Evolution and challenges to its understanding

I came across a rather amusing article in Scientific American today, entitled Creationism Invades Europe. It sounds rather ominous, but I think the first paragraph from the article itself will put things in perspective:

“This is outrageous!” Red-faced and visibly agitated, the 60-something was darting toward a hyperrealistic silicone reconstruction of Lucy, the world-famous, 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis. After a highly confused couple of minutes it emerged that the man was operating within a 6,000-year biblical time frame. But he did not object to the evolutionary age of Lucy. He objected to her nakedness. “You have to cover her up! It’s almost as bad as going to the beach!”

I thought it felt good to go to the beach? The waves splashing on you, the sand (making sandcastles if you are young/talented enough), the sun in all its glory (unless it’s a rainy and murky day), beach volleyball etc. But anyway, I digress. This is a well-clothed Creationist in Europe talking. Who believes that humans were created out of God’s magic fart (not exactly, of course) one fine morning just about 6000 years ago. God’s creations also include all the fossils and bones, which a variety of dating methods have shown to be hundreds of thousands of years old, many showing clear signs of following evolutionary trends. God created them for whatever reason. But because Lucy, evolutionarily one of the earliest hominids and ancestresses of humans, could not be so because a reconstructed model of hers was totally naked! Apparently the gentleman forgot to remember that people don’t exactly take birth in their diapers. Nor do certain feral children who had grown up in the wild automatically learn the social importance of clothing.

Creationism has traditionally been an American problem, where it has been a unified movement against the scientific theory of evolution. The struggle was exemplified by the Scopes Trial of 1925, where a schoolteacher was accused of violating the law, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in any state-run school in Tennessee. Usually remembered as the “Monkey” Trial, that event started off long-winded meanders of litigation and controversy that finally led to the teaching of evolution being made compulsory in state-run schools in 1987. Creationists still to try to hijack the education system at every possible opportunity, but so far they have not been able to break through, and unlikely to any time soon. Hence news of Creationism’s resurgence in Europe is indeed interesting. Whatever the title of the article may imply, Creationists have mostly been on the fringes in Europe, because unlike in the US, they are not a unified movement, and Creationism doesn’t find much appeal among people, except perhaps in Turkey.

The article raises an important issue though:

Although creationists seem here to stay—including in Europe—they do not constitute the main threat to understanding evolution. We have learned a surprising lesson about how people think from dealing with the rise of creationism in Europe. Even if people claim to accept evolution, they tend to interpret evolutionary processes in intuitive but scientifically incorrect ways. Evolution as a topic is often treated marginally or even neglected in schools across Europe. Ironically, being forced to consider antievolutionists operating in Europe, we now know that we need to do more to make people understand what we know about the fundamental processes of life on Earth. We need to work on multiple platforms to succeed and we need good examples.

This, I think, is a very important point. Evolution is something, that for most macroscopic organisms that we see, takes place at a very slow pace, primarily because of their relatively long life spans, and also because of the difficulty for the layperson to keep track of the slow changes across generations. The other thing is that gene expression mainly takes place under given environmental conditions. Since environmental conditions overall are changing rather slowly (from a generational perspective), selection pressure on species is low and it is difficult to observe any real changes in individuals. In lab settings, however, bacteria have been found to express genes in response to selection pressure, and these are easy to observe because of the very small generational spans of bacteria. This isn’t the best way to convince people who have doubts, but certainly one of the many demonstrations that can be used. The problem is, it’s difficult for any person to intuitively grasp time spans ranging in hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, over which the slow changes of evolution take place. Evidence found suggests, however, that there have been phases in the history of life on Earth, where under extreme selection pressure, relatively rapid evolutionary changes (over fewer generations than normal, species-wide) took place. The most recent example is the case of Tasmanian devils , which have developed resistance to a particularly contagious and aggressive form of cancer, causing extremely high selection pressure on the species.

The first thing that a person needs to do in order to understand evolution, though, is develop an open and educable mind. Skepticism is required to develop the conviction of knowledge, rather than questioning the validity of it in order to fulfill one’s obligation towards one’s bias. But as the authors of the article rightly point out, there isn’t enough understanding of evolution among people, even teachers sometimes, to be able to provide a conceptual foundation to pupils. Even if they did, there aren’t enough teaching aids or readily comprehensible and demonstrable examples of evolution. Graphics like the Descent of Man can help, but still inquiring minds rightly want to see it happening, whatever be the scale. The other thing that is important is to look at evolution devoid of emotion, which applies to all scientific thinking. Facts and nature have nothing to do with our egos and emotions, and if we have to understand the world around us, we have to try our best to look at it from outside our own point of view, as far as possible. This is exactly why science is hard. This is exactly why some people are disgusted at the idea that we could have any familiarity with apes, even as they hold a strong belief in the idea that humans are supreme beings on the planet, despite a mountain of evidence suggesting the contrary. This is why scientists in the past have had to live, or sometimes die, with the charge of heresy. Some were banished for their “blasphemous” ideas.

The understanding of both evolution and its importance is, in fact, one of the pillars that support a person’s understanding of how biology works. And it’s important to know how biology works in order to understand our own bodies and health. Although the deeper intricacies of biology and their medical implications are best left to the biological scientists and doctors to understand and explain to the rest of us, it is our collective responsibility to help our society understand evolution by developing better means to do so. Perhaps that could, in itself, be an area of research.

The article also points out that the anti-evolutionists in Europe, and elsewhere, are fought by making clever use of the media and the instrument of public debate. Anti-science movements in general, especially in places where they are strong, always maintain an army of debaters who engage in rhetorical gymnastics in order to try and sway public opinion in their favour. All that matters to them is doing their best to have people support their argument. Since these movements tend to be strong where public understanding of science is rather weak, their campaigns tend to have an advantage. This is typically achieved by spreading massive misinformation and smearing and demonizing the opposition. This is why it is important for scientists to have their own army of debaters, who are adept at communicating with the public. It helps if they are popular as well. It’s important for these people to directly counter the waves of misinformation and lies spread by anti-science advocates. People in general are receptive towards evidence, unless they are blinded by ideology or ego, and hence they will almost always know real evidence from fake when they see it, if the scientist makes a good enough effort. This, of course, involves understanding the concerns of such people, their backgrounds, and anticipation of their general thought processes. Religion, for example, is a big impediment in many cases, especially fundamentalist Abrahamic faith. Now, it’s very difficult, near impossible even, to convince people against their faith, partly because they feel it provides a sense of strength and solace to them in an otherwise difficult world. It is, therefore, important to keep the issue of science’s conflict with religion out of the discourse. However, for historical context, events like the Scopes Trial should also be included in the discussion. Any further decision-making would be left to the individual to do. In short, if people are educated better, and more comprehensively, about evolution, then the anti-evolution movements will be relegated to the fringe, and will eventually have very few followers. In evolutionary terms, they, rather their belief, will be selected against. Too bad, that by the time that they do realize how wrong they are, they will no longer exist, at least in spirit.

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