Playing God

I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that we all have a tendency, to varying degrees, to view the past with nostalgia, and to believe that the world might be better off if things could just be the way they were when we were growing up. Upon further thinking, most of us realize that this probably wouldn’t be all it was cracked up to be, but a few truly believe it to the core. And then they sometimes pass this sentiment along to their bubble-inhabiting kids, who pass it to their kids, blah, blah, blah, and suddenly we have people living in the 21st century thinking that everything would be just perfect if we would all just go back to living like they did a couple of millennia ago.

Okay, so there’s pretty much no one out there advocating that we revert completely, but there are people and groups out there that seem to view many aspects of modern technology and thought, especially in the realms of medicine and culture, as detrimental to humanity. Although they wouldn’t all put it this way, it boils down to people’s uneasiness over “playing god”; the idea that there is a certain Natural Order of Things with which we should not tamper.

This type of thinking becomes evident in a wide range of issues, spanning everything from medical research to the politics of homosexuality, and can run the gamut from vaguely annoying to flat out dangerous. Several examples follow.

Roman Catholics denounce birth control pills (and in some cases attempt to refuse women their prescriptions at the pharmacy) because they believe the pill causes a fertilized egg to be unable to implant in the uterus, thus causing what they consider to be an abortion. Regardless of the fact that most doctors don’t think this is the primary function of the pill (the consensus seems to be that it works mainly by suppressing ovulation—am I the only one who thinks it’s sad we still don’t know exactly how the female body works?), and the pretty well established fact that breastfeeding, an activity encouraged by the Church, creates precisely the condition in the uterus that they use as the basis for their hatred of birth control pills. A family member once said, about me, “I wonder how many babies she’s killed [by taking the pill].” One could ask her, “How many babies have you killed by breastfeeding?”

A Wisconsin couple will be on trial soon for the 2008 death of their preteen daughter, a diabetic who was denied medical care because her family belonged to a church that preached faith healing. For them, any use of modern medicine is considered sinful.

Another case I find perplexing is that involving end of life decision making. I can’t understand why, for some, it’s not a moral imperative to intubate someone who is in a coma and will starve to death as a result, but once the feeding tube is in, to remove it is considered murder. Both scenarios produce the same result, yet one is seen as natural death and one is considered homicide.

The common thread in all of these cases is the demonization of putting knowledge into action. It seems that in each case, it is seen as acceptable to simply allow events to transpire as they will, or even to act ignorantly in “natural” ways, but the minute a person acts on knowledge to achieve a specific outcome, the act becomes immoral. Under a bit of scrutiny, inconsistencies pop up all over the place.

I think people have different levels of comfort with taking on responsibility. People on the conservative (and I mean that in the original sense: being averse to change. I am by no means trying to start a semantic political argument about mainstream conservatives and liberals) end of the spectrum seem to have a low tolerance for taking responsibility for actions in certain arenas. They take themselves out of the equation, at least in their own consciences, by refusing to act and leaving it to god. And for some reason it’s okay with them that their god chooses to act in such capricious and arbitrary ways. I’d rather go with human knowledge and reasonable, appropriate action any day.

In the end, not only is this type of thinking defeatist and backward-looking, I’d argue that it is in itself anti-humanity. One of the things that makes our species unique is our ability to think and adapt quickly to new situations millions of times faster than evolution can. This is not to say that every human innovation is inherently good, but this same capability allows us to create and maintain a system of ethics by which to determine how best to wield the technologies we create.

If we are playing god, I’d hazard the proposition that we’re doing far better at it than god does.

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  1. Well said, this obsession with a past that has often been manipulated into a false utopia is one of the prime reasons that we are fighting against creationism, quack medicine, and Sylvia Browne

  2. Just this last Christmas, my stepmom (master in math, phd in psychology) was getting all nostalgic about the good old days. I asked which she missed the most, the Holocaust, the Spanish Flu pandemic, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. She chuckled and agreed the good old days weren’t so good.

    But I was shocked. She is the smartest person I have ever met and I couldn’t believe she fell into that. I chalked it up to old age.

  3. Well put.

    I think the notion of the “natural order” of things is not an entirely poor instinct, insofar as it represents a respect for systems and practices that have been worked out over a lot of time and whose intricacies we might not understand- not screwing with the environment, or the choicer bits of evolutionary psychology (yeah, plenty of it sucks,) or whatever-the legitimate recognition that progress is not constant or inevitable and the world is a complicated place that can be screwed up. That’s okay. Standing athwart the waters of change and evidence and yelling “stop!” to gay marriage, antibiotics, or anything but vinyl for your records because we didn’t have it back in the day, is not a defensible position. Kind of a gross one, actually.

  4. Nostalgia is a delusional appreciation of history. I think the study and the rational factual appreciation of history is important because knowing where we’ve been is the best way of informing our decisions about the future. I mean really shouldn’t we be constantly learning from the screw ups of previous generations or at least that crap decision we made last weekend?

  5. I don’t have much patience for nostalgia. The past and present both frustrate me for not taking bolder steps forward, and clinging to the way things are, or were, or are imagined to have been.

    I think that as we age, we become familiar with the world, and add detail to our mental model of how things go. As parts of our model are shown to be wrong, we toss them aside, and as new things are found, and new ideas had, we add them to the model. The longer a part has been in the model, the more that’s been added that relies on that part, and the harder it is to remove, especially with all the other pieces it would upset. But, time passes, and eventually uncomfortable conflicts between the model and reality arise, or other people’s models seem less familiar and more threatening. It gets easy to see the past, before those conflicts with our way of thinking became clear, as a better time. One more easily understood. And it is, in hind sight.

    All that to explain what I think looking backwards is, and still, I think it’s a pain in the ass. Some old ideas and ways of thinking just have to be waited out, and eventually the people who cling to them will die out and pass on their biases to fewer people. I aim to not be one of those people who’s death will be an improvement to humanity.

  6. I wonder sometimes if nostalgia is at least a little hard wired. I’ve noticed, both of myself and of what seems like most people, that when they think about their own personal past, they tend, by and large, to latch onto fond memories more than harsh ones. Kimbo may be right. It may be a sort of cognitive defense mechanism, and the tendency toward historical nostalgia may then be a by-product of this tendency.

    Dunno…just thinkin’ out loud.

  7. We are better at playing god than god is.

    So I say, play god, by all means.

    I prefer to play doctor…

    It’s Valentines’ day, on a Saturday this year, I’m counting down.


  8. I really miss polio. A nice simple epidemic that devestated billions is a simple understandable way. Then after huge amounts of research and centuries of terror a scientist comes up with a workable vaccine and people line up to get the shot. Jenny McCarthy would have been thought to be insane.

  9. Wow, really great post! I used to fall into the nostalgia trap, it’s so easy to do. I don’t know if it’s hardwired or learned (or probably a combination of the two) but it was an easy assumption to make until someone pointed it out. Now I try and be more careful of it.

    What’s even more amusing is when people keep talking about how it was “so much better back then” when “back then” was long before they were even born! How exactly do you know? Your memory of your own time is fallible enough.

  10. How about this whole “back to nature” thing regarding childbirth? I have a friend — a high-powered Marketing manager — who went into therapy because she felt she had “failed” at motherhood because she had a caesarian. I heard such trash talk in the media, too, when I lived in the USA & Australia, about how the “natural” way was the best for the family and surgical intervention, for whatever reason, reflected some immorality on the part of the woman. Good dogs, talk about guilt trip! Yes, by all means let’s go back to the Good Ole Days when women routinely died in childbirth and infant mortality was tragically high. Bah humbug to blasted nostalgia, I say!

  11. Yeah, the more I examine the past, the more the past seems to suck. I like the present, with all its cool technology and modern medicine.

  12. I’d have to agree with the rest of the lot on here. To take a line from the movie “The Crow” that has stuck with me for some time: “Mother is the word for God on the lips and hearts of Children”. Parents have more power than they sometimes realize, their choices put upon their children help shape and mold their growing lives. God wont put clothes on their backs or teach then anything relevant (unless you count driving spikes thru another’s head, or stoning someone that disagrees with you), real people and real life do. Religious nuts can claim all they want that the only thing a child needs is faith, but all that will bring is a neglected child.

  13. I think it’s overly simplistic to say either “new things are automatically bad” or “new things are automatically good, and people who complain about them are fools.”

    Every culture, society, or technology has its good points and bad points. A modern city-dweller is entitled to be nostalgic for, say, unpolluted air and a relaxed pace of life, while also being grateful for modern medicine and World of Warcraft.

    — “If we are playing god, I’d hazard the proposition that we’re doing far better at it than god does.” —

    I am an atheist, so substituting “Nature” for “God” here —

    This attitude misses the fact that we notice what is new and different, even if it is relatively trivial, while overlooking the extraordinarily complex and subtle network of processes — physiological, ecological, social, neurological, etc — developed over 3.7 billion years of evolution, which allow us to survive and function every day; just as we can teach an A.I. to play chess, but teaching one to see or walk is very difficult.

    IMHO Nature/Evolution has done *quite* a good job — you try building a working butterfly sometime and we’ll see how you do.

    — “this same capability allows us to create and maintain a system of ethics by which to determine how best to wield the technologies we create.” —

    And I strongly agree that that process is a good –and also a necessary — thing.

  14. life is a memory, it is safer to reside in a controllable, possibly filtered memory than the uncertainty of the present

  15. This nostalgia thing, this longing for a lost Golden Age that never existed, when men where real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri, is something that fascinates me. I even made a little cartoon about it.

    And, since we’re already quoting Douglas Adams on the subject:

    I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

    1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

    2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

    3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

    Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

  16. I think there is something to be said though for remembering the good times. There is comfort in knowing it was not all that bad in the past. Sharing memories of happy times marks a life. I am not sure all nostalgia is a bad thing. Maybe if you ignore the bad altogether pretending it was all good but do any of us really do that?
    I may look fondly at some of the close relationships I had with other teens on the streets of Dorchester, but don’t ever forget those relationships were built in the violence of the streets. We were close because we stood side by side fighting with other groups of kids with bats and pipes. Sure I can say how close the friendships were, but how they got that way I would never go back to. If I had a choice I would never have been stupid enough to get into the territorial battles of inner city neighborhoods.
    I will look fondly almost nostalgically at our summer vacations in NH, swimming at Beaver Lake and exploring the wood of southern NH. Nothing bad about that, but would I like to go back and do it again? No just fond memories, happier times in what was a hard life.
    Of course there are people out there who really believe the cure for all our ills as a society is to get back to a agrarian way of life. I think that is unrealistic. Give me my nice, somewhat cushie life with my fast computers, high speed internet, GPS, cable TV. Today is so much better.

  17. Stephen Fry has the best attitude ever to this kind of thing. Listen to his “iTunes: Meet the Author” episode (Google it – I can’t find the link right now). He talks about exactly your point, carrie – application of knowledge/technology/what have you to make life better. Inspiring.

  18. That was very deep. So deep, I had to bust out my snorkeling equipment.

    My thoughts are…

    The past seemed much nicer, because we had fewer worries. Not because there were fewer worries, but because we were less aware of them. As we grew up, we became more aware of the world. The past seems much simpler, because WE didn’t have a care in the world. So, I guess nostalgia is proof, ignorance REALLY IS bliss.

  19. When it comes to nostalgia, I prefer to think of our amazing capacity to seek enjoyment from the environment we find ourselves in at any given time.
    Forty years ago, I was a happy kid even though I didn’t have cable, a computer, or a cell phone. I did have some undeveloped woods across the street where my friends and I would play.
    My parents were happy in their time without TV or (in my mother’s case), indoor plumbing.
    While the “toys” change over time, our capacity to enjoy the environment we grow up in seems to be a constant.
    It may not be nostalgia, exactly, but I find it reassuring that, if you took away my modern “toys”, I expect my friends, my wife, and I would still find reasons to come together and have fun and find meaning in our lives.

  20. The good old days seem good because:

    1. Our memories are fuzzy so we can filter out the bad stuff. Or better yet we weren’t alive then at all and can make stuff up out of whole cloth.

    2. We were younger and carried less of the weight of the world on our shoulders.

    Number two isn’t entirely illegitimate. Youth (and especially childhood) is in many ways simpler. But it is purely subjective and not a valid gauge of the times.

    P.J. O’Rourke once wrote in response to people who believe in the good ole days:
    “Let me say one single word: dentistry.”

  21. Today we have wow, blogs, internet porn, and all sorts of other modern conveniences that are supposed to make us happier than we used to be. However – most people aren’t any happier. What’s gone wrong? I blame HAARP, a secretive government project in the wilds of Alaska, guarded by polar bears and cyber-penguins. It’s obvious that it’s designed to manipulate the Earth’s magnetic field, which confuses the human brain, via quantum magnetics, which results in widespread depression, offsetting the pleasure and happiness we would otherwise feel due to our wonderful modern technologies. Nostalgia, in other words, is a side-effect of a secret government weapons project. Don’t forget to write your senator.

  22. @James Fox: The Cuban Missile Crisis was in 1962…46 years ago. I (barely) remember it, but only know the significance because my parents told me later. I was barely in the “duck and cover” movement in school. They conveniently omitted the “KYA goodbye” part, though.

    I agree that we filter our memories, especially as we get older, forgetting the bad and recalling the good. I catch myself doing that about my childhood and sometimes have to remind myself that was also when my Mom was heavily into her cups. It wasn’t as nice as I’d like to recall it.

    I think it’s different than the so-called “Back to Nature” childbirth movement, because most of those pushing (forgive the pun) that availed themselves of modern medicine when their turn in the Labor & Delivery room came around. It’s easy to say that others should live a certain way…until someone asks if YOU live that way. :-)

    The same principle holds for some in the subsistance farming movement, sad to say (by no means all, however).

    There are good things to feel nostalgic about, but like many things, there’s a such thing as too much.

  23. Our past is dirty, dirty, dirty. Dirtier than our future. It always amazes me that people forget this.

    I love reading novels that are based on our dirty past. I find it fascinating.

  24. In the immortal words of Soul Asylum, “I’m homesick for the home I never had.”

    The thing that annoys me most is people reaching back toward a society that didn’t exist, not really. Or the historical revision they engage in during their remembering, i.e. the insistence that marriage has always been between ONE man and ONE woman.

  25. @infinitemonkey: a male coworker and i were discussing this one day, and he asked me flat out, “don’t you think things were better when men were the breadwinners and women stayed home?” to which i replied that things may have been simpler then (there was a much more strictly defined social role to inhabit) but that simpler does not necessarily mean better.

    even though i’ve been working my ass off as the main breadwinner in my household for the past 8 years, and a lot of it has pretty much sucked, i would choose that over keeping a house and having babies any day. and that’s not to diminish anyone who may prefer that lifestyle, i’m just very happy to have a choice in the matter, even if it might make things a bit more complex on the surface (the amount we can assume about a person based on their gender has been steadily eroding). i like that.

  26. @carr2d2: Simpler can be seductive, especially if you don’t look at it too hard. Male/female roles are more flexible than ever before, but they are also more confusing.

    To my mind, that’s a worthwhile trade-off, but it is tempting to occasionally pine for a time when people knew what was expected of them and what to expect of others. I certainly can’t blame anyone else for doing so.

  27. In 16th Century France, cat burning was a common pubic entertainment. People of all classes would come together and delight as a cat dies in the least pleasant way imaginable.

    For thousands of years slavery, rape and genocide were the standard practice in war, and war was much more common in the past.

    As far as I’m concerned the past can go to hell. I’m only putting up with the present until something better comes along.

  28. I’m jumping in late on this one, but I think this item from Inherit the Wind is relevant:

    “…Yes ma’am, you may have a telephone, but you will lose privacy and the charm of distance. Yes sir, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”

    With nostalgia, we’ve often become used to the things we’ve gained and no longer have appreciation for them but at the same time we become more conscious of the things that have been lost.

    Yes ma’am, you may have email, but you will lose the pleasure of receiving a mailed letter, and art of writing will slowly be forgotten…..

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