September 19, 2019

The New Liberal Heresy

“I teach college in a small city in Arkansas, deep in the American Bible Belt. I am a historian of Africa and in my department that means that I also teach a world history survey. I always start with the expansion of modern humans out of Africa and their encounter with other types of humans: Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Denesovians and what seems like an ever-growing list of newly discovered human-like creatures. It’s less the case now, but when I started twenty years ago this part of the course was initially met with polite but firm resistance, which gradually gave way to a sort of furtive curiosity. I eventually realized that even my cleverest students knew very little about human evolution except that it was false and that they were supposed to reject it. They came to the university having been taught that evolution was part of a larger attack on their faith and values, but they had never really been exposed to anything but a sort of parody version of it. A small number of them accepted evolutionary theory, but being a Darwinian in rural Arkansas was usually more about youthful rebellion and non-conformity than it was about informed, rational consideration of evidence.

Once we got past the denunciation or acceptance of evolutionary theory as a form of tribal affiliation, I found students to be deeply curious about it. It was such a taboo subject that their high school teachers had only skimmed over it and often with some careful personal distancing from the material. So the opportunity to delve into the details of this forbidden knowledge was intellectually thrilling for them. Despite the excitement engendered by the topic only a few changed their minds; most did not.

My students had grown up in communities where evolutionary theory was so wrong, so contrary to the accepted worldview of all decent people, that the only acceptable way to talk about it was to denounce it or reject it. The result was that most of my students rejected evolution, but getting a chance to learn about it was profoundly exciting, even if most of them were too conformist (these were Honors students after all) to change their positions.

If you are now rolling your eyes at how benighted rural Arkansans are and congratulating yourself on the open mindedness of the academic world, it’s worth considering a couple of recent news items.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Picks

"Congratulations, Mr. President. It took an extraordinary effort, but you finally managed to spark a serious global crisis. I know you don’t like to share credit, but don’t worry. The current mess in the Middle East centered around Iran is all..."

"We’re approaching the anniversary of one of the nastiest political battles it has been my misfortune to witness—the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite credible accusations of sexual harassment and assault and his..."

"There are few one-offs in life on Earth—rarely can a single species boast a trait or ability that no other possesses. But human language is one such oddity. Our ability to use subtle combinations of sounds produced by our vocal cords to create..."

"He walked through the coffee shop door and scanned the crowd. A familiar smile bloomed as he recognized me, despite how my appearance had changed over the years. I’m bald and bearded now, and heavier. I wear an extra decade on my face, and I’m..."

"The poverty rate in the United States fell to 11.8 percent in 2018, according to data released last week by the Census Bureau — the lowest it’s been since 2001. But this estimate significantly understates the extent of economic deprivation in..."

"Streaming is the future of TV. But for now a big part of the streaming business revolves around old TV shows. Latest case in point: Netflix is paying a lot of money for the rights to show Seinfeld to its 150 million subscribers around the world..."

"On the eve of the second Israeli election of 2019, there is no shortage of apocalyptic rhetoric about the potential consequences of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election. From the New York Times' editorial column to The Forward’s..."

"Is there a backlash toward the technology industry in the culture? I tend to think so, having written about its various twists and turns most weekdays for the past couple years now. But sometimes an obsession with a beat can lead to myopia, and..."