God, Baseball, and Science: An Interview With Mary Doria Russell

God, Baseball, and Science: An Interview With Mary Doria Russell

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“After the first exquisite songs were intercepted by radio telescope, U.N. diplomats debated long and hard whether and why human resources should be expended in an attempt to reach the world that would become known as Rakhat. In the Rome offices of the Society of Jesus, the questions were not whether or why, but how soon the mission could be launched, and whom to send.

The Jesuit scientists went to Rakhat to learn, not to proselytize. They went so they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went for the greater glory of God.

They meant no harm.”

–From The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Q: You were a paleoanthropologist specializing in bone biology and biomechanics. Can you describe some of the great moments of your fieldwork in Australia and Croatia?

A: Big laughs—what do you mean by great moments? There was the night in 1979 when I was in a disco in Canberra, Australia. An Aboriginal accountant who worked for the federal government asked me, “So what’s your sign, baby?” Lame pick-up lines know no borders …

If you mean great scientific moments, then the work I did on Croatian Neanderthals was my best. For over 100 years, anthropologists assumed the cutmarks on the bones of the Krapina Neanderthals were evidence of cannibalism. That assumption was part of the rationale for cutting Neanderthals out of the human lineage.

In modern times, charges of cannibalism are almost always slander. (“We would never do such a thing, but those savages in the next valley are cannibals!”) We’ve documented starvation cannibalism (as with the Donner party) or symbolic cannibalism (a bit of heart ingested to gain a slain enemy’s power). We’ve even seen instances of “gourmet” cannibalism, but very rarely. By contrast, secondary burial is a widespread mortuary practice—around the world, and in many prehistoric cultures—that also leaves cutmarks on human bones. The corpse is either buried or stored in a crypt until most flesh has rotted. Then the bones are carefully cleaned (which leaves small marks on the bones), bundled, and reburied.

(The ossuary purported to be that of Jesus’ brother James is an example of secondary burial. That’s what the cave crypts referred to in the New Testament were—temporary resting places for decomposing bodies that were later bundled and placed in stone boxes. For rationalists, this can make stories of dead people rising from crypts comprehensible in a non-miraculous way.)

Anyway, I developed a protocol for distinguishing the cutmarks made during butchery from those made for secondary burial, using anatomical and statistical methods that are still considered the benchmark for establishing cannibalism in prehistoric sites. It was a lovely bit of science, if I say so myself, and I was even more pleased that the Krapina Neanderthal cutmarks fell dead in the middle of the Secondary Burial statistics, which were 2 standard deviations off the Butchery mean.

Q: Where did you get help on the science in the novel?  Whom did you consult?  Did you have the ideas first and flesh them out with help from other scientists?

A: I did a lot of library work to develop my ideas, but my husband’s an engineer, and we have friends with advanced degrees in other fields I was weak in. Sometimes people with 150 years of collective education would sit around our table, arguing over whether I got something right.  Then the astronomer would say, “If we can’t agree on this, then it’s clearly debatable, and therefore plausible enough for fiction!”

In imagining Rakhat, I put to work every course I ever took in college and graduate school.  Ecology, ethology, geology, functional and comparative anatomy, population genetics, comparative religions, linguistics, you name it. I imagined planetary geology, a flora, a fauna, weather systems, a pair of sentient species with a shared paleontology, languages, cultures, economic systems, politics …

Q: What inspired you and helped you create the alien culture of Rakhat?

A: The political model was Romanov Russia, where a tiny elite ruled over a vast serf class until the serfs finally realized “We are many, they are few.”  Jana’ata culture was somewhat based on the Romanov as well, although that of the pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy contributed. For the Runa, the cultural model was a Southeast Asian group called the Semai, who claimed never to get angry, who never argued or competed. When recruited to fight during the Vietnam War, the Semai became stunningly ferocious soldiers. A Semai veteran remarked, “We had no rules for stopping a fight. There was nothing between being friends and killing them all.” True story …

The ecological model of the relationship between the Jana’ata and the Runa was that of cheetahs and Thompson gazelles. Cheetahs only eat Thommies, so if an epidemic swept through gazelle populations, the cheetah could be extinct in a few weeks. It’s a very elegant but very fragile arrangement.

Q: This is fascinating—can you talk a bit about modeling aliens on cheetahs and gazelles. I never heard of that before.

A: I started by asking myself, What would intelligence look like, if you pulled the opportunistic omnivorous primates out of the paleontological mix? Where else do you get very bright animals? One answer was, among the social carnivores like wolves, dog packs, lion prides, etc. Those species vocalize to keep track of one another and to mark territory and coordinate hunting, so I made Jana’ata singing and language the evolutionary outcome of that ancient trait.

The next question was, What if the Jana’ata had domesticated their prey species? We’ve done it repeatedly—cattle, horses, sheep, goats, chickens, etc. So the ancient Jana’ata domesticated Runa herds. It was also plausible that they eventually bred not just for docility and meat, but also for intelligence, just as we’ve bred dogs to perform various services.

Push that further, and make the Jana’ata obligate carnivores who can’t really hunt or eat much of anything except Runa. Then step into the history at the point when the Runa have been bred up to an intelligence that overlaps that of the uber-species, and you’ve got the makings of an ecological and political drama waiting for a trigger event.

Q: In your first book, The Sparrow, coincidences keep occurring. Atheists regard coincidences as blind chance, whereas theists look at them as the hand of God. What kind of coincidences have you experienced in your own life?

A: The events that led to the adoption of our son Daniel were remarkable in many ways. Choices and decisions made years earlier led directly to parenthood in ways we never anticipated. For example, I applied to the International Research and Exchange Foundation for money to pursue the Cannibalism vs. Secondary Burial idea. To qualify for the grant, I had to learn a new language. My choices were German (the language of the original monographs on Krapina), or Croatian (the language of the country in which the collection was housed). German was the sensible choice; I chose Croatian so I could order food in Zagreb restaurants. Besides, most Germans speak English better than most American presidents. I always seem to go for the oddball choice.

Three years later, my learning Croatian was the deciding factor in our being able to adopt Dan from an orphanage in Zagreb. When I told friends about things like that, religious people often said, “It was God’s will!” and non-religious people said, “What an amazing bunch of coincidences.”

That got me thinking about God’s will. Dan is 17 now, and entirely splendid in ways too numerous even for a mom to mention. But what if he’d ended up killing Don and me in our beds and climbing a bell tower with a rifle? Would that have been God’s will, too? That’s what got me started on the questions I played with in The Sparrow and Children of God.

Q: You also play with the ideas that blind chance makes this world meaningless; or else that the will of God rules everything. Are there other options?

A: Oh, sure. People routinely find chance in one place and meaning in another. The ways of combining chance and significance can be surprising, though. Western medicine tells us that rhinorviruses cause colds. In other cultures, the notion that illness is caused by tiny invisible life-forms would be considered superstition, since everybody knows that you get sick when you’ve been cursed by a witch who was paid by the neighbor you pissed off last week. And even if little unseen things do cause illness, but why did you get the cold, and not that neighbor, hmmmm?

What is chance? What is meaningful? Culturally and individually, we differ in what we consider worthy of explaining and what we shrug off as dumb luck or “just the way things are.”

Q: You’ve said that you started writing The Sparrow in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the new world, and that history sometimes condemns the Europeans as if they set out from Spain intending to wreck the Indian culture. You’ve said you wanted to write a story that put modern people into the same state of ignorance the early explorers experienced in the Americas. Can you talk a little about how using time travel and space exploration allowed you to show us deeper truths about culture and humans?

A: From what I’ve seen, life is one long Good News/Bad News joke. What seems like bad luck at one point in our lives (infertility, for example) can turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to us (it led to adopting Dan). And what seems like a wonderful thing can turn into a nightmare (Princess Di’s marriage). My belief is, Time will tell. The story isn’t over until it’s over. Often events and decisions echo for centuries, and even millennia; they have unintended and unimagined consequences that can show up long after everyone has forgotten about them.

Whether an event is ultimately a good thing or a bad thing depends on when you decide the story has ended. To use a Christian example, the crucifixion of Jesus was Bad News on Friday, but by Sunday, it becomes Good News.

I tend to write about that metaphorical Saturday in between—when people aren’t sure what’s a total effing disaster, and what’s a necessary step on the road to a happy ending. And I always keep in mind that Monday may bring a whole new interpretation!

Q: In your second novel a second Jesuit mission travels to Rakhat, hoping to explain the tragedy of the first expedition and discover a divine purpose. Why and how is it, what is it about the human species that leads it to evil when it is trying to do good? What meaning do you see in this?  What tragedy, and what hope?

A: IMHO, you’ve got that backward. In The Sparrow, good intentions yield catastrophe. In Children of God, there are very muddled and unethical reasons for the mission, and a far less admirable crew, but the outcome isn’t so bad! Irony R Us …

Distinguishing tragedy from blessing depends not only on when the judgement is made, but who is making it. Think about first contact between 15th century Europeans and the native peoples of the Americas. On the broad canvas, you can see that it was a catastrophe for the Indians, but it was also the best damned thing that ever happened for a lot of European peasants, my family included.

Narrow your focus a bit, and you’d find that one tribe welcomed white settlers to the Great Basin. The Shoshone were on the brink of extinction, reduced to eating mice and acorns after having been pushed out of their earlier territory by more warlike tribes. (Believe it or not, we know about the mice and acorns from archeological analysis of 150-year-old human pooh.) And there were Europeans who wound up in ghastly New York tenements dying of tuberculosis, or who got off the boat and were immediately drafted into the Union army. Not everyone got a piece of the American pie. Focus even more narrowly, and you might see an Oglala Lakota whose skin cancer was cured last week in an office visit to a BIA hospital, and a Swedish visitor who came to help with a volunteer program and was killed by a drunk driver on the same reservation. That particular Oglala might actually be grateful that Columbus left Spain, while the Swede might have wished she’d never heard of America.

I think all those points of view are simultaneously valid and interesting. And I like to get readers to think about that.

Q: Why is science fiction an important genre? Or is it?

A: As one famous SF writer once said, “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. Then again, 90% of everything is crap.” Certainly, the genre has allowed us to think about the unintended consequences of scientific and medical advances, and so on, years before history catches up with fiction. The novel 1984 now seems eerily on target, if a little premature, when you hear a president speak of unending war against shadowy enemies, and the Department of Homeland Security, and Total Information Collection …

Q: What are your thoughts about time travel. You converted to Judaism, and in Jewish theology time is what God uses to paint on a vast canvas. I forget who said, time is God’s way of stopping everything from happening all at once.

A: Stephen Hawking maybe?

Q: In science, time may be curved or an arrow or … if you’re Julian Barbour, a bunch of endless nows. Your thoughts on time in science and religion?

A: In his book The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill argues that Hebrew stories gave Western civilization the concept of progressive time, as opposed to cyclic time. In other cultures (Hindu, Egyptian, and Mayan come to mind), time is a wheel that turns year after year, epoch after epoch, while remaining stationary. Cycles repeat on large and small scales. Jewish tradition put that wheel on the ground, so to speak, and we perceive that it rolls as well as turns. Hebrew scriptures are a chronicle of choices and decisions playing out generations later. There are forks in the historical road, not just a cosmic racetrack that we circle endlessly. That mindset allows ideas of cause and effect get a little clearer, and science relies on models of cause and effect.

Q: Your books have atheists as well as believers. You remain agnostic. How do you feel when you get into the head of those who believe in God, or don’t believe at all? Can you “feel” it—what it’s like?

A: That’s a hard question to answer—nobody else has ever asked me that! I’m sitting here really thinking about what it was like to write the scene of first contact, when Emilio Sandoz becomes the center of a crowd of aliens and natives. He “feels like a prism, gathering up God’s love like white light and scattering it in all directions.” Yes, I can conjure that feeling up, as well as write about it. And the bitterness and fury he feels later on—those are also available to me.

This process of creating characters with integrity and solidity seems to me a lot like the process actors describe. You draw on your own authentic emotion, but place it in a fictional context. The emotions are the same, but what triggers them is fictional.

Q: What are your favorite science fiction novels and why?

A: Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz holds up very well, almost three decades after publication. I loved the idea that Catholic monks would once again accept the burden of preserving knowledge in a Dark Age that follows a nuclear holocaust. There is something enduringly touching and hilarious about the way they treasure a grocery list scribbled by a Jewish engineer who received a phone call from his wife just before the bomb went off.

Another book I still love is Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Ursula was the daughter of a famous cultural anthropologist—my cat Kroeber was named after him! Unlike a lot of SF, Left Hand doesn’t posit a whole planet with a single language and a single culture—there are political and economic and linguistic differences, conflicts, alliances. I like that complexity. I also liked the unreliable narrator Genly Ai, sent to the planet Winter as an observer and ambassador. He’s an honorable man, but he misunderstands everything until it’s almost too late. And since readers trusts Genly, we make the same mistakes and learn our own willingness to leap to the wrong conclusions.

Q: One theme of yours seems to be we can never know the whole truth, we only have points of view, based on our perspective in time and space. In science and religion the two camps often think they each have the truth—they are two different cultures just as those on earth and Rakhat. In The Sparrow truth looks one way, in the next book you get another point of view. Any thoughts about the cultures of science and religion in America today?

A: In science, any sensibly phrased question is at least potentially answerable. The answers to the questions of faith are, by their very nature, unknowable.

To me, religion seems very much like music. No one would argue that music is the opposite of science. No one would expect a scientist to reject music, simply because it is not a collection of empirical facts organized into a body of theory that generates testable hypotheses. No one would ask if music is scientifically accurate or if music is less true than science. Those kinds of comparisons are meaningless.

Q: You say there is no culture with a claim to a moral high ground. Yet both science and religion believe they have the moral high ground in comparison to each other.

When I hear arguments about which is truer, religion or science, the wrangling seems pointless to me. It’s like a baseball team suddenly leaving the ball field, charging into an art gallery, and yelling, “You’re not playing baseball!”  To which the only answer could be, “Well, uh, no.” Or say a bunch of art historians accuse the ball team, “You’re not studying art!”  Well, duh … They are different activities, with different rules and aims. Baseball players can be interested in art history; art historians can be baseball fans—these are simply not mutually exclusive. But they are different.

When you drop a big rock, it doesn’t take faith to believe that it’s going to be pulled toward the center of the earth, and you’d better move your foot out of its way. If the existence of God, and the correctness of a particular theological description of God. were like that, then religion would stop being about faith. Nobody can know the unknowable, which is why agnosticism seems to me to be the only defensible position, logically.

As an anthropologist, I would say that the idea of God allows our species to think about things that are too large, too complex, too beautiful, too horrifying to be encompassed by a single human lifespan or a single human mind. The idea of God expands human existence beyond what our senses can detect or our logic deduce. God is a remarkably powerful and enduring idea, metaphorically subsuming even sophisticated scientific formulations and adding dimension to them. A human yearning for the divine exists in all cultures, if not all individuals. That’s one of the very few statements about human beings I can’t think of an exception to.

What makes Homo sapiens interesting as a mammalian species is not our opposable thumbs or our rather precarious bipedal stance unassisted by a stabilizing tail, or our ability make tools. What’s interesting is our drive to create things like art and music and theology and poetry and theater.

Consider this: when a stroke destroys the ability to speak and understand spoken language, the ability to sing and recite prayers often remains intact. We store language and rationality on the left, side of the brain, music and religion on the right. In health we aren’t required to do without one side or the other. In wholeness we can avail ourselves of both.