Footnote: Awe and humility, interspecies relationship – big brain v. big body.
It is impossible for me to feel confident in the world these days. The natural disasters alone will set most any thinking person on edge. Add the political instability, of which the US president is a primary source, the ongoing racial, religious, and economic development conflicts, renewed nuclear threats, the mass destruction of the remaining wild places, unprecedented extinctions, the demise of clean water, climate change, and the pillaging of natural resources in places that were thought inviolable and there is enough to stop your heart from beating.
We have big brains. How can we be so utterly ignorant and stupid?
I have a sense of how insignificant I am in the grand scheme of things. I am but one person. If I don’t answer “urgent” phone calls, emails, or texts, emergencies will be resolved, decisions will be made, and the world will go on. No matter how famous, infamous, rich, or important I may become, all trace of me (except my plastic legacy) will disappear in the blink of a geologic eye. In totality, and geologically, human beings are not of much greater significance.
We evolved big brains that allowed us to domesticate plants and animals for food, turn metal into tools, create art and music, and to send men to the moon. If we are not going to use our brains for the collective good of the human population – not to mention the Earth as our only sustaining home – then I can only hope that the whole of humanity is found to be evolutionarily insignificant and passes the way of the dodo. Which, not incidentally, was wiped out by humans.
I took this photo to record the awe and humility I felt simply stepping into an elephant’s footprint in its native African home. If we cannot appreciate the magnificence of the world around us and rally our collective intellect to better sustain us and the resources we depend upon, we deserve to be nothing more than an archeological footnote to a more evolved species of the future. Perhaps something with a big body rather than a big brain. I hope it’s the elephants.
“’Merica. Fuck, yeah. God bless.” Quote (consciously) unattributed
Cynicism and sarcasm toward my country and its future are hard for me to get around these days; sometimes I trip over them in unexpected ways. This was clear recently when two European friends and I spent a month traveling together in the West. We discussed the current state of America – the political climate, gutting national healthcare, the disenfranchised majority, the “love it or leave it” attitude, the obvious homeless populations, and our vast resources.
At some point during our travels, one of my friends, in his extroverted and exuberant way, began saying, “’Merica! Fuck, yeah. God bless.” I was amused, of course. This epitomizes what is both great and not so great about America.
I was also somewhat annoyed by this antic. It was perplexing. Although I’m not patriotic, being an American citizen has brought many advantages for which I am grateful – among them, it allows me to freely write and publish this essay.
I swear a lot. This doesn’t offend me. I often say, “’Merica. Fuck, yeah,” when confronted with egregious Americanisms.
I never say, “God bless.” I don’t believe in a God, as long as people don’t dump their personal responsibility into God’s hands (or their God onto me), hearing it doesn’t concern me.
I think the phrase is overused. I hear it every day within the dysfunctional political system – the shysters peddling watches and bridges. More poignantly, I see it on the signs of homeless people asking for money, “Hungry, homeless, anything will help. God bless.”
I wonder how the most disenfranchised of our population has come to embrace the most privileged and those least apparently concerned with their fates. Is it an appeal to those they know have the most to give? Statistically, the less you have, the more you share. How is it, that in “the greatest country on Earth,” we have a staggering homeless and hungry population in the first place? Is this not a contradiction?
“Theology made no provision for evolution. The biblical authors had missed the most important revelation of all! Could it be that they were not really privy to the thoughts of God?” E. O. Wilson
As recently as 2014, 63% of Americans believe with absolute certainty that God exists (Pew Research Center). And, in 2013, only 21% of Americans believed that humans evolved without divine guidance (Huffington Post). Stated in the reverse, this means that 79% (79%!) believe that God created humans.
As an American, this embarrasses me. As a biologist, it frightens me.
“I tend to believe that religious dogma is a consequence of evolution.” E. O. Wilson
E.O. Wilson is one of the great biologists of our time. (Forgive me, Dr. Wilson, for dragging you into this.) He is an Alabaman, an Eagle Scout, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a New York Times bestselling author, and a forty-year Harvard University professor, now Emeritus. He was raised as a Christian and a Baptist – although, he says, “I drifted away from the church, not definitively agnostic or atheistic, just Baptist and Christian no more.” If he is correct, we can potentially evolve past religious dogma.
Stopping for coffee and pastries in a seaside town on the fourth of July, my friend specifically bought a cupcake for the tiny American flag stuck in the top. He waved it at passing vehicles and held it up proudly at every opportunity. I shook my head.
To my knowledge, I have never waved an American flag. I find it odd that Americans are so dedicated to their flag and are so vehement about it as a symbol of our country. Should not deeds be the greater symbol of our strength and unity?
We continued north to a local brewery for a tour. On display was a beer glass –a pint glass the like of which is found in every pub, taproom, and brewery in the country – with the brewery’s name and an American flag printed on the side. Shortly after its release, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) confiscated every.last.glass (although apparently, they missed a few). It is illegal to portray the American flag in such (an undignified?) manner. How is it then, that we can wear clothing that puts American flags squarely on American Asses? I asked this but it seemed to offend everyone in the room. Have you noticed that car dealerships have the largest flags? (Be an American. Buy a car.)
Independence day progressed and it came time for the obligatory fireworks. We walked from the campsite along the jetty to the harbor bridge for viewing. Being a dead-end, there was one way onto the jetty and one way off. Both sides of the road were lined with vehicles pointed toward the anticipated display; most people were sitting in their cars with the engines idling. No one seemed concerned that at some point they had to get off the jetty.
My friends were astounded by this display of a quintessentially American way of doing things. It was a recipe for a long night of burning fuel and wasting time. I have long resisted these occasions because I foresee the end result. It is not something I enjoy.
“It’s the American way,” I said.
We continued walking, commenting on the scene. “I can’t believe all these people are just sitting in their cars,” my friend said again. Then, finally acquiescing, “I guess it’s the American way.” With this last statement, we passed a minivan. The passenger side window was down and the dashboard was lined with fireworks awaiting detonation. The man in the seat, cigarette in hand, inches from the fireworks, challenged, “What about America?”
My friend turned, flashed his most beautiful smile, and waved his tiny American flag.
He was rewarded with a thumbs-up.
If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. E. O. Wilson