We as a nation are being drowned by a narrative of fear and anger that now drives policy decisions at political levels from city councils to the White House. It is a fundamental cultural problem based on disdain for science, distrust of real data, and a willful ignorance of all things foreign. The result is a dehumanization, driven by xenophobia, not only of our own citizens but also of those other multitudes with whom we must engage economically, socially, politically, and, increasingly often, militarily.
What do we biologists know that politicians seem to ignore? Our perspective is not unique, but it is absent from public debate. We are well aware of the burgeoning population of Homo sapiens in a closed system with limited resources, the changing ethnic mixture of that population, and the group behaviors that seem depressingly similar to those of many other animal species when confronted with strangers. We classify “the other” as the equivalent of a different species, a dangerous and invasive one.
As a graduate student, I never imagined that simply by becoming a college professor my meaningful encounters with, and expanding appreciation for, human diversity would be so much more extensive than that of other Americans. For 46 years, beginning in 1966, I taught large introductory biology courses at a state university, and over the years I must have taught about 16,000 students. The cultural intelligence I gained was a revelation in the sense that these people, as a group, seemed to match the human population figures in their textbooks, coming from all over the world and all socioeconomic backgrounds. Their majors were a reflection of their hopes and dreams; they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers.
During that first year of teaching I came to feel like their understanding of introductory zoology was important, but my real task was to instill a sense of pride in the university’s mission of teaching, research, and service. In other words, my job as a biology professor was to make the world into a better place by teaching people to think seriously not only about the structure of worms, but also the role that a broad education played in the maintenance of civilization. I hoped that they walked out of the final exam believing that they must read carefully, analyze world events, and preserve a healthy curiosity about the universe. I never imagined that those intellectual traits would be so willfully disdained, half a century later, by our highest elected officials, and especially by the President of the United States of America.
In the same way we might remind ourselves of the basic missions of a university, we might also ask: What is the basic mission of a nation? I submit that the answer is to maximize the health, wealth, cultural richness, and civic engagement of the largest possible number of people. A nation that is statistically sick, poor, uneducated, imprisoned, and discriminatory is not great, and states that purposefully generate sickness, poverty, and ignorance (especially through disenfranchisement, if not outright dehumanization) cannot ever be made great.
“Make America Great Again”—Donald Trump’s campaign slogan gracing his Chinese-made ballcaps—must stand as one of history’s most remarkable four-word phrases, unequivocally demonstrating the power of language. We’ve discovered since his inauguration that he has no clue what makes a nation great.
Even if I had my own four-word slogan early in my career—something like “Make America Curious Again”—any broader lessons I taught in the years since 1966 seem to have disappeared in America, so that the “again” now becomes vitally important.
Whether science or slogans, the real issue in today’s America is not one of fact but of form: ours versus theirs. And that is the issue steering our current ship of state: ours is good, theirs is bad. Any biologist can analyze situations in which fact and form are distinct but related properties. Horses are a fact; Belgian draft horses and racing thoroughbreds are different forms. Human beings are a fact; skin color, native language, religion, and place of birth are form. Massive movement across geographical space is a human fact; who is moving and why they are migrating is form. With the fact of a burgeoning human population comes rather extraordinary diversity of form, including cultural forms. Any teacher knows that diversity of almost any kind empowers those who seek to understand it and draw strength from various sources—new ideas, new and different ways of approaching age-old problems. Any teacher also knows that when humans are stripped of their humanity in the eyes of other people, violence is sure to follow. That principle is what we learn from schoolyard bullies and, I fear, presidential bullies.
What, then, is the solution? It’s no surprise that humanity’s problems, and by extension the problems of any nation, state, or city, cannot be solved to everyone’s satisfaction. These problems can, however, be alleviated when we know their origin, collect data on various attempts to solve them, and are rational about their actual impact on the quality of human life. In other words, when we recognize what is wrong, what needs fixing, and apply what humanity has learned about fixing big problems, we make progress. Xenophobic, racially-charged, simplistic and self-serving rhetoric therefore cannot make America great, now or ever.
We made a serious mistake in electing a president whose daily behavior stokes a fear of that (and those) we don’t understand and don’t want to understand. A hundred years from now if there are still historians they will have generated a library full of analysis focused on the beginning decades of the 21st century. And they will cite November 8, 2016—either as the date upon which this amazing experiment in human freedom failed, or upon which 300 million people were shown their deepest fears and decided, as a nation, to spend the next few years taming those fears by use of a ballot and civic action. Which narrative shall we choose?
John Janovy, Jr.
Header photo by TheDigitalWay, courtesy Pixabay.