THE PROBLEM OF PRIOR KNOWLEDGE
—And today we are pleased to welcome the notorious “atheist creationist.” Thank you for joining us, Dr. Kranish.
—Your sobriquet is only half right, but I accept it. It got me on your show. I’m making a fortune.
—Why, Dr. Kranish, you sound positively cynical.
“When you’re dead, you’re dead,” declares Stanley Kranish, disgraced engineering professor and charcoal chef extraordinaire. His son David watches dutifully. Wielding his long spatula like a baton, Kranish slices through the heat ripples over two hissing steaks and one mute veggie burger, and prepares to utter his key insight.
“Like a rock,” he and David say in unison. Kranish flushes. Repeating himself again. How he hates that. A slight tremor discomfits his left knee and he shifts his weight. Heart attacks are funny things, their aftermath unpredictable. A downward glance sends lightning through his chest where they pounded his heartbeat back to life. Fatigue always threatening. A gimpy knee. Judy with that look of spousal admonition.
After a decent interval, David senses his release and flees. Kranish flips a steak. Poor dead beast. At least all of the Kranish meat is still in the package, throbbing and functional.
It’s his own fault, of course, the fall from academic grace and even the heart attack. But it was such an innocuous paper. It wasn’t as if he wrote it. Sure, Stanley Kranish had indeed begun to nurse certain secret, politically suspect doubts, and that stupid essay just happened to arrive at the right moment. But the decision to risk exposure was his alone.
Worse still is the self-doubt that complicates the doubts. Judy teaches neurophysiology at Harvard Med and her research awards, were she inclined to display them, would fill a small wall. Her work on the fractal organization of brain cells – how patterns crocheted inside copies of themselves can explain persistent memory – dazzles everyone but Judy, to whom it’s no more complex than nesting matrioschka dolls: a thought’s avatar persists even if some of the replicas are lost.
Stanley Kranish likes to tell people he teaches engineering but really he’s a particle guy: milling sugar and copier toners to see how fine is fine enough, poring over the behavior of laundry detergent and cement. If you want to explore how memories engrave themselves indelibly and probe the enigmas of consciousness itself, try Judy. To learn how your heap of rocks will settle after you dump them in your quarry, call Stanley Kranish. Few do, and as a result, the Kranish mind is left with a bit too much time to take flight, lately entering his wife’s airspace. He has decided that he comprehends math in a way the evolutionary biologists don’t, that the whole evolution business lacks an engineer’s rigor. He has had insights – elegant insights of which Judy would certainly have approved, at least before the trouble began. Forceful insights that would deal lethal blows in any fair intellectual contest. Insights worthy of, perhaps even inspired by, the economy and strength of her science.
This on the good days. Other days, when the soaring Kranish mind loses altitude, the landing is far from soft, and that booming empyrean skepticism fades to the whine of an attention-starved child. Why, with all the foolishness in the world, can he spare wisdom only for wayward biologists?
—I am not a denier of Darwin. His theory is irrefutable. But also incomplete.
—How so, Dr. Kranish?
—The deeper you dig, the farther away the central truth recedes. Grab at the nugget and it slips through your fingers.
—Care to bring that down to earth for us?
—Too many possibilities, too large a space to explore, that ham-handed mechanism of selection ⎯ mutate a bit, survive, reproduce. Repeat for a hundred thousand years. No nuance where the natural world overflows with it. Like trying to carve a diamond with a cleaver, while blindfolded.
Or two beautiful steaks with an admonitory wife and an overweight, dour teenage son he now embarrasses, watching again.
Stanley Kranish has never thumped a bible or cast eyes heavenward. He is innocent! The paper merely raised questions to stimulate the curious and unthreatened, and just possibly boost readership of the pretentious alumni magazine he served as faculty liaison. A career in jeopardy for the essay they buried all the way on the last interior page of a magazine for alumni of Chestnut Hill College which doesn’t even offer a graduate biology program.
—You have lovely ears. So does a cat. Why aren’t yours pointed and furry? You’d hear better and wouldn’t need ear muffs in the winter. Evolution has failed you. You have orgasms, I dare to hope, yet as far as evolution is concerned ⎯
—If we could – I mean, enough about me …
—Don’t you see? The Darwinian dogma explains too much and too little. Why natural selection makes us look like this or do that, these post hoc narratives are so just so. Not necessarily wrong, mind you, but for every evolutionary explanation why your ears are lovely rather than pointy, I can counter with an equally compelling one why pointy would be better, or why huge and floppy is best of all.
—Which brings us to that article …
—Yes, that career-destroying, wealth-inducing article. He was merely playing the numbers game. So many possible mutations, a vast junkyard of genetic errors lethal or at least harmful, and yet somehow evolution threads its way through all the dross, finding and combining the useful parts, advancing life. The problem is time. Undirected, a romp through the junk would take longer than the age of the universe. So what guides the search? The author didn’t ask or offer explanations theistic or otherwise. Just presented the odds, noted that evolutionary theory doesn’t allow for prior knowledge, and left it at that.
—I have to note for our listeners that we requested a debate format with one of your many critics, but you declined, citing implacable hostility.
Retaliation was instantaneous, fierce, and invisible. All over campus the very air around him shimmered with rage. How was Kranish to know his imprimatur rather than the article itself ⎯ innocuously titled “Programmed Evolution” (deference to Darwin!), its author attached, at the time, to a respectable think tank – would become the story? It wasn’t that no one spoke to him, it was more like they didn’t not speak to him, and he felt the acid stares following everywhere. Anonymous postings on respectable Web sites questioned his credentials and “outed” him as a member of creationist societies he’d never heard of.
—But Dr. Kranish, let me pretend I’m a critic. Evolution doesn’t really work that way, does it? It isn’t as if all possibilities are equally probable, so not all have to be tried.
—Yes, precisely! There is a direction. But what’s the compass? What’s pointing the way?
—A creationist would say God. A biologist would say evolution itself.
—I’ll leave God to the theologians –
—And your critics will accuse you of tossing a grenade into the room and backing coyly away …
—It’s a problem of prior knowledge. Evolution can’t think ahead; it just responds to stresses in the present. If it works like a track, preventing too much straying and unproductive digressions, then what set the gauge? There must be some final, elusive source –
—And at that point the atheist creationist throws up his hands and says, “I don’t know what that could be.”
—All the way to the bank.
The response erupted so quickly and spread so efficiently it seemed planned in advance, like a political campaign. His heart attack followed a tense exchange with the dean of arts and sciences, over lunch at the faculty club where outbursts were unthinkable and Kranish could safely be told of the myriad ways even a tenured professor could be eased out. Nothing in the university rules prevents us from, say, doubling your teaching load or opposing your grant applications, Dean Weidemier told him, saffron cream sauce dripping from a speared mussel. Please don’t make us show you how miserable it can become.
Cardiac arrest probably saved his job, at least temporarily, and as they taped the oxygen mask to his face and slammed the ambulance door closed he imagined a chorus of retaliators accusing him of contriving his own counter-retaliation – such a convenient trauma! – or using his wife’s neuroscience training to fake it all brilliantly. Then he was out, and when he awoke his arms were cold from the steel bedrails and a fellow with a deep jovial voice, sweat dripping through his hairnet onto his mask, told him he had been dead for several minutes. “Don’t worry. We brought you back. Your chest will hurt for a while, but not as much as my hand,” he said, opening and closing a fist.
Kranish had never thought much about what it might be like to be dead. He had no recollection of the experience but was quite sure it involved no crepuscular glow or celestial music. “Like a rock,” he told Judy and then anyone else who would listen. If he had been agnostic, he was no longer.
So here is Stanley Kranish, the atheist doubter of Darwin. Not only a pointless mutation himself, like some zoological fraud with flippers and wings, but utterly unfashionable. Academic freedom is for ranting revolutionaries, not anti-evolutionaries.
The steaks are gone and so is David, but Judy stares meaningfully at the blood on her plate. Kranish’s veggie burger went down like balsa wood and he could eat only half of it, and on top of cooking, the effort has tired him out. It’s almost seven o’clock but his dewy bald spot stings under the Sox cap that shades it.
“Remember last year?” Judy asks finally. “The barbecue at the Beckers. One and a half light seconds.”
“You mean before my ostracism and general physical collapse. Hal hasn’t been civil in months.”
“‘How many light years is it to the moon, Mister Kranish?’” Judy’s voice falls an octave. ‘About one and a half light seconds, Lester.’” She laughs. “You can be so serious, Stan. The kid’s five years old. He doesn’t know light seconds from heavy cream.”
Kranish stares at the remnants of his veggie puck. He hasn’t tasted heavy cream or anything even remotely indulgent since the heart attack. They propped an artery open with a tiny mesh stent and said it should fix the problem. Sometimes he’s sure he can hear blood whistling past the latticework like wind through a fence.
“Did you know Becker once showed up to class so plastered he couldn’t finish a sentence, and when they threatened him with suspension, said it would violate the disability laws?”
“He’s always liked you,” Judy says. “He still likes you.”
“How do you know that?”
She pokes her finger into the bottom of Kranish’s beard, far more salt than pepper, and rubs under his chin. A few sawdust crumbs fall onto his shirt. “Because you’re a likable – hey, you’re really overheated. Let’s go inside.”
“I’m okay,” he says, but she’s right, and he drags his patio chair out of the sun and against the rear wall of the house. Tipping his head back against the shingles, Kranish listens for the metallic breathing of the stent deep inside him.
“You get fixated on things,” Judy says, kneeling next to his chair. She has soft brown hair cropped short, not a hint of gray, and small eyes that penetrate even when she doesn’t intend it. “All this ‘like a rock’ stuff. You’re alive and sweating magnificently. Why not focus on that?”
He’s about to credit his privileged glimpse, having been there, but hesitates at the logical conundrum: when you’re dead there’s no you to be anywhere and no there either. It doesn’t matter. It would be like trying to explain color (or, better, its absence) to the blind.
Then Judy says, “Especially around David.”
Kranish’s eyes suddenly widen and fix Judy’s. “What about David?”
“Come on, Stan. He’s always had a melancholy streak. The last thing he needs ⎯”
“What makes you so sure you know what he needs?”
Anger flashes between them, a mutual accusation of violating a longstanding truce, but it quickly fades. The violator is no more apparent than the violation.
“We both know what he needs,” Judy says, holding his wrist, renewing the détente. “We both want what’s best.”
Years ago, the truce had ended their most wounding fights. I was taping up soccer injuries when you gave that keynote address in Edinburgh. And exactly what professional opportunity did being with your son keep you from? While you slaughtered lab kittens I was picking him up from school. Do you have to add your revulsion to my own? Are you that threatened by what I’ve been fortunate enough to accomplish?
Eventually they recognized how they had made their son a fulcrum on which to lever their own resentments (in his case) and parental guilt (in hers), and with regret and the wordlessly understood truce, they moved beyond it. But whenever the subject of David arises, the radars light up, probing for incursions.
“Like college. We have to be realistic,” Judy says quietly, after a discreet glance confirms the doors and windows are closed. “My research will never earn a return. Maybe someday I’ll write a book no one will buy.”
“He hasn’t even taken the SATs yet.”
“Time marches ahead, Stan. Our situation won’t be any different then.”
It marches ahead and then … like a rock. He’s so weary of the thought, the way it creeps up unbidden and makes his skin prickle. His defenses have been battered by experience. People die every day and if you lack prior knowledge, if you haven’t had a foretaste, the sheer mundanity of death all around distracts you – protects you ⎯ from the vertiginous, annihilating prospect of your own. Kranish pushes the thought aside. “The one thing I thought I’d never have to worry about as an academic is tuition.”
“If he could get into Harvard, we wouldn’t have to worry. But we both know that’s unrealistic.”
“Well, Chestnut Hill is a good -” Kranish stops, suddenly realizing where all this is going.
“Yes, honey” Judy says meaningfully. “It’s great. A very solid school.”
“Assuming someone, say, me for example, has a job there. And is eligible for tuition remission.” Judy smiles and nods once, her message received. “Maybe I’ll write a book,” Kranish muses. “One that people will buy.”
“Maybe it will teach children how to compute distances in light seconds.” They both chortle politely and Kranish is about to lift himself with both hands from the patio chair. But Judy still has a slippery grip on his sweaty wrist.
“Hal called me today. He has an idea.”
“Hal called you? Today?”
“Yes, me today, and with an idea. He thinks -”
“What he thinks is, he can make a move on you. He assumes my boudoir performance metrics have crashed.”
“He thinks – well, actually, he seems to know – that they’re going to cancel your courses next semester and force you to retire. Probably just after reunions.”
“At fifty-three? I’m only fifty-three and I’ve got tenure. I think it’s time we consulted our lawyer.”
“Apparently they’ve already spoken to theirs.”
As Kranish sinks back into the chair to find his angle of repose, the rest profile assumed by a heap of powder when it’s dumped, the vinyl slats pinch the backs of his moist thighs and shoulders painfully. “You know,” he says, “if it weren’t for David, I really wouldn’t give a damn.”
—Earlier you referred to that fateful article you greenlighted as playing a numbers game. You’re asking a bigger question in your forthcoming book, aren’t you?
—You might say I’m hunting bigger game.
—My question is why evolution doesn’t evolve out of existence.
—Why should it?
—Our cells work overtime proofreading genes every time they divide and kill themselves if the proofreading fails. But not all the time, because if the machinery worked perfectly, there would be no cancer but no evolution, either. We have this balance. Why?
—I guess I’d ask, why not? If a gene couldn’t mutate, it wouldn’t do well in an evolutionary sense, so Darwin would kill it off, no?
—Only if Darwin could direct our genes and tell them how to behave. But there’s that problem of prior knowledge again. The great meat cleaver of natural selection isn’t that smart. It can’t think ahead. All it can do is lower the population of life’s losers. So how can it know that the spell-check must be damn good but not perfect? For you or for me, a perfect spell-check would be fabulous. So where’s the mechanism that kills us off because it knows, in advance, that what’s good for us is a disaster for the human race?
—You mean that evolution can act only at an individual level ⎯
—And there’s an unbridgeable remove between what’s good for the individual and what’s essential for adaptation – for evolution – of a species.
—Are you proposing a hidden hand?
—I’m proposing a gap in knowledge. I’m proposing no more than a new avenue for inquiry. And that you and your intellectually curious listeners buy my book. Now in paperback, by the way.
Days later, riding tall in the front seat of Hal Becker’s dark blue Chevy Tahoe, Kranish is being lectured on what’s at stake here. The SUV smells new except for a faint odor of J&B and breathmints and Becker pilots the huge machine as if it’s a roadster, lunging from lane to lane and braking only at the last second. Trees sag over the undivided roadway in south Brookline, and the fine mist hides them until they pounce massively around every curve.
This is no reunion of friends. Kranish’s only greeting came from the doorlocks, which thumped open as he entered the mighty vehicle, whereupon Becker immediately launched into his oration. Kranish’s treatment was only to be expected, Becker said, as the natural response of those who treasure the very science and truth that he, Kranish, has built his career around, whether he knew it or not, and which, moreover, was now more than ever under withering assault from well-financed fundamentalist zealots on a mission.
Kranish has heard all this before, many times, but Becker delivers the speech as if at a fundraiser. He has a pale, featureless face, oddly red lips and a trim haircut – vote Becker, bureaucrat you can trust. At least his aversion to meeting Kranish’s gaze keeps his eyes on the road he’s trampling.
Becker is a chemist and, peccadiloes notwithstanding, a rising star. He and Kranish both joined the faculty from industry jobs nearly two decades ago, when the school decided its biotech program could not compete with those of Harvard and MIT, and resolved instead to build a niche reputation in industrial science. Though hardly a source of cash and glory, the department has succeeded modestly over the years, and now one of Becker’s adhesives is slated to ride with the next space shuttle and will glue back those troublesome heat-shielding tiles should they come loose.
Becker barges into a traffic rotary without looking left and Kranish imagines his brave little stent fighting against the blood surge he feels, tiny zigzag arms locked together like mountaineers scaling a precipice: if one goes, we all go.
Kranish is defeated. Becker is silent. Finally he says, “You have to apologize. Meet with Dean Weidemier and explain yourself.”
“Why do you care, Hal?” Kranish says with his eyes closed. “You’ve avoided me all this time and now you’re pushing penance.”
“Look. I’m sorry. There is a herd mentality and, well, it’s you against the herd. But we want you back.”
“Now,” Becker says, ignoring the question, “if he doesn’t accept your sincerest self-reproach and promise to sin no more, there’s another way.” Becker’s arms straighten to the wheel. “You’re a victim,” he says with satisfaction. A victim of these crazies. Every scientist in this country labors under the funding whims of an administration that is spending the country into penury, advocates intelligent design, and ruthlessly tortures its enemies. Without funding the scientific enterprise withers and dies. So does higher education – the dean understands this. And without work, and this is the key, a man is nothing. You broke under pressure. A vain attempt to maintain your lifeline to a government estranged from science. Your grants are more than fifty percent federally supported. “I checked,” says Becker, grinning. “Mine are nearly all corporate.”
“You’re mad,” Kranish says. “Judy told me you smoothed things over with the administration and we were just going to -”
“Let me finish,” Becker insists. “It’s not that simple.” Excusing aberrant behavior is not enough, he explains, with the authority of a card shark who has played this hand before. The administration must itself feel threatened even if you aren’t threatening them, which of course would be a mistake. Now, they know that if they retaliate against aberrant but excusable behavior in an injurious manner, say, by inducing a DSM-recognized psychological condition – do you know what that is? the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, it’s the list of all officially accepted nutcase conditions – then you have a case under the Americans with Disabilities Act. You could sue them. That’s the only way they won’t fire you, if they know you can sue them back.
“Hal, do you have any idea why I endorsed that article in the first place?”
“Privately? I have no idea. Officially, I assume you have PTSD.”
“I have what?”
“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” Becker says, “like the combat soldiers. In fact, and I checked this, not long ago the DSM added a new category called Acute Stress Disorder for nutcase types who experience a brief episode of PTSD-like symptoms following exposure to an extreme stressor. Even better for you. Easier to prove which means tougher for them to deny. And here’s the kicker. A classic symptom of ASD is the breakdown of normal defenses such as, are you ready for this, denial in coping with anxiety related to one’s own mortality. All that death talk. You’ve cheered up half the department with your ‘like a rock’ routine. I pointed that out to Dean Wiedemier when I spoke to him. It’s well documented in the hundreds of e-mails your colleagues have exchanged about you.”
Since he’s beyond embarrassment, Kranish can only marvel at the volume of bullshit filling the trap Becker has dug.
Dean Wiedemier’s office is bright and modern with blond, blocky furniture and the obligatory wall of books. Behind the glass-topped desk is a credenza cluttered with computer equipment, most of the power cords still twist-tied, and to the right of the credenza a closed door to the dean’s private conference room. Becker drops into one of the black captain’s chairs with the school’s logo on the clavicle. He folds his hands over his belly and stares out the window, away from Kranish. There is obvious murmuring from behind the closed door.
“The advertising revenue doubled,” Kranish says.
“What?” asks Becker, still gazing at the tops of the freshly leafed trees outside.
“For the alumni magazine. Since the article published.”
“Sure. Most people have doubts about evolution. There’s a big market for reassurance. The problem, of course, is credibility.”
Intrigued, Becker rotates toward Kranish. “And that’s why you published it?”
“I didn’t say that.”
The conference-room door opens by itself and from somewhere inside the dean’s voice summons them. Becker has the look of a card shark who has reached up into an empty sleeve. Kranish goes in first.
—Doesn’t the logic of your argument help the creationists, even if you aren’t one of them? If the theory of evolution is fatally incomplete, dependent on some unknown extra mechanism, why not teach intelligent design?
—That’s an effective way to stop the scientific progress you claim to be defending. Discredit your critics as heretics, that way you can ignore their challenges. The Inquisition burnished that technique bright as an auto da fé.
“Uh oh,” says Becker when he sees the half-dozen male faces arrayed around the conference table – the dean, the chairman of their department, two unfamiliar but older faces that wreak of trusteeship and another whose yellow pad and BlackBerry poised for business are a giveaway. In the far corner a white-coated paramedic sits next to a large black case. Behind him a video camera rests on a tall tripod, its little red light aglow.
Dean Weidemier has a craggy face and a full head of white hair that spills over his forehead. He looks past Kranish. “Surprised?” he asks Becker, who clearly is. “I have witnesses this time.”
They stare at each other and then the dean says, “Sit down, Stan.” A seat at the empty head of the table, in everyone’s line of sight, awaits him. It’s the only empty chair.
“Thought you were pretty clever, eh, Becker?” says the dean. “But I have witnesses. Even a defibrillator in case Stan’s heart goes wormy. We’re going to resolve this once and for all. With proper regard for your health, Stan, and also the requirements of the law, of course.”
Kranish sits. Becker, taking his cue from the dearth of free chairs, leaves. Dean Weidemier leans toward Kranish but then turns toward the department chairman and smiles. “Think our friend Becker was angling for your job, Anish? Get Stan back on the reservation, by hook or by legal crook, and he’ll be elected chairman by acclamation, right?” The dean turns back to Kranish. “So let’s not waste time going over old ground, Stan. Just tell us all why you believe you should continue to teach here.”
—Belief, Dr. Kranish. Our final topic. Tell us, what does the atheist creationist believe?
—I’m not sure …
—Don’t you ever ponder the big questions, wonder what it all means?
—I find it helps not to.
—Of course, that sort of thing is what all the coy creationists say, right? They’re neutral, even agnostic, as to the question of origin. They merely expose chinks in the great Darwinian edifice. But catch them in an unguarded moment or in front of their evangelical friends and they tell a different story.
—I’m too boring to tell stories.
Stanley Kranish sits in his star chamber, alone but for his tormenters, pulse racing, stent straining, he’s slightly confused as he tries to remember the details of Becker’s exquisite trap and whether it might still be sprung. The video recording makes it impossible, he realizes. He has no idea how to fake PTSD and the paramedic would find him out anyway. Then the recording of his masquerade would find its way to the Web as worldwide entertainment. He imagines Judy, desperate with disappointment, and his sullen son slinging veggie burgers without a college degree.
“We want to hear your side of this, Stan,” says the dean.
Fifty-three years old. Humiliated. Effectively banished from teaching. Failing his family. What will he do at home all day besides maybe write?
—I know the psychologists say it’s just a primal need we have, this bent toward faith and belief. Maybe a product of evolution. But in your own unguarded moments, don’t you feel any of that?
—You mean, in my heart of hearts, do I believe in something?
—Because we’re assembled to believe, is that it? We can’t help it.
—Then, sure. I do indeed. Passionately.
Each face is its own mask with two eyes fixed on Kranish, all hovering at about the same height, he can read them around the table like the notes of a musical score – detachment, boredom, bemusement, a roundelay of airs and put-ons, vain and empty, all gathered for the sole purpose of sanctifying the end of Kranish. What is the reason? There is no reason. His transgression is the cause but not the reason. Snowflakes have a cause but no reason you can discern.
Pinned to his chair by the press of all the floating eyes, his skin prickles in that unwelcome way, the reality of no escape is like the certainty of … utter pointlessness. But Kranish is smiling. Foreheads furrow around the table. If there is no reason, no purpose, then what is the point of struggling? Yield to the pointlessness, to the absurdity. Simply be. Sartre was right. Life is de trop. Judy will get over her disappointment and David can take out a student loan. The time for self-pity is over.
—I believe in having a good time, all the time.
“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” says Kranish, his throat so dry his voice is a whisper and the eyes around him draw closer. I have never once taught a class in an altered state. Never once accepted free goodies from corporate sponsors, he says to the dean. Or fudged experimental results, he proclaims to the department chairman. The stares turn menacing but some betray fear. The red light on the video camera is a reassuring beacon. I never changed a grade for a sexual favor, Kranish says. Never had a complaint filed against me for plagiarism.
I am a teacher. I can always teach. I don’t need a classroom. Tell me why you have brought me here.
—You know why?
He can hear his stent singing as the blood rushes through him. Kranish the prophet is uttering doom. “Gentlemen, I appreciate your convening this meeting for my benefit,” he says. “And I accept your apology.”
—Because when you’re dead, you’re dead.