The Nation, 10 May 2010

Jerry Coyne asks why so many Americans who are capable of accepting the germ theory of disease in a perfectly calm state of mind become so agitated by the theory of evolution by natural selection that they would rather seek refuge in the most far-fetched mythological tales than accept it.  Coyne remarks on two possible explanations for this continent-wide panic attack:

One answer is religion. Unlike germ theory, the idea of evolution strikes at the heart of human ego, suggesting that we were not the special object of God’s attention but were made by the same blind and mindless process of natural selection that also built ferns, fish and rabbits. Another answer is ignorance: most Americans are simply unaware of the multifarious evidence that makes evolution more than “just a theory,” and don’t even realize that a scientific theory is far more than idle speculation.

I don’t  know if either of these explanations really gets us very far.  After all, before Hippocrates it was widely assumed that health or illness was chiefly a sign of a person’s relationship to the gods and other supernatural forces.  So a healthy person enjoyed the favor of the gods, and one who fell ill had incurred the displeasure of one of them.  Recovery from illness was a sign that the sufferer had made up with the supernatural powers lurking inside the world.  The intimate, ongoing relationship between human bodies and supernatural powers that an idea like that implies would strike me as suggestive of a far more elevated view of humanity’s role in the cosmos than would tales of a single incident long ago in which the gods or a god created or earliest ancestor.  If the Greeks didn’t collapse in anxiety at the advent of Hippocrates and the idea that health might have more to with the body’s chemical makeup and physical structure than with the attentions of the gods, I don’t see why modern biology should have triggered such strange reactions from contemporary Americans. 

As for the notion that “most Americans… don’t even realize that a scientific theory is far more than idle speculation,” that’s easy to believe if you listen to the way the word “theory” figures in the rhetoric of Creationists and their enablers.  However, once the topic turns from evolution to a topic which does not excite their anxiety, those same people behave quite differently.  Hearing about the “theory of gravity,” they do not draw the conclusion that they can jump from the top of a skyscraper and float away.  

Elsewhere in the issue, Kai Bird describes the polarization of society in Israel/ Palestine.  He predicts that “a hundred years from now, people will look back to the early twenty-first century and wonder at the fools who delayed peace with their messianic notions.”  Bird’s description of the loop in which unrealistic ideas feed lawless behavior, which in turn reinforces those unrealistic ideas, might help explain the puzzle Coyne mentions.  Fundamentalists stake the whole truth of their religion on one interpretation of one passage of scripture.  Scientific evidence emerges that makes it difficult to believe that this interpretation could be an accurate description of history.  Rather than adapt their ideas, the fundamentalists try to shout their opponents down.  The more they shout, the less conceivable it becomes to them that they might be wrong.  So perhaps the anxiety with which Creationists greet evolutionary theory is a self-perpetuating loop.  Maybe the Greeks would have fallen into a similar loop in the time of Hippocrates had any group decided they would lose something vital unless they started shouting against him.      

The issue also includes a couple of pieces about US policy in Central Asia, an investigation revealing that a significant percentage of the US defense budget is being funneled directly to prominent families in Kyrgyzstan, and a report on some not-very-attractive characters who are likely to gain influence in that country as a result of the popular backlash there against the enrichment of these families.  As with Israel/ Palestine, so too in the USA militarism feeds on itself.  The more involved Americans become in the occupations of Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries, the less conceivable it becomes to them that these occupations might be wrong.  So they greet proposals for withdrawal with reactions that show little sign of a thought-through conception of national interest, and everything to do with the fear of losing face.

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