Don't Mess with Mother Nature: On Marriage and Driving Licenses.

Many of us in the West tend to feel some smug superiority when we witness the medieval debate in Saudi Arabia over the right of women to drive. It is hard to imagine in the 21st century that any technologically modern society can be so backward.

At the same time we have recently witnessed a great debate in the New York Legislature over the right of same sex couples to marry. Much hand wringing, and recourse to moral, religious, or legal considerations was devoted to the lengthy debate that ended up in a last minute very close vote on this historic issue.

There remains an intimate connection between these two events, and 100 years from now I expect that both will be looked upon with the same kind of wry disdain, as our descendants once again wonder how their
ancestors could have been so out of touch with reality.

Ultimately, reality trumps ideology. It takes time—in some cases clearly thousands of years—but when human civilizations creates laws, often based on outmoded religious thinking, that violate the fundamental laws of nature as revealed by our emerging scientific knowledge, these human laws inevitably can’t compete.

Slavery is a good example. Why we may bemoan the current sorry state of the world, with terrorism, religious rivalry, sexual trafficking and the like still rampant, we have to realize, as my friend Steven Pinker has argued in a massive treatise soon to be released, that progress toward a more rational world is actually occurring at some basic level. In most of the civilized world it is recognized that the outmoded view that some races are biologically inferior and therefore not subject to the same human rights—one of the claimed justifications for organized slavery—is simply nonsense.

So too, the subjugation of women on religious grounds will inevitably fall. It is often shocking to remember that as late as the 1960’s women were not admitted into many Ivy League universities in this country. The recognition that in spite of biological differences, womens’ intellectual potential and biological drives, capability of work and leadership, are not quantitatively distinct from men is now generally recognized as biological reality, even at Harvard University. As a result, these justifications for suppressing their rights are disappearing (if not yet disappeared) in the west. It is simply a matter of time before Saudi Arabia is dragged, kicking and screaming perhaps, into the modern world.

And no matter what religious fundamentalists may feel about scriptural dogma condemning homosexuality, the biological fact is that homosexuality is completely natural in many species, occurring with frequencies that are largely biologically and culturally independent. It is no more a choice than is poverty or prosperity. It is essentially an accident of birth. Legislation creating artificial biological discriminants, where none actually exist in nature, cannot survive the march of time, or the continued onslaught of reality.

Religion is a powerful force, and it has held sway against nature in many cases for millennia. But whenever religious dogma tries to overcome the facts of nature, be it the age of the universe, the existence of a big bang, evolution as the source of biological diversity, or the inner workings of human biology, knowledge and reason will slowly whittle down resistance, and reason will win out. Religious fundamentalism, as powerful a force as it often appears, is unsustainable in a world driven by science and technology.

Ultimately, the fundamental lesson of science is quite simple: the universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not. Our job as humans is to figure out how it works so that we can tailor our philosophy and our actions as biological entities sharing a planet with the rest of nature, to maximally benefit from our knowledge.

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