Photo by April L. Sanders
Reflection by Jim Crissman

Years of training in toxicologic veterinary pathology, the broad field of intersecting sciences in which I make my livelihood, has given me a way to see the world. I mentioned this to my son the mathematician—the way I visualize the earth as a mixed colony on a Petri dish, with humans overgrowing everything and rapidly using up the nutrients in the agar—and he responded that he sees the world in mathematical patterns. Likewise, economists observe humans singly and collectively as we chase rewards for our behaviors. And, like other social scientists, they can rarely assemble decent control groups, so data interpretation is often contentious and swayed by ideology, even when the significance of results appears common-sensical. Poets interpret and juxtapose images in language carefully chosen to elicit a feeling or share a vision—an almost entirely right-brained exercise. Poets are less concerned with objective correctness than communicating perceptions, details at the heart of everything from love and death to birds at backyard feeders. Like beer goggles, our education and experience affect how we analyze and react to everything.

As a product of my education and experience, I perceive that there is biology driving everything from frog and bat die-offs, to teenage mood swings, to the disaster of over- population, to the seven-year-itch. I have at least some sense of what might be changed, and what is written in stone—or in DNA. And the central tenet of toxicology passed down from the Renaissance physician, Paracelsus, that the dose makes the poison, also seems broadly applicable to world we live in, even on the social level.

It’s relatively straightforward to experimentally determine the toxic dose of, say, dimethylchickenwire in a rat; and, similarly, the dose necessary to avoid symptoms of its deficiency. I’m lucky to work in a scientific field where near perfect control groups make interpretation of results relatively straightforward. But ask a thoughtful rocket scientist what really constitutes a “hard” science, and she’ll tell you it’s the social sciences.

So how do we determine the toxic dose of inciting words or provocative behaviors? And when does prudent caution become wasteful procrastination? When does spirited debate become mean spirited, an altercation escalate into war? When does religion cease to be a force for order and morality, and become an irrational excuse for hatefulness, bigotry, and violence? When does healthy skepticism evolve to cynicism, and cynicism mutate to conspiracy theory? When do white lies become gray, and then turn black? What is the toxic level of firearms in society? And what is the maximum tolerable capacity for an ammo clip to be sold to anyone, even a crazy man, for a semi-automatic handgun designed only for the purpose of killing people efficiently? Thirty seems high.

We humans have great capacity both for good and evil—we are more like chimpanzees than bonobos in our capacity to harm each other. The frequency of violence, from inside our homes to the perpetual state of war we find ourselves in, tells me that as a species we lack an adequate dose of intelligence and altruism to overcome our hard-wired aggression and live in peace and harmony.

Oil and coal production have peaked, competition for all resources is growing, the earth is getting hotter, and crop failures are increasing. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were at least partly fueled by rapidly rising food prices. This will not get easier. It is way past time to turn down the rhetoric and focus on solutions.

© James W. Crissman, 2011