Earlier this year we took note of the American Museum of Natural History and its superbly produced magazine, Natural History. If you are not a subscriber, check out the newsstand for the current issue (December 2000/January 2001), celebrating the magazine's 100th anniversary. That milestone alone would be enough to guarantee that the issue will become a collector's item, but there's more: the 300th and last essay in Stephen Jay Gould's column, "This View of Life," one of the most brilliant sustained achievements in the history of American journalism.
Given the occasion, it is no surprise that this issue also puts forward a manifesto of sorts, in the form of a special section entitled "On Being Human." And it is no surprise, either, to see how editor Ellen Goldensohn frames that subject. "During the magazine's past 100 years," Goldensohn writes,
the natural sciences have altered humanity's self-image. Discoveries of fossil hominids—from the delicate Lucy to the robust Australopithecus boisei—have undercut the notion of human singularity. The new technology of DNA sequencing has further closed the gap between us and the other primates on our family tree. (That we share 98 percent of our genetic material with chimpanzees is stated so often that it is by now a cliche.) The emergence of sociobiology and behavioral ecology—as well as their controversial offshoot, evolutionary psychology—reflects our growing sense of connectedness with the rest of the animal kingdom. These days, we are perhaps less inclined to see ourselves as fallen angels than as above-average mammals.
Goldensohn's reference to "fallen angels" (apparently conflating the identity of Lucifer, the fallen angel, with the notion that human beings are a little lower than the angels) suggests that her grasp of the traditional understanding of the human person which "we" have allegedly outgrown is shaky at best, while her glib dismissal of "human singularity" looks like a sleight of hand whereby the very phenomenon that cries out for attention—the astonishing difference between human beings and all other creatures—is made to disappear. It is an odd sort of science that, when faced with such a richly suggestive problem, proceeds to deny that the problem exists.
How easy it would be, then, to indulge in a counter-dismissal, not even bothering to read what the scientists assembled in this issue have to say "On Being Human." But that would be our loss, as I hope to show in the next installments of this column. Meanwhile, between now and next week, why not read the essays in that special section yourself?
John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture and Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today.
See our earlier Books & Culture Corner on the American Museum of Natural History and Natural History magazine, "'To Know the Universe' | Well, sort of." It first appeared on our site March 2, 2000.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Are You Re:Generated? | Inside one of the best religious publications on the planet (that's not Christianity Today). (Dec. 4, 2000)
The Promise of Particularity Amid Pluralism | A dispatch from the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. (Nov. 22, 2000)
The Horror! | Joan Didion encounters evangelical Christianity. (Nov. 13, 2000)
Election Eve | Why isn't anyone focusing on those who simply won't bother to vote? (Nov. 6, 2000)
Three Books and a Wedding | Remembering the good news. (Oct. 30, 2000)
Unintelligent Designs | Baylor's dismissal of Polyani Center director Dembski was not a smart move.(Oct. 23, 2000)
Crying About Wolfe | Is there a scandal of "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind"? (Oct. 16, 2000)
The Light Still Shines | A Harvard-sponsored conference looks at the future of religious colleges. (Oct. 9, 2000)
RU-486 Uncovers a Lie—And It's Not Just About Abortion | Think the abortion pill is indicative of postmodernity? You're wrong. (Oct. 2, 2000)
Pencils Down Part II | Think your vote matters? You poor, misguided fool. (Sept. 18, 2000)