james_j_odonnell's picture
Classics Scholar, University Librarian, ASU; Author, Pagans
Classicist; Cultural Historian; Provost, Georgetown University; Author, Augustine: A New Biography

Scientistific Discoveries Are Surprisingly Durable

Anna Karenina famously begins with the line, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." A little less famously and a great deal more astutely, Nabokov turned the line on its head at the opening of Ada: "All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike." I'm with Nabokov, and that's why I can be an optimist.

Of course in the long run, optimism is impossible. Entropy is unforgiving: even a historian knows that.

And history repeats itself. The same stupidities, the same vengeances, the same brutalities are mindlessly reinvented over and over again. The study of history can help the educated and the wise avoid the mistakes of the past, but alas, it does nothing for helping the numbskulls.

But the study of the past and its follies and failures reveals one surprising ground for optimism. In the long run, the idiots are overthrown or at least they die. On the other hand, creativity and achievement are unique, exciting, liberating—and abiding. The discoveries of scientists, the inventions of engineers, the advances in the civility of human behavior are surprisingly durable. They may be thwarted or attacked, and at any given moment it may seem that the cause of women's rights is beleaguered in too many places in the world. But the idea of women's equality with men is not going away. Too few students may master the natural sciences, but the understanding enshrined in Newton's laws of motion and the calculus are not going away. Too many people may eat and smoke their way to early graves, but the accurate understanding of the mechanisms of the human body and how they can be healed and repaired and kept healthy—that's not going away either.

After all, we started out in the African savannah, trying to run fast enough to catch up with things we could eat and fast enough to stay away from things that could eat us. Our natural destiny is to squat in caves and shiver, then die young. We decided we didn't like that, and we figured out how to do better. Even if the numbskulls get their way and we were to wind up back in a cave, we would remember—and we wouldn't be in the cave long. We do not remember everything, and there are losses. But we turn out to be a stubbornly smart, resilient and persistent species, and we do not forget the most important things.