On February 12, we celebrate Darwin Day, the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. As the milestone approaches, I’m reminded of something I learned recently.
Never rise above.
I was listening to an NPR series on science and faith, and the topic of the episode was Evolution and God. A filmmaker named Randy Olson, the producer of a film called “A Flock of Dodos” was being interviewed. He said something that really caught me. In the film, Olson shows the leaders of the intelligent design movement, and also a group of biology professors. He found that the biology professors came off to the audience as smug and arrogant. Why? Because they ignored the cardinal rule of filmmaking. Never rise above.
When you rise above in any scene, whether in a movie, on TV, in live theater, what have you, you create sympathy for the “other side.” This makes a lot of sense to me, and it occurs to me that we teachers usually obey this rule everywhere – except when discussing evolution.
Here’s the thing: evolution is hard. It is no wonder that many people today don’t get it. Evolution seems unbelievable, which of course is part of what makes it so wonderful. If you disagree that it seems unbelievable, consider that for thousands and thousands of years no one got it. Not Isaac Newton, not Aristotle, not Gauss, not Descartes, not Galileo, not any of these minds we think of as the best minds that ever were. If they didn’t get it, then what chance do we have?
We have an advantage, of course. We live after Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky, George Gaylord Simpson, JBS Haldane, and dozens of others. We live after Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick, and Thomas Hunt Morgan. And we live in the time of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, the great teachers of evolution in our time.
Still, if you’re not immersed in these ideas, you are in the same situation as Aristotle, Newton, and the rest. And they didn’t get it. So it should not be surprising that so many very smart people don’t get evolution. It’s hard.
When we teach the uncertainty principle, special relativity, electromagnetism, even Newton’s laws, we are gentle. We are understanding of setbacks and misconceptions. We use humor. We use bad jokes. We help our learners. We teach gently.
When we teach evolution, why are we seen as smug and arrogant? Why do we lose our temper? Why do we “debate”, ridicule, condescend?
Well, we know why. There are people who lie. There are people who aren’t interested in the truth, but instead are focused on scoring rhetorical points. They say, “Why have you never seen a fish turn into a frog?” knowing full well that this isn’t how evolution works. Fish don’t turn into frogs. If they did, evolution would be in a mess, because such an event would show that genomes are so fragile as to make such concepts as “species” utterly meaningless. These people know they’re setting up straw men. The arguments sound good, particularly if you’ve only heard the comic book version of evolution. But they’re not good science, they are rhetoric. And that makes one angry.
It’s so important, though, not to get angry. Don’t rise above. Teach gently.
There are clues, if we know where to look. Sea turtles are my favorite animals. They live in the ocean, often floating above miles of mostly frigid ocean water. Yet they breathe air. They must lay their eggs on land. What a ridiculous place for an air-breathing, egg-laying animal to find itself! It is as if an elephant must spend half its life in the clouds, trying not to fall. What are turtles doing in this crazy place?
Evolution tells us. Millions of years ago, the first turtles, or at least their ancestors, lived on land. They (like many land creatures) lived close to water, because water meant food. Water meant protection. Water meant life. Some turtles found it easier to stay hidden in water, hunt in water, stay cool in water. Those that were (accidentally) better adapted to this watery life survived better. Perhaps there were dangerous predators on land, or perhaps the food they sought was further out in the water.
This happened many, times, with many species of turtles. We see some turtles – like box turtles – that only occasionally return to the water. We see others – like sliders and painted turtles – that live mostly in the water, but can still move about well on land. Some even can climb trees! Still others, such as the fly river turtle, live in fresh water, but have developed paddles instead of front legs. And then there are the sea turtles, creatures that live in the sea nearly their entire lives, returning to land only to lay their eggs.
And yet all these turtles still breathe air, still lay hard-shelled eggs. None have lost these land adaptations. We never find a turtle with gills.
Similarly, we never find a whale with gills, or a snake, or a crocodile, or any of the other many species that have returned to the water. They carry with them the signs that their ancestors once lived on land.
This is not proof, of course, but that’s not what we’re after, any more than we’re after proof when we move a magnet through a coil of wire to make electricity. We’re building a case, we’re presenting evidence, ideas, thoughts that might grow. We light a fire. We are gentle guides, not demogogues trying to win a debate.
So as this 200th Darwin Day approaches, remember that evolution is hard. Teach gently.