In November of 1726 news reached London that a physician had assisted a woman named Mary Tofts as she gave birth to . . . a rabbit. The rabbit, unfortunately, died.
Mary Tofts got quite a lot of attention. And even more attention when she gave birth to yet another rabbit—or, well, at least rabbit parts. And another. With various physicians in attendance.
All the rabbits died, but all the physicians called in to assist the births swore that Mary Tofts had indeed given birth to rabbits, albeit dead ones or bits of ones.
This continued for some time, and Mary gained great notoriety.
The curious fate of Mary Tofts “proved” a theory of the time. This was a theory in the day taken quite seriously called “maternal impression.” Pregnant women were warned to be careful what they looked at, lest they get an impression of an animal, and their babies be born resembling various animals.
Tofts’ case appeared to prove this theory. Mary claimed to have seen a rabbit just before she went into labor.
Eventually, a skeptical physician did some investigating and discovered that Mary’s husband had been purchasing large numbers of baby rabbits . . . Which got the skeptical to thinking . . .
Why had Mary Tofts . . . ahem . . . “conceived” of this deception? Because she had been told that being famous would . . . make her money . . .
A theory—that of “maternal impression”—gave . . . ahem . . . birth . . . to Mary Tofts and her rabbit deliveries.
The case might perhaps be a lesson to us: sometimes our theories go in search of proof.
WHAT YOU SEE IS . . . UMMMMM
Observation bias; observer-expectancy effect. We know that experiment too often proves the assumptions researchers suspected when they began.
Confession: I want to know—as closely as I can—what is true—what is real. I don’t want my trite, parochial prejudices to affect my search for truth and meaning.
I want this, knowing full well that at one time as close as I could have gotten to “real” or “true” would have been that the Mediterranean Sea was the center of the earth. That at another time the closest I could have gotten to reality was that the sun was the center of the universe. Then, that the universe was static. Then that the universe was expanding at a constant rate. Now, that there’s Dark Matter. And on. And on.
I know that “as close as” one can get to the real is not all that close, ever. I also know that the latest and best scientific knowledge is as close to real as the human mind is going to get . . .
IT’S TIME FOR THE GROWNUPS TO TALK
In Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift tells the story of the endless war between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians. The Little-Endians break their boiled eggs at the small end. The Big-Endians break theirs at the big end. Swift reports that one king lost his crown and another lost his life due to this war. Swift had the battle between the Roman Catholic and Protestant views of the Eucharist in mind. A dispute that continues to this day and has cost the lives of millions. Silly, Jonathan Swift was saying. How silly and childish.
Yet it seems that both Swift’s characters and we human beings will take just about any excuse to create tribes and cliques and circles and insiders and outsiders.
Let’s be real: anyone who accepts the scientific method as an arbiter of truth is a humanist. (Little “h.”) Some who accept the scientific method reserve a bit to be kept for the the mysterious or even the supernatural; some don’t.
Some of us don’t think there is any “super” before the natural; some of us leave at little room for doubt.
The shambles that is our world as it is—governed as it is by various conceptions of gods—argues against the efficacy of fighting over such things, doesn’t it?
The Crusades? The Holy Roman Empire? Victorian London? La Belle Epoch? When was it that god was “in his heaven and all right with the world,” as Robert Browning famously said?
Fighting about such things didn’t work in the “good old days” (whenever that might have been) and doesn’t work now. It’s time that the Little-Endians and the Big-Endians chill out and realize it’s just a friggin’ egg.
In matters of religion, the question of who is right and who wrong dims before the fact that so many people are harmed by the wrangling and tribalism around the question.
It’s just an egg.
Who will be the grownups?
What is the practical difference in actions between atheists, agnostics, theists and those who just don’t care?
People of whatever denominational stripe who believe in science; in the separation of church and state; in the education of children to be critical thinkers . . . progressive people . . . have a lot in common, no matter which end of the boiled egg they break.
It’s time those people act like grown ups.