April 11, 2008

Disenlightenment: Some Things Never Change

The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life. Certainly it cannot have gone unnoticed that their membership is recruited, in the overwhelming main, from the lower orders - that no man of any education or other human dignity belongs to them. What they propose to do, at bottom and in brief, is to make the superior man infamous - by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law.

Such organizations, of course, must have leaders; there must be men in them whose ignorance and imbecility are measurably less abject than the ignorance and imbecility of the average. These super-Chandala often attain to a considerable power, especially in democratic states. Their followers trust them and look up to them; sometimes, when the pack is on the loose, it is necessary to conciliate them. But their puissance cannot conceal their incurable inferiority. They belong to the mob as surely as their dupes, and the thing that animates them is precisely the mob's hatred of superiority. Whatever lies above the level of their comprehension is of the devil...

Ronda Storms, Alpha YokelThe inferior man's reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex - because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for short cuts. All superstitions are such short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long and arduous education can understand even the most elementary concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plow can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged - and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple - and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him.

The popularity of Fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explicable in exactly the same way. The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be as vain to try to teach to peasants or to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to streptococci. But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it...

— "Homo Neanderthalensis," H.L. Mencken
The Baltimore Evening Sun
June 29, 1925

I ran across mention of this column in Francis Wheen's book, How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, which was published in 2004. Mencken's column was written on the eve of the Scopes Trial, but things haven't changed much in the intervening 83 years since the column appeared. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising; human nature hasn't changed much in those 83 years, either, and the Neocreationist movement is the product of the same baser motives that have always been with us — the fear of change, the desire to feel more significant than we really deserve (where would blogs be without it?), laziness... none of them show any sign of disappearing from humanity anytime soon.

This doesn't make such behavior anymore excusable, of course, particularly at a point in the evolution of information access itself that includes a potentially marvelous tool like the Internet. The noble geeks who created this medium conceived it as a means by which scientific information could be exchanged easily, and as the technology itself has grown this possibility extended beyond the walls of select institutions to anyone who cares to have access. The amount of legitimate knowledge at our fingertips now was inconceivable even within my own lifetime. When I graduated high school a quarter of a century ago, there wasn't even an inkling in the general populace of what was to come.

LA or Toad Suck?Sturgeon's Law applies to this medium as much as any other, though. Once access to the Internet became general, the same sort of "yokels" of whom Mencken wrote long ago began turning 90% of it into crap. It has come to serve the purpose, to a vast extent, more like the village idiot than the town hall or public university. The Internet has become the only cheap and readily available mechanism for one-to-many broadcasting for every conspiracy nut, every extremist, every know-nothing with an axe to grind on the planet. Before the Internet, it was hard for the rabble to find each other and most of those with deficient rational capacity were isolated and so obscure. Now, they can network. They can build virtual organizations. Their blatherings gain status because of mutual support and leak out into the populace at large; the "yokels" of whom Mencken wrote can now be found in Los Angeles as readily as in Toad Suck.

As for Wheen's book, I'd recommend it to those who haven't already read it who are interested in the recent history of delusional and magical thinking. My favorite quote so far from the book is a partial one from Theodore Roosevelt, a man about whom I admittedly have mixed feelings as I look back from a subsequent century upon him. Still, he was considered a great enough president to have his face on Mount Rushmore alongside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, so the significance of this shouldn't be lost. I reproduce the quote in context below:
In the broader field, thank Heaven, I sat at the feet of Darwin and Huxley, and studied the large volumes in which Marsh's and Leidy's palaeontological studies were embalmed, with a devotion that was usually attended by a dreary lack of reward — what would I not have given fifty years ago for a writer like Henry Fairfield Osborn, for some scientist who realized that intelligent laymen need a guide capable of building before their eyes the life that was, instead of merely cataloguing the fragments of the death that is.

— "My Life as a Naturalist," Theodore Roosevelt
American Museum Journal, Volume 18, p. 321
May 1918

Henry Fairfield Osborne was certainly a mixed bag of a scientist; he got some things right and quite a few things wrong. By today's standards, some of his work would certainly be considered racist (Osborn believed not only in a hierarchy of races but of ethnicities; people of Western European Ancestry were more advanced than those of Eastern; Osborn would have no doubt looked down upon a mongrel like me!) Still, Roosevelt was a man who went out of his way to educate himself with the best sources he could lay his hands upon at the time. I wonder how he would have viewed the nonsense that gets passed off as knowledge so often these days.

Sphere: Related Content