Does personal sophistication reduce human flaws?

July 03, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

Almost to a person, we would not hesitate to support the proposition that we are dramatically improved in character and personality by exposure to higher levels of education. Yet, we are reminded of the limits of this expectation daily when we witness reports of seriously unacceptable behavior by those who ought to do better.

In an earlier study, I have made mention of an especially egregious instance of rank prejudice and discrimination regularly perpetrated upon a brilliant young physicist in Germany before Adolf Hitler came to power and accelerated thereafter.

Lise Meitner suffered these indignities simply because she was a woman and then because she was a Jew. This was the norm, both in the world of science and the general public, when anti-Semitism became acceptable and even encouraged.

It was, then, perfectly reasonable to speculate if those in the upper range of the arts and sciences were any more morally sensitive or humanely motivated than those lacking such benefits. Perhaps a closer look at the lives of some known successes might shed some light on habits and attitudes of the more learned.


The purchase of several recent publications giving biographical studies of prominent scientists proved to be informative. One especially good book, "Great Physicists" by William H. Cooper, gave 31 accounts of the most gifted minds form Galileo Galilei to Stephen Hawking.

For the most part, all were dedicated (some would say workaholic), creative and decent people. Personal flaws were mentioned, but the main thrust was properly placed on the professional accomplishments of each scientist. One can't help but be in awe when they become aware of the discoveries of minds such as those of Isaac Newton, Ernest Rutherford and Albert Einstein.

One unexpected result of this intellectual journey into the minds of the great was the rediscovery of a beautiful story about human goodness and generosity. Few are probably aware of his existence, let alone his act of nobility in conceding priority of discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection to Charles Darwin in 1858. But Alfred Russel Wallace, when presented with the evidence, permitted a paper written by Darwin to be presented first at a meeting of the Linnaean Society in London on July 1, 1858.

By this selfless act, Charles Darwin was catapulted to unequaled fame and Alfred Russel Wallace was relegated to a shadow figure - mentioned only as an afterthought or not at all. As a contemporary of Darwin, Wallace, a thoroughly competent naturalist on his own merit, could have elected to create a rancorous dispute by stubbornly refusing to take second place. This he did not do, and Darwin proceeded with the publication of "On The Origin of Species" in 1859.

The generosity of this gesture cannot be exaggerated. Wallace had labored under very difficult conditions in the Amazon rain forest and the bug-infested jungles of the Malay Archipelago, collecting thousands of specimens and observing the raw data to arrive independently to the some conclusions as Darwin. He recognized Darwin had actually withheld publication of his book for 20 years and properly deserved priority for what has come to be called "Darwinism."

Ambiguity still remains with regard to the issue of moral sensitivity differences that might or might not exist between the more privileged and the more modest achievers in the lower ranks of society. Envy and arrogance is as undesirable among the elite as crudity and immediate gratification dominance by an undisciplined under class.

How much liberty do we extend to Albert Einstein because of his creative genius when set beside his recognized shortcomings as a husband and father? What he gave to the world cannot be diminished because of a deficit in parental excellence.

On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to expect more from those fortunate enough to experience the benefits of enhanced education and exposure to enlightened values. However, this will not happen unless there is a parallel development of an active conscience in each individual. No civilization has yet figured out how to accomplish this feat.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus at Hagerstown Community College.

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