Sunday, February 6, 2011

Magical Thinking

"We are shaped by each other. We adjust not to the reality of a world, but to the reality of other thinkers."

Joseph Chilton Pearce author of The Magical Child

Many years ago when my children were still very young I took them to the Catactin zoo. It was relatively nearby and although small as zoos go, I thought it would be an excellent day trip.

We learned the difference between crocodiles and alligators – it’s all in the teeth – and inspected the reptile and spider collection. The high point of the day came as we watched an orangutan sitting in a tree on a small island in the middle of a man made lake. The orangutan watched us back. One of my children commented on how human it looked. The educator in me saw the teachable moment and I gave a brief lesson on evolution pointing out that we as humans did in fact descend from orangutan like animals.

My children, ages six and four at the time, watched the orangutan swing through the trees, fascinated. They were reluctant to leave. My son began to be more than reluctant and pitched a full-scale temper tantrum, an unusual event for him. He was a very curious four year old with a wild enthusiasm for other creatures.

When our neighbors captured a chipmunk in a humane trap so they could take it far away into a field where it could dig all the holes it wanted, he begged me

“Can we keep it mom, can we, can we?”

He had to learn the sad but humane lesson that some animals are meant to be free.

The orangutan did not look happy swinging around in its tree on the island in the middle of the lake. It looked even less happy as it sat still and alone and quiet watching my son pitch a fit. Finally, like a typical exasperated parent, I demanded to know why he didn’t want leave.

“I want to watch him turn into a human.”

Lesson learned. Four year olds operate on magical thinking; it’s what helps them survive our often miserable attempts at parenting. They create a world from their observations and experiences that is both hedonistic and pragmatic to them and frequently bewildering to us.

I had to explain that the change occurred over many thousands and millions of years, a time completely inconceivable to my four year old. I had to explain that it happened at a time when the change was needed in order for survival and that it wasn’t going to happen again. This orangutan was going to stay an orangutan. He watched and waited a little longer and then reluctantly took my hand as we went in search of the zebras. He trusted part two of my lesson on evolution but just to be sure, he kept checking over his shoulder.

My son continues to be one of the only 16% of Americans who believe that the process of evolution is historical, provable, fact. Now in his mid twenties, he does, like most of us, indulge in magical thinking from time to time but he has an understanding of events that occur over long periods of time and an appreciation and acceptance of the role of science in establishing fact from fiction. He still has a lively curiosity but somehow the disappointments of the world have curtailed his wild enthusiasm and warped it into a cynicism too deep for his youth.

Like me, he is challenged by the thinking processes, or lack thereof, of religious zealots and those who insist, or are not convinced of, the reality of the process of evolution. What is the obstacle for 84% of the American public to acceptance of evolution? This lack of acceptance is the highest in so-called developed nations. This happens in a country where our president insists the best institutes of higher education exist and thrive. An assertion I would certainly question.

My friend, Harriet, wonders if evolution is taken as a personal insult. In a country where the populace has to loudly reassure itself on a regular basis that it is “Number One” at just about everything and certainly anything that is considered important, the fragility of American self confidence could easily be shaken by an assumed relationship, even kinship, with primates in general and monkeys - also in general. But wouldn’t that assumed close kinship require some magical thinking? The kind of thinking that a four year old might indulge in when presented with an abstract process such as evolution before his brain is capable of processing such an idea?

Perhaps it is a function of the religiosity of American life. America is at its heart is a very parochial collection of church going communities. In order to belong, attendance at and membership within a church community is almost a necessity. There are many within big city environments who do not act in the same way on the need to belong and there are small groups of us out in the American heartland who simply refuse to. We stumble into each other, perhaps drawn together by a different set of beliefs and the same need to belong. In order to belong to most church communities, the prevailing belief is that creationism, not evolution, is responsible for our human presence on earth. Again, perhaps this relationship to monkeys is just too primitive for our germophobic natures and presumptions of cultural superiority to accept.

But don’t most religious beliefs, particularly but not exclusively, of the Judeo-Christian heritage require a hearty measure of magical thinking? Burning bushes, parting of the seas, virgin births, walking on water, resurrection after death all require some suspension of critical analysis at least not mention a good measure of magical thinking in order to accept. The kind of thinking a four year old might use to construct a paradigm of meaning around to incorporate new and possibly conflicting information into his belief system?

Maybe it is the education system. Maybe the means by which we attempt to instruct our children in the scientific method are insufficient. Maybe the usual 12 years in institutes of learning is not enough to equip our children and youth with processes of critical thinking so they are able and willing to question beliefs that do not meet criteria of evidence and proof. *

The problem with questioning widely held beliefs is that it renders the questioner open to personal criticism even exile in communities where there is a lack of maturity of communication. We fear reprisal, we fear being cast out of communities to which we want to belong, and so we remain silent and acquiesce to the steady drumbeat of ignorance. Sadly in America we often confuse the message and the messenger and instead of listening carefully to and inquiring deeply into what might be an opinion in opposition to our own, we continue to crucify the messenger and become lost and dangerous in our grip on ignorance and self-righteousness. To paraphrase Herman Spencer, contempt before investigation cannot fail to keep us in everlasting ignorance. Evolution not only as scientific theory but also as a process of human development seems to be part of the life process of the dwindling few in America.

Humans and monkeys are actually cousins. We share about 95% of DNA, the genetic code that makes us who and what we are, and 98.4% DNA with chimpanzees. Although there is still some controversy about exactly where the split occurred, we most likely evolved from a common ancestor, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, about seven million years ago. Our similarities in appearance and behavioral characteristics are not an accident; they are a matter of relationship and DNA correlation. I wonder if part of the deeply held resistance to acceptance of our primate cousins is in some way related to our deeply held and sometimes repressed resistance to our acceptance of people of color in this country, people who have often been referred to as monkeys in a derogatory way.

Americans hate to be called racists, yet we continue to behave at a personal, social, emotional, and political level like racists. We don’t really understand what it means to be racists, but we are sure we’re not. It just makes us feel better about ourselves. Just as a refusal to accept our kinship with the rest of the animal kingdom somehow supports our belief in our own superiority and lends a rational justification to our beliefs and actions while we destroy the home of that kingdom, our home, our planet.

At what point will the clash between knowledge and belief lead to serious questions being asked in serious conversations? At what point will we rely on critical thinking to investigate information in search of truth rather than support for belief? What will it take for Americans to truly begin an educative process both for ourselves and our children that will dispense with contempt before investigation and lead us out of our own ignorance?

Perhaps we need a collective visit to the Catactin Zoos of America. Perhaps we need to spend more time in nature observing and learning its ways. Perhaps we need to lend our magical thinking and imaginations to work on behalf of actions that might restore balance to our planet, to our conversations about our planet, and our relationships to all sentient beings that inhabit it. Most of all, we need to begin to adjust to the reality of our world by exploring the reality of thinkers other than those whose opinions and beliefs reflect merely our own.

* Future blogs on education and critical thinking are to come.

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