The Price of Progress

When I was around 6 years old, I was already a budding, nature-loving environmentalist. My older sister and I didn’t have many toys and I preferred to play outside, anyway, with whatever leaves, rocks, and bugs I could find. I was fascinated by the natural world, or at least what little of it existed in our rough urban neighborhood of Koreatown, and my love for reading gave me a nearly limitless way of experiencing it and learning about it.

One day, I decided to gather all of the kids in our apartment building and start a science club. I think it was called something really original like The Science Club. The first task was to come up with an initiation process, a way for people to become members of the Club. I read somewhere that worms can regenerate if cut in half, and in my little 6-year-old mind, I thought that meant both halves would regenerate and there would then be two worms. I also read that worms are good for the soil, which in turn is good for the plants. So, in order to join the Science Club, I told everyone that they needed to find a worm and cut it in half.

I don’t remember how many kids actually joined the Club, but my guess is that it was just a flash-in-the-pan idea that didn’t last more than a day or two. And thank goodness, because despite all of my good intentions, I was causing the worms unnecessary pain and suffering. To make matters worse, I found out later on that when you cut an earth worm in half, you don’t get two regenerated worms; only the half with the head regenerates, and the tail end just dies.

Looking back, I have some sympathy and respect for my well-meaning younger self. The Science Club would turn out to be one of many instances where I had an urge to do some good in the world, and to lead others in doing it.

Still, I have a lot of guilt and regret for hurting those worms, and for leading a cause that was woefully misguided and misinformed. It reminds me of other misguided scientific endeavors in the past, like using blood-sucking leeches to treat illnesses. Bloodletting has a history of at least 3,000 years, and it was only recently in the late 19th century that it became discredited for treating most illnesses.[1] For over three millennia, the practitioners of bloodletting had limited knowledge and did what they thought was good for their patients, when it fact it was causing them harm.

Some other more controversial examples are psychologist Harry Harlow’s experiments of isolating baby monkeys to explore the importance of social bonding,[2] the Syphilis Study in Tuskegee where African American men were unwittingly used to learn more about the disease,[3] and Nazi doctors performing heinous experiments on Jews and other captives for the purported purpose of medical research.

In each of those cases, the proponents almost certainly believed they were doing some form of good, and we may have even gotten some valuable knowledge from their work. But the huge – and quite literally, fatal – flaw in these studies is that they completely disregarded the wellbeing of the subjects, or at least relegated them to the service of some perceivably greater goal. I think these experiences provide a lesson in the danger of moral relativism, and the fact that no matter what the perceived benefits may be, some costs are just too high to pay.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a lesson we’re done learning, because we still tolerate or condone the extreme suffering of some for the benefit of others. We as human beings still kill animals en masse for food, and we still use animals for research, medical or otherwise; my cousin is a dentist in Korea and to this day he doesn’t like dealing with dogs because of horrible memories about them in dental school. Furthermore, people are still willing to kill innocent civilians, rape women, and play with the fate of vulnerable children to achieve some political, ideological, or personal purpose.

In each case, these acts are perpetuated in the name of progress, or in the name of some other professed good, and how each of us interprets them probably says more about us than the subject itself, like a moral inkblot test. And if we are really honest with ourselves, it probably becomes harder and harder to judge some of these acts, because we either benefit from them or are implicated in some other way. I think about all the food I eat, the medical treatments I’ve received, and the relative security I enjoy living in Los Angeles because of law enforcement at home and the US military abroad. There is no doubt that the life I have right now has been made possible by countless morally and ethically questionable acts, both past and present.

Progress, I am learning, is a precious and pricey thing.

Maybe this is a lesson we are destined to learn ad infinitum as we move our civilization forward, and maybe it’s just the nature of progress to have some ‘collateral damage,’ for some of us to take one for the team, so to speak. Some time in the future, after we have found much better ways to feed our people and to study illnesses and resolve conflicts, we may look back at these current practices as unfortunate but necessary steps in the ladder of progress. Maybe this is the best we can do, given our current challenges and our limited knowledge.

Or maybe we just like to learn the hard way.

Today, over thirty years after my ill-fated Science Club, the lessons I’ve learned have stuck with me, and whenever I see a worm lost and writhing on the concrete sidewalk, I try to make amends by gently moving it back to the wet soil.  As Oprah said, quoting Maya Angelou, when you know better, you do better. And until we know even better, this is the best we can do.