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A Yankee Notebook

January 19, 2015


MONTPELIER – I’ll never forget my first week in Geology 101. It was during the early fall of 1953 at a small Presbyterian liberal arts college in Ohio. I didn’t know it at the time, but the college had been the first of the Presbyterian Church-affiliated schools to include the teaching of evolution in its curriculum. Its president had once run against none other than William Jennings Bryan for the post of Moderator of the Church, and won. Religion classes, still required at the college, were far more liberal then what I’d been used to. I was eighteen and probably ready for a change.

Geo 101 was taught by a genial, white-haired spellbinder who transformed what might have been deadly dull content into exciting discoveries. When he first mentioned two theories of geomorphology called catastrophism and uniformitarianism, I groaned inwardly. But within minutes – though I’m sure it wasn’t his intention – he had me pondering everything from Noah’s voyage to the six days of creation and the parting of the Red Sea for the Hebrew children. It was like the Great Enlightenment exploding all over again and all at once inside one head. Within a couple of weeks I had disproved at least one of the proverbs I’d been taught: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

It was an indelible lesson to me when one day, after discussing solifluction (the flowing of wet soil downhill when lubricated or thawing) we took a field trip to a nearby valley and the professor asked us what we thought those little horizontal terraces were on a nearby pasture slope. All those lovely conservative Presbyterian freshmen chorused, “Solifluction.” The only Yankee in the class said, “Cow paths.” Which they were. I’ve never forgotten since then how easily we can be led away from the commonsensical by the authoritarian.

The religion-hobbled debate between catastrophic and uniform geologic change was once a hot topic among scientists. When Louis Agassiz pointed out that distinctive features of the Alps were still being formed, and that Long Island was obviously a terminal glacial moraine, the argument swung his way. In recent years, with the discovery of minerals associated with asteroid strikes rimming a hole in the earth near the Yucatan Peninsula, it’s found the middle ground. The earth apparently doesn’t evolve in the way we think of biological evolution, so much as it changes by now-obvious predictable processes, boosted along here and there by cataclysmic events.

The evolution of humanity is just as fascinating – not our biological adaptations or responses to environmental conditions, but our cultural development. Have we made any progress in human relations since that memorable scene in Arthur Clarke’s 2001, in which the apes, inspired by an extraterrestrial monolith, suddenly begin for the first time beating each other with sticks?

A couple of days’ exposure to the 24-hour news cycle might convince almost anyone that we haven’t; and a quick scan of Internet responses to a request for birthday greetings to Mrs. Obama can curl your hair with their expressions of the raw hate alive in our nation. Does humanity evolve like the earth, uniformly with spasms; in sudden rushes as some organisms have; or at all? Looking at grainy black-and-white photographs, only seventy years old, of lynchings in the American South, it’s hard to imagine we’ve made any progress.

Martin Luther King’s birthday is a reminder that, for all our frequent regression and resistance to change, we have evolved – if in spates and spasms – from what we once were. Personally, I trace it back to the year 1215, when a group of powerful English nobles forced King John (who, A.A. Milne assures us, was not a good man) to acknowledge for the first time that government is by consent of the governed. Fast forward to our Declaration of Independence, in which we affirm that all men are created equal. The Constitution, a few years later, backtracked by excluding African slaves, who were by then 20% of our population. That injustice festered for eighty years. A bloody civil war appeared to remedy it, but the cure was only temporary.

It wasn’t until Martin Luther King, fully aware that his life was probably forfeit, insisted that the time for a major spasm of evolution was “now, and not when we’re told the nation is ready for it,” that it occurred. Only a Pollyanna would claim that black voters are now able to vote freely anywhere in the republic, but their day is coming; we old white guys are on our way out.

Women, whose campaign for the same right of the franchise butted against Scripture and tradition preached and defended by our grandfathers, finally got their amendment, and every recent election cycle has brought more of them into Congress. One day before long – though not in my lifetime – Madeleine Kunin’s vision of equal representation will be realized. We are evolving.

Gay people are now free to marry in most states, except for in a wide swath in the Bible Belt of mid-America. If the Supreme Court decides the way most think it will, LGBT rights of association will be recognized. The resistance to it, now strident, will slowly fade, and people will wonder in a few decades what all the fuss was about. Ironically, the religious groups now strongly against it will in the end injure mainly themselves, as their young people fail to relate to their fervor, and the old folks, like the rest of us shellbacks, exit stage right.

Meanwhile, we have a long way to go if we’re to last as long as the decay of the sun will let us. The year 2014 was the hottest year on record, while 72% of Republican senators claim that anthropogenic global warming is a canard. It’s almost past time for another evolutionary spasm.

Photo by Willem lange