It may not surprise you to know that I’m always sticking my evolutionary nose into other people’s world-views whenever opportunity allows. Just in the time between typing the title of this sermon and writing the first sentence, I was interrupted by an acquaintance to chat about this and that, and by the end we were talking about the popular perception that the apocalypse is upon us (as evidenced by the ever-popular sign of earthquakes, or “superbugs’ — to cite the two examples in our conversation), to which I gave (in quick succession) the three following factoids: 1) Viruses evolve faster than we humans do (as clear evidence of evolution and also to show that the idea of disease as a directed judgement from God is absurd); 2) That the human body is more than half bacteria (by cellular weight — oh, and I threw in that we probably began as bacteria), and: 3) That we live on a cooling planet (my blanket answer to our constant surprise at earthquakes).
Now, really, who but an evolution nerd would squeeze that much annoying science into a friendly conversation?
As if I needed more proof of my evolution nerd status, I took a series of on-line ethics surveys that were being conducted by two university psychologists, and one of those surveys asked a series of questions that were designed to show where one stood on the “conservative/liberal” political spectrum. I was surprised to see that I was actually a bit on the conservative side compared to most of my fellow self-identifying liberals in all areas but one: when it came to Evolution versus Creationism, I was way to the left of even the lefties.
I can’t help but be reminded of my Evangelical years when I get the feeling that I am barking like a voice in the wilderness about a subject that very few people consider relevant to their lives. Of course I think it’s relevant because it makes so much about life make sense. And so I have the fervor of a convert, which is about the most annoying thing there is on the planet (think of a friend that has just recently quit drinking or smoking — for a while their turn-around is the ONLY subject on their mind, and the source of a certain focused zeal).
Of course one of the reasons I’m so ready to leap to the defense of rational thought is that we humans seem naturally predisposed to jump to the most irrational conclusions when faced with natural disaster (in particular). We are pattern-seekers, and will find one whether or not a pattern actually exists. Hence the Facebook posting from an evangelical friend:
“Sept 11th (NY) Jan 11th (Haiti) and March 11th (Japan).Luke 21:10-11Then jesus said his disciples: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.There will be great earthquakes’,famines and pestilences in various places,and fearful events and great signs from heaven. ‘Jesus says for behold I come quickly,’ * so ask yourself ARE YOU READY?* repost this.”
I also watched a video that displayed the “beauty of mathematics” (as a sign of God’s order) that assigned a numeric value to every letter in the alphabet, then took a series of phrases and “added” up the numbers, ending with “The love of God” adding up to 101% (the popular figure for the optimum human effort). I couldn’t help but think, however that “The love of Dog” would also equal 101% by that test.
These are highly typical examples of what the human mind finds irresistible. But is there really any harm in such nonsense? Who knows. Clearly I think it’s better to believe more in fact than in fantasy, but maybe that’s just because I’ve become such an evolution nerd. Or maybe I feel like such an evolution nerd because I am surrounded by so much non-rational nonsense.
When I made a decision last year to start writing op/ed pieces for my local newspaper, my motivation was to counter the rising popularity of the TEA Party movement with a dose of rationality. I decided that I had a sort of duty to at least be a “speed bump” to slow, if not stop, them. Now, I have sympathies with the feelings of the TEA Party regarding certain things, but what I mostly saw was the panoply of hair-brained beliefs that were being swept along with their political agenda (the “Birthing” controversy, for example). But in all of my engagements with that group, I came out feeling like I had charged valiantly against an impenetrable fortress of motivated ignorance.
There is clearly more to this sort of thing than the difficulties of countering a popular political movement (to take the TEA Party example). Underlying it all is the problem of the ways in which our evolved primate brains work, and the fact that most of the operators of those brains have no frigging idea that they are operating under any sort of mammalian limitations to cognition (for more on that, see “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed on this blog). But there I am again: proselytizing, preaching, evangelizing about my “version” of the truth, like a true nerd.
I am like every other human in that I have a sense of self so inflated as to believe that I can, on some level, achieve a workable knowledge of the “truth”. On the other hand, I have enough of an awareness of the limitations of that self that I know that the best I’m going to get is a “workable” knowledge. One thing about living in the age we do is that we cannot help but know that we are surrounded by a record of human knowledge such that no single human mind can hope to contain it, not matter how much study or time is given the pursuit. And our collective knowledge increases incredibly every day with each new invention or discovery, so that our own store of knowledge can be seen as a mirror of the universe that is still speeding up some 13.6 billions years after it began.
Damn, I did it again. I had to get that “age of the universe” thing in there, didn’t I?
Well, I told you at the outset what I was. Now I’ve just gone and proved it. Next thing you know I’ll be going door to door, asking folks if I could share a little literature about Charles Darwin…