Evolution and the American myth of the individual (John Terrell)

Modern individualism is one of many consequences of the cosmological upheaval following in the wake of Copernicus. After Earth ceased to be the centre of everything, the lone human ego eventually stepped in to take its place.

Later, in the nineteenth century, a significant factor in this new cosmology was the rise of evolutionary theory – or rather, the rise of individualistic interpretations of evolutionary theory. These interpretations seemed to suggest that individual selfishness was the basis of the game of life – when in fact, however selfish the gene may be, the human being is a fundamentally social creature. Evolutionary theory also seemed to be at odds with religion – when in fact, if we look at this emphasis on sociality and leave aside creationist mythology, they actually have a lot in common.

In this light, as anthropologist John Terrell points out in this New York Times opinion piece, the mish-mash of Christian fundamentalism and libertarian individualism in the Tea Party is very strange.

… I find it more than ironic that American individualism today – which many link closely with Christian fundamentalism – is self-consciously founded on 17th- and 18th-century ideas about human beings as inherently self-interested and self-centered individuals …