Friday, February 20, 2009

Fossils in Songs, The Closing of the American Mind, and Evolution

I’ve been mulling over references to fossils in songs. A while ago, ReBecca K. Hunt-Foster on her Dinochick blog highlighted a new song about fossils. When she asked for suggestions of other songs with fossil references, she garnered an interesting set of responses, touching on music that ranged from rock to classical.

For reasons that are the subject of this post, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind came to my mind (probably a mostly closed one, I'll admit). The book, subtitled How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, was published in 1987 and had an implausible rise to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, staying there for 10 weeks that summer.

Bloom’s book is a conservative diatribe (sign of my closed mind) against recent generations of college students who he concluded were “unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality.” (p. 25) This relativism was essentially the death of standards, as far as Bloom was concerned. In the quest for “openness” fostered by academia, students’ minds were closing because they believed in no absolute truths, just many relative truths.

I don’t want to debate his main points again (my blood pressure is high enough as it is). Rather, it was his condemnation of rock music that I remembered as I rummaged through the rock song collection that clutters my mental filing cabinets, in search of songs with fossil references. Bloom had only disdain for the music college students listened to, concluding,
[R]ock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire – not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. (p. 73)

The music itself and the lyrics, according to Bloom, all were focused on unbridled sex.

If he were right, then the quest for fossil songs in the rock catalog had to be futile, no matter how much one “loves” fossils. But, he wasn’t right; at best, he was only partly right. There are examples that refute his gross and angry generalizations. A song, such as “King of Pain,” released in 1983 by The Police, doesn’t fit Bloom’s blanket condemnation. And it’s in my fossil song taxon, having the line:
There’s a fossil that’s trapped in a high cliff wall (That’s my soul up there).

Hardly the sex that Bloom was railing against. Actually, the college students he was complaining about were listening to more than Mick Jagger (nastily skewered by Bloom). There was, oh, to pick a group at random, say, Midnight Oil, at its peak in 1987 (e.g., “Beds are Burning” on the album Diesel and Dust). This Australian group was singing, not about sex and lust, but about the rights of indigenous peoples and the despoiling of the environment . . . oh, wait, I guess those topics probably would have offended Bloom almost as much as sex – more cultural relativism, I suppose. And, yes, Midnight Oil’s songs had that forbidden pulse to them.

In my look back, it was hard not to offer some support to Bloom’s thesis, particularly after I included in my fossil song taxon anything by the group T. Rex (led by the late great Marc Bolan). Bloom must have loved a song like “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” with the erudite lyrics of “Get it on, bang a gong, get it on.” (In all candor, I do love this song.)

Still, there are many sensitive and intelligent rock songs about things other than sex that help make my case. My favorite of those among fossil songs is “Badlands Flashback” by Bruce Cockburn, appearing on the album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (originally released in 1979). Because the song is in French, I had to read a translation of the lyrics before I tumbled to its relevance, with its invocation of the mystical way in which a fossil links its finder to a different time, almost a different world:
mon corps se pence,
ma main s'entends,
prends du gravier
un morcean blanc de coquille.

pour un instant
un mugissement;
l'antique mer
rempli cet espace qui a ete le mien.


the body stoops,
the hand goes out,
picks up from the gravel
a fragment of white seashell

for a moment
a roaring;
the ancient sea
fills the space that just now was mine

[Link to web source of the lyrics]

Parenthetically, Cockburn’s a wonderful performer from Canada who has never received the attention he deserves here in the States. And, okay, I’ll have to admit he probably wasn’t being played much, if at all, by University of Chicago freshmen on their Walkmen in the mid 1980s as Bloom drafted his book.

Anyway, there’s a reason I was primed to think about Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind. I recently read biologist Kenneth R. Miller’s book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (2008). Don’t be misled by the title, this is an exquisitely written and argued treatise on the fatal flaws in Intelligent Design and a clear warning about the very real danger its supporters pose, not only to the biology curriculum, but to the entire enterprise of science as well. Miller was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Dover (Pa.) case on Intelligent Design in the public schools (see links below for more information).

In his book, Miller writes about The Closing of the American Mind, noting that, whatever Bloom’s concerns about the health of academia in the mid 1980s, he (Bloom) thought the natural sciences were doing just fine, uninfected by the relativism plague. Ironically, in the two decades since, Miller asserts, the conservative anti-evolutionary camp has launched a campaign that seeks to do to the natural sciences exactly what Bloom warned had happened to the rest of academia, that is, to
introduc[e] a new relativism into the practice of science. Once evolution is accepted as nothing more than the product of the ideology of "methodological naturalism," it will be easy to introduce another, theistic ideology in which intelligent design will qualify as equally valid science. (p. 189)

Ultimately, the battle to beat back non-scientific alternatives to evolution raises key questions that we must answer in the affirmative. As Miller poses them:
Are we willing to allow science to work? Do we have the strength and the wisdom to allow science to discard the ideas that don’t work, and to search for genuine truth in the natural world? (p. 221)

Natural truth for a natural world, a world in which evolution is at work and fossils are there to find, learn from, understand, and sing about.

Dover Case Links

U.S. District Court opinion

NOVA episode on the case

1 comment:

  1. We have a whole CD, called Fossil Rock, by LuLu and the TomCat. It contains songs devoted to fossils and related subjects, such as Mary Anning. Details may be found at
    Sound clips may be heard at

    Hope you enjoy it...
    Rock on!


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