Every day at the California Academy of Sciences I am surrounded by distant relatives. One time, I stood in front of a tank of jellyfish and thought about how they might be my long lost umpteenth cousins. The way they hover in the water and gently pulse is hypnotizing, but it sure is hard to see any family resemblance.
What’s so difficult to grasp is the time scale on which the evolution of life has happened. Humans think in terms of days and years, but the Earth’s history has unfolded over billions of years. People who balk at the idea of one species turning into another are not illogical; their experience simply doesn’t allow them to comprehend the necessary timeframe. It is difficult for all of us.
As someone once explained to me, “I don’t believe in evolution because our ancestors weren’t present when it theoretically happened. No one took notes. No one took pictures.” Of course, even though humans didn’t take notes billions of years ago, scientists have uncovered snapshots of a different sort, in fossils, minerals and genes.
Science is in fact quite good at dealing with things that happen outside the normal human scale. Take atoms for example. How many people have actually seen one? Yet atoms do exist, even if they are hard to fathom. The same is true of nuclear fusion, the amazing activities of strands of DNA, and corners of the Universe that are still light years away from our longest-ranging radio signals.
Atoms, of course, don’t threaten our sense of who we are. Evolution does. Arguably the most serious problem with evolution is that it strikes at our yearning to feel special. If humans are simply the result of evolution from more primitive forms of life, then—so the thinking goes—we’re no more special than jellyfish. So what is the purpose in our lives?
What people can fail to grasp is that Darwin’s model of evolution never said that humans were not special. It only says that the way we got here is not all that special. We are not who we are because we were designed deliberately to be that way, but rather because we evolved to be so. But we’re still special. We are, after all, the branch of the family that wrote Hamlet, composed the Ninth Symphony, and split the atom. Jellyfish don’t do such things.
We also are the only species that can ponder how it got here and where it might be going. The arguments that rage over Darwinism and religion grow out of this unique ability. We can probe the mysteries of the Universe and can travel in our minds from its smallest particles to its furthest reaches. None of us will ever sit on an atom or walk through a distant galaxy, but our minds can describe what our bodies cannot visit.
Throughout human history, we have produced dozens of different creation stories, all of which are culturally valuable. The pitfall with teaching these stories as fact is that they aren’t literally true. We can tell our children the elegant and moving Bible story of the world being created in six days, or the creation story of the Wichita Tribe about the moon and the morning star, or the tale of Odin and Ymir of the Norse creation tradition. But if we teach them to take these stories as literal truth and ignore the processes that science has observed and measured, we will hobble their minds for life, because living creatures did evolve and continue to do so. Denying reality is no gift to the next generation. We owe them more than a map with the wrong place names and the wrong turns. Only if they are armed with the right map can they add to the many advances that evolutionary biology has already made possible, including the development of disease-resistant crops and new medical treatments.
The conflict between what our reason can describe and what our emotions want to be true is likely to be with us as long as we and our kind survive. In fact, conflicts between our minds and our emotions are ultimately tributes to who we are and what it means to be human. Science remains, however, the surest path to a true understanding of our ancestry, our future, and our place in the world. Our ability to do it is evidence that we truly are special, no matter how we got that way.
Dr. Greg Farrington
Executive Director (aka “Chief Penguin”)
California Academy of Sciences