Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11 + 10 -- A Saturday reprise

(I post today something I wrote a decade ago for the Orion Magazine website, as one of a number of invited responses to the events of 9/11.

I slipped out of bed early on the morning of September 15, 2001, to see a conjunction of Venus and the Moon. The sky was clear, a crisp autumn tang in the air. The two celestial object blazed in the east. The crescent Moon was eyelash thin, the rest of its orb more brightly lit by Earthshine than I had ever seen before.

I wondered what it would it be like to be viewing Earth from the Moon at that same moment. Our planet's face would be almost fully lit by sunlight, a huge blue-white ornament in the Moon's sky. No sign of human strife or turmoil. A placid sphere wisped with water and air, afloat against the silent deeps of space.

In the presence of that morning's beauty, I almost forgot the terrible events four days earlier when terrorists smashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. I thought to myself: Why must human violence disturb nature's peace?

But, of course, I had it exactly backwards.

It is nature that is violent. Astronomers point out how few places in the universe are sufficiently calm for life to exist. Massive black holes at the centers of galaxies gobble gas and stars. In the arms of galaxies, suns explode with a violence that shatters surrounding worlds. Comets and asteroids smash into planets. Galaxies collide.

The TRACE satellite telescope has recently provided us with stunning photographs of our Sun; they are epics of fire and frenzy. The Chandra X-ray telescope shows us a universe of ferocious tumult. Paleontologists find fossil evidence of planetwide extinctions.

We now understand that violence and death are corollaries of life. To persist, living creatures must take matter and energy from their environment. As life proliferates, competition for resources becomes inevitable. Aggression is advantageous, even necessary. Genetic variations that confer a competitive advantage are favored in the struggle to survive. If nature were not cruel, conscious creatures such as ourselves would never have evolved.

It is as Loren Eiseley wrote: "Instability lies at the heart of the world." The criminals who wreaked havoc on New York and Washington were acting out an ancient biological script.

Yet there is ground for hope. Our brains are of sufficient complexity to give rise to that mysterious thing known as self-awareness. Our genes may predispose us to act in certain ways, good or bad, but they do not constrain us. We are effectively free to choose good over evil. Humans alone, of all the things we know about in the universe, can escape the bipolar logic of evolution.

To a cheering extent we have done so. As Margaret Mead pointed out, the circle of those whom we do not kill has steadily expanded throughout human history. The optimists among us imagine that the circle will ultimately embrace the entire planet.

From nature's point of view, there is no such thing as the Problem of Evil: order and disorder, life and death, cooperation and competition are the twin principles of nature's creative force. What humans uniquely face is the Problem of Good: How to create on this tiny planet an oasis of unalloyed peace.