More Lemonade?

Yesterday in the freshmen honors seminar we were watching a video entitled The Mind's Big Bang, in which a number of anthropologists were describing the origin of symbolic culture about 100,000 years ago. This development set in motion cultural evolution, which moves at a much faster rate than evolution and natural selection. Indeed, cultural evolution is a kind of auto-catalytic reaction that builds and builds. The Clovis spear point was the cutting edge of technology (no pun intended) for thousands of years, whereas software today may last only a few years before its outdated. I thought the video made this point rather well. It even discussed the physical development of brain capacity and compared modern and Neanderthal skulls.

When we began to discuss the video, however, one of my students blithely dismissed the validity of Carbon-14 dating. I couldn't figure out where this was coming from, so after class I Googled "Reliability of Carbon-14 Dating" and came across hundreds of Young Earth Creationist web sites on which challenging Carbon-14 dating is a hot topic (although not so much for practicing scientists). Good grief. I've stepped it in again. If only I taught something else, something less likely to disturb my students' received worldviews: metallurgy perhaps, the history of fashion design.

You know, every now and then we get some fresh-scrubbed Mormon boys walking through the neighborhood who want to talk religion. Nice boys, always wearing a tie. By and large their religion is no more unusual than any other. What always strikes me about our little chats is that it never dawns on them that the religious beliefs they hold are almost as heritable as eye color and seldom chosen from a range of faiths after careful examination. Instead, their belief system is almost entirely a matter of the culture in which they were raised. Richard Dawkins put it this way:
Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority of believers just happen to choose the faith that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it.
So I sometimes ask these boys if they have ever seriously considered any other religion. Judaism, say, or maybe Catholicism. There's a heck of a lot of Catholics in the world, I point out. Sometimes they ignore the question. Sometimes they say "no."

"But if you haven't examined the alternatives, how can you be sure?" I ask.

"Because I don't need to know anything about those religions. I know what I believe," they say.

At this point I realize it's time to change the subject. I smile, ask if they need more lemonade and inquire about their families. Nice boys. Very polite.

And now this old semester is just about over. I am so ready to change the subject.


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