Faith 01: – Introduction: Afraid of the Dark
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It is a part of our human nature to make sense of the mysterious, even if the only explanation that can be offered is not based on observable evidence. Before man left the African continent an array of natural predators stalked the savannah grasslands after nightfall — and there was good reason to be afraid of the dark. The instinct to flee from what cannot be seen, to be afraid of the unknown, was an adaptive trait to gain prominence within our species through the process of natural selection, for those members of the population that did not maintain vigilance and suspicion of their surroundings were quickly eliminated from the gene pool.
As mankind advanced, gaining control over the landscape and becoming organized into better-defended civilizations, the threat of a predator-filled night became a distant concern in most parts of the world. However, the instincts that kept our ancestors alive on the African savannah continued to influence our perception of newly emergent threats, which could not always be immediately attributed to a physical source.
Long before humans became aware of the microscopic world and the powerful influence bacteria and viruses have over our health, disease and other illnesses were believed to have a supernatural origin, often attributed to a malicious spirit or the result of sin. In fact, this belief is even continued to this day among populations of poorly educated countries. In the African nation of Ghana the condition known as Kwashiorkor is named for “the evil spirit” that is believed to possess the first child after a second one is born. However, this condition is simply the result of a low protein to energy ratio, due to early weaning from breast milk and the lack of a high carbohydrate diet.
Throughout human history the resurgence of disease has been an ever-looming threat. Even within the last decade several outbreaks have made international news, such as SARS, Avian Flu, and most recently H1N1 Swine Flu. But one of the worst Pandemics on record was the Bubonic Plague (1348-1350 ), estimated to have cut Europe’s population by 30% to 60%. In total, the Black Death, as it came to be known, killed over 100 million people around the globe, reducing the world population to just 350 million by the year 1400.
Europeans of the twelfth century were not aware of what exactly was causing the plague, and naturally, many of them turned to religious leaders for help in overcoming their nightmarish horrors. However, if an outbreak of the Bubonic plague were to occur today it would be met with an antibiotic, like Gentamycin or Streptomycin.
More than 150 years would pass before Germ Theory was first postulated by men such as Girolamo Fracastoro, who in 1546 suggested disease was carried by what he termed a “spore” — a transferable particle responsible for spreading infection by direct or indirect contact. Yet, it would be over 300 years (1862) until Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and microbiologist, actually developed and conducted experiments that confirmed the speculations made by early Germ Theorists.
Pasteur made many notable discoveries, among them the invention of the first ever vaccine, against the Rabies virus. However, he is most remembered for experimenting with boiling fluids, which he found could kill microorganisms responsible for spoiling such beverages as milk, wine, and beer — a process that adopted the great inventor’s name, pasteurization. Pasteur’s work greatly contributed to the foundation of modern science, effectively helping to dispel the superstition that evil spirits cause disease. However, science and medicine of the 19th century were more akin to the beliefs of human beings 2,000 years before, than to what would be put into practice just a century later.
Bloodletting was still common among physicians of the 19th century, a procedure utilized by many ancient peoples including the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Mayans, Aztecs, and the ancient Greeks. In Greece, bloodletting was in use at the time of Hippocrates (460 BC – 370 BC), who is considered to be the “Father of Medicine”. Bloodletting was molded around the menstrual cycle, which early physicians saw as the natural process that purged women of bad humors. Hippocrates postulated that disease was the result of an imbalance between the 4 humors, which consisted of black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm, relating to the four Greek classical elements of earth, wind, fire, and water.
By the second millennium the humoral system fell into disuse. Yet, bloodletting was still recommended by many physicians, although the actual practice itself was carried out by barbers. A remnant of this trade can still be found in the red-and-white-striped pole of the barbershop, the red representing the blood being drawn, the white as the tourniquet, and the pole as the stick squeezed in the patient’s hand to dilate the veins. Bloodletting was used to cure a wide range of diseases, becoming a standard treatment for almost every ailment, and was practiced prophylactically as well as therapeutically.
About the time Louis Pasteur died, in 1895, the world was in the process of a great transition. The archaic practice of bloodletting was slowly falling to the wayside and electricity became widely available for the first time in human history. Fast forward just 82 years and we find the first MRI exam performed on July 3rd, 1977 by a team of scientists lead by Dr. Raymond Damadian. These brilliant researchers labored tirelessly for seven long years to produce a single image, considered rudimentary by modern standards. As late as 1982, there were but a handful of MRIs in the entire United States. But, today there are thousands, producing images in seconds what used to take hours.
When we lacked knowledge about the cause of disease we took it on faith there must be a supernatural origin. But now that science has exposed the truth, we would consider anyone to hold such beliefs to be profoundly ignorant. In just 100 years man went from the use of bloodletting for all known ailments to being able to non-invasively peer inside a living human body to locate a source of disease. We went from the first internal combustion engines (1860s) to walking on the moon (1960s), from the first telephone lines (1890s) to a wireless global network of information accessed from anywhere in the world (1990s), and technological advancement has shown no signs of relenting.
Although we do not yet have all the answers, it does not mean we should cower in fear and give up the quest for knowledge. Our greatest strength comes from the collective information passed down by our predecessors. Just imagine, if we were to somehow suddenly lose this precious resource — human civilization would reset to the dawn of our species. But the advocates of blind faith vie to keep man’s mind locked in our once primitive state. By refusing to understand the world as it truly is, they teach others that ignorance is an acceptable alternative, creating an environment where personal opinions take precedence over scientific facts. Many followers of religion are adopting a very dangerous trend, for the mentality to unquestioningly accept commonly held beliefs would never have brought us to where we find ourselves today.
In the thirteenth century when Roger Bacon questioned how rainbows were created, should he have continued with his investigation despite what implications it had on the commonly held views of his era? Bacon’s research contributed to our greater understanding of the properties of light, and centuries later we are now able to use various spectrums to peer into the deepest regions of the Universe. Or, should have Bacon just taken everyone’s word for it, that “God done it”? Do we take a lesson from history and continue our investigation into the well-documented, scientifically verifiable mechanisms by which organisms adapt and evolve, or do we forfeit any further breakthroughs in science and medicine, so long as our established views are not threatened and we can remain comfy in the belief that, once again, “God done it”.
It is never easy to question long-held beliefs, to step back and objectively examine one’s reasoning. Fear of the unknown is an intrinsic part of the human experience, an aspect of our evolution that must be confronted and overcome. Children are afraid of the dark not because they are unable to see, but due to a fear of what the dark contains. The boogyman, ghosts, and monsters that lurk amongst the shadows, are much akin to the predator filled nights on the African savannah and the evil spirits laying in wait to inflict disease upon the unfaithful. But knowledge and science are the light that exposes truth, scattering shadows of superstition.
It is no coincidence that the more scientific information we accumulated about a particular subject the more supernatural explanations fall to the wayside. Now that we have detailed explanations of the pathology of disease, only the most ignorant and poorly educated would claim disease to be the result of evil spirits. In contrast, very little detail is known about the origins of the first life on Earth or precisely how and why the Universe began, and as follows, many of us still choose to default to the same old supernatural explanations of the unknown.
It should be no surprise that as we continue to accumulate greater knowledge of the Universe and the origins of life the more our superstitions will become threatened. And just as it’s in man’s superstitious nature to invent explanations for the unknown, so too is it part of our nature to call upon a higher power in a time of need. Every culture to ever exist has invented their own mythologies, a variation on a common theme of “the divine” — just another link in a long chain of superstitions, produced in a feeble attempt to make sense of the world before man had refined his faculties and forged one of the most important partnerships in our history, with the powerful allies of science and reason.