On MSNBC this past weekend, Columbia University linguist Jonathan McWhorter, upon whom I have long harbored an intellectual crush, differentiated slow (small step) evolution, from sudden (giant step) evolution and proceeded to recommend Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter by Terrence W. Deacon which I now have on order. That mind/matter question has fascinated me since my undergrad days when I delivered an extensive oral and written report on Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man for a philosophy course.
De Chardin made a statement that blew my 18-year-old mind when he pointed out a difference of a single atom between the structures of largest macro-molecule and the smallest micro-organism calling whatever existed in the margin between the two the true “missing link,” thereby implying that he expected the progression to be a small step rather than a giant leap. He spoke of a “pre-soul” in rocks, implying that all that is organic has some form of a soul – music to the ears/eyes of a pet owner.
A Jesuit and long-time missionary in China, de Chardin’s work was refused the imprimatur of the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, he left his papers to Julian Huxley who published them after de Chardin’s death. As time went by, I did encounter Catholic clergy and religious who, like me, found in de Chardin’s brilliant work a way to accept the theory of evolution within a decidedly religious, and I would even say Catholic, framework.
McWhorter prefaced his remarks on evolution by stating that he does not believe in God but thinks there is some kind of catalyst that activates giant steps in evolution. I think it is God, Jonathan will have to figure out his own explanation.
Whenever we are in a political season, the subject of evolution arises in some form. In the past, we have heard Christian fundamentalists decry the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools. This season, however, it has appeared in a metaphorical form, and not from the right, but rather from the incumbent Democratic administration. We are told by spokespeople that the president’s position on gay marriage is “evolving.” He, himself, has said as much. This has been a small step evolution over a long period of time. One wonders what catalyst the president requires to come to full blown evolution on this issue.
Karen Finney’s latest column in The Hill, Evolve on marriage addresses the question with her typical balance of brilliance and empathy. There is a cool strategic approach tempered by a heartfelt personal argument based on her own background.
One part of Karen’s personal story that always tugs at my heart is her delayed introduction to her grandfather’s home. I just cannot imagine a granddad not being delighted with a granddaughter such as she, so I was more than pleased to come across this paragraph in her column from yesterday.
When I was a teenager, my grandfather explained to me that the reason I wasn’t welcome in his Greensboro, N.C., home was his belief — on legal and moral grounds — that mixing of the races was a sin against the laws of nature. (He did come to realize he was wrong.) The legal and moral arguments made today about same-sex marriage being against the laws of nature or threatening the institution of marriage sound hauntingly familiar to the bigoted excuses of my grandfather and others.
There are early summer days coming. The sun will be warming and the water in the pool will still be cold. There will always be that one kid sitting on the edge of the pool who will not just jump in and get it over with. In some cases, he might wade in gradually. In other instances, his friends might simply push him in. Sooner or later, we expect him to end up in the water. Karen hopes the president jumps in sooner rather than later based on a background she feels she shares with him. I have never been certain that he sees himself quite the same way that Karen sees herself. Certain formative experiences have been different – have even occurred in different cultures on different continents. My take is that Obama would do well to listen to her experience and reasoning on this issue. She has, as has the Rev. Dr. William Barber (NAACP,NC President) placed the issue in the ethical/moral frame. It is time for President Obama to take a giant step much the way Karen’s grandfather did on mixed marriage. If he does not do this soon, he will be left behind. As I have said before, I prefer to follow those who lead from the front lines – like Karen.