observations by a modest science historian

(I am reminded by a folk song by Peter, Paul, and Mary where they speculate that a thought could not be expressed on the radio, but to be communicated needed to be laid between the lines of the song.)


A while back a television show with a setting in New York City caused offense when a character shared with their mate personal hygiene activities typically reserved for private.

I was reminded that not many centuries ago most humans lived in single room dwellings in which all human activities from birth to death happened in the presence of the other family members.  Our current notions of modesty and privacy are at most a few centuries old.  For most of human existence, such modesty was impossible!

I view myself as one of the more modest individuals in a community probably more modest than most.  But that should not preclude making observations about modesty and attempting to draw conclusions.  Sometimes today's youth are viewed as less modest than us older folk.  But it is not clear whether our society is currently becoming less modest, or whether modesty now rises and falls like the tides.  If modesty changes with time, one wonders if attempts to codify past views of modesty and impose them on future generations should remain a basic mission for schools (and in particular of science instruction.)

It may require a later age before historians decide whether modesty has made life better for each of us, or whether our sense of modesty has precluded activities that would have made life more rich and enjoyable.  By shielding us from observing many normal human behaviors and occurrences, our sense of modesty may have fostered abnormal human behaviors (e.g., rise in crime) and attitudes (e.g., leaving only trivial views of death in movies and computer games, resulting in disrespect for life) that become problems for modern society.

I live a community that still has several herd of cows.  Sometimes the cows do activities that embarrass humans passing nearby.  Some wish the cows had some way to be more modest.  Some may even wonder what the cows are thinking!


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created 6/30/2001
revised 4/3/2004
by D Trapp
Mac made