Jonas Salk and Me

Jonas Salk "Man Unfolding"

Jonas Salk “Man Unfolding”

One of my recent posts had me recounting where I came from to explain my point of view, and one of the readers realized it was likely we went to the same high school — and we did. In fact, his father was my high school math teacher, the almost-perfect Merlin Baker, who took me through early calculus and tensors.

Another episode that molded me: I was one of the top two in science subjects, and the principal (we spell it that way because he’s your pal, in case you haven’t heard that mnemonic) came by to ask if I’d be on a panel with some of my cohorts to ask questions of Dr. Jonas Salk, pop culture science icon and inventor of the first practical and effective polio vaccine. This would be at a big auditorium in the city, attended by hundreds of high school students. I now know it was part of a publicity tour for his first book, a foray into pop philosophy funded as part of a series by Major World Thinkers. They gave me a copy of the book to read and asked me to come up with intelligent questions he could field.

So I said yes, along with two friends, and we made up half the student question panel. On the big day we went down in buses with other science students, and they kept us seated at the panel table onstage while the audience settled.

For this story to make sense, you have to realize I was a painfully shy kid. My nightmares were about being the center of attention, or being embarrassed. I spoke up in class only after I felt comfortable with the people in it. So I was far from the ideal choice to be on stage and talking in front of hundreds of strangers.

What’s worse was what I felt I had to say. I read his book, and it was mostly armwaving — strained analogies between problems of growth in lower organisms and humanity. Yes, some of these things look a little like the other things, but the casual use of analogies gives the wrong answers to important questions, just as assuming humanity is just like an ant farm or a pack of baboons misses much of the possibility for solving problems with the human mind and technology.

So other people threw softball questions and Salk smiled and fielded them smoothly. When my turn came, I asked him how he could present such analogies as useful for guiding policy — in other words, his models failed to capture the most important thing about human systems, so were useless for predicting or deciding.

He got this look, a sort of “Aha! I recognize you.” He smiled cooly and answered, “I can see you’ve really understood what I was trying to say in the book. I wrote it for a popular audience, to provide some insight on how biological systems can help us understand the major issues we face. These models can help in understanding some aspects of the problems.” And then he was onto the next question.

I was shaking and wet through with sweat. The teacher and my friends told me I’d done great. I felt awful.

This year, I went to see what critical reaction to the book was. Here’s the Kirkus review:

Essentially Jonas Salk’s plea — “”to look at human life from a biological viewpoint”” — is the same as that of biologist Garrett Hardin (Exploring New Ethics for Survival, p. 561). Both urge a new “”theoretical-experimental”” approach to the social, psychological and moral problems of mankind to replace the age-old speculative-philosophical idealizations. But whereas Hardin makes his case with a brilliant science fiction parable, Salk proceeds via a series of laborious, strained but ultimately simplistic analogies between biological and social systems, genetic and psychological survival mechanisms, individual and phylogenetic “”choices.”” Thus, for example, Salk argues that the body’s immunological system, which protects the organism against being overwhelmed by disease, sometimes runs amok and works against the organism, and that its counterpart in psychology, the “”defense mechanisms”” can also become self-consuming and destructive. “”The products of man’s imagination and undisciplined appetite may have a boomerang effect which in due time may well overpower him.”” Herein lies the danger — and the hope. Human development must proceed via challenge and response in a dynamic relationship with the environment. And so forth and so on: “”learning,”” “”tolerance,”” “”rejection”” and “”conditioning”” are both social and somatic verities; deprivation or overabundance are bad for both physical and moral development; there is both “”biological”” and “”human”” purpose to life. Unfortunately when dealing with the practical applications of this wisdom Salk is not very daring — he notes that cigarettes, drugs and war are bad since they produce bodily and social disequilibrium. . . . Disappointing.

This inability to go along with the crowd and ratify comfortable untruths remains a problem for me, even today. But I wouldn’t have it otherwise.

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.