Sermon: The Great Asymmetry (or, “A single sinner destroys much good”)

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 27 May 2017

After Manchester, 27 May 2017

In 1998, the American palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist, and writer on science, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote an article in defence of his field, titled “The Great Asymmetry”.  In it, he tried to counter the idea that, as he put it, “science is monolithic, incomprehensible, soulless, and basically bad for us”.

He argued that it is wrong to see science as inherently good or bad, but rather that scientific endeavour has exacerbated an inherent asymmetry in the world:  “In our universe of natural law,” he wrote, “Complex and adaptive systems can only be built sequentially. We can only reach our pinnacles by laborious steps, but destruction can occur in a minute fraction of the building time, and can often be truly catastrophic.”
He observes that “A day of fire destroyed a millennium of knowledge in the library of Alexandria, and centuries of building in the city of London”. That “The last blaauwbock of southern Africa, the last moa of New Zealand, perished in a momentary blow or shot from human hands, but took millions of years to evolve.”  And, he argued, as science develops, this challenge becomes more acute, the destructive power of one moment or person becomes greater – “our particular modern tragedy” as he called it.

A few years later, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centres in 2001, he wrote further on this idea and emphasised the moral aspect:
“The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people.  Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by ten thousand acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ”ordinary” efforts of a vast majority.”

The Great Asymmetry thus acquired another aspect – not only, as he originally observed, the imbalance between the long process of construction and the immediate power of destruction – but also an asymmetry of impact, of visibility.  That is, that the one act of destruction is disproportionately visible, while small acts of goodness are ordinary and hidden.

This is, of course, part of human nature – something that we know from our own lives; Psychologists call it the “positive-negative asymmetry effect” – that, in our minds, negative information receives more processing and contributes more strongly to our final impressions that does the positive, so that we tend to pick out the one unhappy face in a room, remember the one bad moment we experienced and this disproportionately affects our final understanding of an experience. And so, events like this week disproportionately shake our sense of well being, our understanding of the world.

Gould also points out that despite this asymmetry of destructive power and the asymmetry of visibility and impact, there is also a counterbalancing asymmetry – one of numbers.  That many more people are not destructive, that many more human acts are kind, decent and good, far outnumbering the single, visible, powerful acts of destruction.   This theme he continued in other writings between 9/11 and his early death in May 2002.  The version of The Great Asymmetry which is found in the Study Anthology of our siddur is a quote from another article called “The Good People of Halifax”.  On 9/11, nine thousand people on 45 flights found themselves re-directed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they remained for several days. Gould and his wife were among them.  The citizens fed them, clothed them, and put them up in their homes.  He wrote about this experience, this imbalance of numbers, and concluded:  “I stress this greatly underappreciated point because our error in equating a balance of effects with equality of numbers could lead us to despair about human possibilities, especially at this moment of mourning and questioning, whereas, in reality, the decent multitudes, performing their ten thousand acts of kindness, vastly outnumber the very few depraved people in our midst”.

Asymmetry of impact is, in fact, nothing new – it’s even there in our texts.  The Book of Ecclesiastes, probably written 2500 years ago tells us something very similar when it states that “A single sinner destroys much good”.
But, as Gould observes, the power of destruction is more acute in our modern lives, the impact much greater with bombs than bows and arrows.  And thus events like this week challenge us – they challenge us in how we see the world.

What Gould reminds us is that we must name the Asymmetry rather than be sucked into it, must understand what we are experiencing in perspective.  And that we should never forget the other side of the Asymmetry: that very visible, very powerful acts of destruction are outnumbered by acts of human decency.  We saw that very powerfully this week in Manchester, in the form of free taxi rides and cups of tea, beds for the night, queues of people giving blood.

When Gould first wrote about the Great Asymmetry, he was warning that we not understand science as inherently evil or inherently good, but as having disproportionate impact.  The same, Judaism believes, is true of people.  As individuals each of us makes choices, and has the ability to be powerful – to wield extraordinary destructive power if we so choose.  As the rabbis put it, each of us has the ability to tilt the scales for ourselves and for the world.  They comment on that verse from Ecclesiastes that “on account of a single sin”, each of us can destroy much good for ourselves and the world.  What Gould reminds us is that the vast majority of people choose to tilt the world towards goodness, to add to the ten thousand acts of kindness.

And so, despite it all, his message is one of great hope.  As he concluded in his tribute to the people of Halifax.
“We have every reason to maintain our hope in human kindness, and our hopes for the triumph of the human potential”