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Why we should teach evolution:

“We are evolving every year, every decade. That’s a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment….”

Canadian Science Minister Gary Goodyear, responding to criticism about his refusal to answer whether he believed in evolution

It would be easy to criticise Minister Goodyear for not “believing” in evolution despite his position as an alleged scientist. Many people already are. But evolution is not a matter of belief, it is a matter of decision: one either decides that the theory is valid based on meticulously-gathered evidence, or one doesn’t. Belief and faith should, ideally, have no bearing on whether a theory is sound. A well-constructed argument needs no faith on the part of the reader — it is persuasive enough on its own without appeals to the intangible. (Years of watching Law and Order have taught us otherwise, I know. But it may shock others to learn that some people can recognize sophistry, and “I shouldn’t be asked about my religion” is it, not least because none of the major religions I’m familiar with emphasize privacy of practise. God does not like it when you pretend to be strangers in the hallway outside homeroom. This allegedly hurts God’s feelings.)

What one can criticise Minister Goodyear for is not knowing what evolution is.

Granted, my own sense of evolutionary theory was (and may yet be) rather patchwork until recently. Were I asked to explain it, I would have hemmed and hawed and quickly pointed over my interlocutor’s shoulder before running away. But now I know people who keep me on my toes (Death Ray and Watts), and I can’t get away with that any longer. This is why I’m twice as frustrated when I see people in positions of power — especially the power to cut science budgets — getting it wrong.

Here is what I know about evolution. (Please correct me, if I’m wrong.)

  • Species do not evolve as individuals. They evolve as groups, via reproduction. The changes that individual bodies endure, such as lumbar weakness or skin damage, are not passed down to future generations. To ignore this is to embrace Lamarckism, and to ignore how reproduction works in general.*
  • This is because evolution is not growth, but winnowing. The traits that a species “evolves” do not suddenly arrive as a consequence of environmental factors. Rather, those traits were always present, but came into greater prominence because the other members of the same species which did not possess them died out were less successful as a result of their unsuitability to the environment at hand, or their lesser capacity for attracting mates.
  • Adaptation is not a conscious decision on the part of an individual or a species. Adaptations survive because the species that (gradually, slowly) adapt happen to live long enough to reproduce. They either do it or they don’t. They’re lucky or unlucky, alive or dead, breeding or barren.

Of course, I could be wrong. My grasp of evolution as a system is tenuous at best, and my knowledge of specifics is almost nil. But that’s the real tragedy: the lack of knowledge. Because I suspect that my peers worldwide — and certainly Minister Goodyear — know even less, or can’t be bothered to think about it, because for them evolutionary theory is just a weeklong unit in high school and not a system for explaining and understanding the world we enjoy. We teach the basics of other world-explaining systems in the context of their influence on history: Christianity, democracy, capitalism. We emphasize them, over and over, in every unit in every class. There is no reason that students cannot grasp this theory, and its influence on our world, as well.

It is only through teaching evolution that we can ever hope to generate a global, mainstream discourse about it (and likely about global warming, space exploration, stem cell research, and other “controversial” science topics, given that such totalizing systems always have something to say about human endeavour of any shape). Theists have little ground for objection; if you believe that God made our world this way, made us this way, then perhaps you should strive to better know God’s handiwork. If you believe that God is a being of infinite love and mercy who knew your name before you were knit in the womb, you might care to learn other examples of such divine and careful planning, and memorize the names of all the species God rigged the system to wipe out just to make room for you. You are just The White Album. You might be great, but other stuff came before you.** 

If we had all learnt this, and well, then we would know why Minister Goodyear’s words are so very absurd. Currently, I think too few know that they should be laughing at him, and not with him.

*Granted, Lamarckism has been recently investigated in relation to brain plasticity. But the flexibility of neurons is utterly different from the rigidity of our skeletal structure — the brain changes more often and more rapidly than, say, the systems influenced by things like high heels or ultraviolet light.
**And you may sometimes inspire murderous rage in the minds of madmen and their adherents.

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  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, Tor.com, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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