Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why It's Bad If Caribbean People Don't Accept Evolution

(I sent this out to a few Caribbean newspapers as an opinion piece, but none, unfortunately, accepted it, so here it is. It's addressed, as may be evident, to an audience that presumably does not know much about evolution or the various other items mentioned below.)

UPDATE: You can find the piece on that other CNN, Caribbean News Network, now; I'm still waiting to hear from the others.
“If I could give a prize to anyone for the single greatest idea,” American philosopher Daniel Dennett said in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, his study of the significance of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and human evolution, “I would give it to Darwin.” These are not idle words. While the idea of organisms undergoing gradual changes over thousands or millions of years was not entirely new—the French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck had championed it decades before Darwin, and shadows of the idea can be seen even in the work of the ancient Roman poet Lucretius and in the ninth-century Islamic writer Al-Jahith’s Book of Animals—Darwin went further than anyone before him by showing the mechanism by which evolution could occur: natural selection. He showed that organisms adapt to their environments gradually and that all life on Earth—including humans—shares a common ancestor. Think of it like a tree. All life shares a common root, despite having branched off in many directions, and many branches themselves have branches, and while some branches are still functioning, many others have died off. Although evolutionary biology has evolved—as it were— a lot since Darwin’s day, particularly with the development of genetics, Darwin himself remains one of the most important and controversial figures in western history.
            But evolution appears to remain little-understood or accepted by the general public in many islands in the Caribbean. Bring up the idea of evolution to the average person on the street, and it is quite possible you will receive either a blank stare or hear the idea condemned as anti-religious nonsense. Some—and I have seen this a number of times before—will even tell you the idea of evolution is nothing less than a worldwide conspiracy perpetrated by satanic scientists (the same people who will likely believe, without any clear evidence, that the world is run by a secret organization like the Illuminati or that the 1969 moon landing was a hoax). Some will even say the whole idea is too silly to be believed, as though the overwhelming number of biologists who support the theory are less conspiratorial than simply foolish.
“If we came from monkeys,” they might say, “why it still have monkeys?” (Of course, this objection is based on a misunderstanding; we are primates ourselves, but we share an ancestor with other monkeys, rather than them simply turning into humans. Think of the tree branch image—we go back to the same tree limb, but chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and homo sapiens—we humans—have branched off in different directions.)
            Accepting that all the evidence we currently have supports the theory of evolution (and I must clarify here that the word “theory” here does not mean “unproved”; gravity and electromagnetism are also “theories”) is important. It is one step towards becoming more scientifically literate in a world in which scientific literacy is ever more important, almost regardless of what field you may be engaged in. It will show that we in the Caribbean are not closed-minded or anti-science. To reject an idea as important and well-accounted-for as evolution is to suggest that you do not trust scientific discoveries and that you are not willing to critically examine the world around you, as well as the history of ideas. Modern-day biology and medicine are often inseparable from evolutionary theory.
            Now, even people who study the idea and come to almost accept it may still stop short because they think it conflicts with their religious beliefs. To accept evolution, after all, is to accept that humans were not specially created, but rather simply one product of a long line of blind natural processes. But many religious people have made peace with this. Some have even refashioned evolution to be “guided” by God rather than altogether natural and blind, such that God intervened at a critical point in the process—just as God might have, they say, set off the Big Bang (an idea unrelated to evolution). Still others put God as the spark that set evolution going—since evolutionary theory is only about the process of organisms changing, not an explanation of how life itself first appeared from non-life. (That process is known as abiogenesis.) Whatever the case, the fact is that many well-educated people of faith do not see evolution as their enemy—and they should not, since it is well-supported by scientific evidence.
            In the Caribbean, very often, we don’t really stop and think about things like this. Or we may start and then stop once we get into tricky territory. At other times, some of us are simply so focused on other things that we do not give adequate—if any—time to critically examining the world around us. Instead, we just accept simple answers we may have heard as children. This isn’t the way a strong society of well-equipped individuals should operate. We should have the courage to boldly question every idea we hold—including, of course, evolution itself. We must not be afraid to ask questions, to probe into dark tunnels—and, more importantly, to find answers we may not like on the other end.
            This may seem like a minor issue to some of you. But I do not think it necessarily is. Being scientifically literate (as well as literate in many other ways) is important—and I mean on an individual, as well as a national, level. Those of us who have not considered the issue before, I encourage you to go out and look it up—and, while you’re at it, to examine every other idea you hold dear, be that idea big or small. What justifies your beliefs? Why do you think the way you do? Are you thinking rationally? Can you really explain how something works that you believe in? To reject an idea, you must at very least first understand it.
            Therefore, check out the wealth of information on evolution out there: Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, Michael Ruse’s The Philosophy of Human Evolution, Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth, and many, many more, from websites to videos. Search, question.
You may find universes in grains of sand, to paraphrase William Blake.

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