In Denial: Evolution and Climate Change

It would be hard not to notice that there is a link between denial of evolution and denial of climate change. Republican politicians hoping to get their party’s presidential nomination are almost unanimous in their denial of both. Yes, they tend to be mealy-mouthed about it when directly queried, but their policies and legislative voting records show clearly where they stand. It is also true that in general, conservatives tend to be skeptical of both, but particularly of climate change. They appear to be heavily immunized against the facts in both cases. They are what we can call explicit deniers.

Then there are the implicit deniers: those who explicitly accept both evolution and climate change, and further that human activities are a primary cause of the latter. They generally tend to be within a range that spreads from moderate conservatives through centrist to liberals and leftists. A significant number of them are Democrats, though there are Republicans within their ranks. But the majority of them act as if neither evolution nor (human caused) global warming were true; that’s what makes them implicit deniers.

Let’s begin with the implicit deniers of climate change. These are the people who religiously recycle their plastic water bottles, who shop at Whole Foods, who adopt advanced technologies to regulate their air conditioners, and seriously consider miles-per-gallon when they purchase a new car. Generally, they lead what can be called a conscientious middle-class lifestyle. Meaning that despite their convictions, they buy a lot of stuff. They drive a lot of miles, fly to a lot of distant places, charge a lot of cell phones and iPads, watch a lot of movies and stylish Netflix series at home, etc. They believe that a life of abundance, in the American style, can be maintained in the face of impending disaster. Their consumer lifestyle is so deeply embedded that even non-profit organizations dedicated to saving the environment and threatened species have to entice their donations by offerings of tee shirts, coffee mugs, tote bags, and other “free gifts.” By their lifestyles you shall know them—as implicit climate change deniers.

Implicit deniers of evolution may be more interesting. For despite a central fact of evolution, that violence is at the heart of the struggle for existence, that eat and be eaten is the millions-of-years old means by which natural selection occurs, they nonetheless profess to be baffled by human violence, both to other creatures and to fellow humans. For some reason, they believe that violence is unnatural and that great violence is inhuman, despite the obvious fact that it is humans who act violently. Which is rather like accusing lions of being inlion, or sharks of unsharklike behavior. True, lions and sharks are “innocent,” in that they are acting according to instincts and are incapable of being aware of the immorality of their actions, and true, apparently only humans can have such awareness. But that does not mean that human violence is monstrous, inhuman, not normal, or the result wholly of culture or some other external cause. Violence is as instinctive to humans as it is to any other animal. It is, as Paul Bloom once wrote, an adaptation, not an aberration.

The animality of human beings is something that the middle-class urban and suburban lifestyle can obscure. The killing that makes that lifestyle possible is conducted at an unseen, unsmelled distance. We can eat our hamburgers, our veal, our Thanksgiving ham and turkey without having to think about the animals they were or the way they were killed and butchered before their various body parts appeared neatly wrapped in plastic in our air-conditioned supermarkets. We are unfamiliar with the smell of blood and manure; we can flush away our own manure without having to give its disposal much thought. Likewise, for us the killing of other human beings occurs at a distance, in other lands by professionals. Our own lives are insullated from violence and consequently we consider it aberrational rather than essential.

But consider the testimony of someone who has felt violence in all its instinctive glory. Tim Zaal, a former skinhead who now speaks on tolerance at the Museum of Violence in Los Angeles, recalls that extreme violence was a kind of high, an exhilaration of adrenaline, a supreme, energizing pleasure; it made him feel “elated.” The more violent he was, the greater the high (though like all highs, it was short lived). Rather than turning away from extreme violence, soldiers often revel in it—war, it has been said, is the supreme experience of sublimity and comradeship—which perhaps at least partially explains the difficulty battle-seasoned soldiers have in returning to the routines of civilian life. (One of the destabilizing factors in German society was the large number of demobilized WWI soldiers who so missed the camaraderie and heightened emotions of war that they recreated war on the streets of Germany. They were in many cases the first to support Hitler, himself a veteran who wrote lovingly about his war experience.)

We have virtually no control over the level of all the various hormones produced by our bodies nor over their effects on our brains and behavior. They evolved not in response to culture or education, but to the life-or-death circumstances of our ancestors’ lives—and not so distant ancestors at that. Human progress in moral thought has been in lockstep with the worst explosions of atavistic violence in human history. There is no reason to think that we can eliminate the instincts for violence in our own short lifetimes.

There is also little reason to believe that human beings will see the truth of climate change and collectively do something about it before it is too late. To do something, really to do, would require a level of self-denial that humans have not shown themselves to be capable of. Prophets of all kinds have railed against our materialism for generations, and generations of listeners have nodded their heads in agreement, yet we continue as we always have, consuming the earth faster than ever before. Just as one example, according to the OECD, energy consumption worldwide doubled between 1973 and 2012; so too have carbon dioxide emissions. The first Earth Day occurred April 22, 1970. Rather than reduce our lifestyles to a sustainable level, rather than distribute consumption in an equitable manner, we have instead expanded our consumption. We say that we want to save the planet, but the politicians we reward are those who promise to expand the economy, to maintain growth in GDP. We will not make the needed sacrifices even as the developing world labors to mimic our American consumption habits. It is instinctive to want. To want is to survive. To survive is to engage in violence. It is a paradox that our instinct for self-preservation is the very thing that will block our willingness to do anything about climate change, just as our instinctive violence will short circuit our hopes for world peace.

Whether implicitly or explicitly, to deny evolution, not just the fact that it occurred (which only the explicit deniers deny) but the heart of the mechanisms by which it occurred, i.e., the theory that explains it, is to preserve the illusion that human beings are special, the exception to the rules that constrain all other living creatures. Dinosaurs, passenger pigeons, and dodo birds can go extinct, but humans cannot. They were subject to the inexorable laws of evolution, but we implicit deniers don’t really believe that we are.

As long as we continue to believe that, we are doomed.

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  • Wild Spirit Louisiana  On June 23, 2015 at 12:02 PM

    Very insightful connections in your essay…as a farmer and keeper of a wild place, I think about how many organisms I have to kill just to cut the grass or hoe so I don’t have to step on snakes and can grow my crops. Eating mushrooms is a good way to avoid eating animal flesh and one reason I want to promote growing mushrooms in forests along with other sorts of organic pera-culture — there are even ways to grow mushrooms in urban and suburban environments. Mushroom consumption can help cut down on eating meat products because many varieties have flavors similar to meat and high nutritional value — especially the shiitake we grow. Using my blog to educate people on many of these practices. Know this is just a drop in the ocean of effort needed to help our dismal social/cultural/survival issues. Thanks for e-mail essay.

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