It was the end of an era; a time of rapidly changing population, politics, and cultural norms. Those who had been securely at the top of the economic and social structure were seeing immigrants and lower-class workers upending their time-honored hold on privilege and power. Demographics were shifting. New technology was changing how people lived, traveled, and communicated. Change was everywhere, and accelerating. And people felt a sense of dislocation from all that change.
In the midst of this unsettled pool of shifting tides and times came, also, new ideas. Radical ideas about rights, social obligations, and environmental science. Ideas that sparked great controversy, excitement, and outrage. For some, the new technologies and ideas were the dawn of an exciting new era. For others, they represented an ominous threat to moral living and world order.
But while the parallels are remarkable, the ideas sparking all that controversy weren't about global warming, gay or civil rights, immigration or universal healthcare. And the year wasn't 2009. It was 1859. The Illinois senator who would become President was still a senator, the house was not yet divided, and Queen Victoria was still on the throne. And the big environmental science idea being debated was Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species.
This fall marks the 150th anniversary of Darwin's earth-shattering tome (2009 is also, coincidentally, the 200th anniversary of his birth). So that would be reason enough to pay some extra attention to the matter. But given some of the parallels in terms of the forces and currents at play, a closer look at Darwin's work, the controversy it sparked, and its social, scientific, and long-term impact, could offer some interesting insights on current-day issues and debates, as well. Of course, Darwin's thoughts on evolution themselves are still being debated, 150 years later. So his work is as much current events as it is history.
Such was the thinking of Phil Terry when he set up the Darwin 150 project: a free, multi-part lecture/reading group/social networking event stretching from now until November 24th, the actual anniversary date of Darwin's publication. Terry is the founder of the non-profit organization Reading Odyssey, which has as its goal "getting adults to re-engage their intellectual curiosity through reading and discussion of great books and ideas," according to volunteer coordinator Kendall Crolius. The all-volunteer organization sponsors virtual reading groups of the classics ... which made the Darwin project a natural fit.
Wednesday evening marked the kick-off event for the fall series: a live web-cast/teleconference lecture by Harvard Professor Everett Mendelsohn on "The World Before Darwin." (An audio recording of the lecture is available here, the webcast will be available on the Darwin150 project website within the week.) For 90 minutes, I got to feel like I was back in college again, curiously absorbing new information, presented by a master lecturer. And I learned more than I think I ever knew about Darwin and the world he inherited.
The series includes four more free lecture/discussions by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Weiner, Professor Sean Carroll of the University of Wisconsin, the legendary E.O. Wilson, and a final panel presentation on November 24th by Gerald Edelman, Paul Ekman, and Terrence Deacon. Some of those lectures can be attended in person, as well as via the web or telephone. In addition a virtual reading group led by Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephanie Aktipis will read Darwin's Origin of the Species, starting in early October. And for those looking for something a little lighter, there's also the project's Facebook campaign, which has the goal of gathering 1 million members by the anniversary date.
In an era awash with quick sound bites, flip commentary, and instant reactions, the reasoned, thoughtful discussion about Darwin, his world, and his work was like slipping into a refreshing pool of quiet, measured reflection. It also reminded me that we are not the first, nor will we be the last, to live in controversial, changing, or turbulent times filled with progress, backlash and conflict. Fortunately, it seems we also have amazing survival instincts. Including the ability to evolve and adapt to keep pace with the changing world around us. And that, for sure, is something to celebrate.
(Photo: Flickr User kevindooley and Wikimedia Commons)
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.
Polling within the margin of error among African Americans, the Republican tries new outreach—but his approach seems doomed to failure.
Although Donald Trump has long claimed to “have a great relationship with the blacks,” the polls tell a different story, with Trump frequently polling in the single digits among black voters. Over the last few days, the Republican nominee has added a new passage to his stump speech, reaching out to the African American community.
Our government has totally failed our African American friends, our Hispanic friends and the people of our country. Period. The Democrats have failed completely in the inner cities. For those hurting the most who have been failed and failed by their politicians—year after year, failure after failure, worse numbers after worse numbers. Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it's safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats. And I ask you this, I ask you this—crime, all of the problems—to the African Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I'll straighten it out. I'll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?
A new survey suggests the logistics of going to services can be the biggest barrier to participation—and Americans’ faith in religious institutions is declining.
The standard narrative of American religious decline goes something like this: A few hundred years ago, European and American intellectuals began doubting the validity of God as an explanatory mechanism for natural life. As science became a more widely accepted method for investigating and understanding the physical world, religion became a less viable way of thinking—not just about medicine and mechanics, but also culture and politics and economics and every other sphere of public life. As the United States became more secular, people slowly began drifting away from faith.
Of course, this tale is not just reductive—it’s arguably inaccurate, in that it seems to capture neither the reasons nor the reality behind contemporary American belief. For one thing, the U.S. is still overwhelmingly religious, despite years of predictions about religion’s demise. A significant number of people who don’t identify with any particular faith group still say they believe in God, and roughly 40 percent pray daily or weekly. While there have been changes in this kind of private belief and practice, the most significant shift has been in the way people publicly practice their faith: Americans, and particularly young Americans, are less likely to attend services or identify with a religious group than they have at any time in recent memory.
Has the vice president made a lasting contribution in foreign policy?
Joe Biden is now the vice president who will not be president. He’s been VP for seven and a half years, preceded by decades of work on U.S. foreign policy in the Senate, but the question remains whether he is distinctive in any memorable way for his work in international affairs. Was he simply a glad-handing flack pushing the Obama agenda, a manic schmoozer of foreign leaders? A gaffe-prone foreign-policy dilettante who, in the long run, won’t matter?
Biden puts some people off. His critics argue that despite his passion for worthy causes—from efforts to stabilize Iraq to the “cancer moonshot” to his task force devoted to “a strong middle class”—his bouts of imprecision and occasional foot-in-mouth foibles get in the way. An adviser to retired General Stanley McChrystal reportedly referred to Biden as “Bite Me.” Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates wrote in his memoir, Duty, that Biden has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
We’ve been flying around the country for the last three years, visiting dozens of towns that are reinventing themselves after some kind of big economic or demographic change. I have also, in a way, matched those flights stroke by stroke in America’s public swimming pools. On our first day on the ground in any town, I search for a public pool. I started swimming around the country as a way to maintain some sense of normal in my physical activity after all that flying. And then I came to appreciate it as another window into the culture and spirit of the towns we visited. I wish Ryan Lochte could share some of my experience.
Like much of America—and I’m betting most of the many hundreds of kids I have seen swimming in pools around the nation, too—I was glued to the Olympic swimming events. Katie Ledecky, Maya DiRado, Michael Phelps, truth-teller Lilly King. And then, enter Ryan Lochte.
Most corporations try to make a profit by limiting costs. Movies corporations manage to record a loss by maximizing fees to their studios
Here is an amazing glimpse into the dark side of the force that is Hollywood economics. The actor who played Darth Vader still has not received residuals from the 1983 film "Return of the Jedi" because the movie, which ranks 15th in U.S. box office history, still has no technical profits to distribute.
How can a movie that grossed $475 million on a $32 million budget not turn a profit? It comes down to Tinseltown accounting. As Planet Money explained in an interview with Edward Jay Epstein in 2010, studios typically set up a separate "corporation" for each movie they produce. Like any company, it calculates profits by subtracting expenses from revenues. Erase any possible profit, the studio charges this "movie corporation" a big fee that overshadows the film's revenue. For accounting purposes, the movie is a
money "loser" and there are no profits to distribute.
American education is largely limited to lessons about the West.
When I turned 15, my parents sent me alone on a one-month trip to Ecuador, the country where my father was born. This was tradition in our family—for my parents to send their first-generation American kids to the country of their heritage, where we would meet our extended family, immerse ourselves in a different culture, and learn some lessons on gratefulness.
My family’s plan worked. That month in Ecuador did more for my character, education, and sense of identity than any other experience in my early life. And five years later, my experience in Ecuador inspired me to spend more time abroad, studying in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. These two trips not only made me a lifelong traveler, but also a person who believes traveling to developing countries should be a necessary rite of passage for every young American who has the means.
Two decades ago, Osama bin Laden officially launched al-Qaeda’s struggle against the United States. Neither side has won.
Exactly two decades ago, on August 23, 1996, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. At the time, few people paid much attention. But it was the start of what’s now the Twenty Years’ War between the United States and al-Qaeda—a conflict that both sides have ultimately lost.
During the 1980s, bin Laden fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. After the Soviets withdrew, he went home to Saudi Arabia, then moved to Sudan before being expelled and returning to Afghanistan in 1996 to live under Taliban protection. Within a few months of his arrival, he issued a 30-page fatwa, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” which was published in a London-based newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, and faxed to supporters around the world. It was bin Laden’s first public call for a global jihad against the United States. In a rambling text, bin Laden opined on Islamic history, celebrated recent attacks against U.S. forces in Lebanon and Somalia, and recounted a multitude of grievances against the United States, Israel, and their allies. “The people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Jewish-Christian alliance and their collaborators,” he wrote.
Intensely emotional and uncompromising, the singer’s long-awaited new album meditates on the passage of time.
Frank Ocean is still thinking about forever. One of his two new albums is called Endless, even though its songs all seem to end too soon. The more significant release, called either Blonde or Blond depending on where you acquire it, repeatedly laments nights, season, and years that can never be retrieved. The first time his unadorned vocals appear on that album, Ocean sings, “We'll let you guys prophesy / We gon' see the future first.” The line comes across as a challenge to get on his level and unhitch from the present—a necessary step before accessing the deep pleasures of his uncompromising new music.
Ocean’s obsession with time has been well-documented by now. His 2011 debut had the self-explanatory title Nostalgia, Ultra and his 2012 breakout, Channel Orange, was inspired by a teenage summer that, he said, seemed “orange.” He’s like the memory machine in Pixar’s Inside Out, processing the past into gemlike objects that can be sorted by visual cue and emotional essence. The blonds and blondes of Blond(e) are, on one level of interpretation, ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends. He references car models—Acuras, Ferraris, X6s—as shorthand for life phases. And on the luminous new track “Ivy,” he describes a callous breakup but keeps saying that when he thinks about the relationship, “the feeling still deep down is good.” Good: one simple word explains and colors all the complexity he’s sung about elsewhere in the song.