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“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”

– paraphrasing The Sayer of the Law.

When franchises get stale, Hollywood does reboots — invariably a prequel that tells an origin story retrofitted to segue into already-made sequels either straight up (Batman, X-Men) or in multi-universe alternatives (Star Trek). Given the iconic status of the Planet of the Apes original, a similar effort was a matter of time and CGI.

In The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we get the origin story with nods to the original: throwaway references to the loss of crewed starship Icarus on its way to Mars; a glimpse of Charlton Heston; the future ape liberator playing with a Lego Statue of Liberty. As Hollywood “science” goes, it’s almost thoughtful, even borderline believable. The idea that the virus that uplifts apes is lethal to humans is of course way too pat, but it lends plausibility to the eventual ape dominion without resorting to the idiotic Ewok-slings-overcome-Stormtrooper-missiles mode. On the other hand, the instant rise to human-level feats of sophistication is ridiculous (more of which anon), to say nothing of being able to sail through thick glass panes unscathed.

The director pulled all the stops to make us root for the cousins we oppress: the humans are so bland they blend with the background, the bad guys mistreat the apes with callous glee… and the hero, the cognitively enhanced chimpanzee Caesar (brought to disquieting verisimilitude of life by Andy Serkis), not only fights solely in defense of his chosen family… but to underline his messianic purity he has neither sex drive nor genitals. This kink underlines the high tolerance of US culture for violence compared to its instant vapors over any kind of sex; however, since Project Nim partly foundered on this particular shoal, perhaps it was a wise decision.

As it transpires, Ceasar is exposed to little temptation to distract him from his pilgrimage: there are no female hominids in the film, except for the maternal vessel who undergoes the obligatory death as soon as she produces the hero and a cardboard cutout helpmate there to mouth the variants of “There are some things we weren’t meant to do” — and as assurance that the human protagonist is not gay, despite his nurturing proclivities. Mind you, the lack of a mother and her female alliances would make Caesar (augmented cortex notwithstanding) a permanent outcast among his fellows, who determine status matrilinearly given the lack of defined paternity.

Loyal to human tropes, Caesar goes from Charly to Che through the stations-of-the-cross character development arc so beloved of Campbel/lites. Nevertheless, we care what happens to him because Serkis made him compelling and literally soulful. Plus, of course, Caesar’s cause is patently just. The film is half Spartacus turning his unruly gladiators into a disciplined army, half Moses taking his people home — decorated with the usual swirls of hubris, unintended consequences, justice, equality, compassion, identity and empathy for the Other.

Needless to say, this reboot revived the topic of animal uplift, a perennial favorite of SF (and transhumanist “science” which is really a branch of SF, if not fantasy). Human interactions with animals have been integral to all cultures. Myths are strewn with talking animal allies, from Puss in Boots to A Boy and His Dog. Beyond their obvious practical and symbolic uses, mammals in particular are the nexus of both our notions of exceptionalism and our ardent wish for companionship. Our fraught relationship with animals also mirrors preoccupations of respective eras. In Wells’ Victorian England, The Island of Dr. Moreau struggled with vivisection whereas Linebarger’s Instrumentality Underpeople and the original Planet of the Apes focused on racism (plus, in the latter, the specter of nuclear annihilation). Today’s discussions of animal uplift are really a discussion over whether our terrible stewardship can turn benign — or at least neutral — before our inexorable spread damages the planet’s biosphere past recovery.

When SF posits sentient mammal-like aliens, it usually opts for predators high in human totem poles (Anderson’s eagle-like Ythrians, Cherryh’s leonine Hani). On the other hand, SF’s foremost uplift candidates are elephants, cetaceans – and, of course, bonobos and chimpanzees. All four species share attributes that make them theoretically plausible future companions: social living, so they need to use complex communication; relative longevity, so they can transmit knowledge down the generations; tool use; and unmistakable signs of self-awareness.

Uplift essentially means giving animals human capabilities – primary among them high executive functions and language. One common misconception seems to be that if we give language to near-cousins, they will end up becoming hairy humans. Along those lines, in Rise chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are instantly compatible linguistically, emotionally, mentally and socially. In fact, chimpanzees are far closer to us than they are to the other two ape species (with orangutans being the most distant). So although this pan-panism serves the plot and prefigures the species-specific occupations shown in the Ape pre/sequels, real-life chances of such coordination, even with augmentation, are frankly nil.

There is, however, a larger obstacle. Even if a “smart bomb” could give instant language processing capability, it would still not confer the ability to enunciate clearly, which is determined by the configuration of the various mouth/jaw/throat parts. Ditto for bipedal locomotion. Uplift caused by intervention at whatever level (gene therapy, brain wiring, grafts) cannot bring about coordinated changes across the organism unless we enter the fantasy domain of shapeshifting. This means that a Lamarckian shift in brain wiring will almost certainly result in a seriously suboptimal configuration unlikely to thrive individually or collectively. This could be addressed by singlet custom generation, as is shown for reynards in Crowley’s Beasts, but it would make such specimens hothouse flowers unlikely to propagate unaided, much less become dominant.

In this connection, choosing to give Caesar speech was an erosion of his uniqueness. Of course, if bereft of our kind of speech he would not be able to give gruff Hestonian commands to his army: they would be reliant on line of sight and semaphoring equivalents. However, sticking to complex signed language (which bonobos at least appear capable of, if they acquire it within the same developmental time window as human infants) would keep Caesar and his people uncanny and alien, underlining the irreducible fact of their non-human sentience.

Which brings us to the second fundamental issue of uplift. Even if we succeed in giving animals speech and higher executive functions, they will not be like us. They won’t think, feel, react as we do. They will be true aliens. There is nothing wrong with that, and such congress might give us a preview of aliens beyond earth, should SETI ever receive a signal. However, given how humans treat even other humans (and possibly how Cro-Magnons treated Neanderthals), it is unlikely we’ll let uplifted animals go very far past pet, slave or trophy status. In this, at least, Caesar’s orangutan councillor is right: “Human no like smart ape,” no matter how piously we discuss the ethics of animal treatment and our responsibilities as technology wielders.

Playing ‘Red-Light, Green-Light’ in Space

If you dislike insects, then long term space travel is probably not for you. Contrary to the space operas you may have read or watched, wise humans will always surround themselves with creepy critters who love to do our dirty work. For that matter, can we even survive happily or well without our companion animals? Can we remain humans as we know ourselves in the absence of other Earthling species? I suspect not.

Since the start of 2011′s Science in My Fiction Contest, I’ve been tweeting and blogging links to science news items that may prove useful to potential contestants. First, I touched on some interesting technological ideas for use in science-inspired fiction. Then I reminded writers that ecology-based worldbuilding doesn’t end when humans leave Earth behind. This week, I recommend maggots, parrots and molecular ‘traffic lights’ as likely candidates for your far future fiction:

In space stories, there are a couple everyday events that are usually ignored or glossed over as much as possible. Death and poop. These are naturally messy processes and products, and we will need systems in place to turn our losses into something beneficial. We could do as we do now and send low-status humans to clean up and process the ‘waste,’ or we could invent robots to do the work, but I think we can do better than that. Why not save ourselves a lot of inconvenience and bring nature’s cleaning crew with us on our long space journeys? Yes, I’m suggesting we recycle the dead and the digested with the help of fly larvae. Think of it as our descendants’ way of ‘returning to the earth’ without having to make a U-turn in space.

Even after we’re well-settled in space, we may never discover alien life that we can recognize or communicate with. That doesn’t mean humans will ever be alone in the universe. We may dominate the Earth, but we’re hardly the only clever beasts around. We’re not even the only tool-users! In the future, spacefarers may need to choose their shipboard plant and animal communities with even greater care than their human crew, and with that in mind, I would like to recommend brainy birds. It might be tricky to engineer space environments favorable to delicate species, but it might be worth it for the sake of biodiversity. And you never know when a speech-mimicking, tool-using, air-travelling seed disperser might come in handy on a starship.

In the far future, there will literally be sickness like we’ve never known. Along with many of the things we’re familiar with on Earth. There really should be no doubt that various methods of genetic engineering will come in to play – if not before liftoff, then certainly while we’re between-worlds – but not every genetic problem humans (or the species we bring to space with us) have now or develop later will require us to replace ‘bad’ genes with ‘good’ genes. Sometimes the problem isn’t the DNA itself, but the little under-appreciated messengers employed by the genes. Per DNA instructions, mRNA tell cells what proteins to make in order to function, but sometimes the little messengers stop short and deliver only part of the blueprint. The results can be deadly, so it’s a good thing for our fiction (and our futures) that we’re working out how to bring more subtlety to our interactions with genomes.

Now, go! Write! Win! And if you come across a scientific development you’re interested in sharing, leave a comment or ping me on Twitter @sandykidd.

The Far Future is Before Our Very Eyes

The second annual Science in My Fiction Contest is on and bedeviling writers! This year, in addition to asking writers to base their short story submissions on recent scientific developments, all contest entries must also be stories set off-Earth.

At a stretch, nearly any scientific advance made on Earth could be applied to the far-future, and authors of speculative fiction should ideally always practice that kind of literary yoga. But while some technological leaps are more obviously applicable than others, many things are taken for granted on Earth to the extent that we need to be reminded that they require re-thinking for all other settings. 

Because of the contest’s secondary requirement, I’ve been tweeting daily links to recent space travel and far future-relevant scientific developments. Not everyone follows me on Twitter, however, so I’ve decided to bring a few examples of SiMF Contest-ready science to the blog for helpful discussion and speculation. 

Wherever else in the galaxy humans are ever able to settle, we will first need to travel there. Everything we take with us may become lighter than feathers once outside Earth’s gravity, but before then, it must be launched. Every ounce of weight correlates to the amount of fuel required for lift-off. Once weightless, all cargo still has volume and mass, so we must also account for how much room is required to store it when it’s not in use, without cramming in the crew like so much ballast. These issues are tricky for short missions and incredibly problematic for long missions, but some far future dilemmas may have answers rooted in ancient arts. I give you Textiles in Space

Essential items like food, water, tools, and people are not the only things we send to space. On short journeys, of course we include materials for science experiments, and satellites to be put in orbit, but we also allow astronauts a few small personal items. For example, several flutes recently circled the Earth. On short missions, these little things are of arguable worth in space, but on long missions they could become hugely important – psychologically, if in no other way. But again, every item aboard ship takes up valuable ‘real estate,’ and so the size of allowable personal items must be carefully reconsidered for long-term space travel. Fortunately, we humans are capable of placing remarkably high significance on our virtual possessions. Talk about space-savers. 

Astronauts are scheduled to within an inch of their sanity. Every moment is carefully planned to ensure that the science gets done, all maintenance is performed, and everyone sleeps and exercises enough to protect their health. Even their so-called ‘free time’ is scheduled in advance. But people are people, no matter how far off-Earth we may travel. Even if we take great pains to send no trouble-makers into space, it’s only a matter of time before somebody starts some shenanigans. Why? Well, rules are all well and good, but rule-breaking is powerful stuff. Eventually, every long space mission will have to deal with man-made mischief. Perhaps if we designate time for it on ships’ calendars we can mitigate the damage… 

Those are just three examples of obvious or easily ignored science that could be useful for writers speculating on the future. I’ll bring up more like these as the contest progresses, but in the mean time, what are your off-Earth science suggestions for SiMF contestants?

Big Speculation – Fat Fiction

 More people on Earth are overweight than underweight. Yet the trajectory of human body size in science fiction and fantasy could be graphed with a line sloping sharply in the opposite direction. Where’s the fat? 

Authors, we’re not doing anyone favors by dodging the facts of life. Fiction’s greatest purpose is to address reality in a way that frees readers to relate to it without suffering it directly. We certainly don’t make our writing any better by preempting the fat (or dark skin, or women, or children). If anything, we sabotage our stories by depriving our characters of experiences that matter to real people living in the real world. 

Of course this problem has complex origins. Western fat bias is going global, and escapism will always have wide appeal, after all. However, I suspect part of the problem stems from a generally poor understanding of what fat is, how it works, and why it’s important. 

Here’s the skinny on fat: Every cell in our body requires cholesterol to function. We need fat to live, so there’s no point demonizing it or pretending it has no place in speculative fiction. Furthermore, fat cells – collectively, adipose tissue – do so much more than store excess calories. Fat behaves like the other organs of the body; it actively participates in metabolism, yes, but it also influences our neurochemistry and immune system

There is more to talk about than weight loss when it comes to fat. Isn’t it curious that different types of fat deposits predict different long term health outcomes? Isn’t it more interesting that one’s sense of satiety, of ‘fullness’, depends more on the brain’s ability to receive certain chemical signals from the gut than it does on how much is eaten? Isn’t it downright fantastic that, once upon a time, being fat was socially advantageous? 

When I browse a bookstore, I see vast expanses of neglected frontier. Even the science fiction and fantasy sections are narrow and homogenous. If our art imitated life, I’d see two covers with ample main characters for every one featuring an athletic lead. It makes me want to write in the gaps. To fill the void in our fiction with fact. And fat. 

Five minutes of speculation later, and I already have more ideas than I have time to develop: 

- Aliens make first contact and assume that the widest person on Earth is our leader. 

- A zombie epidemic starts with an appetite suppressant, and only the obese outlast the horde. 

- Santa Claus trims up and loses his powers, and is nightmarishly replaced by Rumpelstiltskin. 

- It turns out that the fatter one’s body, the greater one’s magic, but because using magic burns calories at a phenomenal rate, nearly all magic is applied to agriculture.

What’s your big speculation?

Gliese-Something-Something

If you know me, then you know that I am always on the lookout. For what? Science, of course, and art. Interesting and beautiful things. The internet is a better resource for novelty than anything else, but watchful and patient people sometimes get lucky. This was not an especially lucky week, but I did come across something that fulfilled my search criteria on technicalities. It’s pretty and it got me thinking – if my thoughts about it aren’t particularly favorable, they are at least energetic.

Don’t get me wrong, the video embedded below is essentially a modeling reel. It serves its purpose, which is to show-off some animation students’ acquired skills, and it’s quite good in that context. I have no desire to criticize their proficiency in the medium, but the obvious inspiration for the piece is a hot topic on this blog, so of course I took a closer look at it than I might have otherwise, and of course I brought it here to share.

Watch ‘Gliese 851′ then read on to see if it got you thinking along the same lines as me:

The first thing I noticed was the title. Now, there are a lot of stars named Gliese-something-something, but one has been in the news quite a bit more often than the rest; Gliese 581. Specifically because of that star’s unconfirmed ‘goldilocks’ planet. I assume the filmmaker was more interested in capitalizing on the name than on exploring any of the science associated with locating exoplanets or seriously speculating about extraterrestrial life. A couple of clues in plain sight verify my suspicion: For one thing, there is no star named Gliese 851, but that name is a common typo in articles about Gliese 581. For another, there appeared to be only two lifeforms on the wasteland planet depicted in the animation; one large human and one large tentacle-monster. Probably, the writer struck a compromise between savviness and laziness. The concept perfectly satisfies mainstream (i.e. low) expectations of science fiction, and it is about as deep as the average attention span for scientific content in the media.

But even assuming that the filmmakers invented a new star system on purpose, I have some questions about the setting. It looks like an industrial wasteland or a vast crash site. Or I suppose it could be an abandoned colony. Even still, why is the only human survivor wandering around in the open? With skin exposed? The atmosphere and daylight must be very earthlike, indeed. And if so, then what killed or repelled the other humans? Tentacle-monsters? But if so, then what did they eat/kill before humans arrived? I ask because I saw no evidence of other life on the planet, and it seems impossible that a species as complex as that alien could have evolved in the absence of biodiversity. Maybe it was the last of its kind. I mean, that’s possible given humanity’s propensity for environmental disaster.

What are your observations and speculations?

(W)hole Hearted

In preparation for this month’s post, I’ve been reading up on the heart. The post was inspired by my friend, Francesca Forrest’s, recommendation that I read The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the HUMAN HEART by Stephen Amidon and Thomas Amidon, MD. NPR had done a piece on the book discussing the man that toured Europe with a hole in his chest that allowed folks to see his heart hard at work deep within his chest. I was intrigued. Read the rest of this entry »

Dreaming Robot Can’t Wake Up

ZaZa can't wake from dreams of being splashed.

Do androids dream of electric sheep? Apparently not, according to researchers at the Interdisciplinary Technology Institute in Boston. “Most of ZaZa’s dreams are about getting splashed.” Whether that’s the result of oversight or foresight, ZaZa’s vulnerability to liquids has been a boon to the scientists at ITI from the beginning of this uncanny project.

As part of their research into the relationship between dreaming and memory formation, ZaZa was created to be a learning robot. Scientists expose her to new stimuli and information every day and then assess her recollection over time. According to one researcher, ZaZa came in contact with an uncovered cup of coffee during the first week of the study, and immediately afterward, her dreams became less like randomized input logs and more recognizably dream-like. “After the incident, we instructed her to avoid all moisture in the future. We expected to see the event reflected in her dreams but we’re still surprised by the extent of its impact.”

Because organic brains are still far more complex than even the most advanced computers, scientists at ITI had to overcome major hurdles while designing the project. In order to construct a useful model of a human mind, they had to give ZaZa several ‘brains.’ In addition to the central unit in her chest, she has a computer to regulate and monitor each of her six sensor-types, another to coordinate the senses and simulate short term memory and recall, and a ninth computer dedicated to communication and dreaming. One would expect a robot brain composed of so many computers to be cumbersome and awkward, but ZaZa is surprisingly small; about the size of a kindergartner. Because ITI’s dream research requires that ZaZa be able to move around and interact with scientists, they took advantage of existing, inexpensive broadband mobile technology rather than reinventing the wheel for the project. As a result, little ZaZa is completely wireless and has a remote brain.

Wifi is only one of the technological advances that researchers at ITI have incorporated into the design of their dream-bot.  To give ZaZa the ability to learn like a human, they applied developments in self-organizing computer networks, simulated cognition and artificial intelligence, and even language acquisition and physical creativity. “The ZaZa Project is really a collaborative effort between ITI and dozens of other institutions. The individual advances made in their labs are brought together in ours.”

Considerable effort went into ZaZa’s outward design, as well. In order to inspire more ‘life-like’ dreams, they’ve equipped her with the social skills necessary to recognize human emotions and respond appropriately. For day-to-day interactions between ZaZa and researchers to be as normal as possible, they’ve even given her human mannerisms and appearance. One scientist said, “When all her systems are functioning optimally, you could almost forget she isn’t someone’s little girl.”

Of course, any system as complex as ZaZa’s is bound to malfunction at times. Because most of her brains are located outside her body, she slips into standby mode whenever the local wifi signal drops and must be woken manually. If even one of her computers crashes, scientists must shut her down completely and repeat the day’s research from the beginning. Simple physical problems, like replacing worn sensors, can be dealt with more easily because ZaZa doesn’t technically feel pain. However, every time she gets wet – a month after the coffee incident, poor ventilation in another lab at ITI triggered the fire sprinklers – ZaZa’s body suffers catastrophic failure and must be rebuilt.

When everything goes according to plan, ZaZa is still only awake for eight hours a day, five days a week. “ZaZa can’t be left unattended while she’s awake, so she has to dream while we’re all home on nights and weekends,” explained the project’s lead scientist. That’s perfect for their research because it means that during periods without major malfunctions, they still acquire enough dream logs to make up for the time they spend rebuilding and repairing her systems.

Scientists are naturally reluctant to offer much speculation about the results of this study so early in the project, but many researchers are already planning future studies involving ZaZa and conceiving new robots based upon her design. One such project has already been green-lighted by ITI, but the only details scientists would divulge about it were that the next generation of ‘dream-bot’ will be adult-sized to accommodate internal, self-contained computer brains. Also, unlike ZaZa, who spends most hours lying under a tarp unable to wake from dreams about getting splashed, their next prototype will be able to swim if necessary, and may rest, but never sleep.

And Still She Moves: A year of Science in My Fiction

Today marks one year since we launched Science in My Fiction!

Since then our amazing contributors have written over 100 blog posts, ranging in topics from sapient dolphins to piezoelectrics to quantum gravity to the color of alien pants.

In late April, less than 2 months after our launch, we were approached by the editors of the popular science site io9 with a request for the rights to reprint occasional SiMF posts on their site. Numerous SiMF posts have been reprinted on io9 since then.

In late July, Kay Holt’s tongue-in-cheek post I Know Why The Vampire Sparkles (Inspired after a grudging read of Twilight) was picked up on BoingBoing; it spread from there, being linked literally hundreds of times and translated on numerous international sites. To date the post has been read by over 125,000 people on the SiMF site alone.

Over the summer, SiMF hosted the first annual Science in My Fiction short story contest! The contest was a big success and we hope to host more contests soon!

And in October SiMF began publishing monthly science-inspired fiction with our first story, Stephanie King’s “Ending Alice“.

We have lots more in store for the future, including (if there’s enough interest) a print collection of Science in My Fiction posts, with proceeds going to science-based charities. Thanks to everyone who supported us during this remarkable first year, and please keep reading and writing!

Science Fiction: The Musical?

If you want to make the world a smarter place, it’s not always enough to create an image, post to a blog, or even write a book. Sometimes, if you really want to get inside people’s minds, you have to set your message to music. That’s right; it’s time to send in the earworms!

Disclaimer: The following playlist may or may not make the world a smarter place, but at this point, we’ll take all the help we can get…

The Volcano Always Wins

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day the main character is James Stevens, a butler proud to serve his master, Lord Darlington – a rather dim aristocrat with political ambitions who becomes close to Mosley’s philo-Nazi Blackshirts. Stevens sacrifices all vestiges of self-expression, including the possibility of love, to become the perfect servant. His dignity and sense of office forbid him to question social and political rules and he remains loyal to the master-servant ideal even when its time is long past.

A week ago, Mas Penewu Surakso Hargo, known as Mbah (Grandfather) Maridjan, died on Mount Merapi in the Yogyakarta region of Java (founded as a sultanate in 1755). Maridjan, like his father before him, had been appointed guardian of Merapi by the sultan of Yogyakarta. He was in charge of ceremonies to appease the spirit of the mountain and he described his job as being “to stop the lava from flowing down”.

In 2006 and again in 2010, Maridjan refused to evacuate when Merapi erupted, calling himself and his fellow villagers the fortress whose function was to protect the sultan’s palace. Both times, others followed his example on the strength of his moral authority. He was found in a praying position, overwhelmed by pyroclastic flow from the mountain. Also killed were thirteen people who were in his home trying to persuade him to leave. The local populace is clamoring for a new guardian and the sultan plans to appoint one soon.

Most people consider Stevens a deluded pathetic figure, despite his dignity and loyalty. Ditto for Harry Randall Truman, who elected to stay on Mt. St. Helens in 1980. In contrast, many consider Maridjan admirable, a laudable example of spirituality and adherence to principle, even though his actions led to preventable deaths.

Inevitably, there are more threads to this braid. Truman and Maridjan were in their mid-eighties; both voiced the sentiment that their time had come, and that such a death was preferable to dwindling away in increasing helplessness. The people of Yogyakarta are trying to preserve the pre-Islamic heritage of Indonesia against mounting pressure from the increasingly hardline official policies and the imams who enforce them. Additionally, many Merapi evacuees were left with nothing but the little they could carry, in a nation that has a rich legacy and tremendous recources – but one that also has had more than its share of natural and man-made disasters and whose political, ecological and economic status is wobbly.

Maridjan is admired as the keeper and transmitter of endangered cultural knowledge. I have already discussed this issue from the angles of deracination and art. The time has come to also point out the problems and dangers of tradition.

There’s no doubt that unique cultural customs keep the world multicolored and kaleidoscopic. Even though I’m an atheist and consider all organized religions unmitigated disasters for women, I’m still moved by the Easter ceremonies of the orthodox church. However, I’m not interested in their Christian-specific narrative. What moves me are the layers embedded in them: the laments of Mariam for her son are nearly identical to those of Aphrodite for Adonis, and they’re echoed in folk and literary poetry in which mothers lament dead sons (the most famous is Epitáfios by Yiánnis Rítsos, set to unforgettable music by Mikis Theodorákis). When I hear them, I hear all the echoes as well, see all the images superimposed like ghostly layers on a palimpsest. For me, that’s what lends them resonance and richness.

But there are times when I must part most decisively with tradition. There are plenty of traditions whose disappearance has made (or will make – many are still extant) the world a better place: from spreading bloody wedding sheets to foot binding to female genital mutilation; from forbidding women to sing lest they distract their husbands to knocking out teeth of new wives to show they will rely on their husbands’ prowess henceforth; from slavery and serfdom to polygyny and concubinage; from having unprotected sex with virgins to “cure” sexually transmitted diseases to “laying hands” on a child sinking into a diabetic coma.

Then there are the power-mongering charlatans who prey on fear and despair, particularly when hard times fall upon people: sickness, natural catastrophe, occupation, war. It’s true that Western medicine follows the heroic model – and as such it’s outstanding at treating acute illnesses but tends to over-specialize, sometimes at the expense of a holistic approach that treats the root cause rather than the symptoms. It’s equally true that modern technology has allowed ecological depradations at an enormous scale that threaten to become irreversible. Finally, it’s painfully true that deracination and colonialism often go hand in hand with modernization. Oppressed people revive or revert to traditions, often the last vestiges of suppressed cultural identity, as an act of resistance.

However, prayers don’t shrink a tumor nor frighten invaders away and the sun rises and sets whether beating hearts are offered to it or not. Too, if someone jumps from an airplane or a high ledge without a parachute, no amount of belief in divine favor will waft them away on a magic carpet or give them wings. Nor were traditional states pre-lapsarian paradises, as an objective reading of Tibetan, Aztec and Maori history will attest.

When we didn’t know the reasons behind phenomena, such customs were understandable if not necessarily palatable. Not any more, not with today’s knowledge and its global reach. The mindset that clings to the concept that incantations will stop a volcano is kin to the mindset the refuses to accept evolution as established fact. Standing in the path of a meteor is not the same as standing at Thermopylae, romantic notions of doomed last stands notwithstanding. The 300 Spartans who stood at Thermopylae had a concrete goal as well as a symbolic one: they stopped the Persian army long enough to give the rest of the Greek city-states time to strategize and organize. And the rarely-mentioned 1,000 Thespians who stood with them did so against their particular customs – for the sake of the new-fangled, larger concept of living in freedom.

In the end, the traditions that deserve to survive are those that are neutral or positive in terms of improving human life across the hierarchy of needs (and that includes taking care of our planet). Mbah Maridjan was the guardian of the mountain, which put him in the position of caretaker of his fellow villagers as well as of the putative Merapi spirit. If he saw his function as loyalty to an abstract principle of servitude rather than protecting his very real people, he was misguided at best – and his stance had far worse repercussions than those of Ishiguro’s Stevens, who only harmed himself and the woman who hoped to love him.

I once read an almost certainly apocryphal tale of a young woman who asked her rabbi, “Rebbe, is it ever acceptable to eat pork?” “Never!” said the rabbi. “Pig meat is always treff. Why do you ask?” “During last winter’s famine, I fed my young brothers sausages,” replied the girl. “It was either that or watch them starve.” “In that case, it was kosher,” decided the rabbi.

That’s the kind of humane traditionalism I can live with. Tribalism was adaptive once, but has become a mixed blessing at best. Tradition encourages blind faith, satisfaction with rote answers and authority – and history demonstrates that humans don’t do well when they follow orders unquestioningly. As for the questing mindset ushered and encouraged by science, I will close with words I used elsewhere:

Science doesn’t strip away the grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more keep appearing and coming into focus. Science leads to connections across scales, from universes to quarks. And we, with our ardent desire and ability to know ever more, are lucky enough to be at the nexus of all this richness.

Images: top, pyroclastic cloud from the Rinjani volcano, part of the Ring of Fire to which Merapi also belongs (photo by Oliver Spalt); middle, a Han Chinese woman’s “golden lotus”; bottom, wayang kulit — the Javanese shadow puppets, part of the Yogyakarta people’s heritage.