'All for ourselves and nothing for other people' seems in every age of the world to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. -Adam Smith "All the 'truth' in the world adds up to one big lie." Bob Dylan "Idealism precedes experience, cynicism follows it." Anon

February 7, 2011

Blind men and an elephant: a duet by Natalie Merchant and PZ Myers

Chain The Dogma   -   February 7, 2011

Blind men and an elephant: a duet by Natalie Merchant and PZ Myers

by Perry Bulwer

Today I posted an article to my archive of news articles on religion and child abuse on how creationism is weakening the U.S. education system  The article is written by PZ Myers, the author of the popular Pharyngula science blog.

It reminded me of my own experience in the Canadian education system, which failed to properly educate me on the reality of evolution. That neglect endangered me because without that scientific foundation, I was easily led astray by religious fundamentalists. That's an over-simplification, of course, as there were other cultural and social factors involved in making me susceptible to a religious world-view. However, I am convinced that had I been properly taught accurate information about evolution and related scientific realities such as geography and the age of the earth, starting in elementary school, I would have been better able as a teenager to fend off the ravenous religious wolves who encircled me.  In my previous post on this blog I provide a few more details about that experience and how I was recruited into an evangelical, apocalyptic cult when I was 16. I plan to elaborate more on that in the book I'm working on.  see:  Who is the Real Anti-Christian: the Atheist or the Fundamentalist Christian?

Myers article on creationism in the classroom also reminded me of another article by him in which he retells the parable of the blind men and the elephant. That in turn reminded me of a song on the same subject by Natalie Merchant in her most recent album, Leave Your Sleep.  I've copied below both Merchant's lyrics [update: they lyrics are verbatim from the poem by John Godfry Saxe] and Myers article, which in case you were wondering, constitutes the duet in my blog title.

Here's a link to Natalie's official site where you can listen to all the songs on that album, including "The Blind Men and the Elephant" at: http://www.nataliemerchant.com/l/leave-your-sleep/the-blind-men-and-the-elephant

Lyrics at:

The Blind Men and the Elephant

John Godfry Saxe (1816 – 1887)

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
“'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: ”E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!


Elephants' Wings

by PZ Myers at:  http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/05/elephants_wings.php

Once upon a time, four blind men were walking in the forest, and they bumped into an elephant.

Moe was in front, and found himself holding the trunk. "It has a tentacle," he said. "I think we have found a giant squid!"

Larry bumped into the side of the elephant. "It's a wall," he said, "A big, bristly wall."

Curly, at the back, touched the tail. "It's nothing to worry about, nothing but a piece of rope dangling in the trail."

Eagletosh saw the interruption as an opportunity to sit in the shade beneath a tree and relax. "It is my considered opinion," he said, "that whatever it is has feathers. Beautiful iridescent feathers of many hues."

The first three, being of a scientifical bent, quickly collaborated and changed places, and confirmed each other's observations; they agreed that each had been correct in the results of their investigations, except that there wasn't a hint of feathers anywhere about, but clearly their interpretations required correction and more data. So they explored further, reporting to each other what they were finding, in order to establish a more complete picture of the obstacle in the path.

"Tracing the tentacle back, I find that it is attached to a large head with eyes, fan-shaped ears, and a mouth bearing tusks. It is not a squid, alas, but seems to be a large mammal of some sort," said Moe.

"Quite right, Moe — I have found four thick limbs. Definitely a large tetrapod," said Larry.

Curly seems distressed. "It's a bit complicated and delicate back here, guys, but I have probed an interesting orifice. Since this is a children's story, I will defer on reporting the details."

Eagletosh yawns and stretches in the shade of a tree. "It has wings, large wings, that it may ascend into the heavens and inspire humanity. There could be no purpose to such an animal without an ability to loft a metaphor and give us something to which we might aspire."

The other three ignore the idling philosopher, because exciting things are happening with their elephant!

"I can feel its trunk grasping the vegetation, uprooting it, and stuffing it into its mouth! It's prehensile! Amazing!", said Moe.

Larry presses his ear against the animal's flank. "I can hear rumbling noises as its digestive system processes the food! It's very loud and large."

There is a squishy plop from the back end. "Oh, no," says Curly, "I can smell that, and I think I should go take a bath."

"You are all completely missing the beauty of its unfurled wings," sneers Eagletosh, "While you tinker with pedestrian trivialities and muck about in earthy debasement, I contemplate the transcendant qualities of this noble creature. 'Tis an angel made manifest, a symbol of the deeper meaning of life."

"No wings, knucklehead, and no feathers, either," says Moe.

"Philistine," says Eagletosh. "Perhaps they are invisible, or tucked inside clever hidden pockets on the flank of the elephant, or better yet, I suspect they are quantum. You can't prove they aren't quantum."

The investigations continue, in meticulous detail by the three, and in ever broader strokes of metaphorical speculation by the one. Many years later, they have accomplished much.

Moe has studied the elephant and its behavior for years, figuring out how to communicate with it and other members of the herd, working out their diet, their diseases and health, and how to get them to work alongside people. He has profited, using elephants as heavy labor in construction work, and he has also used them, unfortunately, in war. He has not figured out how to use them as an air force, however…but he is a master of elephant biology and industry.

Larry studied the elephant, but has also used his knowledge of the animal to study the other beasts in the region: giraffes and hippos and lions and even people. He is an expert in comparative anatomy and physiology, and also has come up with an interesting theory to explain the similarities and differences between these animals. He is a famous scholar of the living world.

Curly's experiences lead him to explore the environment of the elephant, from the dung beetles that scurry after them to the leafy branches they strip from the trees. He learns how the elephant is dependent on its surroundings, and how its actions change the forest and the plains. He becomes an ecologist and conservationist, and works to protect the herds and the other elements of the biome.

Eagletosh writes books. Very influential books. Soon, many of the people who have never encountered an elephant are convinced that they all have wings. Those who have seen photos are at least persuaded that elephants have quantum wings, which just happened to be vibrating invisibly when the picture was snapped. He convinces many people that the true virtue of the elephant lies in its splendid wings — to the point that anyone who disagrees and claims that they are only terrestrial animals is betraying the beauty of the elephant.

Exasperated, Larry takes a break from writing technical treatises about mammalian anatomy, and writes a book for the lay public, The Elephant Has No Wings. While quite popular, the Eagletoshians are outraged. How dare he denigrate the volant proboscidian? Does he think it a mere mechanical mammal, mired in mud, never soaring among the stars? Has he no appreciation for the scholarship of the experts in elephant wings? Doesn't he realize that he can't possibly disprove the existence of wings on elephants, especially when they can be tucked so neatly into the quantum? (The question of how the original prophets of wingedness came by their information never seems to come up, or is never considered very deeply.) It was offensive to cripple the poor elephants, rendering them earthbound.

When that book was quickly followed by Moe's The Elephant Walks and Curly's Land of the Elephant, the elephant wing scholars were in a panic — they were being attacked by experts in elephants, who seemed to know far more about elephants than they did! Fortunately, the scientists knew little about elephant's wings — surprising, that — and the public was steeped in favorable certainty that elephants, far away, were flapping gallantly through the sky. They also had the benefit of vast sums of money. Wealth was rarely associated with competence in matters elephantine, and tycoons were pouring cash into efforts to reconcile the virtuous wingedness of elephants with the uncomfortable reality of anatomy. Even a few scientists who ought to know better were swayed over to the side of the winged; to their credit, it was rarely because of profit, but more because they were sentimentally attached to the idea of wings. They couldn't deny the evidence, however, and were usually observed to squirm as they invoked the mystic power of the quantum, or of fleeting, invisible wings that only appeared when no one was looking.

And there the battle stands, an ongoing argument between the blind who struggle to explore the world as it is around them, and the blind who prefer to conjure phantoms in the spaces within their skulls. I have to disappoint you, because I have no ending and no resolution, only a question.

Where do you find meaning and joy and richness and beauty, O Reader? In elephants, or elephants' wings?

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