We’re Different…

Last week I watched a political talk show which included a pair of “liberals” and a pair of “conservatives.”  Among other things, for some reason, the subject of evolution came up, possibly because the moderator wanted to show the conservatives as either not excessively bright or not excessively consistent, and out of nowhere one of the liberals [non-American] made the statement, “You’ve seen the evidence that bacteria grow and change in response to exposure to antibiotics, how their descendants become resistant?” Then came the follow-up question, “If you can accept evolution on the bacterial level, why can’t you accept it on a higher level, as in the case of humans?”

One of the conservatives immediately made the point that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove human evolution, just “scattered” fossils.  The other one had no response. In point of fact, there’s a great preponderance of evidence, and the volume of that evidence grows every year.  But… no matter how great the evidence becomes, it won’t ever be enough to convince individuals such as those whom I observed, neither of whom, I might add, could be considered stupid or unintelligent.

So why do intelligent and thinking individuals, often those who have been incredibly successful in various fields, find it so hard to accept a mounting stack of evidence that reinforces the accuracy of the theory of evolution?

The simple answer, and the one most often offered, is that they truly believe that the theory is not correct – but not one of those people, including scientists, can offer evidence to the contrary.  The best that they can offer are various reasons along the lines of:  there isn’t enough evidence; the theory doesn’t explain “X” [and there are several different Xs]; there’s no way evolution could result in a being as complex as a human; etc.  None of these reasons refute evolution; they’re merely reasons for insisting that, until the theory is perfect and airtight, evolution can’t possibly explain the development of life on Earth.  They’re all rationalized forms of denial.

The real reason, it appears to me, for most unbelief in evolution, as illustrated by the exchange dealing with bacteria, is that most who reject evolution want to believe that human beings are truly special, and that, being special, we’re different from all the other species that have ever existed, even when DNA analyses show that over 99% of our DNA is the same as that of chimpanzees. 

This feeling of being special and different can inspire someone to great accomplishments, but it’s also dangerous.  It’s the same sort of rationalization that supported slave-holding.  It’s the same sort of mindset that allows financiers to think they’re so much superior to the “little people” their schemes fleece, the same sort of mindset that’s behind every ethnic-cleansing movement in history.  Yes, each of us is indeed different in some degree from anyone else, even from an identical twin… but that difference, held up against the universe, pales in comparison to our similarities.

Denial of evolution is more of a scream of protest that humans, especially the screamers, are truly different and special, and that’s more than ironic, because all too many of the monsters of human history have said exactly the same thing, in one way or another, even creating massive monuments to prove their difference and specialness.

5 thoughts on “We’re Different…”

  1. hob says:

    It could be because those who consider themselves conservatives are actually saying they are for keeping/maintaining/restoring the laws of society that were present during their childhood or in a mostly romanticized past they have in mind. They feel such laws/values fundamentally keep societies together and functioning–not advancements in human knowledge. The danger they feel is that when theories like evolution are presented, with the ever growing probabilities to back the idea, people will stop valuing past laws/values and society will break down.

    Playing Devil’s advocate–can human societies be based on logic? That is, we might be rational creatures–but are the inequalities forced upon people by the nature of societies/cultures and the things which they value and disregard logical? If we follow this line of reasoning, can highly advanced societies be kept together without greater forms of intellectual escapism?

    And if such escapism grows as the knowledge of a society grows–would such a hypothetical society be stuck in a loop? Greater knowledge, used only to construct greater forms of escapism, to keep human knowledge advancing, round and round.

  2. Joe says:

    It might also be that only 28 percent of high school science teachers [..] present students with evidence of evolution.


  3. Richard Hamilton says:

    Evolution (as a mechanism, not as a statement that existence is random and without an ultimate purpose driving it) need not be incompatible with religious beliefs (which can neither be proved or disproved anyway, and to my thinking, aren’t _meant_ to be, since proof would eliminate the need for faith and restrict free will).

    I think even the Scopes trial noted that the six days of creation needn’t be literal 24-hour days, and I’ve read that Jewish oral tradition stipulates that the “days” prior to the creation of Adam on the 6th day were not 24-hour periods.

    That leads me to suspect that the conflict over evolution isn’t about
    religion or science precluding one another (and indeed I think they can’t
    really do so if both are honestly pursued), but rather about an essentially
    political power struggle, although one not necessarily always aligned with conservative vs liberal.

    If the pursuit of power over others were set aside, and both sides
    exercised enough humility to recognize the limits of their respective
    fields of argument, there would be no cause for argument.

    Likewise, feeling one has a special purpose need not be a harmful
    thing if it is combined with humility and the avoidance of the pursuit
    of power over others. There are advantages to living as if one’s
    responsibilities extended well into the future, but also as if each day
    could be one’s last. Likewise, there are advantages to the perspective
    both that our purpose derives from a higher authority (and I might
    add, not just some other human claiming to speak with higher authority),
    but also to the perspective that it’s up to us to make our own choices
    and accept responsibility for the consequences. In both cases, neither
    need preclude the other.

    Each individual, and should we encounter other intelligent species
    capable of demonstrating some understanding of the consequences
    of their decisions (dogs can be fairly intelligent, but that never stops
    them from digging in the trash even though the moment you come home they know they’re in trouble) each species, is special, and yet that does not imply a sort of specialness that is ours alone, or that the specialness of any one justifies their usurping the lives, freedom, or property of others.

    As I understand it, a reasonable view of mental processes is that one starts with very basic imperatives like survival, avoidance of pain, pursuit of pleasure, etc; then builds on top of that more and more layers of very sophisticated pattern matching which can be trained but can’t really explain how they reached their conclusions; and finally there’s rationality, or rather rationalization of what one has already done, which is _always_ after-the-fact. For anything not requiring the fastest response times, one can train oneself to let rationalization intrude between a proposed action and its implementation, and thus we can approximate being rational creatures. But that would be a matter of upbringing, learning, and constant discipline; and might well be subverted by some physical conditions in some people.

    Evolution is a useful (if necessarily incomplete) theory, which allows for understanding various processes. But it should no more become the basis for philosophy than religion should set itself up to judge what constitutes valid science.

  4. baseball fan says:

    I view it as the more we learn about science and the natural order of things, the more we come to understand God and how he created the Universe. I suspect that I’m in a small minority though.

  5. Bob Howard says:

    After retiring from the Army, my first stab at a second career found me teaching high school biology. The capstone of each year was, of course, evolution. It proved to be the most rewarding and at the same time the most frustrating experience I’ve ever had in education. I’d thought long and hard on the best approach(es) for reaching the hard-core religion-based rejectionism of a fewstudents, but was truly astounded at the depth and stubborness of their denial.

    There simply was no common ground to be found and I reluctantly fell back on the last resort, simply requiring suitably detailed regurgitation at exam time and acknowledging their “right” to remain ignorant. I really can’t convey how depressing it all was, and how sad it made me feel for the future of our society. While I certainly can’t argue against an individual’s right to their religious beliefs, such willful ignorance of the most fundamental tenets of biology is truly frightening to me.

    I think Mr. Modesitt’s point on the need to feel “special” lies at the heart of their rejection (just as it does in the need for religion to begin with), but I’d go further and link that same attitude with the current fad amongst conservatives to extol American “exceptionalism.” Only through denial of pesky facts and clear evidence that permeates every aspect of life on this planet can they cling to their abiding faith in the special nature of man.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *