In the first podcast of this series, we define the theory of biological evolution and discuss effective science communication in the current socio-political climate.
Transcript of Episode 1: Who’s Afraid of Evolution?
As we travel along the backbone of vertebrate anatomy in this podcast series, I thought I should define the theory of biological evolution in this first podcast. Biological evolution is not simply “change over time” as is often claimed. Your watch changes over time, but it certainly does not evolve. The biological theory of evolution can be stated as descent with modification from a single, common ancestor. In other words, all life on earth is related through a great family tree. Different branches of the family tree have inherited modified characteristics unique to their portion of the pedigree through a process of natural selection.
Unfortunately, too often various anti-evolution sentiments and activities permeate the media, generating a public perception that evolution is, at its heart, anti-religious. These sorts of challenges to science and science education are not new, and the reactions to them tend to be the same. As scientists we say, “why don’t people accept the evidence for evolution?” and in popular media two talking heads will shout at each other over the issue, usually with a title like, “Science Versus Religion!” Seeing the continuing frustration and hand-wringing of my colleagues and friends over this recurring issue prompted me to make this the first episode in this podcast series.
As scientists, we typically respond to challenges about evolution the way we would respond to a colleague questioning our data or methods: we give lots of information. Scientists are taught to defend their hypotheses by providing data which can be evaluated by others, and this is one of the great strengths of our discipline. However, if you assume that those opposed to teaching evolution will be swayed by a lot of scientific data, you will be very disappointed. Here, I dissect what I have come to learn about the creation-evolution argument in the public sphere, and give some thoughts on how my colleagues and I can be more effective science communicators.
First, clear definitions matter. What, for example, do you mean when you say, “creationism” or “creationist”? To a scientist, those terms generally translate into someone with a very narrow, fundamentalist view of the world, including those who may take a holy text literally. But I guarantee these words translate very differently in the public sphere. For example, many people feel that if you believe in a creator, then you are a creationist. This is a very important difference! To many people the word “creationist” means “people of faith” – so if you believe that a scientist is debunking creationism, they are therefore debunking your faith. Yet, many people of faith accept evolution as a valid theory. From this perspective, it is easy to see why many spiritual and religious people are uncomfortable or angry with scientific “debunking” of creationism. So carefully defining our terms from the beginning is extremely important.
Second, this is not about data: it is about fear. There are many reasons for why people reject evolutionary theory, but in my experience the primary one seems to be the fear of loss: losing the spirit, losing the soul, and dehumanization. If you believe that accepting evolutionary theory is tantamount to rejecting your faith, your family, and your humanity, I doubt you will be willing to listen to a scientist give you facts about evolution, let alone be persuaded that the theory has merit.
Third, both the public and the scientific community tend to conflate various things together under the banner of “science” or “evolution” or “religion,” and this leads both to more confusion and anger on both sides. Here’s where the problem lies. Let’s say you are an atheist and you conflate science with atheism. It would then be appropriate to ask, where does the science end and the atheism begin? But we often don’t make these distinctions, and this leads to the false impression that evolution is a theory whose purpose is to reject religion.
Instead, science is merely a tool for understanding the natural world. It is certainly a powerful tool, but nonetheless a tool just the same. Science is not about making God go away. Science is not an antidote to religion, it cannot replace faith, and one does not live by scientific tenets. But this cuts both ways, because faith cannot and does not replace science as a tool for understanding the natural world
Given these realities, how can we be more effective science communicators, particularly about evolutionary theory?
First, assuaging fear is critical. We as scientists will get nowhere in general public discourse if we mock, belittle, or talk condescendingly about faith while proclaiming the value of science. Having respectful discussions with those willing to engage with us will probably accomplish a lot more.
Second, that said, let’s stop trying to convince the unconvincible, and instead focus on the majority. For example, there are people who still believe that the earth is flat, despite all evidence to the contrary. Why on earth (pun intended) would you waste your time as a geographer or cartographer trying to convince that small group of people otherwise? Wouldn’t your time be better spent arguing for better geography classes and better public awareness on how the use of maps influences our culture, politics, and resource management? Which of these options is likely to be more fruitful in the long term? By the same token, there are those who doubt evolution and have gone so far as to claim that plants are not alive for convoluted reasons arising from a literal interpretation of one section of Genesis. Don’t believe me? Go to the Institute for Creation Research and search for “are plants alive?” I ask you, how can you convince someone about the importance of evolution or science if they won’t even acknowledge that plants are living things? Not believing plants are alive would undermine the very underpinning of our human civilization: agriculture.
Third, I realize that there will always be those in positions of power who will question science, especially evolution, and the necessity of teaching these tools. In these situations, showing the links in the chain from basic research to practical matters is always more beneficial than talking about how well evolution is supported. Going back to the flat earth example, let’s get practical here: if you are an airline pilot and you don’t believe the earth is round, you are going to chart a course that will take longer to complete, may not even put you where you want to be, and certainly will gobble up more fuel. Let’s turn to geology and paleontology and get practical here, too: it is the concept of an old earth and the distribution and sequence of rocks and fossils that oil companies rely on to find their fuel. If paleontology and geology were equivalent to flat earth concepts, why would companies invest billions of dollars searching for fossil fuels where the sciences of paleontology and geology say that they are?
And what of teaching evolutionary theory? Let’s get practical again: biological evolution states that all living things are descended with modification from a common ancestor. In medicine, this means it is practical and desirable to look outside the human body for solutions to anatomical defects, disease, and developmental problems. You might choose to not accept the genetic and fossil data that support a close relationship between primates like ourselves and rodents. However, you would then have to consider why pharmaceutical companies and medical researchers would bother studying and testing drugs on rats and mice if there were no relationship between these animals and humans. Wouldn’t’ it would be a huge waste of money? And what about disease itself? Acknowledging evolution means you also acknowledge that diseases are often caused by living things which descend with modification and adapt to their host’s body. A static view of disease-causing bacteria or viruses would get you nowhere with drug research: if there was nothing to evolution, it would seem awfully foolish and wasteful for pharmaceutical companies to invest millions of dollars into drug research.
Ultimately, the controversy over evolution is not about data but about fear. In my experience, the biggest barrier for many people to accept evolution is accepting that we are related to other living things, and that we share a close, common ancestor with chimpanzees. I acknowledge that this can be a deeply disturbing thought for some. As a scientist, I would say that this is where the data consistently point us. But as a fellow human being, I would say, even though humans may share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, we still have value, there can still be a God, there can still be morality, and people can still love and be loved. As scientists, we must become better at conveying our data along with our shared humanity.
Note – this first podcast and its transcript were derived with some revision from an earlier post on my Jurassic Journeys blog. I felt this was such an important topic that it bore repeating. Future podcasts and their transcripts will consist of wholly new material not featured elsewhere.