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TVOL1000 Profile: Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is a political activist and the founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She is a widely read and award-winning columnist and essayist, in addition to authoring many books, including “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America”, “Bait and Switch: On the (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream”, and “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America”.  

A few years ago, I was invited by David Sloan Wilson to give a talk at his university. In addition to the pleasure of meeting David and his wife, one thing stands out from my visit. I can’t remember what I was talking about, but during a classroom Q&A, a student asked me whether I “believe in evolution.”

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The question took me aback. How could I “believe” in evolution? I told her I thought it was the best explanation for the variety of living beings on earth, but that this is not an appropriate subject for faith. My mind spun on: I don’t believe in Genesis either, or the Navajo creation story, though if convincing evidence for these arose, I might have to revise my beliefs or disbeliefs.

In a sense though, I did “believe,” if only because I had been raised by grassroots atheists to reject all things religious. When a seventh grade science teacher took class time to deride any theory that posited life beginning at a time earlier than 6000 years ago, I simply checked out and went back to the novel I was hiding among the books on my desk. I would choose my own stories, thank you.

I don’t think I ever really appreciated evolutionary theory until about four years later, in high school, when I was selected to attend a series of Saturday lectures about biology. This took place at the natural history museum, though there was nothing either natural or historical about the lectures. We just viewed slide after slide of small, odd, mostly sea creatures, with the instructor pointing out differences and similarities among them, of which there were many.  But no attempt was made to account for these differences; all we were learning was taxonomy, which seemed to me to be fairly arbitrary and not worth gouging out the weekend for.

But then at some point, probably not until the lecture series was over, I realized what had been missing all along—the theory of evolution. The slides were not just a static collection of images; there was a story connecting them, a story which had never been mentioned. All those minute differences in anatomy were the variations that natural selection had created and worked from, though there was still probably a prohibition on saying so. When I understood this, biology began to come to life.

My loyalty to Darwinism was tested in the 1990s, when “postmodernist” academics denounced it as a justification for racism and misogyny. There is no question that Darwinism has been misused to “explain” all sorts of social inequalities and generally prop up the status quo, on the vague theory whatever exists must represent the “survival of the fittest.” I teamed up with anthropologist Janet McIntosh to write a memorable rejoinder, entitled “The New Creationism,” which generated a huge volume of angry responses. We were denounced and of course we persisted.

To go back to the student who asked whether I “believe” in evolution: Today I might give her an even more resounding “no.” Evolution is not a “fact,” although we can observe brief chunks of it in nature or computer simulations. It is an explanation, a narrative – even a “story” –and it evolves as new evidence arises. For now, faced with an almost infinite variety of living things, it’s the best story we have.

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  1. Dave G says:

    A few comments:

    (1) Ehrenreich misremembers the exchange she describes here. A faculty member (not a student) at the Q & A was describing her attempts to understand how evolutionary ideas could be incorporated into her English courses. When the faculty member commented: “I mean… I believe in evolution”, Ehrenreich corrected her: “Don’t say you ‘believe in evolution’… Let’s say you think the scientific approach is probably the most convincing”. Ehrenreich was not put on the spot by anyone.

    (2) The notion that evolution is a narrative is hardly a new idea. The literary study of evolutionary writing (its narratives, metaphors, rhetoric) goes back over thirty years – (among many others) Gillian Beer, Robert Young, or Mirsia Landau. Yet, when this same audience member suggested that evolution could be conceived of as a narrative, Ehrenreich reacted – at that time – as if it had never occurred to her.

    (3) Comparing academic critics of evolutionary science to religious creationists is about as confused a slander as one could make in this situation. The original article she references is peppered with generalizations and twice-told tales. Ehrenreich and others like to crow about how they really riled up the postmodernists with that zinger, but I have found precisely two responses to it (hardly the “huge volume of angry responses” she contends here). She flatters herself. And the comparison to Elizabeth Warren is just ridiculous.

    When we discuss the academic (and public) struggles over evolutionary science, we need to be as truthful, well-informed, and rigorous as we would expect in any scientific enterprise. Retelling the same, poorly remembered war stories and dusting off the tired whipping horse of ‘postmodernism’ adds nothing to this conversation.

    Please try harder.