People think Tennesseans are remarkably stupid. Like the late Bill Hicks, who continually mocked my state during his comedy routines. “In many parts of our troubled world, people are yelling ‘Revolution!’” he ranted. “In Tennessee they’re yelling ‘Evolution! We want our thumbs!!‘” Whenever Tool or A Perfect Circle would come to town, singer Maynard Keenan always asked Tennessee audiences to put their thumbs in the air. As we held our opposable digits over our heads, Keenan came with the punch line: “Just making sure you have them.” What can I say? Stereotypes are hilarious.
So it is without resentment that this Tennessean wishes Charles Darwin a happy 203rd birthday today. I would love to celebrate with a heapin’ helpin’ of chilled monkey brains, but ’round these parts that would require cannibalizing the locals.
Despite the creationists’ best efforts, Darwin’s theory of natural selection reigns as the unifying concept in biology, and continues to give wider context to such disparate fields as ecology, epidemiology, and psychology. E.O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, contends, “There is no question [that Darwin's] body of work, pivoted by The Origin of Species, is the most important scientific work of all time.”
Wilson’s seminal application of Darwinian principles to human beings—now popularly known as evolutionary psychology—highlights the importance of an evolutionary understanding for the general public. Evolutionary psychology has yielded fantastic, if unflattering insights into why we tend to fight, fuck, and fling poo like our closest primate cousins. The basic conclusion is quite simple: violent, sexual, and sexually violent behaviors were crucial to the reproduction and survival of our ancestors’ selfish genes, from Jurassic rats to Homo erectus. Even our distinctly human capacities for language, mysticism, and religion are hypothesized as neurological mechanisms which benefit group survival. Therefore the primary opposition to Darwin’s theory is merely a mental artifact of group selection. Fundamentalists will have to add a few holes in their Bible Belt to chew on that one.
It’s no wonder then that Gallup polls still show 40% of Americans would rather believe that God simply created humans in our present form. 73% of Protestant ministers agree. Such beliefs avoid that uncomfortable moment when you look into the mirror and see an ape glaring back. According to the Pew Research Center, these holdouts against evolution are most likely to be found among Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, evangelical and historically black Protestants, and Muslims, though close to half of mainline Protestants and Catholics feel the same way. Not surprisingly, creationists are the most concentrated around the Volunteer State, which hosted the highly sensationalized Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 and whose Senate Bill 893—permitting high school teachers to openly criticize Darwinism in the classroom—goes up for a vote this year.
I spent the past week scouring the Tennessee foothills for signs of evolutionary progress. It turns out there are plenty of thumbs among us. Back in the 1940s, Knoxvillians invented Mountain Dew, Nashville became the capital of country music, and Oak Ridge produced plutonium for the world’s first nuclear assault on Hiroshima. In social evolution, the first two schools in the South to desegregate were in Oak Ridge in 1955, then more famously in Clinton a year later. We produced such meme mutations as Hank Williams, Bettie Page, Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, and Isaac Hayes. To assist in natural selection, Hamilton County, TN contracted the first privately operated American prison in 1984, and every time you snort a line with a rolled-up twenty dollar bill, you stick a Tennessean up your nose.
I know, I know, you’re welcome.
Today, Oak Ridge houses Jaguar, the third fastest supercomputer in the world—and after its ongoing upgrade, it will be the fastest once again next year. Transhumanists should pick up a pair of overalls, because the Singularity starts here. Vanderbilt University boasts the nation’s #1 graduate school of Education—teaching teachers to teach since 1875—and the Vanderbilt Medical Center’s burn unit is second to none in treating victims of meth lab explosions. These days, the smoldering Dayton courthouse that killed William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Monkey Trial is now overshadowed by the steamy cooling towers of the Watts Bar nuclear reactors, which powers refrigerators full of Mountain Dew and thousands of personal computers, so that all colors and creeds can Google “Darwinism” at their leisure. Evidence of progress is everywhere.
The University of Tennessee in Knoxville celebrated its 16th annual “Darwin Day” event this week, first organized by prominent evolutionist Massimo Pigliucci in 1997, making it one of the longest running commemorations of Darwin in the country. Past speakers include such notable names as Douglas Futuyma, Michael Ruse, Ken Miller, and Michael Shermer. In its heyday, UT’s “Darwin Day” drew a lot of entertaining hostility from local church-goers, but the controversy has subsided in recent years, largely due to a more mellow, noncombative approach by event organizers. According to one information booth worker, the most aggressive heckler this year was “an angry militant atheist” who berated volunteers about the evils of religion. This is somewhat disappointing, not because I support biblical literalism, but because I always enjoy a good spectacle.
In fact, the only Christian to speak out during the lecture series was a self-described “unashamed theist,” Reverend John Rush of Cosby, who during the Q&A session told speaker Harry Greene that he supported the biologist’s wildlife conservation efforts. When I spoke to Rev. Rush after the lecture, he told me that Darwinism had forced him to rethink his position as a Christian, though the theory “becomes wearisome as a club for atheists.” He is frustrated by religious anti-intellectualism, and says that “the church has dropped the ball.”
Many modern believers simply integrate the evolutionary narrative into their religious views. In fact, Theodosius Dobzhansky, an Orthodox Christian, coined the classic dictum, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” 38% of Americans believe that God guided the process. Like most beliefs, theistic evolution just seems obvious.
Hardcore materialists such as Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett call this position a bastardization of pure science, insisting that Darwinian evolution accounts for the diverse life forms on Earth without any help from God, gods, or animistic impulses. They insist that natural selection acting on random mutation and sexual genetic reshuffling created everything from opposable thumbs to temporal lobes to the Krebs citric acid cycle. A growing minority of Americans agree with them—16% in 2010, up from 9% in 1982. Not that anyone in the ivory towers is asking for public approval.
The rest of us booger eatin’ rednecks have to believe in magic in one form or another—something, anything more than a random mutation generator at the center of the Universe. Our inner apes screech in the face of atoms and the void. Give us divine intervention. Intelligent design. Lamarckian animism. Demonic bio-genesis. A polytheistic soapbox derby of survival mechanisms. Whatever.
The neo-Darwinian synthesis may eat religious meme complexes for breakfast, but if God is truly God, He shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Especially here in Tennessee.
© 2012 Joseph Allen