“Ignorance Still Plagues Us”

Killing Cats And Dogs, Selling Human Heads, And A Little Cannibalism

I got a severe case of the heebie-jeebies the other night during the Republican debate when Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz were in the middle of yelling at each other and exchanging insults and lies at warp speed. One of these guys might become leader of our temporary civilized “free” world?!! I thought of a few lines from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” When Atticus Finch, the lawyer defending a black worker for killing two redneck whites for raping his 10-year-old daughter, advises his young daughter: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” In her book Lee points out that men and women can be better than the mob when they remember their hidden dignity, their secret honor. In a recent column Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson stated our world of adults seems stigmatized and radicalized by poverty and race, and: “Let us hope with Harper Lee that people are better than the mob, capable of imagining the lives of strangers. And whatever the outcome, Atticus—more real than any living politician—urges us to see it through.”

We all have made decisions that have resulted in unintended consequences, but normally the consequences are not far-reaching. When politicians make political decisions, however, those decisions may affect millions. In a recent forum a group of present-day philosophers and erstwhile thinkers discussed the proposition “Is Humanity Getting Better?” Leif Wenar summarized some of the situations where unintended consequences, because of ignorance, resulted in catastrophe instead of solution. In 1665 the smell of death lingered over every aspect of life in London because of an outbreak of the Black Plague. The plague had swept through Europe in the 14th Century killing millions. The famous diary of Samuel Pepys had this entry: “Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the city died this week 7,496; and all of them, 6,102 of the Plague, But it is feared that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000.” The Chamberlain of the City (mayor) decided that the plague must be spread by the thousands of dogs and cats chasing and killing rats that were eating wastes filling the city streets. The city paid hunters to kill over 4,000 of them. But later research indicated that rats carrying fleas transmitted the plague, so the Black Death was spread more quickly by flea-ridden rats freed from their hungry predators. Before the plague ran out of deadly bacteria almost 20% of London’s population died---from ignorance, flea bites,  and unintended consequences of killing the animals that could slow the spread of the fleas. We now know how to contain the Black Plague from becoming a pandemic, or as Wenar states in his article: “Ignorance, we might say, no longer plagues us.”  Well……

Wenar: “The World Is Now A Thoroughly Awful Place—Compared With What It Should Be!”

According to politicians who wish to gain more power, the United States and the world are falling apart, are becoming more dangerous, and humans are killing each other at an ever-increasing rate. Pure balderdash. The average life span of humans today is longer than it’s ever been (except for ages 45-54 in the U.S. middle class presently), fewer women are dying in childbirth, literacy rates have never been higher, child malnutrition is at its lowest level, and the percentage of people in the developing world living in extreme poverty has shrunk from 43% to 21% in just 20 years. The forum Wenar reported on also concluded that we are living in “the most peaceful era in history.” With all the “wars” going on all over the world that statement raises some eyebrows—but the evidence proves it’s true. At least in modern history, the human condition is improving.

In a fascinating book “Winning the War on War,” Joshua Goldstein writes: “We have avoided nuclear wars, left behind world war, nearly extinguished interstate war, and reduced civil wars to fewer countries with fewer casualties.”  Evidently members of the forum read this paragraph from his book: “In the first half of the 20th Century, world wars killed tens of millions (the best estimate I have seen is 60 million) and left whole continents in ruins. In the second half, during the Cold War, proxy wars killed millions, and the world feared a nuclear war that could have wiped out our species. In the 21st Century, the worst wars, such as Iraq, kill hundreds of thousands….Overall, war has diminished dramatically. The percentage of states perpetrating mass killings of civilians is also well down from 1945, and fatalities from armed assaults on civilians (and from genocide) are down.” He adds: “These statistics do not prove that animus or madness has ended.” How true!

Technology And Tolerance Might Prevent These Horrible Incidents From Happening Again

As humans invent things to make their lives easier and so we can understand each other better, we may become more “human”—whatever that means. As an example, cannibalism has been with us for thousands of years, but we may have reached the point where only the insane would commit such an act today. But even in the last 50 years the sane have lived by eating human flesh. Witness the 1972 crash of an Uruguayan plane in the Andes mountains near the Chilean border carrying a rugby team and friends and family.  Only 16 of the 51 passengers and crew survived to be rescued after two months. A survivor outlined their problems in a recently published book after learning by a transistor radio that the search for the plane and passengers had been suspended: “Our common goal was to survive—but what we lacked was food. We had long since run out of the meager pickings we had found on the plane, and there was no vegetation and animal life to be found. After a few days we were feeling the sensation of our own bodies consuming themselves just to remain alive. Before long we would become too weak to recover from starvation….The bodies of our friends and teammates, preserved outside in the snow and ice, contained vital, life-giving protein that could help us survive.”  So the 16 survivors turned to cannibalism—and were rescued after 72 days. This act of survival-cannibalism probably would not have to happen today. Forty-four years ago we didn’t have the routine technology of cell and satellite phones and GPS coordinates to alert rescuers. Yes, humanity is making some progress—with the aid of technology in this case. Relatives of those consumed in 1972 told the survivors that they were “supportive” and “receptive” of their actions.

Sometimes humans display a remarkable talent for surviving unusual circumstances. In November of 2012 Salvador Alvarenga went fishing in a 25-foot boat complete with motor, radio, phones, GPS tracking equipment and some survival gear. Two days after a storm hit he sent his last SOS which was heard on shore. Everything had quit working. After drifting 6,700 miles across the Pacific for 438 days he was rescued from his boat. He was a strange-looking human, but he was able to walk on the dock unaided after his ride to shore. He survived by catching fish and turtles with his bare hands and saving rain water in plastic jugs he found in the ocean. His survival indicates how humans can adapt to bizarre and deadly situations.

Perhaps A Huge Leap For Man—From Shrunken Head To Transplanted Head

Human heads are back in the news with ISIS and some Muslim countries beheading criminals, traitors, reporters, and other enemies of their states, but occasionally a shrunken human head from bygone days comes on the collector market and is auctioned off at Christie’s or other renown auction houses. Undamaged and insect-free heads can bring in $50,000 or more. The Jivaro tribes of the upper Amazon practiced head-hunting and head-shrinking as late as the 20th Century, using the heads known as tsantsa in sacred tribal rites. After the victim was decapitated the head was cooked slowly in hot but never boiling water and then filled with sand. That’s enough gory but fascinating details for the moment. ( For more fascinating details read December, 2014 Harper’s Magazine article “Heads Will Roll: The Story of a Morbid Curiosity” by Dan Chiasson.) The Jivaros traded shrunken heads for guns. The usual price was one tsantsa for one gun. In the Western search for the Almighty Dollar there was soon started a shrunken head market, particularly in Ecuador between 1880 and 1950. Fakes were produced using goat and other animal skins and are still resting on mantels in American homes. Many real ones were delivered in plain brown wrapping paper to nice homes. There is still quite an active market for shrunken heads on the Internet. This market activity does serious harm to the premise humanity is getting better. Chiasson has an answer for our “morbid curiosity”: “It is amazing how easily culture can launder violence into something morally acceptable by making a head a commodity. The transaction forever washes away the taint. When we see a shrunken head in a museum or private collection, what we see is our superiority over societies that would ever do such a thing as hunt heads.”

Can We Ever Put Ted Williams Back Together Again? It Would Be A Triumph For Humanity!

Baseball being my favorite sport, about a decade ago Corky and I visited the Ted Williams Museum in Hernando, Florida, while we were RVing around the state. Ted had died in 2002, and his son and daughters had agreed to store the Hall of Fame hitter’s head and body, separated and housed in separate cryonic containers  at -202 degrees, so he could be revived—and put together later.  Medical technology associated with cryonics still needs to be further developed.  Ted’s head and body, to the best of my knowledge, are still being stored at Alcor in Scottsdale, Arizona. The company is the leading practitioner of cryonics, the science of bringing frozen heads and bodies back to life. Transplanting the head to the body is said to be a very complex operation. But now we have an Italian surgeon, Dr. Sergio Canavero, who says he is going to perform a head transplant. His first volunteer patient is Valery Spiridonov, a Russian graphic artist who has a very severe case of muscular dystrophy. They just need to find a healthy body. Perhaps if he is successful with Valery, he will then try to put Ted back together. No, I am not suffering from a football-damaged brain or dementia-yet.  I think this is fascinating stuff. After all, we can grow human ears and other body parts in 3-D printers now and transplant them successfully. We can transplant new faces to people who have been horribly disfigured. How about the transplanting of uteri—or uteruses—to women born without? Perhaps some day cryonic practitioners can put Ted Williams back together so he can be hired by the Twins as a hitting instructor. Humanity can’t help but get better. Stranger things can happen. We have become acquainted with the very tall and skinny members of the African tribe known as the Maasai who look like they could be all NBA basketball forwards at 6’ 9”. They are known as semi-nomadics who raise livestock and roam the African plains to find good pastures. They bleed cattle and drink the blood for nourishment. Now almost every Maasai male has a cellphone in a colorful pouch attached to a belt so he can check on the weather, market prices for livestock, and Facebook for women he would like to woo to travel the dusty plains with him while herding his valuable cattle. Who says humanity is not getting better?