Hello again, friends.
This is going to be a little longer than usual, but bear with me. Please read it through or just scroll past; there is NO ‘TL:DR’ version of what I have to say.
I’m going to talk about narratives again, to offer a little more clarity. We all remember that a narrative, when shared by the members of a group, is a tidy little story we tell ourselves to make sense of the world and our relationship to it and those within it. Narratives are arguably the most powerful tool our species has developed for survival.
Or maybe not. We lay at a cusp in our future survival and development; nothing new to our species, that. Cultures that developed a narrative which enabled them to survive thrived while those with less successful narratives did not. We find their material remnants scattered all across the globe, and not all are ancestral to any culture currently inhabiting the planet. In that individual humans are the sum total of their genetic heritage, cultures- civilizations- exist as the sum total of their narratives. Thus civilizations and their narratives survive- or fall- regardless of the genes contained within their people. The power of narratives lay with their ability to control human behavior, especially in groups; cooperative groups of humans are defined by their narratives much more so than their genetics.
Being the stories we share among members of our group- from hunter-gathering tribes to nuclear-armed, Internet-using nations- narratives are the things by which we live, and also die. We begin receiving them from the moment of our birth from those who raise us, educate us, employ us and support us. ‘No man is an island’, Donne writes in ‘Meditations XVII’. None of us can have any sort of existence without others save that it have ‘no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ (Hobbes, Leviathan). And to live with others is to share a narrative with them.
So today, we have ‘anti-science’ and racist narratives held by significant fractions of the populations of technically advanced and supposedly ‘progressive’ nations; nuclear-armed and Internet-using ones. Why is this?
I’ve written about the ‘Scientific Method’ and narratives in general in earlier blogs. I want to speak here more about ‘anti-science’ and less about bigotry-driven ‘racism’, though before I move past discussing the latter specifically I’ll mention that racism per se is nothing new to cultural narratives and even served as a survival advantage, if one we find distasteful today, back when the tribe remained the basic unit of human culture and survival margins were fingernail-thin. It exists today because being so deeply-seated in most civilizations around the globe it still proves a powerful tool, used by the unscrupulous, to divide, stratify and thus manage even modern ‘progressive’ societies politically and economically (see my blog ‘Race, Class and Bigotry in America’).
‘Anti-science’ is different from racism in several important ways. Humans have had racist narratives practically from the beginning of the species, whereas the ‘Scientific Method’ has existed barely four centuries in its current form. For the first half of its existence few people had little idea of its scope and power, since it remained limited to astronomical observations and developing mathematical algorithms to describe some basic effects of physics (then) generally unimportant to the common man. Once applied to other facets of the material world, though, it soon made possible massive and rapid advances in technology. Cultures that did not accept its revelations soon fell behind those who did, and the past three centuries have seen an ever accelerating pace of change in population, energy, and wealth.
The first outcry against ‘science’ came from religious authorities that felt the Copernican and Galilean discoveries would unseat the Earth as the center of the Universe and contest the Christian dogma that the heavens were unchanging, and thus throw that dogma open to other challenges. Not anything that really concerned the ‘man in the street’, though it shook the tiny intellectual world to its core.
The next outcry against science came again from religious authorities, with Darwin’s publication of ‘On The Origin Of Species’. He posited that species changed over deep time in response to external ‘evolutionary’ pressures, and while not exactly a new concept Darwin asserted that humans proved subject to the very same ‘evolution’, instead of being a singular unchanging creation of God in His image. People were incensed and disturbed by the implication that humans were ‘merely’ animals. That cry of outrage echoes loudly even today despite manifold demonstrations of evolution as a mechanism even within our own DNA. The genetic basis for racism imploded that day in 1859, despite vigorous attempts to deny and defuse it that continue apace.
Leaving aside the renascent ‘Flat Earth’ belief and the ‘Anti-Vaxxer’ movement, subjects I might tackle in another missive because they each share a different purpose and modus operandi, the latest outcry against the fruits of the ‘Scientific Method’ comes in the form of ‘climate change denial’, which fuels acrimonious debate even as I write this. It’s cast as a battle between those who ‘believe’ in anthropogenic climate change and those who do not ‘believe’ in it.
And therein lays the rub. I do NOT ‘believe’ in climate change. I also do NOT ‘believe’ in gravity. I KNOW that if I push a pen off this desk, though, it will fall at a perfectly predictable and describable fashion towards the floor. There’s no debating it, and there’s also little room left in which to debate the admittedly harder to visualize phenomenon of global warming via anthropogenic changes to our atmosphere. Step off of a tall building and you will hit the ground HARD whether you ‘believe’ in gravity or not. Pump gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere and it WILL warm the Earth, whether you ‘believe’ it or not. It operates more slowly than gravity, but just as inexorably.
So why are millions of people denying evolution and climate change, but not Gravitation (no one but the Flat Earthers deny that things orbit the Earth) or the Pauli Exclusion Principle (makes electronics a ‘thing’) or Special Relativity (makes GPS possible)? Here’s where the narrative comes in, and furthermore the manipulation of narratives to political ends.
Racism depends on the acknowledgement that some kinds of humans are inferior to others based upon their skin color or (more generally) genetics. Evolution as a process tells us that sort of division is bogus. But this well-proven scientific fact invalidates a narrative being used to justify racial division socially and economically all over the planet. The people who profit from establishing and maintaining these divisions thus have a vested interest in denying the science and maintaining their hold over the narratives they promote.
Fossil fuel industries are arguably the most profitable enterprises that have EVER existed. A fifth of the value of the global economy comes from the extraction, conversion and sale of fossil fuels at all points in the energy cycle that has arguably driven our technological civilization to where it is today. Besides being a convenient energy source AND awesomely profitable, burning fossil fuels have also pumped gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere over the past century at an exponentially increasing rate. As early as 1898, Svante Arrhenius argued that the increase in carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels (in his days coal) would change the composition of the atmosphere and lead to a warming trend through the newly-proven ‘greenhouse effect’. But reducing or entirely phasing out the use of fossil fuels would kick the pins from under the richest people on the planet and lead to a massive change in the lifestyles of millions of people in our wealthiest nations. So all force gets brought to bear to invalidate the science in order to retain control over their wealth and lifestyles because they must protect the narratives that put them there.
This is the point at which WE- that’s you and I, dear friends because this affects ALL of us and the futures of our children- have to decide between keeping our comfortable narratives, deeply ingrained into our societies and our lives; or incorporate the results of the Scientific Method into them in order to survive and free millions from the status of second-class humans. Denial of evolution and climate change, each an ‘anti-science’ movement, threatens us ALL. I’ll leave each of you to mull over what I’ve said for a while and then do as your conscience dictates.
Keep striving, friends.