In a cover story for the Dec. 3 Time, Jeffrey Kluger quickly jumps into a collective voice, oddly crediting humanity as a whole for the most noble behavior while also blaming it for the worst horrors. As early as the second paragraph, he’s revealing a tone of scientism that weaves throughout the piece:
We’re a species that is capable of almost dumbfounding kindness. We nurse one another, romance one another, weep for one another. Ever since science taught us how, we willingly tear the very organs from our bodies and give them to one another. And at the same time, we slaughter one another. The past 15 years of human history are the temporal equivalent of those subatomic particles that are created in accelerators and vanish in a trillionth of a second, but in that fleeting instant, we’ve visited untold horrors on ourselves — in Mogadishu, Rwanda, Chechnya, Darfur, Beslan, Baghdad, Pakistan, London, Madrid, Lebanon, Israel, New York City, Abu Ghraib, Oklahoma City, an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania — all of the crimes committed by the highest, wisest, most principled species the planet has produced. That we’re also the lowest, cruelest, most blood-drenched species is our shame — and our paradox.
Spread across pages 56 and 57 is a photo gallery of the noble (Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama) and the savage (Stalin, Pinochet, Hitler, Bin Laden, Pol Pot). The one-sentence summary for each precludes saying anything of substance, other than to list a few facts of history as if they are an athlete’s statistics.
If ever a cover article cried out for a contribution from the world of faith — which has said more than a few things about good and evil — this one does.
Still, the only appearance of faith comes in these amazingly glib sentences:
One of the most powerful tools for enforcing group morals is the practice of shunning. If membership in a tribe is the way you ensure yourself food, family and protection from predators, being blackballed can be a terrifying thing. Religious believers as diverse as Roman Catholics, Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses have practiced their own forms of shunning — though the banishments may go by names like excommunication or disfellowshipping.
The deck headline on Time‘s cover promises far more than it delivers: “Humans are the planet’s most noble creatures — and its most savage. Science is discovering why.” Kluger reports on studies showing what happens in people’s brains as they make decisions or feel sympathy for the pain of a spouse, but he comes nowhere near answering the question of why humans are noble or savage.
To think that science ever could explain the why speaks of a curious certainty that science can solve life’s deepest mysteries through chemistry and brain waves and sociobiology. To publish an article that not only makes such triumphalist claims for science, but fails even to acknowledge millennia of religious thinking about these mysteries, is one of the most ridiculous stunts in journalism this year.