Our subject, taken up before the welcome interruption of Christmas and New Year's, is the 100th anniversary issue of Natural History magazine, and in particular a special section of that issue, "On Being Human," with contributions from a number of leading scientists. In the previous column we focused on one of these: Jared Diamond's essay, "Threescore and Ten," in which Diamond argues that "our exceptionally long life span may have influenced the evolution of how we learn and think." Taken at face value, that sounds rather bland—how could it be otherwise?—but as Diamond begins to flesh out his thesis, things get wild. "Our outlook is shaped especially strongly by early events," he asserts, having adduced the receptiveness and impressionability of the child's mind, "and our experiences later in life form only a thin veneer on which we draw during more rational moments."
Diamond's anecdotal evidence for this remarkable assertion is his memory of an evening he spent in 1962 in the company of assorted eminences at Harvard University. President John F. Kennedy had just announced the U.S. blockade of Cuba in response to the Soviet missiles installed there, speaking soberly of "the risk of all-out nuclear war." To Diamond's surprise, the company of brilliant scholars was almost unanimous in dismissing "contemptuously both the danger and Kennedy's response to it." Diamond attributes this collective blindness to the formative early years of the generation chiefly represented in that Harvard gathering, for whom the "defining experience" was "the horror of World War I." Of these Harvard professors, Diamond says that "they may have been sufficiently programmed by the horrors of World War I that not even the mistakes of the 1930s, leading to World War II, could persuade them to favor action over inaction."
Now as an argument, this isn't simply wrong: it is preposterous, egregiously foolish. For as even a moment's reflection will suggest, there were in 1962 a great many people who were of the same generation as those Harvard professors but whose response to the Cuban Missile Crisis was diametrically opposed to the contemptuous consensus Diamond describes.
How, then, did such an argument pass muster with the editors of Natural History, a publication that proudly represents the rigorous practices of modern science? The answer, evidently, lies in the potent appeal of arguments that explain what it means to "be human" exclusively in "evolutionary" terms. So determined are the editors of Natural History to drive home this understanding of our humanness against what they regard as outmoded, superstitious, unscientific notions—the notion, for instance, that human beings are created in the image of God—that they abandon the critical, testing intelligence they so much honor. In the name of Science, they open the door to pseudo-science. How very human.
John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture and Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today.
Visit Books & Culture online at BooksandCulture.com or subscribe here.
See last week's Books & Culture Corner on the Natural History anniversary issue, "On Being Human | Natural History magazine celebrates a milestone," and an earlier Books & Culture Corner on the magazine, "'To Know the Universe' | Well, sort of" (Mar. 2, 2000).
The Natural History site includes a preview of the special anniversary issue.
Books & Culture's interview with Jared Diamond appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of the magazine.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
On Being Human, Part 2 | Learning from information rather than instinct is often harder than it looks. (Dec. 18, 2000)
On Being Human | Natural History magazine celebrates a milestone. (Dec. 11, 2000)
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)
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