April 24, 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.”

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