Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How Science Threatens Not Just the Christian Religion

The discoveries and insights of science can cause a great deal of cognitive dissonance. If it reveals something that contradicts what we have always believed, especially if it involves our identity, it can be deeply disturbing. We as scientists cannot expect everyone to accept what we say about evolution, threatening as it does the idea that humans are in the image of God, with perfect good grace. Many religious people react against us for this reason, and we should not treat them as if we think they are stupid.

Consider the example of Native American religions and identity. I refer here to the tribes that have clung to traditional beliefs, unlike my tribe (the Cherokees) who have been mostly Baptists for over two hundred years. And the branch of science they have the most trouble with is the study of DNA.

Several books have described the picture of human history that has emerged from the study of DNA. Among these are the books by Bryan Sykes. His most recent is DNA USA, about half of which is about DNA, and the other half about his train trip across the United States. Y chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA, and alleles of genes on chromosomes (or variants of the markers that are near them) can be associated with European, African, or Oriental origin (which includes Native American). Hundreds of people have now gotten their DNA analyzed (which need not entail a complete genome) and some surprises have emerged. For example, most Southern whites, however pure they consider themselves, have African genes. And most blacks have Oriental (Native American) genes. There are even Hispanics with Jewish genes (inherited from Sephardic ancestors). Most racial groups, however defined, have welcomed these analyses. One would expect proud Scottish clans to be devastated to discover they have Viking Y chromosomes rather than Celtic ones, but they just shift the focus of their pride and keep on playing their bagpipes.

But Native Americans are not pleased, by and large. Of their four major mitochondrial “clans,” as Sykes calls them, three are from Siberia, and one is from China. This indicates that the ancestors of Native Americans mostly came from Siberia, and some came perhaps by boat along the western coast of North America. But traditional groups within some Native American tribes cling to their beliefs that they originated right here in North America with even more seriousness than a creationist clings to his or her Bible.

The reason is not hard to understand, as erroneous as it is. It is cognitive dissonance, reinforced by a history of exploitation. Whites have taken Native American land, usually in a violent fashion. Some tribes, such as my Cherokee ancestors, adopted white ways, only to find that this did not protect their land rights. Others were nearly exterminated. The argument that the white powers, most recently the United States government, used could be summarized in Garrison Keillor’s version of the Woody Guthrie song: This land is my land, it is not your land, I’ve got a shotgun, and you ain’t got one. And now along come primarily white scholars with their DNA kits and try to tell you you aren’t even natives in the true sense of the word.

People have all kinds of reasons for rejecting scientific explanations. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid. As I teach evolution in rural Oklahoma, I try to be continually aware of the discombobulation that can be caused by cognitive dissonance when students hear about evolution and discover that there is evidence for it and the professor who tells them about it is not an evil, selfish sinner. (Really.)

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