This is the fifth excerpt from a work-in-progress tentatively titled Science & Subjectivity. It’s a quasi-fictional account of a day in the life of a science writer who teaches at an engineering school in Hoboken, New Jersey. I call it “faction,” anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s term for imaginative writing about real people, places and events. The previous four excerpts describe a morning commute, a freshman humanities class, an argument over lunch about the nature of truth and a journey from Hoboken to New York City. The excerpt below describes what happens after the science writer leaves the World Financial Center ferry terminal in lower Manhattan. –John Horgan
I leave the ferry terminal and enter Battery Park, headed for Emily’s apartment, vowing not to see my route as merely a means to an end. I’m going to pay attention, appreciate the route for its own sake. But to what should I pay attention? Trees? Flowers? Pedestrians? Pets?
The duck pond merits attention. The ducks inhabit two worlds, heads and backs above water, bellies and webbed feet below, with the ghostly orange goldfish. I watch a black woman watching a white toddler watching a duck until the woman eyes me.
This breach in the fourth wall unnerves me. I head inland toward a hulking fortress of slate and glass slabs, the Irish Hunger Memorial. Ringing the memorial is a courtyard of black stones with pale crescent-shaped markings, cross sections of ancient shells.
Are these fossil-laden stones intended to evoke deep time? Provide a soothing reminder of the transience of human tribulations? Whatever happens, no matter how bad, don't worry about it, this too shall pass, we'll all be dead some day, like these primordial fossilized creatures? That’s not soothing, that’s nihilistic.
No, this memorial wants us to remember--to care about--the Great Hunger, the famine that ravaged the land of my ancestors in the 19th century. Inscriptions etched into glass slabs record the population’s collapse: 4,040,000 people in 1790, 8,175,124 in 1841, down to 5,174,836 in 1881. The Brits let the Irish starve but kept darn good records.
The famine drove my great grandpa from Ireland to America when he was just a boy. He sailed from Dublin to New York City, funneled through Ellis Island, became a builder of slaughterhouses and fire stations, drank himself to death at the dawn of the Great Depression, leaving behind my grandpa, father of my father.
If the British had not been so callous toward the Irish, if the Great Irish Famine had not happened, I would not be standing here looking at Hunger Memorial. I would not exist.
Rerun the experiment of life on Earth a million times over, said Gould, guru of contingency, and nothing would ever be the same, because evolution depends on randomness, rolls of the dice. You'd never again get mammals, let alone mammals that invent writing and math and science. Let alone science journalism. How likely is that?
Physics, since it was quantized, is even more random than biology. Our world is the culmination of infinite rolls of the dice, starting with the Big Bang, the roll that got everything rolling. If there is a God, He’s just the Big Roller, who has no more idea where we’re headed than we do.
Quotes from big human rollers cover a wall of the Memorial. Here’s one from Dwight Eisenhower. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
Nice speech, Ike, but why did you let that maniac Joe McCarthy run amok? Drag us into the mess of Vietnam? Make that murderous Quaker Nixon your vice president? Sign off on a massive H-bomb buildup? We were one roll of the dice away from the end.
And here's Jimmy Carter: "We know that a peaceful world cannot long exist one third rich and two thirds hungry." Nice sentiment, but war begets hunger more than vice versa. Churchill during World War II confiscated so much Indian grain for British troops and civilians that millions of Indians starved. The Brits cared even less about Indians than they did about the Irish.
As I stare at the Memorial, brooding over humanity's inhumanity, a lithe, tanned woman jogs past me in a halter-top and silky shorts. She’s burning calories to stay fit. Lust curdles into resentment toward her and the suited men and women strolling past me, or sitting at a sidewalk café, sipping cocktails and nibbling hors d’oeuvres, across the street from the Hunger Memorial.
They’re probably bankers, making millions while others have lousy jobs, health care, schools, homes. Bankers think they're better than the rest of us, but they're worse. They're bad people.
Wait. Analyze the issue calmly, rationally, without emotion, the way Peter Singer would. Give capitalism credit for growing global prosperity, the decline of poverty. That’s a huge step forward for humanity, along with longer life, more democracy, less war. Things are getting better! And bankers aren’t all bad. Bankers with Irish blood probably put up the bucks for this lovely Hunger Memorial.
Singer would probably say, Instead of wasting money remembering the dead, help living starving people. Singer is so good at laying guilt trips on us. Imagine you’re walking through a park and you see a kid drowning in a pond. You're wearing a brand-new suit. Do you let the kid drown? Of course not. You jump in, save the kid, ruin your suit. Only a monster would keep walking.
Then Singer springs his "Gotcha": If you spend money on fancy clothes, cars, TVs, computers, restaurants, vacations, stuff you don't really need, you're a monster, because you could spend that money saving starving third-world kids.
Singer's argument made me feel so guilty that I grasped for counter-arguments to justify my $150 running shoes. I don’t eat out much, I usually wear jeans and t-shirts, I drive a Prius. And I should get moral credit, because I write about how bad war is…
Okay, that’s bullshit. Here’s another argument. You can't let humanity’s suffering keep you from enjoying your own life. Pity can become pathology. Look at Simone Weil, who starved herself to death to protest treatment of the victims of World War II. What good did that do?
People suffer and die, but life and the pursuit of happiness must go on. It’s like Bruegel’s painting of Icarus. He’s tumbling into the sea, drowning, and no one notices, and that’s as it should be, life must go on.
What good do do-gooders do, really? Like those antiwar activists I met at a rally who did serious jail time, a year or more, for breaking into drone plants and missile sites. They arranged in advance for friends to take care of their kids.
I admire your courage and commitment, I told them. But I thought, I would never abandon my kids for a cause, and what did your protests accomplish?
Do-gooders are just rolling the dice. Even the noblest memes, once they start propagating, can mutate into something ugly. Christ's message of love inspires the Crusades and Inquisition. Marx's vision of equality and justice leads to the gulag. Who will save us from our saviors? Better tend your own garden than try to terra-form the planet.
I’m rationalizing, because I’m too lazy, selfish, cowardly to give up my creature comforts, let alone my life, for an idea.
Enough guilt! I bolt from the Hunger Memorial and head east on Warren Street, where I confront an enormous, Seurat-like tableau. Scores of girls and boys in multi-colored shorts and shirts chase balls on an enormous emerald field punctuated by blue and white stripes, yellow cones and nets. Men in business suits yell, "Run! Run! Pass! Shoot! Good!"
A woman in a slinky silver cocktail sheath kicks a ball back and forth with a purple-uniformed youngster. The woman claps her hands and shouts, "Yeah, yeah!" Busy, successful men and women taking the time to coach their kids, help them excel, so they’ll grow up to be busy, successful men and women.
But you can be a great parent and your kid ends up dumb, disabled, depressed. Or mean. What's worse, your kid becoming a gentle, sad failure or joyful psychopath? A tough choice, but I’d probably go with psychopath. You want your kid to be happy, right? Even if he hurts others?
I hate scientists who say genes are destiny, but there’s a kernel of truth in bio-determinism. Some kids seem born bad. Mike and Mindy are wonderful people and parents. They doted on their daughter, Kendra, and she still became a junkie by 15. Mike and Mindy blew their savings on swank rehab centers all across the country, in vain. When they brought Kendra home to live with them, she stole from them, brought strange men into the house, overdosed in her bedroom when she was 20.
What would Peter Singer do if his daughter got hooked on heroin? Spend $50,000 on rehab when she'll probably relapse anyway? Or send the money to Oxfam to save lots of sick, hungry kids? Plug that riddle into your utilitarian calculator.
The woman in the slinky silver dress is no longer kicking the ball with her son. She’s staring at me. She digs me. No, she thinks I'm a creep checking out kids in shorts. Time to move.
There’s an upside to genetic determinism: If your kid messes up, it’s not your fault. The dice just didn’t roll your way.
Credit for Bruegel's "The Fall of Icarus": Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, via Wikipedia Commons.