Thursday, June 20, 2013

Evolution's got a P.R. problem

People aren't just anti-evolution, evolution-averse, or pro-"teaching the controversy" because they're clinging to supernatural explanations that help them identify with a tribe. Culture is mighty powerful but it's a lot more complex than stubborn beliefs in the supernatural as deciphered from, and reinforced by, an ancient text.
Evolution's got a public relations problem that spans beyond fundamental Creationism. It's not exactly looked upon favorably by many non-fundamental yet kind, open-minded, and educated folks either! Here I've jotted down a few thoughts about why...

1. Who cares about evolution? Sheesh, what's the big deal?
Evolution doesn't appear to matter to so many people. And getting frothy over evolution can certainly spark interest but it can also, in gut reaction, intensify the apathy. We love to go on and on about how "human" it is to wonder where we came from or to wonder how the world works. Well, it's not exactly a species-wide phenomenon, at least acting on that wonder isn't. With these folks, we can just keep doing what it is that we do and hope that they will come around to see why evolution matters and hope that until then they don't influence others to be as tuned out or turned off.   People are less likely to voice apathy about knowledge that they're accustomed to like biology, history, chemistry, geology, physics, literature, English, composition, mathematics. I think this attitude about evolution will go away once biology becomes a synonym for evolution in K-12 classrooms and beyond. 

2. Mystery is mystical by default. 
It's still acceptable to fill-in ignorance about biology with the supernatural. This is not as much the m.o. with chemistry or physics, but we tend to do it there too (like with quantum mechanics). I couldn't explain how the Internet works but I assume it's not magic and I don't know anyone who thinks it is either. Yet, missing pieces of understanding in biology are not, as default, just missing pieces of understanding. We jump automatically to magical thinking rather than assume that we just don't know and that maybe someone already does! Unfortunately, gaps in our biological knowledge don't always spark us to take more classes, to read, or to watch videos to see that many of those mysteries aren't mysteries to anyone who's studied them. Gaps in our knowledge don't always spark us to undertake controlled observation or to devise experiments at home. For some reason, instead... and I think it's the Bible and other powerful cultural influences, and also the way that the history of science unfolded ... biology's mysteries are comfortably cloaked in magic. If biological mystery is mystical, then it's easier to uphold allegiance to Creationism, or to maintain intellectual empathy with fundamentalists who ask that we simply "teach the controversy." 
3. It takes quite a bit of study, observation and life experience to understand evolution. 
Evolution is a complex, multi-disciplinary matter that few people can master in one semester of study. You need anatomy, physiology, genetics, behavior, comparative anatomy, zoology, ecology, geology, history, math, philosophy, etc. But you need only dabble a few toes in those areas to begin to form the picture. Because the e-word is so often left out of K-12 classrooms, students don't realize that they're learning it all along, in all its bits and pieces as they advance year to year. When they finally do get to a classroom that uses the e-word, they think it's a whole new subject matter and that's actually quite an obstacle. Plus, that evolution takes a while to understand in any sort of useful way means we have an under-informed population full of people who, at best, had one year of solid evolutionary exposure in high year of learning our one natural explanation for all of biology. That's evidently not enough to bring everyone far enough along to overcome #1 and #2. 
4. Evolution's not even well-understood by those who claim to. 
It's not. There's a lot we don't know about evolutionary history, about how it unfolded, and that means there's a lot that we are earnestly trying to figure out. And it's clear that public patience for science is lacking and that's rooted in a lack of appreciation for how science is done, how knowledge is formed, and how the truth changes. On the one hand there are those who know full well that feeble, foibly humans are devising this knowledge and on the other hand are those who've got far too much respect for "KNOWLEDGE." (The latter is revealed on the petrified faces of my students when I announce they're "creating knowledge" by doing a laboratory assignment.) Both perspectives are working against science every time something pops up in the press as being "debated" or "overturned." Every piece ends with "more research is needed." No wonder patience is running thin. The skeptics think science is fraught with fraud because it's done by people. The others flirt with thinking (or do literally think) that knowledge comes from on high, or from Revealed Natural Truths, and not possibly from mere humans. And then there are those who study evolution who are not earnestly trying to  understand it better. They're using a half-baked tool that they call "evolution" to do their work or to advocate for evolution education. And often when their views get in the popular press they're parroted or presented uncritically by writers with an equally non-nuanced understanding of evolution, who are equally oblivious to it. 

5. Evolution is being pushed by so many unhuggable atheist intellectuals. 
This has to do with what many public intellectuals like to call "tribalism" and in-group, out-group identity. Aligning yourself with professors or intellectuals is social and political suicide for many. Aligning yourself with the godless can be even worse. Of course there are lots of folks who retain their beliefs and accept evolution, but there are fewer of them (at least in the limelight) than us who eschew or reject the supernatural.  We need more huggable atheists. We need more huggable intellectuals. We need fewer anti-intellectuals. We need fewer anti-atheists. Lack of belief in the supernatural needs to be seen as a legitimate way to be a friend, a parent, a child, a relative, a neighbor, a community member, a leader, a teacher, a human.  

6. People don't want to be animals.

With education, people come to accept reality. And they accept what they cannot change. Right?

7. Evolution seems to support racism, sexism, (and atheism, intellectualism, evolutionism, vegetarianism,) and every other -ism that's wrong with humanity.  
But it doesn't. There's too much to unpack here in this small space, but this is a huge problem contributing to the aversion to evolution out there. Evolution isn't just subversive because it goes against established religious dogma. It's subversive because it, as completely misunderstood and misapplied, supports racism and sexism and murder and warfare and rape and infanticide, etc etc etc... Understood well, or even just a little bit well, evolution cannot be used in those ways and then, as a result, avoided by those who are afraid to align with such an unsavory worldview. Evolution is just generation to generation change in lineages that have shared ancestors in the past. Evolution describes how everything depends on what came before. That is all. Evolution requires no differential value placed on one species over another (human exceptionalism). Evolution requires no differential value placed on one skin color over another (racism).  Evolution requires no differential value placed on one sex over another (sexism). Those are human inventions. Culture is powerful.  

8. Evolution tells me I'm going to die when I die. 
This is the human condition. Belief in the supernatural or not, acceptance of evolution or not, this is what we're all dealing with. We often lament how, "evolution reduces the meaning of life to survival and reproduction." Well, if it does, is that so bad?
Evolution's got a lot more than fundamental religious beliefs working against it.  As an educator, I can't help but think that, first and foremost, a clear understanding of what evolution is (and isn't) is key to addressing all of these issues contributing to evolution's P.R. problem.  Yesterday's post was my attempt to help provide that clear understanding: 

1 comment: said...

Basicallly muddy thinking.
I once lived in a community of intelligent people none of whom accepted the idea of evolution (an island). Had lot's of discussions. Not dogmatic people.
They simply had no idea of what constituted EVIDENCE. Unless you believe in evidence there is no reason to accept notions of evolution. Or geological or nuclear time.