The Mozart mystery remains unsolved

By : September 16, 2017

In a letter to the Napa Valley Register (“Darwin’s Dilemma,” Sept. 1, 2017), Lowell Young suggests that extraordinary talents in music, mathematics and the other arts prove the existence of a creator.

I find it quaint that some people still think that finding flaws or incompleteness in one scientist’s 1859 book undermines an idea that pre-existed and still exists independently of that book.

Mr. Young says that Charles Darwin offered no convincing refutation to Alfred Wallace’s assertion that the theory of evolution did not explain extraordinary human talents. But Darwin’s inaction proves nothing. Darwin might have had no answer, or he might have not wanted to waste correspondence time.

For a scientist, not having an answer for everything is not a dilemma, it is the motivation to get to work early every day. Scientists and other life-long learners leave certainty, and resistance to doubt, to the various religions of the world.

Mr. Young writes that intellectually honest scientists must regard extraordinary talents as “gifts,” and scientists probably do. But even ordinary people use “gift” to describe any talent, however modest, and they use it freely to describe not just musical composition and math, but also such un-artistic and noncerebral matters as bowling, training dogs, and playing poker.

The word “gift” is in fact often used pejoratively, as in the statement that “Donald Trump has a gift for lying.”

I imagine that Mr. Young would agree that absolutely everyone, even atheists and agnostics, uses the word “gift” to describe special talents. Atheists would be right to say that their colloquial use of the word does not make them deists.

Despite the fact that Lowell Young is writing about the glorious mystery of musical and mathematical genius, not birthday presents, to reach his theological conclusion he must use two separate meanings of “gift,” as if they were the same — the metaphoric “rare talent” or “unusual ability,” and the literal “a thing given to somebody by somebody else.”

The somebody else must be a creator, he writes. But this is circular logic. I suppose a creator might have intentionally given Mozart and Trump their singular gifts, but a more plausible explanation for the magnificent variety in humanity comes from Darwin’s notions of mutation, and from genetic research, and surely other factors that I have no clue about. The givers of our gifts, the good and bad, are probably best understood as our ancestors, not that they knew what they were doing.

Why only one Mozart?

Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach are so magnificent that I completely understand the impulse to think that they must have been a gift from a benevolent god, not just some combination of gene sequences, living in a stable society and a developed culture, being the right gender and race, and having a good education. But then I remember that the vast majority of all humans ever born were never allowed to develop what gifts they had, though some might have been potentially great composers or cancer researchers or inventors.

In just the last decade, wars have killed about two million children, according to UNICEF. Was there a potential Mozart or brilliant mathematician among them? Or among the millions of adults throughout history who were killed in wars, or too busy struggling with poverty, or denied education by their government or by religious authorities?

Imagine the minuscule percentage of all the women ever born who were allowed to be educated and to join in civic discourse, let alone allowed to join a profession. If no woman ever rivaled Mozart, should we blame a parsimonious creator or ourselves?

Human society has always intentionally or inadvertently created obstacles to the development of extraordinary gifts, whether by war, oppression, discrimination, or economic systems. As I write this, for example, there might be a potential Mozart or Einstein among the millions of refugees who are far too busy trying to survive to develop their gifts. As you read this, the problem has only worsened.

Would we like to have another Mozart?

Rather than pray for one, we should work towards the expansion of opportunity, not just as some campaign speech abstraction, but by allowing more people to live, and to live fuller lives.

Saudi Arabia might start by empowering women. North Korea would do well to turn over the People’s Republic to the people. Muslims might start by reconciling Shia and Sunni.

We Americans could start by working to discourage our two political parties from any more unnecessary, illegal, and ineffectual wars and military interventions.

Filed Under: War and Peace

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