Ken Miller: America’s Darwin Problem

The content of this post disappeared. No idea how that happened.

Anyway, I’m posting another article that I ran across as I’m still not up to posting my own words. Soon, I hope.

                   

America’s Darwin Problem (first published in the Huffington Post)
by Ken Miller, Professor of Biology, Brown University

America’s got a Darwin problem — and it matters. According to a 2009 Gallup poll taken on the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, fewer than 40 percent of Americans are willing to say that they “believe in evolution.” When another study asked if humans had developed from earlier species of animals, the American public split right down the middle. Forty percent said they had, while 39 percent rejected any suggestion that our species had emerged from the process of evolution. Even more worrisome is the fact that rejection of evolution correlates closely with political views, with a majority of the members of one of our major political parties casting themselves as Darwin rejectionists. In this election year, the strength of anti-evolution sentiment has been on full display in the presidential race, as one candidate after another declared their distrust of the scientific consensus around evolution. One member of the group, however, broke ranks with the others and boldly declared, “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming.” How’d that turn out for him? Jon Huntsman’s early exit from the race confirmed something else he said at the time. “Call me crazy” for trusting science, he tweeted. And sadly, it looks like he was right.

Kenneth R. Miller“Significant numbers of Americans have come to regard the scientific enterprise as a special interest group that rejects mainstream American values and is not worthy of the public trust.” Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Kenneth Miller, Brown University
Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

You might think that since Americans are a practical, pragmatic people, this is an issue that would turn on the weight of the evidence. It’s not. In an age of molecular genomics, it is ever more apparent that the fingerprints of evolution are pressed deeply into human DNA, just as they are into the genomes of every other organism. Biologists understand this, and so do students who study the science of life. Whether conservative or liberal, fundamentalist or agnostic, the more students learn of biology, the more they accept evolution. So, why does public acceptance matter if the students who actually go into science see the evidence for evolution so clearly?

This is the heart of our Darwin problem. Significant numbers of Americans have come to regard the scientific enterprise as a special interest group that rejects mainstream American values and is not worthy of the public trust. Governor Rick Perry of Texas spoke to this view when he claimed that “There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data” to their own benefit. Why? Perry was clear about this. It’s personal greed. Scientists cheat “so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects.” Perry is hardly alone in his effort to depict scientists as greedy outsiders, “scamming the American people right and left” in the words of one Fox News commentator.

In American today, anti-evolutionism matters because it has become the vanguard of a genuine anti-science movement. To be sure, opposition to evolution isn’t new. State laws against the teaching of evolution actually go back nearly a century, and the famous Scopes trial took place 87 years ago. However, if you thought such things were behind us, guess again. Laws designed to encourage the teaching of non-scientific “alternative” theories to evolution were introduced in 11 state legislatures last year. This year, Darwin’s 203rd birthday, on February 12th, saw an anti-evolution bill, already passed by the Indiana State House of Representatives, awaiting action in the State Senate. Its fate there is uncertain, but there are plenty of reasons to be concerned.

Our Darwin problem is really a science problem. The easier it becomes to depict the scientific enterprise as a special interest immersed in the culture wars, the easier it becomes to reject scientific findings. We see this everywhere in American culture and politics today, from the anti-vaccine movement to the repeated assertion that global warming is a deliberate “hoax” rather than a straightforward conclusion driven by reams of scientific data. Sometimes this is done for deliberate political reasons, to secure advantage for a particular industry or financial group, but just as often it is motivated by fear of the implications of what science has discovered or might discover in the future.

Charles Darwin

Our Darwin problem matters for two reasons. First, it threatens the future of American scientific leadership in an increasingly competitive world. Convince enough young Americans that science is a close-minded system with a particular cultural and political agenda, and we will cede leadership to emerging countries that don’t share our Darwin hang-ups, and see science as the wave of the future. If you doubt this is happening today, look at the graduate programs of America’s research universities, still the greatest in the world. Increasingly, they are filled with bright, eager, creative students from around the world, taking places that American students just don’t seem interested in filling. Once trained, they will become the scientists of the future, while more and more of our own students have been persuaded that science has nothing to offer them. If this doesn’t change, scientific discovery will increasingly become something that happens elsewhere.

Second, and in my view just as important, our problem with science constrains and narrows our views and vision of the world. My personal concern for those who hold that view isn’t just that they are wrong on science, wrong about the nature of the evidence, and mistaken on a fundamental point of biology. It’s that they are missing something grand and beautiful and personally enriching.

Evolution isn’t just a story about where we came from. It’s an epic at the center of life itself. Far from robbing our lives of meaning, it instills an appreciation for the beautiful, enduring, and ultimately triumphant fabric of life that covers our planet. Understanding that doesn’t demean human life — it enhances it. We may be animals, but we are not just animals. We are the only ones who can truly appreciate, as Darwin put it, that there is “grandeur in this view of life,” and indeed there is. To accept evolution isn’t just to acknowledge the obvious — that the evidence behind it is overwhelming — it is to open one’s eyes to the endless beauty that life has generated and continues to produce. It is to become a knowing participant, in the truest sense, in the living world of which we are all a part.

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“But poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.” ~ Adrienne Rich, from “When We Dead Awaken”

                   

“Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.” ~ Adrienne Rich, from “When We Dead Awaken”

Since I don’t feel up to listening to myself talk today, I thought that I’d share something written by Adrienne Rich, decades ago, just as women were beginning to be taken seriously as poet and writers. They still had a long way to go, and what this essay shows is Rich’s feelings about the patriarchy that controlled all aspects of the teaching and writing of literature

As Rich put it: “. . . some feminist scholars, teachers, and graduate students, joined by feminist writers, editors, and publishers, have for a decade been creating more subversive occasions, challenging the sacredness of the gentlemanly canon, sharing the rediscovery of buried works by women, asking women’s questions,” and this essay was written by Rich specifically for a forum on “The Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century.” Please note that the selections from the essay below are actually taken from the reprint of the original essay, which was published in 1976; I was not able to find the 1971 version.

Selection from “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” By Adrienne Rich (written in 1971):

In rereading Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” (7929) for the first time in some years, I was astonished at the sense of effort, of pains taken, of dogged tentativeness, in the tone of that essay. And I recognized that tone. I had heard it often enough, in myself and in other women. It is the tone of a woman almost in touch with her anger, who is determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached, and even charming in a roomful of men where things have been said which are attacks on her very integrity. Virginia Woolf is addressing an audience of women, but she is acutely conscious-as she always was-of being overheard by men: by Morgan and Lytton and Maynard Keynes and for that matter by her father, Leslie Stephen.5 She drew the language out into an exacerbated thread in her determination to have her own sensibility yet protect it from those masculine presences. Only at rare moments in that essay do you hear the passion in her voice; she was trying to sound as cool as Jane Austen, as Olympian as Shakespeare, because that is the way the men of the culture thought a writer should sound.

*****

A lot is being said today about the influence that the myths and images of women have on all of us who are products of culture. I think it has been a peculiar confusion to the girl or woman who tries to write because she is peculiarly susceptible to language. She goes to poetry or fiction I. looking for her way of being in the world, since she too has been putting words and images together; she is looking eagerly for guides, maps, possibilities; and over and over in the “words’ masculine persuasive force of literature she comes up against something that negates everything she is about: she meets the image of Woman in books written by men. She finds a terror and a dream, she finds a beautiful pale face, she finds La Belle Dame Sans Merci, she finds Juliet or Tess or Salome, but precisely what she does not find is that absorbed, drudging, puzzled, sometimes inspired creature, herself, who sits at a desk trying to put words together.

*****

About the time my third child was born, I felt that I had either to consider myself a failed woman and a failed poet, or to try to find some synthesis by which to understand what was happening to me. What frightened me most was the sense of drift, of being pulled along a current which called itself my destiny, but in which I seemed to be losing touch with whoever I had been, with the girl who had experienced her own will and energy almost ecstatically at times, walking around a city or riding a train at night or typing in a student room. In a poem about my grandmother I wrote (of myself): “A young girl; thought sleeping, is certified dead” “Halfway”). I was writing very little, partly from fatigue, that female fatigue of suppressed anger and loss of contact with my own being; partly from the discontinuity of female life with its attention to small chores, errands, work that others constantly undo, small children’s constant needs. What I did write was unconvincing to me; my anger and frustration were hard to acknowledge in or out of poems because in fact I cared a great deal about my husband and my children. Trying to look back and understand that time I have tried to analyze the real nature of the conflict. Most, if not all, human lives are full of fantasy—passive day-dreaming which need not be acted on. But to write poetry or fiction, or even to think well, is not to fantasize, or to put fantasies on paper. For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative trans-formation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed—freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away. Moreover, if, the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. For writing is renaming (emphasis mine). Now, to be maternally with small children all day in the old way, to be with a man in the old way of marriage, requires a holding-back, a putting-aside of that imaginative activity, and demands instead a kind of conservatism. I want to make it clear that I am not saying that in order to write well, or think well, it is necessary to become unavailable to others, or to become a devouring ego. This has been the myth of the masculine artist and thinker; and I do not accept it. But to be a female human being trying to fulfill traditional female functions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive function of the imagination. The word traditional is important here. There must be ways, and we will be finding out more and more about them, in which the energy of creation and the energy of relation can be united. But in those years I always felt the conflict as a failure of love in myself. I had thought I was choosing a full life; the life available to most men, in which sexuality, work, and parenthood could coexist. But I felt, at twenty-nine, guilt toward the people closest to me, and guilty toward my own being.

I wanted, then, more than anything, the one thing of which there was never enough: time to think, time to write. The fifties and early sixties were years of rapid revelations: the sit-ins and marches in the South, the Bay of Pigs, the early antiwar movement, raised large questions—questions for which the masculine world of the academy around me seemed to have expert and fluent answers. But I needed to think for myself—about pacifism and dissent and violence, about poetry and society, and about my own relationship to all these things. For about ten years I was reading in fierce snatches, scribbling in notebooks, writing poetry in fragments; I was looking desperately for clues, because if there were no clues then I thought I might be insane. I wrote in a notebook about this time:

Paralyzed by the sense that there exists a mesh of relationships—e.g., between my anger at the children, my sensual life, pacifism, sex (I mean sex in its broadest significance, not merely sexual desire)—an interconnectedness which, if I could see it, make it valid, would give me back myself, make it possible to function lucidly and passionately. Yet I grope in and out among these dark webs.

I think I began at this point to feel that politics was not something “out there” but something “in here” and of the essence of my condition.

In the late fifties I was able to write, for the first time, directly about experiencing myself as a woman. The poem was jotted in fragments during children’s naps, brief hours in a library, or at 3:00 A.m. after rising with a wakeful child. I despaired of doing any continuous work at this time. Yet I began to feel that my fragments and scraps had a common consciousness and a common theme, one which I would have been very unwilling to put on paper at an earlier time because I had been taught that poetry should be “universal,” which meant, of course, nonfemale. Until then I had tried very much not to identify myself as a female poet. Over two years I wrote a ten-part poem called “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” (1958-1960), in a longer looser mode than I’d ever trusted myself with before. It was an extraordinary relief to write that poem. It strikes me now as too literary, too dependent on allusion; I hadn’t found the courage yet to do without authorities, or even to use the pronoun “I”—the woman in the poem is always “she.”

*****

In closing I want to tell you about a dream I had last summer. I dreamed I was asked to read my poetry at a mass women’s meeting, but when I began to read, what came out were the lyrics of a blues song. I share this dream with you because it seemed to me to say something about the problems and the future of the woman writer, and probably of women in general. The awakening of consciousness is not like the crossing of a frontier—one step and you are in another country. Much of woman’s poetry has been of the nature of the blues song: a cry of pain, of victimization, or a lyric of seduction.(7) And today, much poetry by women—and prose for that matter—is charged with anger. I think we need to go through that anger, and we will betray our own reality if we try, as Virginia Woolf was trying, for an objectivity, a detachment, that would make us sound more like Jane Austen or Shakespeare. We know more than Jane Austere or Shakespeare knew: more than Jane Austere because our lives are more complex, more than Shakespeare because we know more about the lives of women Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf included.

Both the victimization and the anger experienced by women are real, and have real sources, everywhere in the environment, built into society, language, the structures of thought. They will go on being trapped and explored by poets, among others. We can neither deny them, nor will we rest there. A new generation of women poets is already working out of the psychic energy released when women begin to move out towards what the feminist philosopher Mary Daly has described as the “new space” on the boundaries of patriarchy. Women are speaking to and of women in these poems, out of a newly released courage to name, to love each other, to share risk and grief and celebration.

“Pick a piece of wood floating in the river and follow it down the current with your glance, keeping the eyes constantly on it, without getting ahead of the current. This is the way poetry should be read: at the pace of a line.”~ Vera Pavlova, from “Heaven Is Not Verbose: A Notebook” (trans. Steven Seymour)

A Young Adrienne Rich
This is how I see my favorite poets: young, smoking a cigarette, drinking bourbon

                   

“Tonight I think
no poetry
will serve” ~ Adrienne Rich from poem of the same name

One of my favorite poets died yesterday—ground-breaking feminist and anti-war poet and writer Adrienne Rich.

I remember trying to teach Rich’s poem “Living in Sin” in an American literature class several years ago, and while the poem was considered controversial at one time by taking on the social taboo of living together before marriage, the young men and women in my class didn’t understand the point of the poem as theirs was a generation weaned on living together without any stigma. It was kind of a wake-up call for me. You know, that generational thing.

I remember reading a quote from Rich once that embodied everything I have ever felt about writing: “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.”

Here is a brief from the SF Gate (SF Chronicle)

Adrienne Rich, one of America’s foremost poets and essayists, died in her Santa Cruz home Tuesday after complications from rheumatoid arthritis. She was 82.

Rich was among the first contemporary poets on the early feminist scene to imagine “the personal as political.” In 1997, Rich declined the National Medal of Arts to protest the House’s vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts. She published 30 books; 19 in poetry and seven in prose.

For a more comprehensive write-upon Rich, click here.

                  

This is my favorite Adrienne Rich poem:

Diving into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.