“We human beings are ultimately no more, no less, than the insects.” The year 2020 offered a television show and a book with two different perspectives on this idea and on how science informs it. The television show portrayed this revelation as informing us of our connections to all other things in the universe and leading us to an objectively better world. The book, by contrast, portrayed this revelation as informing us that a better world is a nonsense idea, and that the world that exists is heavily influenced by those who, though they be but insects, are effective at bending their part of the world to their wills, irrespective of all other things. The television show had little interest in things like faith and the inherent value of human beings; the book, by contrast, cried out for them.
The show is Cosmos: Possible Worlds, of course. I have discussed the show in previous posts (CLICK HERE for those; there is some overlap between them and this post). It was broadcast on FOX’s network this past fall, and made available on-line through FOX and National Geographic. It was hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, and followed up on Tyson’s 2014 remake of Carl Sagan’s original 1980 Cosmos series.
Whoever watched Cosmos learned something about science and about the people who do science. The episode about Marie and Pierre Curie, for example, was remarkable. Cosmos portrays them reveling in working and discovering new things together. They are blissfully unaware of the danger present in the glowing material that they discover and refine and identify as a powerful new energy source: radium. They sit together at night and gaze at their shining bits of radium as though they were gazing at stars in the sky. The episode was almost heartbreaking. Tyson simply mentions that Marie Curie’s cookbook is radioactive. He says nothing more. Nothing more needs to be said.
Even a person with limited resources could summon an educator like Tyson in from the airwaves this fall, without cost, using nothing more than the cheapest TV with a set of “rabbit ears” (they still exist and some still use them), or the cheapest phone and public Wi-Fi. That is worthy of celebration. Tyson obviously loves science, loves its history, and loves telling people about these things. He has a talent for doing so, and a budget such that he never has to cut a corner. He goes all the way to China to film a big radio telescope surrounded by forest; he could have done that in West Virginia.
But Cosmos suffers from a fixation on two unfortunate points. One is a reverence for science that crosses into the spiritual or religious realm. The other is a non-reverence for human beings—specifically, the show is fixated on the idea that we human beings do not truly differ from other life forms, and can claim no superiority over them.
We learn in Cosmos that we are not made of superior stuff; theories of star formation and death tell us that the Earth and everything on it are all made of “star stuff.” Nor are we of uniformly superior ability; plenty of living things can surpass us in various measurable ways. Nor can we can claim superior origin; the theory of evolution tells us that we share a common ancestor (Saccorhytus Coronarius, Tyson tell us) with every living thing on Earth. And Cosmos very much emphasizes that we are not truly different from insects, even if the subject is souls, mathematics, or simply good government.
Consider the second half of the show’s double-header broadcast premier. Here Tyson asks,
We might be willing to grant the proposition that insects or even geese are mindless machines, but what about us? What, if anything, do the other animals think? What might they have to say to us if we could only communicate? When we observe them carefully, don’t we find evidence of spontaneous decision-making? When we consider the genetic kinship of all life on Earth, is it plausible that humans have immortal souls and all other animals do not?…
[A beetle] can see, walk, run, smell, taste, fly, mate, eat, excrete, and lay eggs. It has internal programs for accomplishing these functions—contained in a brain with a mass of only a milligram—and specialized, dedicated organs for carrying the programs out. But is that all? Is there anyone in charge, anyone inside, anyone controlling all these functions? What do we mean by “anyone”? Or is the beetle just the sum of its functions, and nothing else, with no executive authority, no insect soul?…
Some scientists get nervous if you ask about the consciousness of a housefly. On the inside, within its tiny brain, does it have no perception of making choices, no awareness of its own existence? Not a milligram’s worth of self-consciousness? Not a hint of a hope for the future? Not even a little satisfaction at a day’s work well done? If its brain is one millionth the mass of ours, shall we deny it one millionth of our feelings and our thoughts? And if, after carefully weighing such matters, we insist it is still “only” a robot, how sure are we that this judgment does not apply as well to us?
Then there is the episode entitled “The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth”. Here Tyson speaks even of trees and forests in terms straight out of a Tolkien book. The forest is “abuzz with conversation” in “an electrochemical language” of a sort “creatures like us” do not notice. Through “an ancient, subterranean worldwide web,” known as the mycelium, creatures of the forest exchange, among other things “messages and empathy with one another, across species, and even across the kingdoms of life.” Tyson suggests that trees can “know” things and “want” things and can “think” things. They have “excellent parenting skills” and even a consciousness. Who are we to search for intelligent life beyond Earth, he asks, “when we can’t even recognize, or respect, the consciousness all around us, and even beneath our feet?” Thoughts of the trees of Fangorn, and of Huorns on the move, surely came to the minds of more than a few Cosmos viewers familiar with The Lord of the Rings.
But the trees are not the only consciousness in this episode of Cosmos. Much of the episode is devoted to bees and how they apparently communicate through a “waggle dance.” Tyson describes a swarm of bees as being “a kind of mind, a collective consciousness to which every individual bee makes a contribution.” Bees, in Tyson’s view, have “a knowledge of astronomy and mathematics [that] would astonish most of us.” They also have “a commitment to resolving their differences democratically, and reaching the broadest possible consensus through debate” that Tyson says is unparalleled in any human society. In a bee swarm, he says, “every individual has a voice…. corruption is unknown…. [and] the community acts only when it has arrived at consensus through reason and debate.”
What allowed us to finally recognize in bees “another intelligence that had always been there?” Science, in the form of the ideas of Charles Darwin. “Darwin worshipped nature,” Tyson says, and he calls Darwin “the greatest spiritual teacher of the last thousand years.” In Cosmos, the idea that “a tiny, one-celled organism evolves into you and everything else that is Earthlife” is the basis for a rosy understanding of the world. Here science, seen as “an emergent property of life, a way that life has found to begin to know itself,” takes the place of traditional spirituality, and tells us what we are:
[Darwin] debunked the story of Adam and Eve. Humans are not the kings of life, created separately, and charged with its management but instead, an upstart offspring of its stately, ancient family…. [Darwin] was also one of the first to recognize that if all life is related, there were certain philosophical implications. If we were not created separately from the other animals, must we not share more of who we are with them? Our awareness, our relationships with others, even our feelings? Instead of a single island of human perception in the universe, Darwin realized that we are surrounded by other ways of being alive and conscious. For Darwin, science was a pathway to a deeper level of empathy and humility. When word reached him that a local farmer was mistreating his sheep, Darwin dropped his research to make an arrest of the man…. And this compassion extended even to our own species. He recognized the blindness of his nineteenth century contemporaries. In his autobiography, he recounted the story of an African woman who jumped off a cliff to her certain death, rather than submit to being enslaved by the Portuguese. Darwin observed that if she had been a Roman matron from classical antiquity…. we would be naming our daughters after her.
Tyson sees a fine world for us, if we just recognize our place in it through science, and reason with the bees and empathize with the trees and have compassion for the sheep, like the spiritual teacher and nature-worshipper Darwin. In Tyson’s view, it is good to be no more than the insects.
But Lulu Miller suggests that maybe it is not. Her 2020 book, Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life, provides a different, far darker perspective on the consequence of being no more than insects.
Early in the book Miller relays the story of how, when she was seven, she happened to ask her father, a biochemist, what was the meaning of life. His answer? “Nothing!” No meaning, no point, no God, no afterlife, no destiny, no plan. Nothing matters and neither did she, he told her: “As special as you might feel, you are no different than an ant… no more significant…” and since she did not aerate the soil or accelerate decomposition, he went on, “you are arguably less significant to the planet than an ant.” 
Miller then describes how her father extended his arms wide. Her seven-year-old self thought he was going to give her a hug and tell her that this was a joke and that she did matter. But no, he was trying to demonstrate the insignificance of people, with his extended hands representing the age of the universe, a point of contrast to when he pinched his fingers together to show how long human beings have been around.
Miller’s father was making a classic Cosmos point, a classic Sagan point—the Earth as the pale blue dot and so forth. Tyson has re-emphasized this point in his versions of Cosmos. Miller writes about later hearing Tyson say, “we are a speck on a speck on a speck.”
Miller’s reaction to her father’s Cosmos-esque philosophy was not good:
I don’t think I had the language as a seven-year-old to put into words the cold feeling that was starting to swirl up my lungs. ‘What’s the point of any of this? Why go to school? Why glue macaroni to paper?’ 
The question eventually became, “why live?” She attempted suicide at sixteen. When pills failed, she began to think about acquiring a more effective tool—a gun. That gun is a dark recurring image in the book. Miller eventually decides that the answer to “why live?” is that, while she might not really matter, she could matter to someone. But that of course is simply mattering to something that does not matter. So the gun remains, six pages from the end of the book.
That gun is hardly the darkest thing in Why Fish Don’t Exist. Miller writes of Copernicus, giving up the idea that the stars were a ceiling that rotates over our heads in the night. Her point is that in giving up the idea that the stars surround us, Copernicus gained a universe . Miller herself did not gain so much:
When I gave up the stars, as a child on the deck that morning with my dad, I got a breeze—a sense of spinning through the cosmos pointlessly, which on bad days could leave me with a near-fatal chill.
When my father gave up the stars, he got the freedom to invent his own morality, to flout any rules he deemed pointless….
And here is what is darker than the gun. Not in her father’s hands, actually—the morality he invented and the rules he chose to give up were comparatively innocuous, and even laughable. He chose, for example, to view expired lab animals as a handy protein source, and took to eating them.
But the freedom to invent one’s own morality and flout any rules can lead to other choices. Why Fish Don’t Exist is not just about Miller, but also about the scientist David Starr Jordan, noted for, among many other things, his studies of fish. Miller is drawn to Jordan’s story of accomplishment and perseverance in the face of setbacks, but she finds in Jordan, and the rules he chose to give up, that which is far darker than the gun. Miller thinks Jordan chose to murder his boss, Jane Stanford, foundress of Stanford University, by secretly poisoning her with strychnine. Miller knows for a fact that Jordan chose to promote eugenics. He was very public about that, and terribly effective at it. And she knows that he died, honored and lauded by all.
That he died honored and lauded galls Miller. In her “most forbidden of atheist fantasies ,” she wants justice. Not that she wants him eternally damned in Hell—she only wants him in Purgatory a while. She wants to see him suffer “some degree of anguish” for the suffering he brought to so many people, so many of whom were so vulnerable—the sorts of people with limited resources that eugenics targeted.
But of course that has to be just Miller’s fantasy, for there can be no such thing as justice in her world, a world of no meaning, no point, no God, no afterlife, no destiny, no plan. Justice is giving to people that which they are due. If people do not matter, and indeed nothing matters, then there is no due for anything. Invent whatever morality you wish, whatever your skill set will allow. If you are sufficiently skilled, you might even be able to secretly murder your own benefactor.
Indeed, if your skill is truly great, you might even make people think you are one of the good guys. You might express outrage and shed tears at the carnage you wreak in bending your world to your will, and be loved for your compassion. In the end, the carnage, the complete destruction of even the idea of truth, does not matter. After all, a thousand or a million or a billion or a trillion years from now, you will be utterly forgotten, as will your country, your planet, your sun, and your victims. Do what works for you now and what you can get away with. As the saying goes, “it’s not illegal if you don’t get caught”, and the skilled and the smart don’t get caught.
Better yet, it is not illegal if you can make it legal and worthy of applause by all the right people. This is how it was with Jordan and eugenics. Miller writes about how eugenics became law in many states, how it was taught at top universities, how “the first five presidents of the twentieth century hailed its promise” .
And from her study of Jordan and eugenics, Miller reaches a conclusion about science: it is not so great. At the end of Fish Don’t Exist she writes:
I realize that science is flawed. Not the beacon toward truth I had always thought it was, but a blunt tool that can wreak a lot of havoc along the way. 
David Starr Jordan calls into question Tyson’s characterization of science as a pathway to a Darwin-like deeper level of empathy and humility. But Darwin himself might not have been as compassionate as Tyson sees him. In his Descent of Man, Darwin describes a group of natives of South America as merciless, wild-eyed, slobbering, naked savages who torture their enemies, practice infanticide without remorse, and treat their wives as slaves; he compares them unfavorably to a monkey or a baboon. And, on some scientific scale, they probably did not measure up.
Miller was probably never aware that the flawed nature of science that she discerned was illustrated in that very universe she saw Copernicus as gaining. When the Earth was thought to sit at rest in the center of the universe with the stars rotating around it, measurements of those stars indicated that they might be bodies sort of like Saturn—similar in size, and just a little farther away. But if the Earth circled the sun like Copernicus said, those same measurements meant that the stars had to utterly dwarf even the sun; a million suns could fit inside even the very smallest visible star. For this reason, many astronomers rejected the Copernican universe and what they saw as its absurdly gargantuan stars; they accommodated within a fixed-Earth universe the new discoveries made with telescopes by Galileo and others. Those who famously condemned Galileo wrote about the absurd star sizes the Copernican universe required. But even astronomers who maintained that Earth moved, like Johannes Kepler, accepted the gargantuan stars, chalking them up to the power of God in action. To Kepler, science—in the form of simple, reproducible observations and measurements, and simple calculations—proved the stars to all be giant.
But that science was flawed, and did not point toward the truth. Astronomers like Kepler did not understand that a strange thing happened with light passing through their eyes and their telescopes, a strange thing that distorted the stars so that they looked far larger than they really were. No one knew. When scientists finally came to understand this strange thing that they had previously overlooked (a process that took over a century), the giant stars went away. Oops.
Science got to the truth about stars, eventually. Today we understand that the Earth does circle the sun. But we also understand that, while giant stars exist, they are quite rare. More stars are comparable to the sun in size, and the overwhelming majority of stars in the universe are “red dwarfs”, much smaller and weaker than the sun.
Thus, Miller’s assessment might be too harsh. Science may be flawed. It may not give us the truth about certain things right now. But it helps us approach the truth eventually. Nevertheless, the giant stars, like the Curies’ radium, show how science can be wrong. When science is wrong about star sizes, well, oops—not so much harm done. When science is wrong about radium, harm is done. And when science is wrong about people, great harm is done.
Indeed, harm is done even by the presumption that science can tell us certain things about people. Miller notes Jason Kessler, leader of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia (where Miller lives) speaking to an NPR reporter on how his views on race were just a matter of science (IQ tests). Kessler spoke of science measuring a thing like human “intelligence” as though it were measuring a thing like human height. But a height measurement is a simple comparison to a simple length standard, whereas “intelligence” is “measured” by means of a complicated “test” devised by, and based on the values of, flawed human beings who devised it—a test that will be unlikely to be considered a valid measurement unless it scores well those people its devisors think are smart, and scores poorly those who its devisors think are stupid. The very idea of eugenics arises from the flawed concept that we can scientifically “measure” the worth of human beings, and determine who is desirable and undesirable, just as we might measure height, or just as we might measure the sizes of stars.
If we look through those nineteenth century contemporaries of Darwin that Tyson mentions, we can certainly find advocacy of the idea that people can be measured, and that science should replace traditional ideas about people:
Everywhere the supremacy of facts is now recognised, and the only loyalty even professed by the more advanced minds is not a faithful adherence to tradition, but unswerving fealty to the truth. The battle fought and won by astronomy in the days of Galileo, was in truth but the beginning of the war, and alone would have proved utterly inadequate to teach men of science their strength, or theologians their weakness…. [This] is still shown in the criticisms provoked in certain quarters by anthropological investigations. We are free to speculate on the age of rocks, and even to inquire into the succession of plants and animals; but man is a sacred, and, therefore, a forbidden subject. His origin, antiquity, and special relationships have all been settled by a tribunal that laughs at induction, and treats opposing facts with derision…. Till very recently, even the greatest minds bowed in submissive silence to this unreasoning despotism. However free and untrammeled in other provinces of investigation, they paused upon the threshold of man. He was an exceptional instance in the grand scheme of creation, an isolated phenomenon in the great plan of nature, to make free with whom, after the ordinary fashion of inductive inquiry, was little other than an act of open and scandalous impiety…. On special difference as attaching to brown and white bears, and of organic diversity in relation to African and Asiatic elephants, it was quite lawful to dilate, but an Esquimaux and a European, a Negro and a Persian, were to be invariably treated as of one species. Freedom of inquiry ceased with man….
This from the May 1865 issue of The Anthropological Review. The author goes on to note both the “highest existent form” among humans, “the Caucasian,” and “the inferior races,” to his reckoning, “more especially the negroid.” Of course, this author was among those who were doing the measurements and devising the tests used to measure those differences between people.
People are far more complex than star sizes, more complex than radium. Indeed, it might take far more than a century to find out what strange and complex factors are distorting our efforts to scientifically understand things like human intelligence. And we will not understand those distorting factors until we see them. If we persist in presuming that science can tell us certain things about people, we will be like Kepler—confidently certain that science shows all stars to dwarf the sun. We will be like the Curies—happily working with radioactive lethality. We will be like Tyson—confidently extrapolating from measurements of insect brain masses and movements to the presence of insect self-consciousness and hope, insect astronomy and mathematics, insect reason and debate, insect democracy and consensus.
In Why Fish Don’t Exist Lulu Miller leads us to an important insight about science, its flaws, and truth. She sees what Tyson does not: the problems of viewing science as the final word, the problems of measuring people (and not by height) and using those measurements and our current understanding of science to judge us.
Miller does not take the next logical step: setting aside the conviction that we are all insects and do not matter. The gun is never banished from the pages of her book; we don’t measure up regarding decomposition and soil aeration.
At a gut level, Miller knows the wrongness in such judgements. She knows that we people have significance. We matter, and we matter a lot. Yes, even those of us who science might measure and determine, right now (granted the state of scientific knowledge right now, and given the views of science’s practitioners right now), to be defective or valueless or needing to be kept from reproducing—much like those in the society Darwin witnessed who were judged to be needing to be tortured, killed as infants, or kept in slavery—yes, even we matter.
Miller is hardly the only writer to sense that all people matter, and matter equally: “I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me.” But there is more to inform Miller of this than just her gut. If science cannot point to why people are not just ants, mathematics can. Some things that people do are beyond measurement. Consider ‘pi,’ a circle’s circumference divided by its diameter: a typical scientific calculator app will give pi as 3.1415926535897932384626433832795…. Only the first few of those digits are testable by measurement; the later ones cannot be verified by any conceivable measurement. Yet pi has been calculated to “bazillions” of digits. Indeed, mathematicians have shown it to have infinite digits. Thus, somewhere in the infinity of pi is every winning lottery ticket number ever (and every losing one, too). Shakespeare’s line about the king and the violet is in there (with the alphabet encoded into numbers); so are all his plays. So is the text of this essay, of Tyson’s shows, and of Miller’s book. We can study the infinity that is pi, learn more and more, and yet what we know will always be nothing compared to what is there. If we follow Cosmos and imagine thoughts to track in proportion to brain mass, how do we imagine mere finite collections of brain atoms in motion ever thinking of, and then exploring, an infinity like pi? How do we grant to a housefly a millionth of the thought of the infinite?
What Miller senses, Shakespeare expresses, and mathematics points to is what faith proclaims: we are not just insects. The least of us—the most disabled, the most rejected, those who measure up least under science—matter. We matter because we are created, every one, ad imaginem Dei—in the image of God. If we are not, then we are no different than insects. We are just flies with a million times the brains; and some of us are closer to flies than others; and science can sift us all, and in due course a new eugenics, or something worse, will do so. Of course, it won’t be “worse,” because with no meaning, no point, no God, no afterlife, no destiny, no plan, and no justice, we are insects, valuable only insofar as science can measure; and in the end it does not matter—there is no better or worse, no truth or falsehood, any more than there is for the bees who have been doing their measurements and driving their drones out to die each winter for generations.
But things like pi and Lulu Miller’s gut tell us otherwise. We are not insects. We are infinitely valuable. We cannot be measured by science. For thus have we been created.