Friday, September 5, 2008

Creationists, Evolutionists, and Elitism

(Was it Lyndon Johnson who memorably referred to his opponents as "effete liberal snobs?")

Let me say right out that the above cartoon does not represent my point of view. I reproduce it to show the crux of the bitter feud between creationists and evolutionists, which is going to get oh so much worse as Sarah Palin throws out red meat on this topic.

And the crux is a failure of respect on both sides. A failure of empathy. I tend to be on the side so pithily described these days as "elitist," that is, educated and keenly interested in thought, and in education. But I would not describe myself as "an evolutionist" anymore than I would say that I hold fast to the theory of gravity (though it certainly holds fast to me, as much as I would like to fly.)

I know people who are nuts about evolution. They explain that this way of making inferences about the origin of humankind from the mass of possibly-relevant data, this has enabled them to discard a constricting point of view imposed on them as children. It has freed them to feel awe, to wonder at what they would never call the "intelligent design" of the universe. The fantastic working of its laws.

These folks worship Nature, a Poet might say. For them, the theory of evolution is not a theory, but a cosmology with the quality of religion. While they are extreme, they are not really outliers; the educated liberals I know also believe, I suspect, that evolution is not "theory" but "fact." I invite them to ponder the difference.

I also know, mostly through family connections and my checkered religious past, people who would say they are creationists. With some trepidation, I'm going to describe them as people who believe there is only one sacred book, and who interpret it literally in places. I find myself wondering why, of all the stories in that Bible, the Genesis creation story is so important. I don't hear these folks decrying the school lunch program on the grounds that the Bible also presents the miracle of loaves and fishes.

Here's what I hear when these folks talk about evolution: Don't you tell me I'm descended from a monkey!

Educated white Americans are among the most privileged people in the world, and we usually forget that. It's hard for us to put ourselves in the place of the guys setting up a wedding tent on the neighbor's lawn, or their mechanic, who built his own business starting from nothing, or the guy whose major accomplishment in life was a fifty-yard run on the high-school football team, and it's all been downhill since then.

Or his wife, who lives in a community where there is a very distinct separation between Men and Women, very clear regulation of roles; who knows that the professionals whose house she cleans subtly look down on her. In today's New York Times, Paul Krugman refers quite correctly to "the angry right," an anger he believes is "based on the perception . . . that Democrats look down their noses at regular people."

I do not mean to stereotype creationists; just a glance at the internet or at public school battles will tell you there are many who are educated and articulate. What I am trying to put forward is the possibility that, as a broad demographic, creationists are more likely to be people who know they are stuck, who feel they are looked down upon by those who were born to more money and more opportunity; and they are probably right. Classism is even more subtle than sexism, and more widespread, and Americans really don't like to think it grows here.

The creationist I'm postulating has one thing going for him or her, though. A religion that tells them authoritatively, "You are a child of God, created in God's very image. You are quite special." This dangerous concept surely must be a source of self-worth in the face of working poverty, of not "making it" in a country that preaches the myth that anyone who wants to can make it. Not true, of course. How many small businesses fail every year?

I want to write more later on how we, the elite, those of us lucky enough to have learned how to think scientifically, might begin to think of this fight as an opportunity for empathy, for trying to understand why the other side cares so much. Maybe this is called non-violent communication; maybe it is respect, or negotiation, or just attention.

And just as important, we need to think carefully about what it is we really need and want to teach in science class.

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