Perspectives of Grey: Human Evolution

Human Evolution

Warning:  This is a rather long post… proceed with caution.

As far back as I can recall in my limited 39 years on this planet, Americans have been falling further and further behind the rest of the industrialized in our understanding and progress in the sciences and mathematics.  Yes, we are still major innovators in terms of scientific progress but we have been failing our youngest Americans by not giving them the education we once offered.  Why is this?  Why have we become a society that on one hand tells our children to learn, get a good primary education as well as a college education… and then turn around and tell these same students that what they have learned is incorrect and wrong?  The conflict raging in many parts of this country over the teaching of human evolution in public schools is, in my opinion, the perfect example of what is wrong with our educational system and our overall mentality with regards to science and higher learning.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Speciesand set off a firestorm of controversy…. that we all know.  What many don’t realize however is that he did not come up with the concept of evolution, that was already out there… what he came up with was the mechanism for how evolution occurred, ie. natural selection.

Why would this be controversial?  If you are a religious society that believes in the literal translation of the bible, than you believe God made the heavens, earth and man in a matter of 6 days.  If you were to believe that man came from an ape… or that ape came from something that crawled out of the sea, then you were in direct conflict with your religious belief… and if history has taught us anything, it’s that when religious dogma and reality come head to head… reality is often the losing party.  And in the United States, reality has been losing ground for years.

Should the conflict exist?  I do not believe so… and frankly, neither does the Catholic church.  Going back to Pope Pius XII and most recently upheld by Pope John Paul II, the official position is that yes, the human body was created through evolutionary processes and it was the soul that God conferred onto man which makes him special and above all else.  From my point of view… problem solved.  The body is the domain of science, the church gets the soul.  All things in their right place.  Here are Pope John Paul II’s exact words on the subject from an October 22, 1996 address:

“In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points….Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies – which was neither planned nor sought – constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.”

I would think that should, or at the very least, could have settled the matter.  Unfortunately, this didn’t settle squat.  Instead, we get a parade of fundamentalists who every year seem to declare war on evolution… the sciences… and reason itself by forbidding teachers in public schools from teaching “Darwin’s” theory of evolution, and if they do, forcing said teachers to also teach either creationism or “intelligent design” (aka creationism with a pseudoscientific sounding name).  That belongs in a comparative religion class or the church… not our public schools.  As an atheist and a person who works in the sciences, I would be aghast if I were to find out my daughters were being taught creationism in connection with evolution.  And sadly, I recently read a statistic that ~60% of public school teachers will only teach evolution as it applies to lesser organisms such as bacteria simply to avoid having to deal with the controversy.  How can we expect our students to excel in an scientific field, especially biology and medicine without this basic understanding and information?

Lucy

I think now is the time for a bit of full disclosure… back in my college days, I was working towards a degree in Anthropology with a great deal of emphasis on paleoanthropology… aka human evolution.  I was most interested in hominid morphology… and as a tribute to this particular passion, I happen to have the famed Lucy (picture above), the 3.18 milllion year old Australopithecus afarensis discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia by one Dr. Donald Johanson, tattooed on my upper right arm.  I also had the honor of meeting Dr. Johanson and taking courses at his Institute of Human Evolution when it still resided in Berkeley (it is now at Arizona State University).  Needless to say, I am a bit familiar with this material… and almost every argument I have heard with regards to this subject is found extremely lacking.

It may appear that I am focusing only on religion as the enemy of truth… I do not.  I have also seen people dismiss the concept out of hand simply because the idea doesn’t sit well with them or they just don’t like the idea that they “came from an ape”.  I recall when I took physical anthro in school, my professor wore this look of exasperation and defeat when talking directly about human evolution.  I felt a little perturbed with him when he said at the end of his lecture that “none of this information is going to matter to you… it won’t keep you up at night… and you can believe what you want”.  Perturbed isn’t really the correct word… pissed and let down is a bit more accurate.  We are in a physical anthro class and you are saying it doesn’t matter??  Chicken shit coward!  Yes, some students actually did not believe him.  One young man said, “there is no way I came from an ape!”  The gap of understanding is staggering to me.

Maybe I should discuss the flaw in believing we came from apes?  Or chimps specifically?  We came from a common ancestor of us and chimps… not a chimp.  A chimpanzee is the result of the last 8 million years since we separated from our common ancestor.  They have evolved into themselves… we have evolved into ourselves.  Another frequently heard complaint is that Darwin was wrong on many of his facts, therefore the whole theory is crap.  Yes, he was wrong about a great deal of things… but here we get into what is fact and what is theory…

Evolution is a fact.  Natural selection is a theory.  Darwin was incorrect in believing that changes occur gradually and many intermittent forms of any animal should litter the fossil record.  But Darwin did not have the understanding of DNA and genetics as well as we do now… nor did he have a rich fossil record, which we have now… and he could not have understood what is now known as “punctuated equilibrium”, where changes do not happen gradually over time, but in quick massive bursts.  Basically, bursts of genetic mutations which arise through various natural and sexual selections. 

Homo erectus

That is the extreme “Dummy’s Guide to Human Evolution”.  The details are awesome… the chance for constant new discoveries and insights in our past is exciting… and the opportunity to learn is like manna from heaven.  I haven’t even mentioned my favorite hominid from our past… Homo erectus (shown above).  H. erectus was amazing.  He existed for 1.5 million years (huge compared to our paltry ~200,000 years), first with fire, first to exit Africa and first to develop the stone hand ax!  Physically, his body was little different from ours, but his mind was still development. 

I had the opportunity a few years back to give a couple of lectures on the subject at San Francisco City College, and my favorite thing to do was to show a cast of Homo habilis and a cast of H. erectus… first the face, I’d point out the similarities and differences… then I’d turn it around to show the different brain case sizes and with a flourish state, “THAT is human evolution!  It is not just an esoteric concept or idea… it is physical, and it is real!”  I was also told I was a bit evangelical with regards to my presentation… oh the irony.  But the gasp that I heard from a few students when I turned those casts around and they could actually see… “see” mind you… what it meant to be on the road to our current humanity…. that was the greatest thing I could have imagined.  Teachers must go home some days when things click for their  students and feel wonderful… I certainly did.

More recently, I gave a little spiel to my daughters using all my casts (3 life size, 6 2:1 scale casts) as well as pics… they were quite into it.  My eldest daughter even told her 3rd. grade teacher about it and was asked to bring them in and give her own little lecture.  Now that is an educator!!  (big kudos to Mrs. Sharman Milani)  That same night I read to them the first two chapters of Genesis.  I believe in giving my children as balanced an education as possible (they should know why we have a 7 day week)… even teaching things I may not believe in.  Are you willing to do the same?

Walking upright,
Cornelius J. Blahg

PS:  I am always up for a conversation on this topic… feel free to engage me in any way.  This post is simply a drop in the bucket of how I feel about our past and our understanding of where we came from and who we are.  Thanks again for reading.

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