The Tuesday: The Devil and Garry Wills

Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter on divers and sundry themes. To subscribe to the Tuesday, follow this link ...


The Devil and Garry Wills

Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter on divers and sundry themes. To subscribe to the Tuesday, follow this link.

What Have We Learned?

One of the great ironies of the abortion debate is that the pro-life camp, purportedly made up of religious fanatics, mostly wants to talk about biology, while the notionally secular pro-abortion faction has embraced a medieval superstition about "ensoulment" and "quickening," as exemplified most recently by Garry Wills's latest New York Times essay, flabbergasting in its simplemindedness, on Joe Biden and the Catholic bishops.

Wills's column is the sort of Dark Ages hoo-haw that gives Dark Ages hoo-haw a bad name.

We shouldn't live by prehistoric superstition when we have better alternatives, but we shouldn't sneer at our forebears as primitive — they would recognize us, and we should recognize them and recognize ourselves in them. As James George Frazer argued in The Golden Bough, magic is the embarrassing ancestor of science, the fruit of mankind's earliest efforts to produce a systematic explanation of the physical world and natural phenomena. Is the thunder really the Sky Father  shaking his shield? No, of course not, but put yourself in the place of those early men: Everybody you know believes that the Sky Father causes thunder, everybody you have ever known believes it, the people of the highest standing in your community attest to it, your father and your grandfather believed it and, even if you were to question it — and here's the most important part — what's the next-best explanation?

The elaboration and refinement of next-best explanations over centuries — and not very many centuries — took us from Jupiter and Minerva and orgiastic cereal rituals to physics and genetics and space tourism. And that happened really, really quickly: The time between the first organized human agriculture and today constitutes about 3 percent of the totality of human history. Or think of it this way: When Joe Biden was born, Nikola Tesla and Piet Mondrian were still alive — two Joe Bidens ago, Ulysses Grant was just taking charge of Union troops, and three Joe Bidens ago, they were hashing out the Constitution in Philadelphia while Mozart was swanning around Prague. We are anatomically the same animals as our caveman ancestors, but our social evolution has moved with incredible speed in the last three centuries. The number of years that passed between the first flight at Kitty Hawk and the moon landing is fewer than the number of years Oprah Winfrey has been walking the earth. We have had electric lights for about 0.04 precent of the time Homo sapiens has been around, and yet that short span has been enough time for us to go from Edison bulbs to iPhones. But for the other 99.96 percent of human history, we worked by firelight — or shivered in the darkness.

So we should not laugh too hard at the old superstitions — and, more to the point, we should not be very surprised to see many of those superstitions survive into our own time. The myth about Ronald Reagan's refusal to say the word "AIDS" as president is the modern answer to the old belief that the touch of a king could cure scrofula, just as the American folk belief that the nation's economic performance is a judgment on the character of the president is an echo of the ancient superstition that the king's piety ensured good crops and fecund livestock while his impiety brought about drought or plague. (If I've been hitting that theme more often, it is because I am writing a book about it.) We are superstitious creatures, and magic is never far from our minds.

It is probably worth noting here that our modern attitudes toward science are in many ways like our ancestors' attitudes toward magic or religion, which is to say, they are informed by a status game. Not one American in 10,000 has the scientific training to engage meaningfully with the science touching climate change, evolution, or vaccines, and our attitudes toward those things mostly reflect tribal identities: Team Fauci vs. Team Trump. This leads to all kinds of stupidity, from young-Earth creationism (an astonishingly common view among Americans) to anti-vaccine kookery to, in the case at hand, the denialism — human denialism — at the center of the abortion ...   READ MORE


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