Sunday, February 12, 2006
Happy Darwin Day

When I was younger and in public school, I had a secret relationship with science. In my everyday life I was very much a humanities-oriented student -- I excelled in English, foreign languages, history, and so on -- but I harbored a quiet fondness for biology, too. I was fortunate enough to run into a number of strongly pro-science teachers; I was unfortunate enough to also run into a few fundie fuckwits, though fortunately late enough in my school career that I was wise to them by then.

The one that always particularly disturbed me was the creationist life sciences teacher, at a particular high school in Arkansas. He was well known among the smart-ass punk kids for having a wife who looked too much like him for anyone's comfort. He would stand around in my 11th-grade anatomy and physiology class and expound on tornadoes in junkyards and all that drivel. I, meanwhile, was carrying on a heated debate in pencil on the edge of my desk. I would write, "Jesus thinks you're an asshole;" during the next 24 hours, someone else would reply, "Jesus loves you!" I would answer with "Jesus can kiss my ass;" they'd respond with "Jesus can save you! I'm praying for you!" "You can kiss my ass, too." It was uncharacteristically aggressive of me, but I was a fed-up 16-year-old. You know how it is.

The thing that ultimately knocked me out of science was mathematics. As long as I was staying in the realm of the easily-observed, I was fine in science class. But as soon as things became more abstract -- and thus most often expressed with numbers rather than words -- I began to lose my footing. I'm not innumerate, but I can't deny that the higher mathematics give me a great deal of trouble -- even when I can understand the core concepts, I never seem to be able to make the numbers do what they're supposed to do. Math and I officially parted ways during my trigonometry year -- I took trig at three different high schools, each class being at a different place in the subject when I joined. I fell behind and never caught up -- I still don't understand what the fuck "cosine" means. I only know those equations seemed to come so easily for everyone else, while I (theoretically a G&T student) just couldn't make them work. Six attempts would yield six different solutions, and none of them correct.

So as soon as I could -- basically, right after the SATs -- I quit math; and quitting math led inexorably to quitting science. Chemistry requires strong math skills; physics requires strong math skills. And you ain't getting past 9th-grade biology without either of them.

I found some respite in filmmaking -- I had to learn about silver halides and photosensitivity, but I didn't have to push beyond general concepts. I got to work with complicated, delicate equipment and precise formulas, but I never had to solve any equations. It was math and science for the right-brain-dominant. Since then I've frequently indulged in science as a source of fresh insight, and as time has passed I've become more and more engrossed in it. I'm no hardcore rationalist -- I have a soft spot for theology and all that wobbly "spiritual" stuff -- but I don't see any point in denying reality. The world is what it is, not what we'd like to believe it is; and confronting and accepting that world doesn't detract from its wonder. Just ask anyone who's tried to wrap their head around any aspect theoretical physics.

So I definitely count myself among those who are deeply disturbed by the resurgence of willful ignorance underway in this country. Just because you don't believe you were descended from apes doesn't mean it isn't true. And you're not just descended from apes, you are one. The Bible will never tell you the real story about the history of humanity; and the truth, it turns out, is a lot more awe-inspiring than anything our ancestors ever imagined. I can't understand why we can't collectively embrace our staggering collective history -- I understand that some feel threatened by the inherent de-emphasis on human importance, but we could probably do with being taken down a peg or two, to be honest. And if you can relax and open your mind to the implications of evolution, the spiritual payoff can be enormous. Reality can be harsh, but it offers so many opportunities; religion, on the other hand, will always be a closed loop at the end of the day. There's nowhere to go but in circles.

There are a few particularly good blogs dealing with science and its intersection with American society and culture. I highly recommend The Panda's Thumb, Pharyngula, and Dispatches from the Culture Wars.
6:44 PM ::
Amy :: permalink