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This week, the world observed the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein publishing his General Theory of Relativity. The effects of his revelation extend far beyond what most of us imagine, as I outline in this excerpt from my book Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages.
Do not remove the boundaries of eternity, which were set in place by your forefathers (Proverbs 22:28).
Writing for Environmental Health Perspectives, Ron Chepesiuk cites research that exposure to artificial light can prevent trees from adjusting to seasonal variation, affecting the behaviors, foraging areas, and breeding cycles of insects, bats, turtles, birds, fish, rodents, and reptiles even in rural settings. Urban light has caused disorientation in migrating birds, accounting for avian deaths estimated between 98 million and one billion each year.
The 24-hour day/night cycle, known as the circadian clock, affects physiologic processes in almost all organisms. These processes include brain wave patterns, hormone production, cell regulation, and other biologic activities. Disruption of the circadian clock is linked to several medical disorders in humans, including depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, says Paolo Sassone-Corsi, chairman of the Pharmacology Department at the University of California, Irvine, who has done extensive research on the circadian clock. “Studies show that the circadian cycle controls from ten to fifteen percent of our genes,” he explains. “So the disruption of the circadian cycle can cause a lot of health problems.”
A meeting sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) concluded that, although there is still no conclusive evidence, the correlation between altered patterns of light and dark in the modern world and dramatic increases in the risk of breast and prostate cancers, obesity, and early-onset diabetes appears more than coincidental.
And, of course, we can no longer see the stars.
Breaches in natural boundaries have taken many other forms as well:
- In 1884, a farmer visiting the Cotton States Exposition in Louisiana brought back a few Venezuelan water hyacinths to decorate the fountain outside his home in Florida. Today, the aggressive purple flowers choke 126,000 acres of waterways.
- Kudzu, a Japanese vine imported in 1876 to prevent erosion, is currently spreading through the southern United States and expanding at a rate of 150,000 acres a year.
- The European rabbit, introduced to Australia in 1859, has reached a population of over 200 million, necessitating the construction of a 2000 mile long rabbit-proof-fence to prevent the wholesale destruction of farmlands.
- In 1956, African bees brought over by Brazilian scientists to breed for honey production escaped their quarantine and gave rise to the noted “killer bee” scare.
The list goes on and on. In the United States alone, containment costs of invasive species are estimated at $138 billion annually.
But the violation of natural boundaries has even more broad-reaching consequences, affecting not only the stability of our physical world but the integrity of the moral universe as well. In his book Modern Times: the world from the twenties to the nineties, historian Paul Johnson analyzes the impact of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity upon the way Western society began to look at the established values of the ages:
All at once, nothing seemed certain in the movements of the spheres… It was as though the spinning globe had been taken off its axis and cast adrift in a universe which no longer conformed to accustomed standards and measurement. At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.
No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension. He was bewildered by the relentless publicity and error which his work seemed to promote…
Einstein was not a practicing Jew, but he acknowledged a God. He believed passionately in absolute standards of right and wrong… He wrote to [colleague Max] Born: “You believe in a God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists and which I, in a wildly speculative way, am trying to capture. I firmly believe, but I hope that someone will discover a more realistic way or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find.”
But Einstein failed to produce a unified theory, either in the 1920s or thereafter. He lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker…
[T]he public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the prescience of King Solomon. When civilization depended upon candlelight to hold back the darkness, the inexorable cycle of day and night forced us to conform to the natural order. True, our lives have become more convenient and more comfortable, but once electric lighting pushes away the darkness of night, once central air conditioning and heating insulate us from the changing of the seasons, once cars and planes shrink the distance between faraway places, once electronic communication eliminates all delay in correspondence and information and, indeed, once science itself seems to provide justification that all boundaries are negotiable, is it not inevitable that society will begin to challenge moral boundaries as well?
There are no absolutes when every established norm is threatened by the inertia of change for the sake of change and an idealized vision of unrestricted freedom. Once change becomes the new normal, human society has little hope of curbing the headlong rush into chaos and social disintegration into moral anarchy.
In the same way that we have to defend the integrity of natural and moral boundaries as a society, we have to guard the boundaries between ourselves and those around us when the order of society begins to crumble. But no matter how much we try, we can never completely seal ourselves off from the influences of the culture in which we live.
I discovered this frightening truth on a trip to southern Asia, where a popular joke is repeated only half-jokingly:
In America people drive on the right side of the road.
In England, people drive on the left side of the road.
In India, it’s optional.
Only when society as a whole preserves its respect for the traditions that have been handed down through the ages will the structure of that society endure. But if each generation believes that it can reject the standards of its forbears from a position of moral superiority, the next age of darkness can be found lurking right around the corner.
But failure only leads to success if we learn the lessons it tries to teach us. Otherwise we prove the wisdom not of Solomon or Churchill but of Einstein and Hegel:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
What experience and history teach is this — that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.