Folmsbee: Reviving the beauty of evolution

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Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 33 percent of Americans believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Since this statement is absolutely false, it is curious that such a large portion of the United States still rejects the scientific theory of evolution. Despite the staggering amount of evidence behind the origin of life on Earth through natural selection, many Americans still favor a creationist view of the development of human life. Although science advocates have pushed for better education, creationists are just not moved by the facts. So, perhaps a focus on the evidence is just not sufficient. Scientists will need to adopt the same strategy as creationists, reviving the forgotten beauty and romance of evolution in order to convert the last third of Americans to the truth.

This failure of facts was evident last week, when celebrity scientist Bill Nye participated in a debate on the merits of evolution against Ken Ham, the founder of the Creation Museum. Ice cores with hundreds of thousands of years of ancient atmosphere, geologic layering and transitional fossils of the evolution of amphibians were put on display as part of the foundation of the theory of evolution. But it soon became clear the battle he was fighting wasn’t over the truth. The honest verdict could be gleamed from the glazed-over eyes of the unmoved crowd: Evolution is, at its very Antarctic core, incredibly boring.

It’s easy to see the appeal of creationism. Ken Ham built a story for his origin of the Earth, filled with humanity’s origin through sin, challenges through Noah’s flood and eventual salvation. It is a compelling, emotional story — one that makes humanity the true star on the stage of the planet’s history. Bill Nye had PowerPoint slides with rocks, ice bubbles and slightly different rocks. These will not stir the hearts of the undecided and certainly not any staunch creationists.

This dull and unengaging nature of the argument for evolution is also evident in the responses to the debate by creationists. Questions posed by creationists at the debate show that many are not concerned with evolution at all, but with beauty. One asked to “explain a sunset if (there) is no God,” and another could not accept how anyone could not see God in the world, saying “It’s amazing!!!” These are not the questions of individuals seeking a detailed explanation of carbon dating or biodiversity through chromosomal rearrangement. Creationism is not grounded in facts and so it has remained invulnerable to the ever-growing truth of evolution. Scientists who debate creationists may need to try a new tactic, shifting their focus away from the scientific evidence and toward the beauty and romance of a vibrant, dynamic and ever-evolving world of life.

And evolution can be a beautiful and profound process, particularly when you consider that modern humans almost never existed. Between 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, humanity was driven to the brink of extinction, with only an estimated 1,200 individual humans in existence. For many species, going through such a bottleneck in evolution is often a sign of impending doom.

But this evolutionary struggle should give humans pride and humility, because we were able to survive not by brute strength, but through intelligence. Our close relatives, the great apes, are much larger, stronger and more agile creatures than we will ever be. We are remarkably frail organisms, so it is no surprise that we nearly went extinct. But for the first time in evolutionary history, intelligence was a conquering force. Our sentience gave us tools, control over our environment and cunning that has built unshakeable civilizations. Something as simple as consciousness propelled us from being scrawny, mostly-hairless primates to the most powerful creatures on the planet.

And this is the romance of evolution. We have a deep connection to all other life on the planet through our shared ancestry. We have been given the freedom to carve our own purpose in this world through the evolution of our own intelligence. Since we are the only organisms that can understand the world through science, we have become the stewards of the entire planet. Evolution is spectacularly beautiful in that it created our ability to appreciate beauty itself.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].

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