western world our reality would be very different. Most likely minorities and women would have endured a much better existence in the Americas.

    The bible teaches us to be everything that is primitive in our society. The bible is what is holding back equality. And the bible is what is holding back progress.

    So yes you can view people like Dawkins as the yang of religions. But that view is tainted with the expectations of the faithful. Popular belief need not be something that needs faith. But face it ‘faith’ is based on one concept and that is the ‘fear’ of death.

    Non-existence is a daunting reality. But as of yet no one can disprove our non-existence when we are not alive. Actually life after death is such a huge oxymoron concept that it begs the question: If life can continue without life. Does death ever happen?

    According to the bible death can happen, but only from the hand of god. What does that say about the bible?

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  7. 7. aidel 10:52 am 11/19/2010

    Gee wilikers! It does this thoughtful post a disservice to make this into an atheists vs. believers thread. This is not about whether or not you believe in god, but the dangers of democratizing Truth (considering "gut feelings" just as legitimate as scientific research, believing in ‘multiple realities’ and so forth). However, I will say that a mention of the anti-vaccine crowd deserved some space in this article, as it promises a far more immediate catastrophe.

    This is about the dismal, wretched state of education in general and scientific education in particular. Did you know that the majority of Americans do not know how long it takes the earth to rotate around the sun? This country hasn’t cared about science since Sputnik. (My theory is that we were/are so demoralized over the disastrous Viet Nam war — and not only have we *still* not recovered, we’ve gone and done it again!). Until we have a major overhaul of the education system (from pre-school to graduate school, but especially elementary, middle, and high school), things will just get terribler and terribler. The industrial age is over. Walking in straight, single file lines and responding to bells is no longer important. However, teaching children how to think critically, problem-solve, and use their creative imaginations is (don’t ask me why) considered extremely threatening to the powers that be. We won’t see it in our life time but we are still obligated to fight the good fight.

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  8. 8. conanthedestroyer 2:23 pm 11/19/2010

    To those who think Richard Dawkins is a controversial figure, you’ve obviously never heard him speak. He is one of the most eloquent *and polite* people on the planet, a worthy successor to Carl Sagan for communicating science to the general public. Nothing in Dr Krauss’ article even mentioned atheism, so why do some of you act like it was? If you’re that oversensitive to the merest hint that perhaps religion isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, then you need to suck it up and appreciate this article for what it’s trying to say. Imagine the vast periods of time that have passed while humans have been here, how climates have changed back and forth, and how all this is an eyeblink compared to the ages of the earth and the universe!

    Reality rocks, people!

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  9. 9. pafiedor 2:51 pm 11/19/2010

    Very insightful and thought-provoking piece. And a pleasure to read. Thank you.

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  10. 10. Momus 4:36 pm 11/19/2010

    Some people confuse Richard Dawkins with Christopher Hitchens (perhaps because both have that strange foreign accent :-) and cause both make sense :-)

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  11. 11. VIP 5:16 pm 11/19/2010

    Dear Mr. Lawrence Krauss, please explain to the world why you think the the actual age of the Universe is 13.7 billion years. Tell us what was there before, obviously you must know if you come to such preposterous conclusions. Did space start? Did time start? You are many of mortals who assume that everything is mortal. Science should never be based on assumptions. Since there is no evidence of any other kind, the universe is universal, it never started, it will never end. Try to disprove it.

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  12. 12. fisixisfun 7:28 pm 11/19/2010

    It has been known for 2 decades that the universe has a finite age in the 13-18 billion year range, based on the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, which is literally the afterglow of the Big Bang. The more recent WMAP satellite has pinned down the precise age to 1% accuracy at 13.7 billion years. As far as what was before the Big Bang, that is an open question, we do not know at this moment. However, there is no need to invoke any supernatural beings to explain it, there are several competing theories that explain the current observations, and scientists will be able to eliminate some of them when the data from the Planck satellite arrives in a couple years.

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  13. 13. yycubed 8:13 pm 11/19/2010

    I didn’t call atheists "evil." Didn’t mention evil. I didn’t confuse Richard Dawkins with Christopher Hitchens. I’ve read Dawkins’ books. They make sense? I beg to differ. The God Delusion made absolutely no sense, I don’t care how you frame it. I don’t care how *polite* he comes across. And I didn’t turn this into a debate between science and faith. I questioned the unattributed statement, "In poll after poll, concentrations ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent of Americans continue to believe that humans have existed in their present form unchanged, as created by God less than 10,000 years ago." I doubt this very sincerely. There are not that many "Young Earthers" in the country.

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  14. 14. gesimsek 5:39 pm 11/20/2010

    I think the worst damage to scientific endeavour happened because of positivist attitudes of men like Dawkins. My personal hero Michael Faraday’s life showed to me that god-given photographic memory, self-thought skill to make scientific observations and a passion to understand God’s laws of nature can lead to discoveries that can change the lives of billions (without patent).

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  15. 15. Just Al 1:52 am 11/21/2010

    "I doubt this very sincerely. There are not that many "Young Earthers" in the country."

    Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of thing that holds us back. Belief and doubt have no affect on reality.

    A ten-second search:
    You’ll notice that those are religious websites.

    You might also notice that the Dawkins quote had nothing whatsoever to do with atheism, agendas, divisiveness, goals, or anything even remotely related. It was a simple comparison, and an accurate one, one you could confirm yourself. It would perhaps lend more weight to your arguments if you managed to address the content of the article itself, rather than your own personal agenda.

    Basing our knowledge on facts rather than opinion, desire, and culture has advanced us more as a species than the centuries of revelation and spirituality that came before. Whether anyone likes this or not doesn’t change it. The big question is, how useful is it to continue to deny?

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  16. 16. Raghuvanshi1 10:25 am 11/24/2010

    First we must understand that our forefather created the idea of God for their selfish purpose.God is essiential for them to survive.As scientific progress enhancing our idea of God is also changing.To save our life in danger we fight with danger or flight from danger but when both tactic failed man start to pray to save our life praying is not condemning. I think death is there idea of God remain.Mankind never overcome the fear of death so idea of God remain forever.

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  17. 17. BuckSkinMan 1:52 am 11/26/2010

    So far, I think it’s Science & Imagination 0 vs Willful Ignorance 10.
    We’ve been losing ground ever since the Republican Party leaders found out from their strategists that telling the American population that their ministers and priests were right and Science wrong was the best way to gain followers and voters.

    It is now common to see on internet forums statements indicating that people strongly believe that it’s okay to run cyclists off the road because – they’re in the way. The same people also make statements about the evils of ever-grown taxation when personal income taxes have reached their lowest level in 50+ years.

    So there are two forces of darkness at work: one is the charlatan priest class which makes a tax-free living by promoting non-facts and non-thought and the other is (are, actually) both political parties which operate on the assumption that it’s necessary and permissible to lie about nearly everything which doesn’t fit their canned political ideology.

    Lets remember that a large portion of our adult population has a vested interest in avoiding and denying thought, reasoning and proofs of logic. A retired teacher I know happened to go after me recently because I insisted that he and I arrive at conclusions by critical thinking about the some persons and facts being discussed. He actually told me that (1) I am wrong to always bring up historical and scientific facts to "win arguments" and (2) that, "the mind cannot fathom what the heart is thinking" (or some such nonsense).

    There’s no doubt that this intelligent and talented man just wants to avoid having anyone tear down his favorite political ideology (he happens to be a liberal). Nor is there any doubt the same applies to another long-time acquaintance when he (with a college degree and and IQ of 145) tells me that I "fail to explain how to think" when posing my arguments. ??? !!! (He happens to be a strong advocate of conservatism and libertarianism.)

    Be clear in your minds: there is a massive movement to wreck the environment "for the sake of our economy" and to make the Bible the basis for all knowledge and of our government and system of laws.

    We are going to have to be as clever as we think we are and we have to be committed to countering this Anti-Science, Anti-Thought Movement.

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  18. 18. bongobimbo 12:46 pm 11/26/2010

    I was going to write something highly favorable about this essay, but have been advised that my comment "exceeded the character count", although the response wasn’t all that long.

    Since I can’t locate a maximum number of words anywhere on this page I’ll submit nothing. My eyes are old. Maybe it’s there, but so small or inconspicuous I can’t find it.

    SciAm needs to get its act together. Why is there even a maximum? Makes no sense. This is NOT "Twitter" or some other silly social blog!!

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  19. 19. vadulak 12:38 am 11/27/2010

    A beautiful and prosaic piece. Thank you for the nightcap.

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  20. 20. realbrush 7:02 pm 12/5/2010

    Mr. Krauss won’t quote Francis Collins, as one poster suggested he should, because Mr. Collins wouldn’t be compatible with the atheistic crusade that Mr. Krauss seems occupied with. The "Brights" snicker at religious people as a bunch of fools and reject the very pillars and philosophical thinking that shaped western and scientific thinking. Science was nurtured in the soil that was a product of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem.

    One can be religious and still be inspired by nature and have a curious and an adventurous mind. Looking back at history, there is a long timeline of great men and women that saw no conflict in their religioius beliefs and their passion of unlocking the codes of nature. The kind of elitist contempt of the "New Atheist" movement will ironically, I believe, God’s best friend.

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  21. 21. realbrush 7:04 pm 12/5/2010

    Mr. Krauss seems to be unable to write an article without mentioning or quoting Mr. Dawkins. It does not take much reading between the lines to realize that Mr. Krauss is once again marching ahead with his pen and the banner of Atheism.

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