Democratic Underground

Darwin's Lament

May 7, 2005
By punpirate

Okay, maybe I'm just confused again, but, from what I can see, the state of Kansas, in answer to the stupidest quiz show question of all (what state is determined to utterly undermine the Enlightenment?), jumps up and says, "Me! Me! Me! Pick me!"

Every day, Kansans, even those who think the Bible is the inerrant word of God, no exceptions, no qualifications, no hesitations, no thought about it whatsoever, get into an encapsulate object made of metal, vinyl and glass, insert a small metal object into a specially-designed receptable, turn that object and begin to pump hydrocarbons into a specially-designed metal object which turns those hydrocarbons into heat, which causes that encapsulated larger object to move.

Ever hear a born-again Kansan rail against the science that made the automobile? Nope, me neither. Periodically, some of those Kansans get into a long metal tube with wings (some of which are made in, gasp, Wichita, Kansas!), strap themselves in and are then accelerated to nearly 600 mph and are lifted into the sky to an altitude of about 33,000 feet, without the aid of Jesus, and directed to their destination by a strange assemblage of wires and glass known as a klystron tube (or its post-millennial equivalent), an essential part of what silly scientists refer to as radar.

Ever hear a born-again Kansan harp about the inherent ungodliness of airplanes? Nope, me neither.

Or wail about the evil of having to pick up a plastic pen, or drag a synthetic rubber-hosed sprinkler into the back yard and turn the handle of a sophisticated metal and plastic object and have water come out, water provided by distant, complicated pumps (run by even more distant and more complicated generators making the electricity to run them) and industrial processes to kill the germs and remove the gritty bits as flocculants, and inject a bit of sodium fluoride to keep their teeth strong and free of cavities?

Me neither.

Hell, their preachers love polyester leisure suits. Ever hear them talk about spinning wool from polyester sheep to clothe their mentors?

Me neither.

Well, folks, everyone takes it for granted, but all that's the result of science. What's Kansas complaining about, then? Uh, umm, science. Not the science that makes automobiles, or airplanes, or water valves or polyester leisure suits (well, maybe we should all complain about that aspect of it), but, rather, Darwin's theory of evolution, as he described in his Origin of the Species.

Why on earth would they complain about that? Umm, there's that little bit in the Bible called Genesis, which says, essentially, that whatever creative mischief done by whatever being creating this little orb we know of as Earth did it in six days. Everything. Sculpting, watering, landscaping, stocking the refrigerator with tasty animal bits, the works--and, oh, yes, creating that odd little conflicted, neurotic, highly imaginative bipedal animal known as man, some examples of whom have recently taken to believing ancient texts as perfect and unchangeable and emanating from said mischievous creator being, absolute and inviolate, a few thousand years ago.

So, they have complained to the Kansas state school board that science is a "belief system," the same as their belief in the Bible as the inerrant word of said mischievous creator being.

Well, folks, I can guess who's been asleep during biology class for the last hundred or so years, or has been sticking their fingers in their ears, or has been drawing pictures of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in the margins of their books. If they hadn't been, they'd have understood that science, if anything at all, isn't a belief system, if only because the heart and soul of it depends not on belief, but, rather, on skepticism. Want proof of that? Just go back fifteen years and read about the brouhaha over cold fusion.

But, back to Darwin. Darwin said something that got the fundamentalists--the people who believe that the mischievous creator being of the Bible created everything (except Buicks and lawn sprinklers and 110 volts on demand and bad suits) in six days--very upset. Darwin said, "y'know, guys, we're so much like apes that we probably came from them, hundreds of thousands of years ago."

Imagine Marlon Brando, wiping the malarial sweat from his shiny, shaven pate, clutching a Bible instead of a copy of The Golden Bough, groaning, "the horror, the horror." Yup, you've got the emotional extent of the fundamentalists' reaction to Darwin's little scientific observation. They were so upset that when a Tennessee biology teacher named John Scopes dared teach Darwin's theory of evolution in his classes in the `20s, they put him, and Darwin, on trial. They hired the most prominent populist and defender of the common man of the day, William Jennings Bryan, to defend them and their right to have science barred from high school biology, in defense of "traditional values."

Tennessee had an anti-evolution statute, and that was the premise for the case, but it wasn't about just challenging that law. At its root, it was about "ordinary people" having some choice about what was taught in their local schools to their children, even if most of them were illiterate and uneducated. It was about limiting education to whatever the community believed to be true.

Protestants arguing about grandpa monkeys weren't the first instance of this sort of aberrant logic. Nearly three hundred years prior, another scientist by the name of Galileo Galilei ran afoul of the dominant church of the time by suggesting that the sun and the other heavenly bodies didn't revolve around the earth. His book on the subject was banned, he was convicted of heresy in 1633, and was kept under house arrest for the rest of his life. In 1979, 346 years later, the then-current pope, John Paul II uttered the polite and politic equivalent of "oops," and said, well, maybe we were wrong, despite the sin and corruption the Inquisition had found in the soul of Galileo. It only took the officialdom of the Catholic Church another thirteen years to formally declare, "uh, well, maybe we were wrong about that heavenly bodies thingie."

John Scopes and his lawyer, Clarence Darrow, sort of won in 1925. Galileo sort of won in 1992. Most of us thought that would be the end of religion shoving its bristled porcine nose against the pristine bell jar of science, but, no. Not by a long shot.

There was still Kansas, and the rest of the states with vocal extreme minorities believing in the Dark Ages. With the help of corrupt and ambitious politicians, they began their attempt to make their religion the only authority of value in a secular society, even if their Constitution and ours said, "unh, uh, bub" to mixing state and religion.

Thus they begat the culture wars.

So, today, Darwin is once again on trial. Who cares if the human genome project has shown that humans and chimpanzees have 98.4% of their genes in common? Who cares if increasingly accurate radiological dating techniques put the age of the earth at about 4.5 billion years old? Who cares if the human limbic system resembles, in structure and function, that of a reptile brain?

Who cares? The true believers. The born-again Christians who see metaphorical, best-guesses of the ancients' stories in the Bible as the literal truth, and their political friends who want to make political hay while riding the crest of this fervent minority's beliefs.

More than fifty years ago, Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer, has something to say about such people and their politicians:

Pascal was of the opinion that "one was well-minded to understand holy writ when one hated onself." There is apparently some connection between dissatisfaction with oneself and a proneness to credulity. The urge to escape our real self is also an urge to escape the rational and the obvious. The refusal to see ourselves as we are develops a distaste for facts and cold logic. There is no hope for the frustrated in the actual and the possible. Salvation can come to them only from the miraculous, which seeps through a crack in the iron wall of inexorable reality. They ask to be deceived. What Stresseman said of the Germans is true of the frustrated in general: "[They] pray not only for [their] daily bread, but also for [their] daily illusion." The rule seems to be that those who find no difficulty in deceiving themselves are easily deceived by others. They are easily persuaded and led.

... The inability or unwillingness to see things as they are promotes both gullibility and charlatanism.

Seeing things as they are... that would be a good definition of what we might hope science will eventually help us do as a race and as the sentient stewards of our little orb.

If we, as a society, cannot respect and understand the science we have created out of our own imaginations and our rational thought processes, cannot transmit that rigorous spirit of inquiry and curiosity to our progeny, then we shall have no choice but to fall back into that chaos and misery and tyranny, political and literal, of the Dark Ages.

punpirate is a New Mexico writer who is looking for the light.

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