Let's call the antidote to Perfectionism “Messiness”. In almost every zone of knowledge the fundamentalist argues, “It’s simple!” Even as the progressive, fielding the same question, surveys the Messiness before her and says, “It’s complicated!”, deploying caveats and further considerations. The fundamentalist will immediately detect such a response as weakness, insecurity, a smokescreen, a dodge. This is why fundamentalists have a relatively easy time winning converts – they radiate certainty, which makes their conclusions, even the bankrupt ones, feel unassailable. As a child I preferred simplicity. Who doesn’t?
The belief that every living thing appeared on earth in its present form, immutable, unchanging – that’s Perfectionism. Asking somebody to embrace the veracity of evolution, on the other hand, invites them to make a truce with biological Messiness on a grand scale. Whales with hip bones left over from their landlubbing ancestors. Humans with tail bones. Human embryos with gills, with coats of hair covering their entire body but shed prior to birth. Unending change, every living thing a so-called “transitional form”. A whopping 4,500 different species of cockroaches alone. It’s enough to make a Perfectionist dizzy. Ask a creationist about abiogenesis and they’ll tell you, “It’s simple: God did it!” Ask a scientist and they’ll tell you, “It’s complicated! There’s so much we don’t know.”
In Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth, a book-length appreciation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, he considers the biological version of Platonic essentialism, the widespread creationist intuition that animal species possess essential forms in the way that geometric shapes do. That there is, for example, an essential rabbit, a sort of celestial cookie-cutter shape with floppy ears that could be used to stamp out such a form at the dawn of creation. The basic act of giving animals names further adds to the aura of immutability.
"The Platonist regards any [evolutionary] change in rabbits as a messy departure from the essential rabbit, and there will always be resistance to change – as if all real rabbits were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Rabbit in the Sky. The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendants can depart indefinitely from the ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants....
"If there is a ‘standard rabbit’, the accolade denotes no more than the centre of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping, variable bunnies. And the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we call rabbits will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent rabbitiness, no essence of rabbit hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous, whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivities… All is fluid, as another Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said; nothing fixed. After a hundred million years it may be hard to believe that the descendant animals ever had rabbits for ancestors."
It’s a seductive idea: that we might be able to file living things into categories as clearly labelled as “triangle”, no additional qualification needed. And not just rabbits, but an Irishman, say, or a Christian. I suspect that xenophobia and resentment for immigrants owes much to the dissonance that arises from seeing a Platonic ideal muddied. The smile of a flag-pledging American patriot framed by the fabric of her hijab? Nice try, scoffs the jingoist in his camouflage cap, swatting away the cognitive dissonance, that orbiting mosquito whose buzz never quite goes away.
Perhaps my childhood experience growing up in Ireland in the early ’80s contributed to my illusion of a perfect Irish archetype. We shared an accent. We shared a paleness. How clearly I remember the classmate of mine who spent the entirety of his summer holidays in Africa and returned with his skin tone noticeably darker than when he departed. His transfiguration confused me. Six years on the planet by then and I’m not sure I’d seen anything resembling dark skin till that moment. Homogenous communities, how deftly they trick us into believing cultural purity exists outside the mind.
It’s comforting to imagine we live in a world of sturdy taxonomies. It helps us orient ourselves in the cosmos. Christianity’s various simplifications appear to arise from the same urge. The waypoints of a prepackaged moral system. The equatorial delineation of God and Devil, good and evil, angels and demons, heaven and hell, lost and found.