One Is Not the Magic Number

Racism. Sexism. Terrorism. Fundamentalism. Totalitarianism. Individualism. Ask people what's wrong with the world and their answer will likely focus on some sort of "ism." Corporatism. Narcissism. Commercialism. Cronyism. The list goes on and on.

But I would like to bring up one more "ism," which I view as a huge source of our problems today: monoism. I don't think it's officially a word (Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia and my dictionary say no, while Google hints at some obscure religious meaning), yet I believe it's a powerful idea shaping and distorting modern society. Monoism, in my definition, means "the reckless and wrong-headed reduction of the intricate and often wondrous workings of the universe to a single factor, cause or outcome."

In other words, there's just one answer to any question. One solution to every problem. One happy ending for all stories. One genius behind every new idea or invention. The pervasive power of monoistic thinking leads many people to believe that the only point of business is profit. That the only purpose of education is to prepare kids for jobs. The only true god is the one in which they believe.

Even those of us who naturally resist oversimplifications like these are not free from the influence of monoism. It's been drilled into us since we were young -- at home, in school, all over the media. We've been trained to view the whole world with the same pinpoint precision as a scientist conducting experiments under carefully controlled conditions in a laboratory.

But a quick glance at some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the past century shows that, even in the clear-cut world of science, monoistic explanations -- a single sequence of events occurring in a measurable progression -- do not always describe how discoveries happen. Reality, it turns out, is often a bit messy.

Two research teams probing the mystery of DNA both independently came up with the double helix idea at nearly the same time. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues at the Los Alamos lab barely beat Nazi scientists in developing the atomic bomb. And, as everyone knows, neither Al Gore nor any other single individual invented the internet. (To be fair, Gore never actually made that claim.)

Monoism can be traced back at least as far as the Enlightenment of the 18th Century, which instilled in the Western world the idea that the universe functions like a machine. And it probably goes way back to ancient times when monotheism first asserted there was only one god -- and anyone who thought otherwise was sinfully wicked. Monoistic thinking is destructive because it imposes an artificial one-dimensional structure of reality upon us, promoting the misconception that linear cause and effect can explain everything we need to know.

Take cancer research as an example. For 50 years, we've spent billions investigating what substances cause the disease, testing them in isolation for their carcinogenic properties. Yet there's strong evidence that cancer often arises from a combination of exposures, meaning the monoistic model of tracing the effects of one chemical at a time is inadequate in protecting us from the disease.

You need only look to nitroglycerine, an explosive created by combining two relatively harmless compounds, to see the fallacy of reducing things to their smallest parts in order to understand their impact. Or ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen used by Indians of the Amazon in religious ceremonies that is made from the roots of two rainforest plants, neither of which has much effect when ingested alone.

Indeed, monoism can be found at the root of many other troublesome "isms" haunting our world, like racism (the single-minded focus on race as an indicator of human worth) or fundamentalism (a fixation on one set of beliefs as the absolute truth). All of these "isms" offer a narrow formulation of how the universe operates, blinding us to the diverse and fascinating glory of the world in which we live.


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