Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

30 July 2013

A Papal Lesson in Humility

By now, the whole world knows Pope Francis’ impromptu remark about gays. It came during an 82-minute news conference on the papal plane, on his way back after a wildly successful visit to Brazil. To long-time reporters on the Vatican, that conference was unprecedented in both its length and openness.

One subject was gays generally, as well as in the laity and the priesthood. “If someone is gay,” the Pope said, “and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

There are undoubtedly closet homosexuals in the priesthood even today. But it may be a long time before openly gay men are welcome in the Catholic priesthood. It may be even longer before we see female priests, notwithstanding the Pope’s soothing references to the Madonna.

Yet the hate is gone. Two millennia of disdain and moral opprobrium vanished with that simple, honest, compelling five-word question, “Who am I to judge?”

Indeed. The Pope is the leader of the second-biggeset religion on Earth. (The biggest, Islam, has no comparable single leader, due largely to its many schisms.) He is supposed to be God’s Vicar on Earth. If he is no one to judge, what about the rest of us?

This is how a great teacher works. I, a Jew, have called Jesus our species’ greatest pol so far. Why? Because he framed the best bumper stickers in our species’ history, two millennia before we had cars.

“Love thy enemy.” “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Turn the other cheek.” These bits of eternal wisdom are not just proverbs. They have been the basis for wildly successful national and international policy, including our Marshall Plan. And when our species has ignored them, disaster usually followed.

Some day, we may view Pope Francis’ simple question “Who am I to judge?” in a similar light.

Our species’ reach has always exceeded its grasp. That’s a good thing: we strive. But our egotism usually has exceeded both our reach and our grasp. That’s not such a good thing.

We no longer believe that our little planet, third of nine from the Sun (if you still count disparaged Pluto), is the Center of the Universe. We know that our Sun, whose energy created us and all life on Earth, is an unremarkable G-type star on the very fringe of a small galaxy, which we call the Milky Way.

Why does it look like a “Milky Way” at night? Because we are on its very edge and so can see nearly all of it spread out before us. Astrophysically speaking, we live in the sticks. We are celestial hicks.

If there is a multispecies galactic or intergalactic civilization, we are not yet part of it. Why? Maybe because we live in the sticks. Maybe because the citizens of that advanced civilization consider us too vain and primitive to join it. Neither reason is a cause for egotism.

Our self-knowledge as a species is not much farther along than our knowledge of the Universe in which we live. There are still those of us who think homosexuality is learned behavior, which can be unlearned with a little help and a lot of coercion.

Straight people who believe this either never went through puberty or have utterly forgotten what it was like. If you’re male, a few months—a year at most—convert girls from objects of humor and occasional derision into paragons of beauty and objects of such intense desire that we stammer, our tongues tie in knots, we lose our trend of thought, and we stare at our feet.

This is learned behavior?

And if it’s not—if it’s hard-wired instinct fueled by raging hormones—how is homosexuality learned? How then does it appear unbidden in people who are surprised to find it in themselves, just as we straight men are ambushed by our own raging hormones in our early teens?

Homosexuality could even have an evolutionary purpose: population control. Is it just a coincidence that gays seem to be exploding out of the closet, everywhere, just as our species is getting so numerous as to begin spoiling the planet on which we evolved and exhausting its resources?

Sex works in strange ways. We now know that fathers of small children have reduced testosterone, and therefore sexual desire, and that their physically holding and playing with their toddlers increases this hormonal effect. The evolutionary purpose of this phenomenon is obvious: toddlers at their most vulnerable need fathers who take care of them, not ones who seek sexual adventures outside the home.

Could homosexuality work in a similar way to contain population without coercive measures like China’s? Gays can have kids, but only through expensive and risky procedures like artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. Mostly, they adopt unwanted kids from dysfunctional or violent heterosexual families, giving at-risk children a shot at a stable and loving home.

In any event, gays’ routine expression of their love and sexual desire does not increase our population burden, as it does for so many heterosexual couples. So the next time you see gays holding hands or kissing, know that they are making more space and reserving more resources for your kids.

Evolution is. Global warming is. Science works. And you can now see the slow explosion of our population bomb in the clearest signal of classical economics: steady, secular increases in the prices of commodities, including gasoline. Yet we have so many misguided, egotistical people who vehemently deny all this.

Evolution can even explain love. Why do we cherish our mates and children, while spiders and some reptiles eat theirs? Biology provides two clear answers. First, except for elephants, we humans have the longest gestation period in the animal kingdom. And since we’re not as big as elephants, we have to stick with our pregnant mates—and stick together—to make sure that our young survive.

More important still is the extraordinarily long time it takes for our young to mature. If you count college graduation as the end of our long maturation process, that’s twenty years. Many species on our planet don’t even live that long, at least in the wild. But it takes that long for us to produce a true, capable, fully educated adult.

Without love, how would we do that? Eating our young like reptiles and spiders just wouldn’t do. It might waste a twenty-year investment.

Jesus’ bumper stickers work so well because they comport with who we really are. Without love—of mate for mate, parents for children, and each for the other, we wouldn’t survive. Our children would not make it to maturity, and wars would decimate us. Now, with nuclear weapons, they could even extinguish us. With love, we have the chance, and now the knowledge, to make this little planet into the Eden we once thought we lost.

All we have to do to get there is reduce our egotism and increase our humility. We have to take ourselves and others as we find them, not as we might like them to be. That goes for foreign cultures, too.

We need the wisdom to make a great edifice out of individual stones, like a Japanese artisan, not by crushing people and cultures into square bricks, all the same size and shape. Crushing round people into square bricks of dogma or ideology only produces apathy or revolution.

Recent events prove these points. A onetime-engineer named Mohammed Morsi became a religious zealot. He tried to force his religion down the throats of millions of Egyptians, who had turned to him not for religion, but for a way out of tyranny. He could not take his people and their yearnings as they were, so Egypt is in shambles.

Iran has a similar history but is in much better shape. It, too, turned to Islam as a way out of tyranny. But its people are increasingly modern, secular and restless. They don’t want to be crushed into square bricks, all the same size and shape, whether by their own Basij or the demands of a hateful and uncomprehending West.

Under these circumstances, a little humility goes a long way. If Pope Francis’ simple, honest question, “Who am I to judge?” becomes a mantra for our age, it could help preserve our species and bring that Eden a step closer. It might even help heal our fractured Congress.

Footnote: The science fiction now popular in our culture gives us no clue how remote other star systems are from us. In my graduate-school class in physics, in 1966, we were required to work a real problem in space travel, using Einstein’s special theory of relativity. We had to calculate the time and cost of traveling to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star (besides our Sun), only four light-years away. The problem presupposed an ability to accelerate at one g (Earth’s gravity) to the midpoint, then decelerate at the same rate for the rest of the voyage.

The results of the calculation were surprising and (for science fiction fans) disappointing. The elapsed time on the ship would be eleven years; the elapsed time on Earth over three centuries. When the crew got back to Earth, everyone they knew would be long dead and buried, for at least thirty generations. They would be like fourteenth-century knights trying to live in twentieth-century America.

But the real kicker was the energy required for the voyage: seven solar masses, i.e., seven times the mass of our Sun, all converted into energy in accordance with Einstein’s famous formula, E = mc². Even converting our whole Earth into energy wouldn’t begin to do the job!

So the fact that we haven’t yet encountered other intelligent species tells us nothing about whether they exist. They would have to be incomparably more powerful and accomplished than we just to make the trip. With the necessary power and wisdom, they would probably pay no more serious attention to us than we do to a rabbit warren in our outback. We have a lot to be humble about.



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