Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Creationism at the Zoo (or, How I Missed Seeing the Gorilla Outdoor Pavilion)

On my second trip to the zoo after we’d moved to DC, I was heading towards the outdoor gorilla enclosure—along with a crowd of other people—when a man near me said to his friend, “This is was I don’t get: they say we evolved from these guys [indicating the gorillas]; so what are they waiting for?”

“Ah-ha! I can answer that!” I said cheerfully, hoping my pleasant but eager-to-inform attitude would make up for having eavesdropped. (I decided not to even approach the whole question of whether an ape would choose to become human if it, or its long-distant offspring, could.)

The men politely turned my way and listened as I explained how we’re not, in fact, descended from modern-day apes; instead, we both share a common ancestor in the evolutionary past. I even tried to use a comparison that I’d come across in the zoo’s Think Tank to make it more clear: that you and your cousin both have the same grandmother, but you’re not descended from your cousin. “Yeah, but my cousins are still in my family,” the man argued.

We went on from there, debating but in a decidedly friendly fashion; I don’t think I convinced him of anything, but I did try to disabuse him of the notion—which is a common one—that you have to believe in either evolution or god, but not both. On the contrary, I explained, science only explains and studies processes, and it’s up to every individual to decide how or why those processes were started. Darwin himself, I told him, said that in learning about the ways in which species diverged he was instilled with a greater sense of reverence and awe than he would otherwise have had. “Darwin was not an atheist,” I emphasized.

That did impress him a little, and it came out that he’d been bad-mouthing Darwin for quite some time—perhaps, he admitted now, unjustly. At the end of our discussion, though, he informed me that he was “still a creationist.” “Okay,” I said amicably; if he was more willing to think about what I’d said if I didn’t attack what he clearly felt was a defining position, then so be it.

By this point the gorilla-pavilion area was completely crowded with people, and I gave up on getting towards the front; I waved at the man and headed off to the elephants.

My interaction with him was both cheering and really depressing. On the one hand, it was great that he and I were able to talk without becoming hostile or dismissive. On the other hand, of course I couldn’t convince him in a ten-minute conversation that 1. evolution occurs and 2. it doesn’t need to contradict religion.

I wish I’d been able to explain more articulately that one really doesn’t have to have anything to do with the other. It’s true that I’m an atheist, but that’s a product of my secular upbringing, not my training in science. Science poses questions and tries to answer them using evidence, and a requisite of the scientific method is that experiments have to be designed so that hypotheses can be disproven if they’re wrong. Science is based on supporting or disproving ideas. Religion is about faith, not tests or proof. You can’t test religion in a laboratory, and you can’t “believe in” scientific statements that are made without research to support them.

This man’s conviction—which, again, is a common one—made me sad, because it leads people to be even less willing and/or able to understand scientific information.

After all, modern biology—modern science—as a discipline wouldn’t exist without the conceptual foundation of evolution. –Admittedly, there were times in grad school when I didn’t want the discipline to exist, but still. So if someone becomes distrustful of any information that’s related to evolution, they’re not going to be interested in hearing or knowing much of anything to do with medicine, the environment, climatology, geology, or—well, anything scientific, really. (Maybe some stuff about space exploration, I guess, but only if there’s no talk about the age of the solar system.) It means that other people will make decisions for them about issues that matter to everyone, from environmental protection to the over-prescription of antibiotics.

I hope that our discussion made this man more open to scientific ideas—or at least less mad at scientists. I wish I’d been able to think faster on my feet and elaborate more on my arguments so I could certain of that.

And I wish I’d seen the gorillas.

[one of the gorillas I didn't get to see that day]


pattinase (abbott) said...

Maybe they would have gotten your point more easily than the man did.

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

Probably--although, given the way we humans act like fools in front of their enclosure, I can see the gorillas saying, "I'm not related to *those*!"

Unknown said...

I may have figured out how to comment! Yay! Anyway, this post made me think of an interview I saw on the Daily Show last week with this woman who wrote a book about how science and religion don't need to be in conflict:


biobabbler said...

Just remembering & sharing that Darwin was not an atheist probably helped a lot. POINTS! =)

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

I hope so! If nothing else, the guy seemed to be willing to stop insulting Darwin, so I guess that's something.

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