Last week I got to hear U of C professor Jerry Coyne talk about evolution at the Graham School of General Studies. Coyne showed the accompanying graph, originally from a Science article by former Chicagoan Jon Miller (who was mentioned in this blog last August) comparing different countries on the percentage of their populations who believe evolution is a fact. (Coyne thoroughly established that it is, if you’re wondering, but that’s another story.) The United States ranks next to last, with about 40% knowing this, just ahead of Turkey; Iceland was first with close to 80%.

But it was a member of the audience who blew my mind. Afterwards she asked, which countries do Americans think we’re most like? Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden? Or Latvia, Cyprus, and Turkey? Chances are the Scandos would win that vote — but in fact, on this central concept of biology, Americans think like the second trio. I was too flabbergasted to take notes, but her point was, “We aren’t who we think we are — we don’t think like we think we think.”

Where had I heard something like that before recently? It’s precisely what happens when you come down with Alzheimer’s disease. You think you can drive, not recalling the times you’ve run into other cars. You think you can live alone, not recalling how you filled the house with smoke from a burned-off pan of food. You think you can pay your bills, even as the dunning notices pile up on the table. Your self-image is frozen in past time, and has less and less to do with what you actually do, or can do, now.

Hmmm…an empire that claims to spread liberty…a country where most people don’t believe the fact of evolution but identify with countries where most people do…a country where we’re sure that “anyone who wants to work can make it” as wages for work actually decline (PDF). Do we have a diagnosis?