Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate

In the much loved 1967 movie, The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock, a disillusioned recent college graduate received one-word of career advice from his father’s friend: Plastics!

Plastics? Really? From today’s perspective, plastic products are relatively uncool. The Benjamin (and Benjamina) Braddocks of today would be much more likely to be told, “Computers!

But, we will come back to that later. First, a bit of history. (Hey gang, don’t skip it even if you think history is boring—you will see why later.)

 

Let’s start in 500 BC….

Have you ever wondered what the cool thing to do was in 500 BC? The Greek philosophers of the time told folks to contemplate the meaning of the world around them. And, one lens through which to inquire about the world, is “humanism.”

As Protagoras, the 5th century BC Sophist put it, “Man is the measure of all things.” This is not only profound, but think about how different it was from the higher-authority religions of the time.

But, when it comes to human history, things never stay the same. In the centuries that followed, the cool thing to do was a career in religion. A medieval Benjamin Braddock would probably have been advised to go into the priesthood. “Forget humanism,” his father might have said, “it just doesn’t sell today.” And, that would be true—that is, until it wasn’t.

The Thinker (Photo credit: Innoxiuss on Flickr CCA 2.0)
(Photo credit: Innoxiuss on Flickr CCA 2.0)

Seemingly out of nowhere, philosophers rediscovered that “Man is the measure of all things.” They just said it differently: Cogito ergo sum (or “I think, therefore I am”). This was René de Cartes’ famous challenge to the prevailing notion that what and who we are is predetermined by a higher authority. “No,” he said, “what makes us human is our ability to think.

In the 16th century English philosopher Francis Bacon added science into the mix. Are things the way they are because the church and its musty theologians say so? Rubbish! Just do an experiment and prove or disprove it! It is hard to believe that this approach was considered heretical at the time, but people were even burned at the stake for suggesting it.

So what was the cool thing to do in the ensuing centuries? Why, become a scientist of course. And, that prevailed for many years. In fact, in some ways, it still does except that the kind of science you might want to do is changing at a dizzying pace.

Fast forward to the 20th century and we see things changing at a faster and faster pace. By the 1950s and 60’s, we are shifting back to humanism again. Remember the beatniks and later the hippies espousing, each in their own way, that (once again) “Man is the measure of all things?

But even as the beatniks were reading poetry at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and the hippies were dancing to Jefferson Airplane in Golden Gate Park, another type of revolution was already brewing 60 miles to the south.

In what we now call Silicon Valley, a new generation of rebels was busy creating the latest turn in human history: The digital age. And, my dear readers, we are still in the midst of it.

 

What’s the advice for today’s Braddocks?

As I noted in the beginning of this essay, the one-word of career advice for a Braddock of today would most likely be: “Computers!” They are more pervasive and more powerful than we ever could have imagined even a few short years ago. We carry them, we wear them, we even embed them. They have changed and will continue to change the way we live.

If we are smart and use the power of these machines to decipher the code of Nature, then humankind will benefit greatly. But, if we use it to track people’s thoughts and actions every minute of every day, it could create a human condition that is downright dangerous. Right now, to me, the future seems both exhilarating and depressing at the same time.

 

What goes around, comes around

If you followed my advice and actually read the history part of the article, you probably aren’t worried at all. You know that the pendulum of what’s in and what’s not will keep on swinging. (If you skipped it, you can always go back and read it now.)

Some thoughtful people, may I call them the Protagorases of today, are already sounding the age-old call of humanism. Yes, they say, humans have been, and always will be, “the measure of all things.

But, we don’t have to re-create Bacon’s fight for empiricism in science. Nor do we have to dredge up De Cartes’ exhortation of self-realization through thinking. These are old battles. In our current struggle to balance the rigor of experimentation with the softer, kinder philosophy of humanism, there will be a new battle, one that is unique to our time.

In the second part of this essay, we’ll take a look at what science tells us about the next “in” thing to do…and what a surprise it is.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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