Rachel Maddow, following-up the Thursday (April 29) interview with FAIR President Dan Stein, goes to the heart of what ails Arizona today. As is true of every cell in our bodies, all of which are bordered by semi-permeable membranes, some degree of separation from others, of course, is necessary. Far too often, malicious divides result deliberately from the type of malevolent myth-making undertaken by FAIR.

What ails us today? We’ve taken one of Newton’s assumptions, that the cosmos may be modeled as, studied as, understood as, a mechanism, as a given. Over the last few centuries, Western science has progressively denatured humanity, beginning by basing our conception of being human on an absolute falsehood: the inviolable self-other divide, the progenitor of every subsequent socio-psychological division.

The late Stephen Jay Gould said as much, in his unprecedented February 19, 2001 New York Times op-ed, Humbled by the Genome’s Mysteries.

I am no lover, or master, of sound bites or epitomes, but I began by telling my students that we were sharing a great day in the history of science and of human understanding in general.


Human complexity cannot be generated by 30,000 genes under the old view of life embodied in what geneticists literally called (admittedly with a sense of whimsy) their "central dogma": DNA makes RNA makes protein — in other words, one direction of causal flow from code to message to assembly of substance,….

Applying this discovery to politics, we see clearly how Cheneyesque machinations are based on the old model: one direction of causal flow, from command to control to execution. What’s the alternative?

Gould goes on to address the the implications of the failure of the old order (namely, reductionism):

The implications of this finding cascade across several realms. The commercial effects will be obvious, as so much biotechnology, including the rush to patent genes, has assumed the old view that "fixing" an aberrant gene would cure a specific human ailment. The social meaning may finally liberate us from the simplistic and harmful idea, false for many other reasons as well, that each aspect of our being, either physical or behavioral, may be ascribed to the action of a particular gene "for" the trait in question.

But the deepest ramifications will be scientific or philosophical in the largest sense. From its late 17th century inception in modern form, science has strongly privileged the reductionist mode of thought that breaks overt complexity into constituent parts and then tries to explain the totality by the properties of these parts and simple interactions fully predictable from the parts. ("Analysis" literally means to dissolve into basic parts). The reductionist method works triumphantly for simple systems — predicting eclipses or the motion of planets (but not the histories of their complex surfaces), for example. But once again — and when will we ever learn? — we fell victim to hubris, as we imagined that, in discovering how to unlock some systems, we had found the key for the conquest of all natural phenomena. Will Parsifal ever learn that only humility (and a plurality of strategies for explanation) can locate the Holy Grail?

Gould goes on to say, this discovery, and the collapse of the doctrine of one direction of causal flow, "marks the failure of reductionism for the complex system that we call biology — and for two major reasons."

First, the key to complexity is not more genes, but more combinations and interactions generated by fewer units of code — and many of these interactions (as emergent properties, to use the technical jargon) must be explained at the level of their appearance, for they cannot be predicted from the separate underlying parts alone. So organisms must be explained as organisms, and not as a summation of genes.

Second, the unique contingencies of history, not the laws of physics, set many properties of complex biological systems. …

The deflation of hubris is blessedly positive, not cynically disabling. The failure of reductionism doesn’t mark the failure of science, but only the replacement of an ultimately unworkable set of assumptions by more appropriate styles of explanation that study complexity at its own level and respect the influences of unique histories. Yes, the task will be much harder than reductionistic science imagined. But our 30,000 genes — in the glorious ramifications of their irreducible interactions — have made us sufficiently complex and at least potentially adequate for the task ahead.

We may best succeed in this effort if we can heed some memorable words spoken by that other great historical figure born on Feb. 12 — on the very same day as Darwin, in 1809. Abraham Lincoln, in his first Inaugural Address, urged us to heal division and seek unity by marshaling the "better angels of our nature"….

We are human organisms, Gould is saying, who must study ourselves as such, no longer reducing ourselves to mechanisms whose ultimate leverage comes from the false assumption of the inviolable self-other divide. Poetically speaking, I say: we are selves cellf-imprisoned in inescapable cellves of our own mistaken making.

Just as every cell in our bodies is bordered by a semi-permeable membrane, just so, our skins and national borders join us as much as separate.

Rachel Maddow and her crew have done a superb job of rooting out the direct expression of separatist beliefs in the malevolent myth-making of FAIR. But the assumption of that most pernicious and fundamental divide isn’t unique to bigots. It afflicts us all to varying degrees.

The fact that we share our borders with our neighbors implies a relationship based on compassionate cooperation, not belligerent competition; on recognizing each others unalienable humanity, not reducing us to consumers or producers, workers or owners, aliens or otherwise. (Note how public officials define us in their glorious press releases: workers, families, small businesses, taxpayers, consumers, etc., while ‘citizens’ seems conspicuously absent.)

That goes double for the political arena. Minding the consequences of our definitions, of our political neighbors, is absolutely crucial. This, as I’ve said before, isn’t done cynically, out of "political correctness," but out of our empathic, compassionate respect for our neighbors and fellow citizens.