Belief

Moments ago, my wife and I were having a discussion about cleaning products. Since we’ve had kids, my wife’s idea of a household cleaner is vinegar mixed with water. Or, if it’s a really tough job, straight, uncut, Bolivian baking soda.

This is not a subject on which we always agree. While I think most modern cleaning products go overboard with the lavender-scented, angel-tear formulas, I also am not above using something that, well, actually works. For instance, bleach.

My wife leaned in close to my face and said, not unlike a pious woman from latter-day Salem, Massachusetts, “Bleach is evil.”

And then she walked away.

For the past ten years, I’ve been married to a rational woman. She and I share a belief system. We agree on almost every topic of major public debate. It’s rare for us to find something on which we disagree. It’s so rare, in fact, that I usually give up any debate within 30 seconds because the only way to change my wife’s mind about something she believes is show her that it’s provably wrong.

Five minutes later, my wife walked back in the room and and said, “If I die unexpectedly, the evil wolfman on (street name redacted) is the one who killed me.”

And then she walked out again. There are certain things better left without debate.

The discussions above actually interrupted me from reading about what appears to be new scientific evidence that a previously unknown relative of humans existed some 40,000 years ago and walked among Neanderthals and modern humans. All of this information has been divined from DNA found in one pinkie finger bone in a Siberian cave.

It’s these kinds of announcements that absolutely fascinate me. If proven to be true, scientists have uncovered something on Earth that directly speaks to our history as human beings, something that until now we couldn’t even have acknowledged, something that helps us further understand who we are and what we survived to make it this far.

I am actually the type of guy who finds as much or more value in looking back at our planet as I find in looking outward to space (although, this news kept me mentally babbling for an hour or so). That’s partially because I don’t believe I will live to experience any life-changing discoveries beyond our own atmosphere. However, I think there is a chance that within my lifetime we humans might have a much deeper understanding of our personal history.

The human experience, such as it is, is largely corrupted by the fact we don’t understand who we are, why we’re here, or where we came from. In fact, the mere misunderstanding and lack of agreement on human history is one of the most severe divisions in human dialog. Why? Well, in part, because there is a significant portion of the population (44% of American adults, if you’re to believe a 2008 Gallup poll) that believes that Earth is no more than 10,000 years old and that human life didn’t begin until then.

I don’t talk about religion with most people, and I certainly don’t discuss it in a forum like this. However, I think it’s telling that my interest, fascination, and belief in the mitochondrial DNA discovery sets me apart from nearly half the population of my country. That is, on any given day, up to 44% of the people with whom I might randomly interact directly oppose my belief in the basic structure and evolution of humankind. I think this is probably the reason “Arrested Development” didn’t survive on television.

I listened to an old Radio Lab yesterday that featured a guy bent on polling just about everybody he met on whether they believed humans would ever stop going to war. A majority of the people he’d asked over the past six or seven years had said they believed the end of war was impossible. The folks had their various opinions on why, but it was almost universal that people believed humans would be killing each other from now until the end of time.

It seemed so depressing, so fatalistic, so…understandable. Of course we’ll kill each other forever.

Even as an ostensibly enlightened society living in a modern age of advanced science, we cannot agree on the fundamental roots of our existence. It would be one thing if DNA scientists and Young Earth Creationists were fringe groups and wingnuts, the type who wear tennis shoes and purple jumpsuits while offing themselves in ritual suicide. But they are not. Our population is divided by huge groups of people who co-exist almost against their will. That they can agree on who should win American Idol but can’t agree if humans have lived for more than 10,000 years is probably the only evidence I’ll ever need that we are more screwed than any god or scientist had ever imagined.

I do not prosthelytize and I count on others to do me the same favor. Nonetheless, I do believe that science will help reveal some fundamental truths about our lives in the span of the next 50 or so years, and I will almost certainly find it fascinating and enlightening to the point that it will change my view of the world and myself. At that time, half the American population will probably still believe differently than me. In the easiest of scenarios, they will kill me quickly..

In the meantime, I have bleach and the wolfman to worry about. That’s probably enough for now anyway.