Most people these days think of H.G. Wells as a science-fiction writer, in fact as one of the pillars of the genre together with Jules Verne, but his best selling, most popular work in his lifetime was A Short History of the World which he wrote in 1922. In the opening paragraph of this brilliant and monumental work, Wells writes:
A couple of hundred years ago men possessed the history of little more than the last three thousand years. What happened before that time was a matter of legend and speculation. Over a large part of the civilized world it was believed and taught that the world had been created suddenly in 4004 B.C though authorities differed as to whether this had occurred in the spring or the autumn of that year. This fantastically precise misconception was based upon a too literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, and upon rather arbitrary theological assumptions connected therewith. Such ideas have long since been abandoned by religious teachers, and it is universally recognized that the universe in which we live has to all appearances existed for an enormous period of time and possibly for endless time.
The idea, which Wells describes, of the Universe having been created 4004 years before Christ was first established by the Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th century. Since that time it has remained a logical assumption that if you believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible’s description of creation, then you must also believe that the planet is in the neighbourhood of 6000 years old.
How many Americans think planet Earth is 6000 years old? When I asked a version of this question on Quora, the blasé, un-challenged answer that came back was 30+ million.
The question of evolution became “news” once again in the wake of the Republican primary debates, when it was noted that none of the candidates would admit to believing in a scientific as opposed to Biblical explanation of human existence. Dr. Ben Carson, in particular, was singled out for criticism because he is a doctor, and therefore a scientist. To reject evolution, as many commentators have pointed out, is to reject science. It’s pretty much impossible for someone to believe in scientific descriptions of the behaviour of molecules and DNA, and still not believe in evolution.
When asked directly by Bill O’Reilly, if he was, in fact, “a creationist,” Dr. Carson responded, “I know a lot of people say I believe the earth is 6000 years old. They have no basis to say that. I don’t know how old the earth is. It says that in the beginning ‘God created the heavens and the earth’ period.”
Dr. Carson’s answer was evasive and disingenuous. The really important question is why couldn’t Dr. Carson, a recognized scientist, say that in our day scientific research has displaced the literal interpretation of the Genesis story of creation. For as long as the Bible has been studied, it has been understood that the Bible can be interpreted literally or allegorically. With scientific advancement, the Bible can still be read as an allegorical text whose primacy lies in the moral lessons of its sub-text rather than in its literal, historical accuracy. Who are Dr. Carson’s imagined constituents who cannot accept the allegorical truth of the Bible over a literal interpretation? Who are these constituents who cannot accept what Wells describes as a “universal truth,” accepted for at least the last 100 years among the literate, that our planet is older and our universe took longer to create than described in the Judeo-Christian Bible?
Do they really exist? When I asked myself this question, I concluded that this constituency can only exist within a population that doesn’t read. The question becomes one of literacy.
If you read scientific explanations or, for that matter, if you actually read the Bible, it becomes pretty obvious that the Genesis version of creation should not be taken literally although, like every good myth or legend, it does have some basis in fact.
How many Americans can’t read? Here, for me, is the real shock.
According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read.
[Since I first wrote this post, and continued to research illiteracy in the USA, I have discovered numerous claims that the American literacy rate is 97.7%, 99.9% and 100%. In each of these three cases, the CIA World Fact Book is given as the source. I have not been able to find literacy rates for the USA in the World Fact Book.]
The USA is the richest, most powerful and, allegedly, the most advanced country in the world, but in terms of literacy, based on the CIA’s World Fact Book, the average literacy rate for the world as a whole is 86.1%; making the USA slightly below average in terms of literacy. The USA has better literacy rates than countries in dire poverty, facing protracted civil wars, and those countries which actively prevent women from learning to read, but at an 86% literacy rate the USA lags behind behind China (96.4%), behind Cuba (99.8%), behind Greece (97.7%), behind Jamaica (88.7%), Mexico (95.1) and Russia (99.7%); in fact, behind most of the stable nations in the world.
How do you conduct an advanced, sophisticated democracy when so many of your citizens can’t or don’t read? As Wells points out, nations were able to exist and thrive through the invention of paper, then print, and in the USA in particular by being able to communicate across great distances using telegraph and railways and steam ships. How can you conduct an advanced, sophisticated democracy when so many citizens are prepared to believe that our Universe was created in seven days, 6000 years ago, because that is what they have been told, and so many leaders are prepared to kowtow to such beliefs?
Reading Wells' Short History of the World, you realize that civilization has progressed on our planet because of the double-edged swords of empires, technologies, religions and economies, which can spread knowledge, unify diverse peoples and promote peace and stability, but can equally create hegemony, inequality and injustice, and ignite civil and tribal wars capable of drawing the whole world into their vortex.
With a presidential election in the USA in ten days from now, I assume we will soon be relieved from the daily barrage of Donald Trump’s name and image and bombast—unless he marries a Kardashian (a possibility I would not preclude). When you read the history of empires—Persian, Mongolian, Arab, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, European—it is impossible not to notice how the USA today shows all the signs of a well-established pattern of collapse: irreparable internal divisions, widespread injustice and inequality, declining or stagnant quality of education, xenophobia and protectionism, imbroglio in foreign wars which the population neither supports nor understands, declining attachment to shared beliefs (including and especially in the American case in democracy itself), internal conflicts based on race, religion and economic class, decline in respect for leadership and the political class as a whole, economic decline and extreme indebtedness, an oversized military putting a strain on the overall economy, a marked decline in the physical and mental wellbeing of the average citizen (obesity, alienation, paranoia, drug addiction, etc), endemic egoism and radical individualism. That Donald Trump is an icon of egoism and the reductio ad absurdum of radical individualism is of little importance, but what is truly nation-shattering is that so many Americans see him as representing them, as representing their thoughts and feelings and attitudes. That is a fact and a fracture from which the USA will not soon recover.