Evolution No. 2 – A New Blog Series Exploring Evolution By Middle Circle's Resident Scientist

Written by Christopher Emerling, Ph.D.

This is the second post in a series. Read the first one here.

To continue my discussion of reasons why people reject evolution, I’m going to drop a big one.

Are you ready?’

Here it goes…

Many people reject evolution simply because somebody told them that it’s false.

I know. You’re probably still reeling from shock.

Jesus' face  miraculously appears on toast!

Jesus' face miraculously appears on toast!

Kidding aside, let’s unpack what is really going on here. Where do we learn things? First from our parents, of course, the original instructors. Then we have our friends from whom we learned plenty of things on the playground. Teachers are a good group of people to learn from, almost as if they’re professionals. To the religious, a pastor or priest can be a valuable source of information. Then you have books and other assorted sources of information.

What’s important to note about most of these sources is that most people tend to put a good amount of trust in them. Growing up, I believed practically everything my dad told me. Not until I was in college did I start to think, “Hmm, I think he might actually be wrong about this.” (I’m sure he would disagree). By default, I accepted everything my teachers taught me. School, after all, is where you go to learn facts, right? I don’t think I really questioned my teachers until late in college*. Who was I to say in U.S. history class that the 3rd president wasn’t Thomas Jefferson? I wasn’t, and still am not, an expert on early 19th century United States presidents. I also don’t have a time machine to verify it myself**.

So can you blame someone for thinking evolution is a lie if that’s what their parents told them? Or if they went to a private school that taught that evolution is just one of multiple theories that explains the diversity of life on earth, but it’s probably wrong? Or if they read a book that exposits on the lies and the cover-ups that “Darwinists” are guilty of?

When this is what you’re taught, and you’re taught it by people you trust, why would you doubt it?

If you’re having trouble empathizing with people like this, let me spin it around a bit. I’m going to take my opening statement and change just two words:

Many people accept evolution simply because somebody told them that it’s true.

Darwin's face  miraculously appears on toast!

Darwin's face miraculously appears on toast!

Do you see it?

Perhaps this isn’t something you’ve thought about before, but if you accept evolution, you’re most likely doing the same thing as those who reject it: you’re believing the teachings of somebody you trust.

Think about it. Why do you believe evolution is true? How much do you really know? Do you know about more than just Darwin’s finches, pepper moths, Archaeopteryx and Haeckel’s embryos? Do you know more than just fossil fishes with legs or dinosaurs with feathers? Do you even know about these? Have you looked at the data first hand? Do you understand how extensive the gaps in our knowledge are? Have you considered all of the possible hypotheses? Do you know enough that you could you convince a jury? Do you know enough to convince someone if your life depended on it?

Probably not, but who can blame you? I’m in a relatively unique position because I’m an evolutionary biologist who at one point didn’t believe it evolution was real. I spent many hours reading and thinking about it because it had the potential to radically alter how I viewed the nature of the universe. Now as a researcher, I’m inundated in data and scientific literature that constantly provide evidence of evolution.

But for you, there may be little reason to ever know much about evolution beyond its ‘greatest hits’. Perhaps your job is to drive a bus, manage a Starbucks, teach English, fight fires, deliver medical aid or trade stocks. Knowing the fossil record of turtles won’t help you save lives. Understanding the fetal development of whales won’t help you turn a profit.

Comic By  Dan Piraro

Comic By Dan Piraro

Besides, there’s only so much time in a single day, and so many days in a single year and so many years in a single lifetime, and presumably you have better things to do than know the ins and outs of evolutionary theory. Or quantum mechanics. Or cognitive psychology. Or basketball statistics. Or obscure 50’s blues artists. You may know about some of these or perhaps all of these, but you don’t know a ton of details about every subject.

The solution to our lack of omniscience (besides clicking in vain on every link in Wikipedia) is to trust others. Trust your instructors when they teach you about Egyptian history. Trust your parents when they tell you drugs are bad. Trust your accountant when she tells you that investing in this stock will lead to excellent returns.

But if you really care about an issue, or if you keep hearing people contradicting each other, be skeptical.

“Evolution is true!”

“Evolution is a lie!”

That’s when it’s time to stop believing others, even those you trust. Take the time, look at the data, talk about it, think about it and make up your own mind. Encourage those who disbelieve in evolution to do this, but, if you accept evolution, perhaps you should do it right along with them.

* The lone exception, of course, being when my first grade teacher insisted that bald eagles weren’t animals. She meant mammals, but since they sound similar, I don’t blame her. After I went home and complained to my dad, who I already established knew everything, he came to my school and explained to her exactly why I was correct. Sorry, Mrs. Derby!

** Besides, if I had a time machine, I would much rather use it to see dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures than verify that TJ really was our third president.

Christopher Emerling is a postdoctoral fellow in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, studying genomic adaptations in vertebrates over long time scales. Chris is Middle Circle's resident scientist and will be blogging regularly with Middle Circle. You can check out his regular blog here.