Sunday, September 27, 2009

Adam’s rib and the sanctity of Knowledge

Anne and Ken are still away, but they’ll be back very soon. When they are, I hope they’ll write about this new Nature article.

In the meantime…


Hi. My name is Holly Dunsworth. I’m a professor. And I thought that men had fewer ribs than women until halfway through college.


Fantasizing about group therapy sessions may be blowing things out of proportion. But I wonder if there are any serious ramifications to learning the story of Adam’s rib from the Book of Genesis.

What’s the big deal about thinking men have fewer ribs than women?

I guess I can think of a few medical situations that could go horribly wrong if the doctor miscounted the ribs - mainly if she was using a particular rib to draw an incision or to locate an organ. But doctors learn basic anatomy (e.g. that men and women have the same number of ribs) before they are allowed near patients. I’m guessing that a disastrous rib incident is more likely to be found in the pages of The Onion than in The Times.

However, from a larger philosophical perspective, I think it is a big deal.

First of all, if you think the little story of Adam’s rib has gone away, you’re going to be surprised when you click here and here.

The question is definitely out there and most answers are truthful, but many perpetuate the myth, some quite elaborately.

The story of Adam’s rib symbolizes a puzzling phenomenon in America. We systematically teach myth-information, and then, later, we may or may not replace it with long-known facts. I wish I could say this was only something we do to children, but it’s also one of pop culture’s favorite ways to “educate” adults.

For example, The History Channel - which is widely assumed to be educational - bookends shows about Lincoln’s assassination with ones on Nostradamus and the Loch Ness monster. Even when these shows include the skeptical side of the story, they still validate the pseudo-scientific point-of-view, as if each holds equal footing in some sort of “debate”.

We love to spread myths that have been overturned by facts. What ridiculous behavior for any species, let alone for upright, intelligent, apes who should know better! For thousands of years we have been systematically replacing fiction with fact, unknown with known, fake with real. This is a triumph of humanity. It’s a feat that the perpetuators of Adam’s rib don’t appreciate.

I’m not saying that myths and folk knowledge are unimportant. They’re culturally relevant and crucial to our history. They are sources of beautiful songs, poetry, and literature. We are a story-telling species. But when those myths can be made into scientific hypotheses, which can be tested, and when they’re tested, and when they fail to be supported by the evidence… that knowledge should be replaced by the new knowledge that better explains the world around us.

There is no room for debate on this. Whenever they are discovered, real facts should replace false ideas.

What’s more, we shouldn’t expect each human to relive that entire process of discovery and falsification throughout her lifetime. Each new person deserves to start life standing on the shoulders of her predecessors so that she can leap off and fly above and beyond them.

We’ve known for a while now that developing embryos and fetuses don’t go through all the developmental stages of their ancestors before they’re born. So since somatic ontogeny doesn’t recapitulate phylogeny, why must we insist that intellectual ontogeny does?

Sure you can’t learn calculus without first mastering arithmetic and then algebra, but no one’s asking Kindergartners to design their own numbering system before they get started. Scientists and medical professionals need to single-handedly explore human anatomy as if it’s unknown territory; everyone else, including my elementary school self, deserves to second-handedly learn the truth about their bodies, about something as simple as rib number.

To me, the story of Adam’s rib is illustrative of the rising anti-intellectual epidemic which causes everyone, not just the afflicted, to suffer. That we continue to teach myth-information to children today, after we have accumulated so much Knowledge, is largely because of the disregard and negligence bred by anti-intellectualism.

Although it may be tempting to blame anti-intellectualism on religion, we should not boil it down to that, especially since so much Knowledge throughout history has been, and continues to be, accumulated by religious folks and institutions. Recently Gregory Rodriquez, citing Alexis de Tocqueville, argued in the L.A. Times that our shared American sense of equality is at fault.

Knowledge is not a democracy, it is a meritocracy. Good ideas hold. Bad and out-dated ideas are kicked out. And all ideas, bad and good, beget exponentially more of them, so as the information available at our fingertips balloons, we have to be even more careful with Knowledge.

Yesterday a student asked me something that I didn’t know the answer to, so I said “I think it’s probably [a, b, and c], but you’d have to check [x, y, and z]."

To that she replied, “You could have just said [a, b, and c] like it was the answer and I’d have believed you.”

I told her that was nice but that I lost my right to bulls_ _ _ when I became a professor, that now I can only speak in facts and hypotheses and I have to be perfectly honest when I don’t know something.

One thing I know for sure, however, is that men and women have the same number of ribs.

- Holly Dunsworth, guest blogger


Holly Dunsworth said...

Because of my confession, my ego is feeling pretty vulnerable. (Maybe a real support group is needed.)

So I'd like to make an analogy.

Did you ever mishear the lyrics to a song as a kid and learn them incorrectly? Then did you ever, as an adult, find yourself singing those lyrics and laugh about how ridiculous they now sound?

That was like the rib thing for me.

John R. Vokey said...

You have missed the point entirely (I am kidding). But, just maybe, it all about the wrong missing os? If I had received the following as editor of a journal, I too would have accepted it within the same 24 hours (if not minutes), It is a classic piece, and worthy of further dissemination. I just wish I had written it:

Holly Dunsworth said...

Holy moly. Now THAT is much better story.

Mong H Tan, PhD said...

RE: Well done, John!

As I was still pondering Holly’s key thesis like this one: “So since somatic ontogeny doesn’t recapitulate phylogeny, why must we insist that intellectual ontogeny does?” John’s referenced article shows that we (as erudite scientist-philosophers) must not equate somatic ontogeny (of evolutionary biology) with intellectual (or spiritual) ontogeny (of the Bible or of other religious texts) -- as so insensibly and so irrationally as Richard Dawkins has had done in his anti-religious book The God Delusion!

Basically, Dawkinsism has tried to reduce and abuse science into his anti-religious scientism (as a tool against religious beliefs) since Dawkins was unable to elaborate nor advance science (or Darwinism), so as to help differentiate and explain the difference between modern biology and those religious (or metaphorical) intellectual and spiritual writings, as those originated in most religious scriptures worldwide!

Furthermore, John’s reference also reminded me of reading this nice article by Sherwin Nuland recently in The New Republic here: “My son, the doctor: The saga of Jews and medicine.”

Best wishes, Mong 9/29/9usct3:32p; practical science-philosophy critic; author "Decoding Scientism" and "Consciousness & the Subconscious" (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).