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 typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
That's not a harsh assessment. It's just a fair description.
Millennial politics is simple, really. Young people support big government, unless it costs any more money. They're for smaller government, unless budget cuts scratch a program they've heard of. They'd like Washington to fix everything, just so long as it doesn't run anything.
That's all from a new Reason Foundation poll surveying 2,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 29. Millennials' political views are, at best, in a stage of constant metamorphosis and, at worst, "totally incoherent," as Dylan Matthews puts it.
It's not just the Reason Foundation. In March, Pew came out with a similar survey of Millennial attitudes that offered another smorgasbord of paradoxes:
Millennials hate the political parties more than everyone else, but they have the highest opinion of Congress.
Young people are the most likely to be single parents and the least likely to approve of single parenthood.
Young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama when he promised universal health care, but they oppose his universal health care law as much as the rest of the country ... even though they still pledge high support for universal health care. (Like other groups, but more so: They seem allergic to the term Obamacare.)
Borrowing from other cultures isn’t just inevitable, it’s potentially positive.
Sometime during the early 2000s, big, gold, “door-knocker” hoop earrings started to appeal to me, after I’d admired them on girls at school. It didn’t faze me that most of the girls who wore these earrings at my high school in St. Louis were black, unlike me. And while it certainly may have occurred to me that I—a semi-preppy dresser—couldn’t pull them off, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t.
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
In Trump’s aftermath, his enemies on the right will have to take stock and propose a meaningful alternative vision for the GOP’s future.
Donald Trump’s big victories in the Mid-Atlantic primaries don’t represent quite the end of the ballgame—but they come damn close.
And now Donald Trump’s many and fierce opponents in the Republican Party and the conservative movement face the hour of decision. Trump looks ever more certain to be the party nominee. Yet not perhaps since George McGovern in 1972 has a presumptive nominee so signally failed to carry the most committed members of his party with him.
So what happens now to those who regard themselves as party thought-leaders? Do they submit? Or do they continue to resist?
Resistance now means something more—and more dangerous—than tapping out #NeverTrump on Twitter. It means working to defeat Trump even knowing that the almost certain beneficiary will be Hillary Clinton.