egos and evolution
I’ve just stared reading Carl Zimmer’s “Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea”–again, I love Carl Zimmer–and his introduction drove something home for me. My thoughts here aren’t novel, I’m sure, but I feel strongly about them.
All of the denialism– that climate change isn’t happening, or if it is it is a ‘natural cycle’, that vaccines cause autism, that evolution isn’t true, or if it is only in the short term, or only within a species– is all ego-driven.
People just can’t stand the idea that we aren’t the center of the universe.
Evolution asks you to admit that the tree of life does not culminate with the most successful species–us–and that the branch of our lineage is more of a bunch of twigs, the smallest which we are. Humbling. As Stephen Jay Gould explains in the introduction to Zimmer’s book, the only other scientific discovery that shook our believe so thoroughly was the earth’s demotion from the center of the universe to one small planet of many orbiting a small star in an insignificant arm of our galaxy, only one of many billions in an infinite universe. But that switch was geographical and evolution hits closer to home.
Climate change is a smaller challenge, but of the same flavor. No, the world is not a sphere that exists merely for humans to reign over, but a complex system that we have pushed out of balance. Gould says that science gives us facts, but not answers to how to deal with those facts:
“In principle, the factual state of the universe, whatever it may be, cannot teach us how we should live or what our lives mean–for these ethical questions of value and meaning belong to such difference realms of human life as religion, philosophy, and humanistic study.”
And I don’t mean to say “bad, you! bad denier you!”. It is understandable, the reluctance to step out of the cave and see the real world. It is more comforting to look at the shadows on the wall and believe they are true. Anything outside of that is scary, possibly unsafe. Our brains have been pushed by millions of years of natural selection to be cautious and wary of the unknown (Haha, you see what I did there). I’ve even heard scientists, working in biology and medicine, express doubt that evolution can effect change as drastic as the rise of a new species. This coming from people who understand that mutations and selective pressures can give one group of bacteria an edge when digesting lactose, something that allows them to out-grow competitors in an environment poor in sugars other than lactose. Or that moths with darker pigmentation will elude predators more often than their lighter cousins in a forest ruled by trees with dark trunks.
But honestly, many people are twisting the facts, creating shadowy unknowns, and downright lying just because they are uncomfortable with new ideas. I may be wrong here, but communicators, educators and scientists alike have again and again ‘proven’ evolution, climate change, etc., and the other side of the ‘debate’ sticks their fingers in their ears and chants ‘lalaalacan’thearyou’, waits a little while, then comes back to the EXACT same argument. See the bacterial flagellum– a supposed example of irreducible complexity by the Intelligent Design pushers that has been declared in court to be quite good evidence FOR evolution.
It isn’t a battle or a debate because the other side doesn’t listen or care. No one is winning here, but we may all be loosing. Our children are loosing, when they aren’t taught the beauty and truth of evolution and how to think creatively about problems, but instead told that scientists really aren’t sure about evolution (wrong) and that Intelligent Design is a science (really wrong). The poor of the world are loosing, as the vast majority of people that will be the hardest hit by famine, drought and rising sea levels are those in the developing world.
Man, I just want to say ‘give it up already!’ and ‘believe’ in science.
Edit: an earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed the quote on dealing with facts as belonging to Carl Zimmer. Actually, the quote was from the introduction of “Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea”, written by renowned evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould. The post has been corrected.