Thursday, June 18, 2015

Experiments in Eugenics

Eugenics, the belief that physically, mentally, and morally fit people improve the human stock by having children who inherit their superiority, was rampant in the US from about 1890 to  1940.  It followed that the unfit should not reproduce to avoid the degeneration of humanity.  State laws were enacted to prevent them from doing so; more than 60,000 (mostly poor and disabled) people were sterilized in the United States from 1907 to 1963.
Since eugenics is plausible and sounds scientific, all the best people believed in the new science of eugenics, including the Unitarians of that era, such as David Starr Jordan, William Howard Taft, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.*   According to the Rev John H Nichols,** “[Eugenicists] were “our kind of people . . . smart people with the best intentions . . .  [Sterilizations were] done in the name of economy, efficiency, and concern for the quality of all life.”
But was eugenics science?  Scientific statements by definition are falsifiable.  An experiment to test the eugenics hypothesis would call for a group of people, in which the more fit were prevented from reproducing and the less fit were allowed to reproduce.  Then if eugenics were true, the subsequent physical and mental deterioration of the group would be observed.  If on the other hand, civilization and technology continued to develop, there would be a flaw in the eugenics hypothesis.
Such an experiment had already been done.  During the Middle Ages, the best and the brightest joined monasteries that required vows of celibacy, so the monastics reproduced at a lower rate than the general population. What happened?  Did the Dark Ages get darker?  Were there no innovations such as field rotation and the horse collar?  By the end of the 19th century was all of Europe barbarian again?  Why were the contemporary elite not illiterate peasants like their ancestors?
Not only was there the Middle Ages experiment, a second experiment was nearing completion in 1901 when the Commonwealth of Australia was formed.  From the late 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, convicts, the dregs of England, had been transported to Australia. These worst representatives of society were allowed to reproduce freely with little admixture of  “good” blood.  In a century and a half, their descendants developed a parliamentary democracy that has been sustained up to this day.
The educated elite Unitarians who promulgated eugenics could not help but be aware of these historical experiments, although their class interests would have prevented them from seeing the unsound reasoning behind eugenics science.  In effect, eugenics was an attempt to pare down the numbers of the disabled, poor, and immigrants, a policy that preserves resources for the elite. Not until the Nazi Holocaust, likewise based on eugenics, gave the science a bad name, did the elite cut their ties with it.
“So, what have we learned?” asks Rev Nichols.   “Even the best intentioned, best educated people can have their judgment clouded by assumptions that remain hidden to them – assumptions of race, class, religion or ethnicity.  These hidden views affect all of the information we take in and all that we dismiss.”
According to Rev Nichols, the conviction that every human being is a sacred child of God will save us from abuses in the name of science.  “Absent some sense of the sacred in humanity, the powerful – no matter how nice they are – will always be tempted to use their power to ‘improve’ or control our lives.”

 * “Scientific Salvation” in Elite by Mark Harris pp 77ff
** “Creating Perfect People” sermon by Rev John H Nichols, given at the First Unitarian Church of Providence RI on 2-10-08 and at First Parish in Wayland MA on 11-13-12.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Green Ages

Thousands of years ago, people lived by hunting animals and gathering edible plants.  A few easy-to-catch animals became extinct, but no matter, people lived in balance with Earth.  Over time, they figured out how to grow the vegetables and grains they needed.  These domestic crops crowded out wild ecosystems; thus people lived less in harmony with Earth.  
Cities developed, empires grew and shrank.  The Roman Empire collapsed, possibly under its own weight.  Its excesses, such as indoor plumbing, disappeared.  What I call the Green Ages ensued in Europe.  It was a time of organic farming, local economies, and  local government.  People used renewable energy technologies of wind, water, and muscle power.  Everyone believed Earth was the center of the Universe.
Earth kept the numbers of people at carrying capacity by periodic plagues and famines. Lack of transportation prevented food from being moved from places of plenty to places of want.  The organic farms had to be large enough to grow fodder for the draft animals;  local economies made money and banking unnecessary; and the local governments made sure all knew their place in the rigid social hierarchy.  Constant raids by one local economy on another likewise kept human numbers down.  It was a violent time with homicides up to a hundred times more frequent than at present in western Europe.  Almost everyone was an illiterate peasant, living a short life in abject poverty.
In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus showed Earth revolved around the sun.  It took another century for this idea to become widely accepted, but Earth lost its place as the center of the Universe.
In the 18th century, people discovered coal could be used to fuel the new steam engines which  allowed twenty pounds of coal to do as much work as a hundred horses could do in an hour.  (Two hundred fifty years later Prophet Al Gore* predicted Earth would fry and drown because of fossil fuel use.)  By the beginning of the 19th century, more technology had grown the number of humans to about a billion.
Prophet Malthus** warned that populations rise geometrically, but agricultural capacity rises arithmetically.  People didn’t listen. Instead, they thought of new ways to increase agricultural capacity, such as how to fix nitrogen from the air for fertilizer.  After the ravages of two World Wars in the 20th century, prosperity and population grew.   Prophet Ehrlich*** reiterated Malthus’ warning, predicting famines everywhere in the 70s and 80s.  People still didn’t listen.
By 2012 there were seven billion people on Earth.   Part of the increase was due to the doubling of life expectancy since 1900.  Better public health, medical care, and agricultural technology allowed many more people to live out their natural life span.  The rate of population growth slowed as educated women pursued careers instead of motherhood.
By 2015, instead of almost everybody being abjectly poor, more than half the people in the world were healthier, richer, and longer lived beyond the imagination of the illiterate peasants who practiced Earth-centered living in the Green Ages.

* An Inconvenient Truth, 2006
** Essay on Population, 1798
*** The Population Bomb, 1968

Monday, May 11, 2015

On the Precautionary Principle

What if we had followed the precautionary principle when antibiotics were coming on line?   We would have asked such question as:  What if pathogens evolve resistance?  What if some people are allergic?  What if antibiotics destroy normal flora?
All these things happened, but guess what?  Millions of lives have been saved by antibiotics.  
We have to consider the consequences of NOT adopting new technology as well as the risks of adopting it.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Green Church, Part III: Fast UUs Overtake Slow UUs

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow discusses fast thinking, our first reaction that saved our ancestors’ lives when confronted with saber tooth tigers.  He then contrasts fast thinking with slow thinking, the kind of thinking that led our ancestors to modify hand axes, invent spear throwers, and sew skin clothing.
Continuing to think slow, people reasoned from principles revealed by sages, but they didn’t test the results. People believed Jews caused the plague in the 14th century, so they threw them down the wells. Nobody questioned the validity of that claim or that witches caused crop failures, making it necessary to burn them.  Life was brutal in pre-scientific times.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that the scientific method was formulated. The scientific method works to gain evidence based knowledge about the world.  Phenomena are observed, someone makes a hypothesis about the phenomena, someone tests the hypothesis, someone publishes, someone else test the hypothesis.  When new data need too many fixes to fit the old theory, new theories are postulated, giving rise to more hypotheses, testing and so on and on, from fire starting to FaceBook. Science explores, is pragmatic, goes with what works.
Unitarian Universalism began with slow thinking. Michael Servetus was brutally executed in 1553 for his slow thinking that made him conclude belief in the Trinity wasn’t justified by the Bible.  Using slow thinking, Unitarian Universalism explores to see which beliefs and practices work to make a good life for all, taking its inspiration from the words of the hymn, “To build the common good and make our own days glad.”   At their best, Unitarian Universalists reason like scientists.
Fundamentalist religion on the other hand is dogmatic, since the Word has already been revealed.  Preachers persuade the congregation to choose the right path to salvation.  Services emphasize emotion.
Politics likewise  persuades, using emotional rather than rational arguments.  Its style is fast thinking, more like fundamentalism than like Unitarian Universalism.  Instead of the crisis of going to hell, politics exaggerates any actual crisis and if there aren’t any handy crises, one will be invented. Weapons of mass destruction, anyone?
Perhaps because it’s more efficient to change the world via legislation than to help individuals one at a time, Unitarian Universalism is now emphasizing political issues such as immigration and climate change.  This emphasis on political action has changed the association’s emphasis from slow thinking to fast thinking. For instance, rarely are such concepts as the nutritional and moral superiority of those who can afford to consume local organic food questioned.  But Unitarian Universalists should beware of failure to question such claims.  As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Monday, March 2, 2015

Green Church, Part II: A Marriage Made in Heaven

After the 1961 merger, the Unitarian Universalist Association didn’t create a religion with theology, ethics, rituals, myths, and saints.   Rather, it favored do it yourself credos and build your own theology. Myths and saints were replaced with a preoccupation for historical accuracy.   Ethics were reduced to seven principles that members are not obliged to affirm.  Little was known about nonaligned spirituality because Sam Harris, born in 1967, hadn’t yet written Waking Up: a Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.    
  The people that subscribed to this atypical religion have tended to be politically liberal, taking on such social justice causes as racial equality, gay rights, and the environment.  They wanted to get away from sin and guilt, hence original sin was eliminated and salvation wasn’t needed.  Rituals like the Flower and Water Communion arose;  people also began celebrating the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days.   Earth-centered rituals didn’t generate theological problems or bad memories.  The Seventh Principle “respect for the interdependent web of all existence” to “guide us as we protect the planet” was added in 1984, and earth-centered traditions were added as the Sixth Source in 1995.
Since Unitarian Universalism lacked doctrine, these new rituals, principles, and sources paved the way for radical environmentalism to move into the vacuum.  Radical environmentalism has its own dogmas.  Instead of God sustaining the universe,  Earth and its ecosystems sustain us.  Humans offend Earth by polluting, consuming, and mere existing.  (We all produce a carbon footprint just by breathing.)  Opportunities for guilt are rife, but sinners can feel righteous by sacrificing the consumer lifestyle.
The radical environmentalist Greens are a religion looking for a church, the Unitarian Universalists are a church looking for a religion.  Are the two are converging such that the religion of Unitarian Universalism is becoming radical environmentalism?  

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Green Church, Part I: Unitarian Universalism at a Crossroads

Two articles with different emphases in the Spring 2007 UU World issue show the Unitarian Universalism at a crossroads:  “Centered in Gratitude” by Galen Guengerich and “Eating Ethically” by Amy Hassinger.  The article by the Rev Galen Guengerich, senor minister of All Souls Church New York City, explains how practicing gratitude can make you a better human being.
The eating ethically article also purports to be about living a more spiritual life. It begins by describing the horrors of industrial agriculture, and recommends eating organic food, grown by subsistence farming instead of modern agriculture, for the sake of the planet.  Subsistence farming is backbreaking, mind-numbing labor.  The article also fails to note that when everyone ate local organic food, famines were frequent.
Organic food is more expensive because it takes more land and labor to grow a given amount of organic food.  The article doesn’t mention people on a budget.  Can only the well off be good UUs?   Are the tastes of the elite the moral choice?  
The article claimed that transportation from a distance increases a food’s carbon footprint compared to local food.  I did the math.  The food mile fallacy doesn’t take into account the fact that long distance trucks that can transport thirty tons of food compared to a quarter of a ton in a local pickup.  The article concludes by dismissing Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution.   Didn’t those billion human beings saved from starvation have inherent worth?
The two articles show the UUA at a crossroads.  Should the organization emphasize the personal and spiritual, as in the Guengerich article, or the activist position as in the Eating Ethically article?  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Small Ain't Necessarily Beautiful

Rereading Small is Beautiful by E F Schumacher, the classic first published in 1973, I could see how people thought it was visionary.  How could anyone be against “economics as if people mattered?”
But when you examine the text closely, Schumacher cites no data to back up his conclusions.  Moreover, some things he says are the opposite of what has actually happened.  For instance, he says, “People who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get in large scale violence than people whose existence depends on world wide systems of trade.”
The 21st century Age of Globalization with its world wide systems of trade is many times more peaceful than tribal or feudal times. Frederic Bastiat, 19th century economist said,  “If goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.”   Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature points out when both parties trade, it’s win-win, but if one party raids the other, even if the raiders get the goods, they still have to pay the costs of the raid.  It’s said that no two countries with a McDonald’s have had a war.
We have an historical example of a system of highly self-sufficient local communities. It was called the medieval manorial system, otherwise known as the Dark Ages. There was widespread hunger, disease, illiteracy, superstition, and violence. True, the violence wasn’t large scale, but the small scale violence more than made up (by an order of magnitude) for the lack of large scale violence.  There was nearly constant raiding and marauding in what historian Barbara Tuchman calls “private wars.”
In the Middle Ages all farming was organic and food miles were short. They had to be because there were no ways to transport food when local crops failed.  Yields were small, besides some land had to lie fallow or be used to raise fodder.  Hence famines were frequent.  Disease followed hunger.  The Black Plague killed at least a third of the undernourished population after the Great Famine of 1315-17.  People blamed the lepers, the Jews, and the witches for the bad times so they tortured them to death.
The 14th century was a Small is Beautiful world.  Was there culture?  Not when most people were illiterate.  Was there peace?  No, there was almost constant war among competing fiefdoms. Was there liberty?  Not for the 95% of the population who were serfs.  (Serfs were one step up from a chattel slave – they couldn’t be sold individually, but they had to stay with the land.)  Was there justice?  Not if you recall the grisly public torture-executions for offenses that aren’t even illegal today.
The Small is Beautiful idea has been rebranded as the eat local/buy local movement. A movement whose end result is a return to the 14th century medieval manorial system is not just nostalgic, it’s reactionary.  If Small is Beautiful didn’t work in the 14th century, why would it work now?
  As religious liberals, we Unitarian Universalists need to dig to the root of movements like Small is Beautiful/ buy and eat local.   Do they reflect our values?