The skeptic and the believer

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Obama winning the election, about my writing, why I washed out of NaNoWriMo this year (more on that later), and the passing of one of my favorite authors last week, Michael Crichton. I’m also rereading Jurassic Park, my favorite Crichton novel. And in so doing, I’ve come to realize something. My whole life, I’ve served two masters. Worse, two seemingly mutually exclusive masters.

On the one hand, I’ve always been a skeptic, a questioner. While I understand the historic significance of the United States electing an African-American president, I’m still baffled at the racism that, yes, still exists in the south where I grew up. To me, racism never made sense. I learned at an early age that the amount of melanin in one’s skin is a simple genetic trait, not more significant to the organism overall than eye color or handedness. Discriminating against people for skin color was just as ludicrous to me as saying that blue-eyed people were naturally superior, or than left-handed people were possessed by demons. It was only years later that I found out the latter two assertions had also had their turn, and resulted in millions of deaths. I still think it’s stupid.

I’ve always wanted to know why. Why anything. “Because we’ve always done it this way” is never a good reason to do anything as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always had a scientist’s natural curiosity and determination to find a rational explanation for things, even things that, like racism, aren’t rational. This was, I think, what drew me to Crichton’s books. Looking back over his collected works, including those I fundamentally disagree with like State of Fear, the constant thread that unites nearly everything Crichton produced is a healthy mistrust of science and technology. Not from a luddite perspective, but an awareness that with the wonders of new discovery and technological advancement we must always keep a careful eye out to make sure it’s not accidentally or even deliberately misused. Most of Crichton’s books are about science gone wrong, about modern day Daedaluses and Prometheuses reaching too far or playing with things they didn’t truly understand. I think this is an important theme, especially as our technological pace continues to increase, and I hope someone (even me) picks up where Crichton left off.

But the other reason I was such a big fan of Crichton’s work is that his books also reached out to the edge of science and technology, pushing the boundaries of what we considered possible. and while part of me is a skeptic, the other side of me deeply wants to believe. While I have a scientist’s thirst for rational explanations, I also have a storyteller’s sense of wonder and magic. And so I’m willing to give some things the benefit of the doubt.

Keeping in mind Crichton’s constant warning that we never know as much as we think we do about the natural world, I note that until one century ago, 1908, the gorilla was considered a mythical creature. So is the existence of a fifth species of great ape, one more closely related to humans and fully bipedal, but which avoids us and sticks to the most remote parts of the world so hard to find possible, if not plausible? Tales of rare encounters with these shy creatures are so widespread and consistent that there must be more to them than myth. And, if they are descended from the so-called “missing link” they could fill in an important gap in primate evolution. So with all this mind, I’m inclined to believe these creatures exist more than not, whether you call them Bigfoot, Sasquatch or Yeti.

For similar lines of reasoning, I’m also open to the existence or continued survival of Mokèlé-mbèmbé (what sounds like an apatosaur deep in the Congo rainforest where no human but pygmies has ever gone), megalodon (a 60-100 foot ancestor of the great white shark that I think might be no more extinct than the coelacanth) and other things that “rational” people dismiss as imaginary. Because we don’t know. We can never know everything.

So as I bid farewell to Michael Crichton, I’m going to keep both the sense of discovery and wonder he brought me over the years, and the warning skepticism behind his books. And I thank him for helping to shape the reader, writer and thinker I am today.

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