Tennesseans Evolved Thumbs After All

Courtesy of Brandt Hardin

Courtesy of Brandt Hardin

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

Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a writer and fellow primate who wonders why we came down from the trees. A lifelong student of religion and science, he's also kept his hands dirty as a land surveyor, communal farm hand, kitchen servant, and for over a decade, by climbing steel as an entertainment rigger. His work appears in various outlets from left to right because he prefers liberty to security.

Daily interjections: @EvoPsychosis

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23 Comments on "Tennesseans Evolved Thumbs After All"

  1. Monkey See Monkey Do | Feb 12, 2012 at 10:54 am |

    Macro-evolution theory has alot of holes in it. If you enter the idea of consciousness as the ground of all being, then it can start to make more sense.

    • Would you care to point out those holes, and explain your distinction between micro- and macro-evolution?

      • Micro-evolution is when we don’t make up a new name for an animal, and macro-evolution is when we do.

        • That’s hardly a scientific definition.

          • I decided taxonomy was a crapshoot a long time ago.

            I always understood the value of trying to distinguish plants and animals, but I also recognized the utter impossibility of digitizing such an analog, expansive, and evolving bulk of information.

          • Queef_Biscuit | Feb 12, 2012 at 11:15 pm |

            Did you know any human being can alter the information in Wikipedia. If that is where you go for information you might as well consider yourself an ape.

          • Simiantongue | Feb 13, 2012 at 8:19 am |

            You make it seem new additions and changes can be done arbitrarily. I don’t find that to be the case.

          • Meaning what?  You want me to find other sources or you want to deny the issue?

          • Monkey See Monkey Do | Feb 14, 2012 at 1:44 am |

            Sometimes even if you do all the work for some people they still walk around blindly. Follwing the beliefs of any institution which claims to be able to give them more answers to their life.

  2. specksnyder | Feb 12, 2012 at 11:13 am |

    As a displaced Tennessee native, I’m pleased that I’ve come by my thumbs honestly. In fact, I’m typing with them now. I don’t fall into the relative comfort of intelligent design, though. Seems like baby steps to the truth. Still, baby steps are progress. Thanks for this somewhat rare recognition of Tenneseans’ complexity and social contribution. I shudder to think what state we’d be in without Hank and Elvis, though the latter we did pilfer from Mississippi, if we’re being fair.

  3. Chad Weeks | Feb 12, 2012 at 11:38 am |

    I’m sorry, but I left that wretched state the minute I graduated high school in 1989.  Nothing has changed since then either.  I go back 2 times a year and count down the minutes till I leave.  “Dpn’t say gay” and now the STATE of TN has cut off funding to Planned Parenthood…  There might be pockets of people who have progressed a tad – they might have stopped wearing Members Only jackets – but for the most part the state is one large toothless Church. 

  4. Sid Refer | Feb 12, 2012 at 3:12 pm |

    Your confusing science with
    philosophy. 1) Natural selection thins the gene pool, not increasing
    it. The DNA Code Barrier- Evolution does not “add” genetic material.
    Even Richard Dawkins admits no examples of new information being added
    except by human engineering/not nature. 2) If a trait is critical for
    survival it must be fully functional (Imagine a bat with only half
    formed wings.) Can’t walk & can’t fly. There are limits to the DNA
    code. You don’t get Elephants from Fruitflies. DNA is not added based
    upon environmental factors. It may be thined or altered by mutation-
    But mutations are not a vehicle to a more survivable species- they
    weaken them. Your genetic material is not enlarged by survival of the
    fittest or by experience. You pass on ONLY your gene’s. Thus acquired
    information isn’t passed along. Micro-evolution happens all the time. Macro evolution has too many holes in it to be logical.

    • Evergreen | Feb 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |

      Was that a comment for the article or an attempt to write your own…. fail and fail.

    • Using a flawed/incomplete dogma of genetic knowledge to disprove evolution holds as much weight as atheists attempting to disprove all aspects of spirituality through the flawed/incomplete dogma of Christianity.

      Edit: For clarity’s sake, the dogma and understanding of that dogma are both flawed.

    • You’re confusing “your” with “you’re”.

      Edit: Know what? That’s a cheap shot on my part, and it doesn’t address any of your arguments. Please accept my apology.

  5. Athanasius | Feb 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm |

    Orthodox Christianity FTW

  6. The south is a place with a lot of problems, but like most problems they have “evolved” from a panoply of social and economic issues. Rather than addressing those problems, most pundits (and internet commenters, for that matter) are happier applying blanket qualities to the region that serves a more valuable purpose to them as a collective scapegoat for the rest of the country’s own racial and cultural anxieties. I don’t mean this to excuse the racial turmoil and ignorance that you can find in the south  (we’ve got a ton of it here and if we’re honest, a lot of other places as well), only to point out that oversimplifying the problems and vilifying your fellow Americans with jokes about incest and dental problems doesn’t serve the interests of the country in the long run. I’m a fan of Bill Maher, for instance, but I can assure you that the mix of people he showed in his “Toothless Tuesday” video is not representative of me or my fellow Mississippians as a whole (For that matter, actually, what if it was? Would Maher be as quick to poke fun at the public health problems, ill education and grinding poverty of any other group of people? I doubt it.) Good for a laugh, I guess, but again, it’s nice to have people to look down on, isn’t it? 

    It’s always amazing to me to see otherwise tolerant and intelligent people classify an entire region of the United States as being populated by something less than human, especially when the same people are more than willing to bend over backwards to extend the umbrella of cultural relativism and “complicated issues” to other people. In a way, it’s kind of a cultural patrimony: It’s like people don’t judge others as harshly because deep down inside they think of them as childish or primitive and they *expect* them to act poorly, whereas white Americans should know better.

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