Today, a new look at good, evil, and the nature of
change. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Stephen Jay Gould has become
the great teller of our biological history -- not
by writing great tomes, but by writing hundreds of
short essays. Read one of his articles on an
airplane and you're entertained. Read five during
the year and you find that his independent pieces
hang together in odd ways. Read a hundred, and a
complex philosophy takes form.
One of Gould's themes is his theory of punctuated
evolution. The fossil record shows long periods of
biological stability. It's hard to find a species
in transition. We go along unchanged for millenia.
Change, when it occurs, takes place very quickly.
Like all fine teachers, Gould uses metaphor to help
us see how that works. To make his point, he asks,
"Are we humans cruel or are we considerate?" Of
course, the record of history is written in blood
-- in wars, treachery, and competition.
But what does our experience tell us? Walk through
your day and count the transactions. What's
happened to me by noon today?
My wife had interesting things to talk about before
I left for a dental appointment. The technician and
I compared pictures of her new baby and my new
grandson. When I entered my office building with an
armload of books, two students held doors for me.
The man at the lunch counter shared greetings with
me. Students in the overcrowded lunchroom
graciously shared a table. Back at the office, my
e-mail misbehaved, and a colleague helped me sort
it out. Once it was working, a collegue in another
state responded to my testy message with grace and
I seldom look at my days like this, but the simple
fact is, people who hardly know me have treated me
like a king. I've been met with kindness
everywhere. Yet you and I let ourselves be diverted
by those rare occasions of human meanness.
So I take Gould's point. Human courtesy and
kindness really are the norm, not the exception.
Yet human history is the history of upheaval.
History, like evolution, is the story of change
wrought by disruption. Those rare acts of brutality
make the newpapers, and they make the history books
Gould calls it a structural paradox that one
violent act so distracts us from 10,000 acts of
kindness. I'll go a step further and ask you
whether books on either history or biology would be
so focused on violent transitions if they were
History tells how we've been shaped as a people.
Wars and cabals have actually been far less
important to that shaping than persistent acts of
cooperation. It isn't terrorists and warlords who
shape history. It's those very acts that've already
touched my life so many times in the first hours of
this still new day.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds