Six years ago last Wednesday my friends and I sat in a Littleton, Colo., Taco Bell eating Chalupas. Sometime between Chalupa tres and Chalupa cuatro, a woman burst into the restaurant. “There’s been a bombing at Columbine,” she said.
We giggled. Who was this schizophrenic soccer mom? A haute-bourgeois, Abercrombie-loving high school in the suburbs, Columbine would be the last place anything like that could ever happen. Then we saw a police car pass. And another. Five more. The SWAT team.
After the tragedy—which claimed 15 lives—Representative Tom DeLay of Texas read a letter expressing his opinion about the cause of the attack:
It couldn’t have been because our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud by teaching evolution as fact and by handing out condoms as if they were candy. It couldn’t have been because we teach our children that there are no laws of morality that transcend us, that everything is relative and that actions don’t have consequences. What the heck, the president gets away with it. Nah, it must have been the guns.
Here we’re taught exactly these things about human origins. And—no matter how much conservatives may try to deny it—they are probably true. Good evidence suggests that humans really did evolve from self-replicating molecules and occupy no more privileged a place in the Universe than a dolphin or a lemur.
But the vast majority of Americans—and Duke students—resist this well-supported conclusion. How funny, and scary, is it to see a friend of mine write a piece in The Chronicle affirming the “Truth” of Christianity when much of the Bible—like other ancient religious texts—is so rife with factual errors that, taken with marijuana and gin, made for ceaseless entertainment in Catholic school. He is a person of intelligence, drive and integrity who will someday ascend to a position of political power and pound nails into the palms of scientific progress.
Unfortunately, we can’t go anywhere as a society—except by dumb luck—if our beliefs about the world are wrong. This, maybe more than anything else, is what is holding us back. How can we improve our global community—or even the Duke community—if our understanding of that community and its historical roots is irredeemably whacked?
In science, it is uncontroversial to think of human behaviors as evolved products of a process designed to maximize gene replication and transmission to the next generation, making it much easier—than it is for a Christian—to explain things like jealousy, aggression, competitiveness, male nipples and that despicable yet certain pleasure you feel when your friends fail.
Somehow, though, you—elite members of the next generation of politicians—make it through hundreds of public policy memos without necessarily getting a sense of this.
And this is the reason I have applied my low abilities as a writer in The Chronicle for so long: to emphasize this realistic view of life. Properly understood, it couldn’t be farther removed from the nihilistic atheism of the Columbine shooters. With each passing day, neuroscience further clarifies the requirements and behaviors necessary for the greatest possible human happiness and cooperation.
All of our values, whose attainment gives us pleasure and allows us to thrive, evolved by way of natural selection and are therefore discoverable through research. The most essential moral law evolved independently in Greece, China and Israel. It is the Golden Rule: to treat others as you yourself would like to be treated. The cultural project of our and future generations will be to extend this transcendent moral principle to include all humans.
Either way, we have about 2.2 billion heart beats to go until death do us and this life part. Depending on our diet and genes, of course, but this is about right. Each of us has the capacity to leave the world better, or worse. In calling this column Veritas, I tried to express a commitment to truth, which is all that is worth a damn in the end. Things may not be pretty, and beauty may not be truth, but for all the trouble, the world is still out there. And, by God, is it ever funny.
Matt Gillum is a Trinity senior.
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