Tag Archives: science education

Science

Why some people don’t accept evolution: a layperson’s perspective

I’ll come right out and say that I am not especially well-educated in science.  I studied the liberal arts in college and never took a course beyond Intro to Biology.  I do think that I gained a fundamental literacy of the science through my minimal classroom study (and copious independent reading as a child), to the point that I can understand what science journalists and bloggers are talking about even without being able to make sense of the raw data myself.

Image credit: Ethan Hein

I do understand, at the most basic level, how evolution works and why it works, even if I can’t wrap my head around the intricate processes that drive it.  I’d be out of my league attempting to teach it to someone or to debate a creationist on it (a position in which we atheists too often find ourselves, as if we’re all PhD biologists in the minds of creationists).

Even as a layperson (especially as a layperson?) I feel that scientific literacy is a vital part of being an informed citizen.  I’m troubled by the widening knowledge gap I see between scientists and everybody else, and particularly by the anti-intellectual sentiment that is rising alongside populism.

Denial in favor of design

To many atheists (and even theists who are skeptics about most everything but gods), it may seem shocking and frustrating that so many people in the United States dismiss evolution as wild conjecture.

When we see the notion of “intelligent design” being taught alongside actual science in biology class as if the two had equal weight, our first reaction may leave a palm-shaped depression in our foreheads (or a forehead-shaped indentation in our desks).

Sure, there are a number of people so hopelessly dedicated to ancient origin stories that they don’t want evolution to be true. It would turn their entire world upside down were they to accept that they are part of a 3 billion year old solar-powered chemical reaction rather than a unique, purposeful creation apart from nature.  It would mean to them that they are no better than their animal kin and take away all incentive for civilized behavior in their minds.

The threat of such a crisis of conscience has been used as an argument against evolution since Darwin first proposed it.  It was used by the prosecution in the infamous John Scopes trial, and even today is rehashed and regurgitated by creationist groups like Answers in Genesis.

I’m not so sure that there’s a way around this roadblock. How does one persuade a person to step over a ledge if said person is utterly convinced that they’ll tread onto a slippery slope?

Framing it like a religion instead of science

There are others still who are taken in by deceitful rhetoric like “evolution is just a theory”, people who don’t believe the science because they don’t understand it.

I suspect that a major reason why people don’t “get” evolution is that they try to understand the theory as something that it’s not: an infallible history that’s conveniently spelled out for them.  Unfortunately, science doesn’t offer the romance or clarity of religious mythology, no matter how badly our human minds want it to (not to say it can’t be exciting in its own right if you embrace your inner nerd, but most don’t).

The narrative of Darwin on his epic odyssey through the harsh environment of the Galapagos, suddenly experiencing a “eureka!” moment as the idea of natural selection dawns on him, is false.  It is nevertheless taught that way to schoolchildren to make the subject more fun (the same goes for the myth of Newton and the falling apple revealing to him the concept of gravity).

On the Origin of Species was a breakthrough 150 years ago, but it isn’t a sacred text.  A century and a half of new discoveries have rendered it obsolete, and the biologists of the 2160s will likely say the same about our most cutting-edge scientific literature today.

Unfortunately, people don’t seem to want an amendable explanation that says “We can’t know for sure, but this is what most probably happened based on what we’ve found so far.”  It doesn’t satisfy that desire for certainty that nags at all of us.  It leaves room for doubt, and makes many people uncomfortable.  No, people want an ironclad explanation that says “We know that this is what happened, for these irrefutable reasons.”

Science can’t offer that.  It’s driven by uncertainty – that’s what leads to new discoveries and new questions to be answered.  Until the American public learns to accept that, how can we expect them to accept evolution?

Science

Remember: Not All Primates Are Monkeys!

Every year my research group take a trip together, and this year we decided to travel to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. I hadn’t visited this zoo since I was a teenager, so I was really looking forward to it.

The Cleveland Zoo has been in its current location for over 100 years, and boasts one of the most diverse collections of primates in North America. Fortunately, I work in Kent State’s Anthropology Department, and many of the people I was traveling with are primate experts. This meant, of course, that the primate exhibits ranked #1 on our list of things to see.

It was strikingly apparent, however, that despite the enthusiasm of the other visitors, most of them had real trouble identifying even the most basic differences among primates.

For example, I saw one child watching an animal climb a tree and heard him ask if it was a squirrel. This was a forgivable mistake, since he was around 4 years old, and the animal in question was about the size of a large squirrel. However, what really struck me was his mother’s reply. “No, it’s just a monkey,” she said dismissively, despite the fact that display was clearly labeled Mongoose Lemur (Lemur mongoz).

Not a squirrel! A Mongoose Lemur (Lemur mongoz) at the Cleveland Zoo. © Daniel Sprockett 2011

I understand that the average person is not an expert in primate taxonomy. But this mother would have never told her child that a that a lion was a cheetah, or even a tiger. Despite their superficial similarities, it is obvious that these animals are fundamentally distinct. Parents know that even young children are capable of telling them apart. People don’t use their names interchangeably simply because they are both big cats. So why is it acceptable to use the name “monkey” for all primates?

Lets take a look at when these examples actually diverged from each other. Lions, cheetahs, and tigers all belong to the family Felidae, which first arose about 25 million years ago. According to the Time Tree of Life, a website that gives approximate divergence times for various groups of organisms, lions (Panthera leo) and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) diverged about 9.4 million years ago. Lions and tigers (Panthera tigris) are actually two species in the same genus, and only diverged about 3.7 million years ago. In fact, lions and tigers are so closely related that they can even form hybrids, know as a liger (if the male is a lion) or tigon (if the male is a tiger). Yet these two species of cat are almost never confused.

Lemurs, on the other hand, are drastically different from other primates. They are classified as a suborder of primates called strepsirrhini, which forms its own branch of the primate family tree. Lemurs diverged from other primates around 77.4 million years ago, and began evolving separately when they became geographically isolated on the island of Madagascar. The other major lineage of primates is the haplorhines, which includes platyrrhines (New World Monkeys) and catarrhines (Old World Monkeys and Apes).

As you can see in the figure above, the word “monkey” doesn’t refer to a single group of animals. All monkeys share a common ancestor, but that ancestor gave rise to more than just monkeys. Evolutionary biologists describe this type of pattern as being “paraphyletic.”

A Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus) reflects on life at the Cleveland Zoo. © Daniel Sprockett 2011

Later that day, I was taking this photograph of a flanged adult male orangutan when I overheard a child ask if these were the chimpanzees. “No,” her dad replied, “chimps are monkeys.”

Now, I know that lemurs are not the most well-known primates. In fact, the only famous lemur I can think of is King Julien XIII, the ring-tailed lemur voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen in the Dreamworks movie Madagascar. But that excuse goes right out the window when you begin talking about apes. Apes are by far the most well-known primate group – you literally see them every day!

I’m not the only one that feels this way. Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth recently recounted some of her negative experiences attempting to educate zoo visitors on the differences between apes and monkeys:

Apes are gibbons, siamangs, orangutans, gorillas, chimps, and people. We apes don’t have tails and we have big brains and advanced cognitive skills among other traits. Monkeys have tails (even ones that look tailless have little stubs) and most have much smaller brains (an exception being the capuchin).

Apes and monkeys are separate categories of animals. This is why calling an ape a monkey sounds absolutely crazy and that is why some people just can’t help themselves and morph into prickish pedants around ignorant zoo visitors.

So the next time you visit a zoo, please remember: not all primates are monkeys!