This Is Real Science

Robert Egan

Not too long ago, I was right as rain – no, I was more right than an Antarctic ice shelf that had collapsed, sailed across the Indian ocean, evaporated as it approached Africa, then braved the winds of fortune to form a single storm cloud in the middle of the Sahara that hovered above the outstretched tongue of a traveler who alone knew the secret to world peace but was dying of thirst. The only obstacles that stood between me and this path to ultimate righteousness were a book filled with a dead guru's lectures and the person who sold it to me. The book was called Life Comes from Life and found its way into my hands because of my dog.

My dog Crusty is a pee artist. He utilizes higher-level mathematics to mark his territory by taking into account factors like the past and future presence of other dogs, the possible angle of his and their approach, a fine equilibrium between the amount of urine needed to sustain his efforts over the entire walk versus the dwindling reserves in the flimsy water bottle hanging from his leash, and my impatience while I count.

“Jedan, dva, tri,” I'll count in Serbian when Crusty takes too long because he comes from Serbia. Actually, my dog is from Bosnia – to be more exact, he's from Mostar in Herzegovina, where roughly half of the population feels a closer connection to Croatia than to Bosnia. Despite the complicated tensions and history among these neighboring nations, the Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian languages are still 95% the same. So are the people, although they don't have much of a history of getting along.

Anyway, if Crusty doesn't finish by “tri,” then he has to save his calculations and hope he's right the next time. Also, this tale isn't about my dog. It's about being right.

My dog and I had just moved from Belgrade, Serbia (a part of former Yugoslavia now broken into independent republics) to San Juan, Puerto Rico (a former Spanish colony now turned U.S. territory). Soon, “uno, dos, tres” will be punctuating my dog's frequent pee stops, but for the moment I wasn't rushing Crusty's calculations in any language. Letting him puzzle over scents woven into tree trunks and sidewalk cracks while I consumed the sights and sounds of Avenida Ponce de Leon was a good way to meet my new neighborhood. During one of these pee stops, a short man with a shaved pate and small ponytail approached me.

“Buenas tardes.  Como a-blah-es en-blah-ste blah-dia?”

“Lo siento. I don't speak much Spanish.” I looked down at Crusty as if he would translate for us.

“I see you're trying to learn Spanish! What brought you here?” he asked. I thought about giving him a really detailed answer that began with a fortuitous encounter between an egg and sperm then explained the subsequent development of their fusion as a series of good and bad decisions that revolved around traveling to find love and adventure. To wrap up the story, I'd mention a chance encounter with a Puerto Rican violinist at an electronica parade in Berlin that led me to Graz and her to Belgrade before we settled together in San Juan.

Instead, I just said, “My girlfriend lives here.”

“Ah, then you, your girlfriend, and your dog should come visit our temple! It's near El Yunque, the forest.” He handed me a flyer with a simplified map to his temple and an open house schedule on it. At that point, I noticed the man was holding several thin books; the topmost one on his palm had a dark blue, semi-psychedelic cover. The title, in large bright red font, read Life Comes from Life – below the title, a few lines of text in a more restrained font read Morning walks with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada Founder-Acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

“Yes, this is one of our books that's in English,” he said, following my gaze. I'd never met a Hare Krishna before, but this man didn't fit my stereotypical image of someone in an orange robe handing out flowers at an airport. He wore a pink plaid shirt neatly tucked into his jeans and had on some hip-looking wire frame glasses. Perhaps that was why I didn't take an instinctive step back from whatever he might be selling.

The man kept his books at bay and made small talk. He said his name was Atavi and that he'd moved here from Mexico, where the movement was strong, to Puerto Rico, where the movement hadn't been doing as well in recent years. Atavi was about ten years older than me but seemed younger when he described his own dog at the temple and hypothesized that both of our dogs would probably get along just fine. All the while, his tepid blue eyes wavered between acceptance and dismissal, as if I were close to stumbling upon a fundamental secret beyond words and beyond anyone's help to reach it but my own. When I told Atavi that I'd studied biology, he offered me the blue Life Comes from Life book.

“This book talks about science in a spiritual way,” Atavi said. I was intrigued: science offers a fascinating foundation to the wonders of the modern world and our place in it, yet the way it's represented or misrepresented, either through less than thrilling writing styles in primary publications or the inevitable sensationalism that comes upon entering the public arena, undercuts what I admire most about this very human endeavor. Guided by curiosity and calculations, scientists have ventured into the unknown, embraced the intricacies of the Universe, and often tried to make the world a better place. Still, as humans, they've ranged from being wrong to just plain boring. So, for me, a touch of spirituality or mysticism wouldn't be unwelcome. Instead, it could add another dimension, a sense of story-like continuation to their worthwhile pursuit. Fifteen dollars later, I had the Life Comes from Life book and another one that covered the basics of reincarnation in Spanish.

“Gouranga!” Atavi said as I and Crusty took our leave. He let me know that this was a traditional Hare Krishna salutation, so I said the same. I looked it up later, and gouranga basically means “be happy”.

Upon reading the first few pages, I soon realized that Life Comes from Life probably wouldn't lead me to gouranga.  His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada had a great distaste for what he understood to be mainstream science. The book, published posthumously, contained impromptu lectures that Prabhupada gave to his students during his morning walks. The founder of the Hare Krishna movement started with the premise that science's claim that life comes from chemical components had caused untold suffering. According to Prabhupada, scientists' preoccupation with a primordial soup teeming with the ingredients for life was a deceptive way to assert authority and systematically destroy faith in God.

The ideas in this book seemed so out of touch that I set it aside and thought about finding Atavi on the sidewalk to demand my money back. Still, I didn't encounter Atavi along Avenida Ponce de Leon over the next few weeks and couldn't bring myself to throw the book away, since that seemed too reminiscent of book burning for my taste. In the end, the book found me in the most private of places: the bathroom. My new apartment didn't have many books yet, and I simply like to read while I poop. Each day, while dropping the kids off at the pool, I took notes in the book's margins.

In Life Comes from Life, His Divine Grace was opposed to how science approaches the origin of life. He also appeared to think that medical and technological advancements associated with science threatened his authority. This was my best explanation for his preoccupation with airplanes. Prabhupada mentioned airplanes throughout his lectures for many different purposes, from emphasizing that material bodies are useless without their spirit souls, to decrying the limitations that science tries to pass off as advancements. Although my understanding was that this guru often relied on airplane travel to spread his messages around the world, he wasted no time in explaining that airplanes weren't really that great because yogis (who sounded like X-men from his descriptions) were immune to gravity, could travel much faster than planes, and walked across water with ease. There were other entertaining asides about President Nixon and cow dung, but I don't want to obscure Prabhupada's main points any more than he already did.

His Divine Grace's overarching goal was to discredit science by proving that all its conclusions that weren't based on assumptions that agreed with his personal world view were wrong. He attempted to do this with simple logic while posing provocative questions:

*If life arose from matter in the past, then why isn't new life spontaneously arising in the present (why is something like an ant not being generated from dirt right now)?

*If life is determined by chemical compositions, then why can't we inject the right chemicals to bring organisms, from rotted trees to cadavers, back to life?

*If life does evolve, why is nothing extinct and why do we never see a monkey giving birth to a human?

In Life Comes from Life, these questions didn't come from a place of curiosity. Prabhupada already had his own answers: life can never arise from matter, life is not determined by chemicals, and life does not evolve (at least not in the Darwinian sense). Instead, life comes from life, life is only possible because of the spirit soul, and all life can be divided into exactly 8,400,000 species that have always existed and will never change. Prabhupada's ultimate authority in these matters were his God and religious texts as interpreted by himself.

Sometimes, I found myself faced with miniature crises of faith upon my porcelain throne. To help with that, I dissected the arguments and looked for contradictions while diligently taking notes. Actually, I began to look forward to my morning dump, to penning notes that pointed out Prabhupada's logical fallacies and silly rhetoric. Sometimes, there were also funny anecdotes, like ducks following lumbering bulls all day long because they thought the bull's testicles were fish that would drop to the ground (although this was an analogy for scientists seeking knowledge). Fascinating ideas, like the inconceivable scale of multiple universes and the innumerable possibilities associated with life that share a lot of common ground with biology and physics, also found their way into Prabhupada's morning walks. Still, a misplaced hostility towards science and poor arguments often overshadowed these bright passages.

At the same time, I began to grow angry. At first, I thought it was because of Prabhupada's rhetoric. For over a hundred pages, he kept up his arguments without losing steam and without having a basic understanding of science.  Prabhupada felt no need to rely on experimental evidence or to investigate the huge and diverse field that he believed was misleading and destroying the human race. This was a valid approach because, according to his beliefs, he would always be supplied with the perfect intelligence and proper words to defeat all those who didn't think as he did. Often, the same ideas His Divine Grace applied to poorly understood or made-up claims about science undermined his own arguments instead. Prabhupada frequently punctuated his claims with the statement “this is real science.”

No, the major problem for me was how scientists were treated during these morning walks. Prabhupada would proudly present his truths while calling scientists liars, cheaters, thieves, and “less than human” to the pleasure of his followers. Beyond making passing references to Darwin, Einstein, and the occasional Nobel prize winner that they didn't like, His Divine Grace and his followers relentlessly ridiculed “the scientists” by lumping them into one category to bypass the difficulty of addressing real research done by individuals. By doing so, they were able to attribute ridiculous ideas to a faceless group and avoid specific situations that might demonstrate their limited knowledge. In other words, they were all too happy to create an imaginary punching bag while espousing a poisonous “us versus them” mentality.

Each visit to the toilet became another battle in my campaign to combat what I saw as ultimately destructive reasoning that added nothing to human knowledge. I began to see little difference between Hare Krishnas and the Bible-thumping evangelists who aren't hard to find in West Tennessee where most of my immediate family lives. Both groups were convinced that current scientific reasoning undermined faith in a higher power rather than providing another framework for contemplating something greater than ourselves. Beyond demonstrating a lack of imagination, they were using religion as a final answer to all of the world's uncertainties. Instead of posing questions and working with uncertainty to hopefully find useful explanations, they just wanted to be right.

Each page of Life Comes from Life became a frustrating form of circular reasoning, another attempt to flush mankind's capacity for exploration down the toilet. I redoubled my note-taking efforts to drown out this endless repetition of what amounted to “we are right; all evidence to the contrary is the work of rascals, so we are right; no peer review or further investigation is needed, since we are right. This is real science.”

Outside of the bathroom, I should've been focused on work, on going to the store, on doing something nice for my girlfriend, on calling my family, on taking my dog for a walk, on any number of pursuits beyond resenting that silly book, but... just the other day, His Divine Grace had said that all scientists had ultimately done was minimize the duration of human life. Not ten pages later, he claimed that the duration of life could never be changed (as part of a convoluted argument about how science's heart transplants couldn't capture the spirit soul and offered no advantages whatsoever to recipients). What sort of people would actually follow this shameless guy who pretended to be infallible?

“Ne sada ali uskoro!” (Not now but soon!) I yelled at Crusty, who had launched himself into my lap to ask for a walk. Somehow, speaking in Serbian, repeating words from a language that I never fully learned from a region that had been plagued by civil wars that I never fully understood, made me even angrier. Crusty cowered momentarily then went back to wagging his tail hopefully. I figured I owed him a walk.

Outside the Pueblo grocery store, on the sidewalk near where I'd first bought that burden of a book, I noticed Atavi with his Hare Krishna literature soliciting passerby. When Atavi looked in my direction and gave a slight wave, I pulled Crusty from his current pee calculation without giving a warning count in any language and walked in the opposite direction.

Back at home, I started taking notes in Life Comes from Life beyond the confines of the bathroom. I hadn't been sure what I was going to do with the book once I'd run out of pages to fill with notes, but I had a better idea now. His Divine Grace Prabhupada had died or gone onto the next life form back in 1977, so there was no way that I knew of for my notes to reach him. Instead, I'd finish the spiteful book as soon as possible and, armed to the teeth with logic, I'd find Atavi again, debate him, then hand him back the book filled with my notes as a reminder of his defeat. I would be right, but first, Atavi had to realize that he was wrong.

Events didn't go as planned.

I, and Crusty by default, had been avoiding Atavi's stretch of Ponce de Leon until everything was in place. Despite all my preparations on the page, I hadn't thought that Atavi could simply change places on the sidewalk. So there he was one day, outside of the Caribbean Pharmacy and not outside of the grocery store where I imagined our showdown would take place. And there I was, within talking distance but without my Life Comes from Life and still 20 pages from its end to boot.

“Gouranga! How is the Spanish going?”

“Poco a poco. Also, I read that book,” I said, nodding at a considerably less tarnished copy of Life Comes from Life at his side.

“Wow, what did you think?” Atavi seemed touched that I'd actually read the book. I had to remind myself that he wasn't just a cheerful guy making idle conversation. No, he was a member of a close-knit group bordering on a cult that would undo all of the advances made by science if it had its way.

“I don't want to disrespect your beliefs,” I found myself saying. Embarrassed by this apologetic start, I quickly backtracked. “That book is silly, short-sighted, and doesn't understand science. Instead, it's attacking something that doesn't exist, and it's not really adding anything in terms of knowledge.” I waited for Atavi to fervently defend the wisdom of His Divine Grace, but his welcoming expression didn't change.

“The ideas can seem new and strange. What about it did you find threatening?” Atavi asked. In the back of my mind, I'd imagined people gathering around to witness our sidewalk showdown, but, beyond an elderly woman who may've been waiting for someone inside the pharmacy, passerby brushed by us without a second glance.

“I didn't feel threatened by the ideas, more... very opposed to how the founder was so hostile to science and how he advanced his arguments.”

“Yes, many people get that impression, but he was just talking about mainstream science.”

“Okay, but what is mainstream science? Is it everyone who accepts the experimental evidence behind evolution, or any other idea that doesn't completely agree with his teachings?” I went on and on about how science was a diverse field without Atavi once interrupting. At a loss of where to go next, I detailed what I thought were fallacies in Prabhupada's opposition to the space program (I think he liked space shuttles even less than he did airplanes). Atavi only spoke once to ask me what GDP meant. Finally, after having talked myself into circles, I waited for his response.

“Hmmm, maybe I should have given you another book.” He opened another book to a page with an image of a man progressing through the cycle of death and rebirth. Infancy faded to adolescence to adulthood to man's second infancy, and I recognized the picture. “I don't think your book had this image, but this is about the idea of -” Atavi began.

“No, my book had that image. Can I see that copy?” I asked, reaching for his copy of Life Comes from Life. Atavi handed it over and waited without complaint while I flipped through it for several moments. “Yes, the same image just black-and-white. On page 17,” I said the page number as if it were an undeniably important figure. As I handed the book back to him, I felt rather foolish.

“Oh, you are right. Well, what I love about the idea in this image is the journey we took to become human. Think about it: you made it all the way to the human form,” Atavi said. I bit my tongue and Crusty waited patiently while Atavi talked about the wonders of reincarnation and the greater joy of breaking that cycle. From there, he talked about how consciousness influenced his decision to not eat animals while smiling at my dog.

When Atavi finished speaking for the moment, I pointed out the mathematical problems with the system of 8,400,000 species that His Divine Grace had kept mentioning. However, my heart was no longer in it. Atavi was in love with the big ideas of his faith and not really bothered by what I thought were logical and philosophical shortcomings. What seemed like an ignorant and boring reality to me offered a wealth of beauty to him.

“You know, this reminds me of debates I used to have with my father, although those were much more heated,” Atavi said near the end of the conversation. I wondered if, in addition to moving to a new country, he was also estranged from his family. His reality would not be mine and vice versa, but I could at least admire the courage it must've taken to choose his path.

In that 15 minutes of conversation, neither one of us drastically altered the other's world view. I was simply reminded that I was talking to another human being, not some faceless idea that had to be disproved to show that I was right.

Over the next few days, I finished my Life Comes from Life bathroom notes. Despite the occasional bout of indignation (but never constipation) at His Divine Grace's words, I no longer felt angry. Instead, I just felt numb once he'd completed his last morning walk lecture. Rather than write a final, scathing analysis at the end of that passage, I left a note about the dangers of being right for whomever the book found next.

“Idemo,” (let's go) I say to Crusty and bring us closer to the present. I still keep talking to him in my limited Serbian every now and then, and I think about Belgrade, Serbia as we set out on a longer-than-usual walk. The people I met over there were passionate, hospitable, and generous to a fault. In a country whose economy makes Puerto Rico's current financial crisis seem like a minor setback, I often had to sneak off to the bathroom to pay for drinks whenever I was out with friends. If you ask strangers for directions on the street, they'll usually stop whatever they're doing and perhaps enlist the aid of nearby people while arguing with them about the best route to get you wherever you need to go.

I moved from Texas to the Balkans in 2013 and spent the better part of two years out there, living in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina for several months (where I found Crusty on the street and named him after a pizza) but spending most of my time in Belgrade. In both of those cities and other places that I visited in former Yugoslavia, the vast majority of people I met were warm and friendly. That's why I found it so hard to believe that, less than 20 years earlier, these places had been at war with one another. Well over a hundred thousand people died while millions more were displaced in fighting that mostly took place among Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. Buildings and streets, especially in Bosnia, still bear the scars of artillery fire and shrapnel.

The living scars were more complex and often escaped my notice. I do remember wondering why one side of Mostar was strangely quiet when Croatia played in the World Cup while the other side had loud celebrations. A similar phenomenon happened, with the sides of the city reversed, when the Bosnian team had its chance to play. While visiting the military museum in Belgrade, I recall admiring the elaborate exhibitions but wondering why they'd completely left out the 1991-1995 conflicts. Even more confusing, many of the older generation whom I spoke with mostly had fond memories of a united Yugoslavia.

As an ignorant outsider, I sometimes asked people what had really happened. The most common answer I got was that government leaders had misled their people. Other people gave me long historical explanations that covered five centuries of occupation by the Ottoman Empire, the entrance of the Austro-Hungarian empire, atrocities committed during World War II, the death of Tito, and the fall of communism. Some answers seemed rife with conspiracy theories. Others stated that the conflict had never truly ended and was simply frozen for the moment. A casual acquaintance in Mostar gave perhaps the most eloquent answer: “No one fighting a war is without blame.”

I couldn't tell who was right. Everyone was right. No one was right. After my first year out there, I stopped asking. Now, in San Juan, Puerto Rico with Life Comes from Life tucked into my shorts' pocket, I realize that's the paradoxical answer for me when it comes to truly being right about any complex issue. Everyone is right because no one is right. The one truth is that there is no one truth.

Crusty and I stop in front of a streetside lending library under the awning of a vacant business building. After some thought, I decide to put the annotated Life Comes from Life next to a thick black book called Science & the Future 1999. While looking for another bathroom read, I have to fight the urge to look once more and make sure that my notes are still there for posterity's sake. I must remember that at some point in my bathroom quest to combat ignorance, I'd done the same with His Divine Grace's followers as what I'd accused him of doing with scientists. To know with certainty that I was right, to feel special about finding a final answer, I'd been willing to treat an entire group of people as thoughtless fanatics, stooges, and hypocrites. I probably still would be if it hadn't been for that sidewalk conversation with Atavi.

So, I'd rather embrace uncertainty and avoid final answers to anything. Final answers come from everywhere, always ready to create false divisions to invent right and wrong groups, from religion versus science to eating bread butter-side up versus eating bread butter-side down. Take this too far, and people see themselves as beacons of light in a world of darkness; they start to believe that most of the good in the world is somehow concentrated in like-minded individuals and that most of the world's evil has somehow infected those who don't share their views. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for the good to be right. This has happened, is happening, and will happen again. If I could just find the right way to not be right, that would be real science.

Robert Egan began as a fortuitous encounter between an egg and sperm, studied mathematical biology and creative writing, then developed into a series of good and bad decisions that revolved around traveling to find love and adventure. Even though he thinks of himself as a fiction writer, he's working on a non-fiction book about unexpectedly losing a testicle then journeying across the United States to find answers--it will probably be called SuperBall