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OPINIONS

Social (r)evolution

Last Wednesday was the 205th birthday of Charles Darwin.

February 12 isn’t a date I usually take particular note of. But this year, Darwin’s work on evolution happened to be at the forefront of my mind, due in part to the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham a week prior.

Taking on what’s become a classic conflict in our country, Nye defended the science supporting evolution, while Ham expounded on the merits of creationism.

And my Facebook newsfeed briefly exploded.

Having spent the last ten years in university settings, the tone of the comments was predictable: frustration, often tinged with despair that such debates were still necessary, much less so hotly contested.

Because — let me be blunt — they shouldn’t be.

As a scientist, I am trained to let the evidence lead me. When someone (Darwin) proposes a useful framework (evolution) that seems to unify this evidence into a coherent whole, my job is to evaluate the framework’s validity as objectively as possible.

The reality — and, to me, the enduring beauty — of science is that many frameworks are rejected, modified, or used for a few years and then rejected because additional research has demonstrated that they are incorrect. Darwin wasn’t working from divine inspiration: The framework of natural selection that he proposed had flaws and limitations. Evolution continues to be an extraordinarily active field of scientific study, as we continue to revise, renovate and reinforce its framework.

Yet the bare bones of evolutionary theory have proved consistent and coherent over 150 years and across dozens of lines of evidence.

Which is why evolution was the very first concept I covered in my Environmental Science course this year.

Yes, you can understand, and even use, environmental science without knowing a thing about evolution. But to do so is to be fundamentally handicapped. Ignoring evolutionary theory while trying to understand the diversity and distribution of life on Earth is like trying to read a book with its chapters out of order. Trying to harness biological systems for human benefit without acknowledging evolution and its consequences is like investing entirely in a single company without once glancing over its recent track record.

Ignoring evolution is risky at best and downright foolish at worst.

Here are some very real, very important ways that evolution affects the planet and, particularly, human well-being.

Bacteria and viruses evolve. Fast. The first, miraculous antibiotics like penicillin have lost their luster as bacteria altered their genes to tolerate them. Antibiotic resistant bacteria kill 23,000 Americans annually. We need a new flu vaccine each year because the viral strains change and evolve as they move through the human population. Medicine isn’t about winning a war against infectious disease: It’s about keeping up in an arms race against evolution.

Moreover, every species is affected by evolution — not just tiny microbes. Insects and plants evolve resistance to pesticides and herbicides. Fish and mammals evolve to adjust to human hunting. And the wild systems we try to conserve are themselves changing as their member species evolve, even without human intervention. We must understand the direction and rate of evolution to predict how species will fare in the future.

Despite its fundamental importance, one in three Americans has no problem dismissing evolution out of hand. Some cite religious beliefs (though my parents, and many of my students, self-described “people of faith” able to reconcile their beliefs with their scientific training, argue this point by example). Others seem to simply embrace scientific illiteracy.

It’s this last group that’s most troubling. We can point our fingers at our educational system: Perhaps we aren’t reaching children in the right way at the right age. Perhaps we’re teaching science in an incomprehensible or dull manner (Heavens knows my students will tell you I’m guilty of this!).

But I’m more inclined to attribute it to a disturbing social shift that avoids science because it is, as Al Gore would say, “inconvenient.”

Evolution, climate change and natural resource management aren’t too complicated to understand. Heck, in a couple months many of us will be struggling through something far more difficult when we file our taxes. And each of us wrestles with complexity in different aspects of our lives: navigating nuanced interpersonal relationships; completing a laundry list of errands in the most efficient order to get home in time for dinner; and so on. We are more than capable.

But these scientific concepts raise scary questions. Where will the next antibiotic come from? Can we really cut our carbon emissions drastically enough? Where will our energy come from when cheap oil runs out?

Like the proverbial ostrich, though, we’ll get nowhere with our heads buried in the sand. It’s time to look up, take a deep breath, educate ourselves and get to work.

I promise: It’s worth it.

 

Holly welcomes reader feedback – especially the kind that helps her evolve her own thinking – at hollyvm@stanford.edu.

About Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).
  • viva la

    Thanks as always for a very interesting column.

    I’m agnostic and a typical STEM person, so I certainly view evolution as the best model we have of the long-term dynamics of biological systems.

    However, I’m generally opposed to these evolution/creationist debates, and I think scientists and supporters of mainline science are wrong to promote large public displays of such debates. I think it only increases the feeling that we’re in a culture war, and there is no balancing positive side. I feel it makes us condescending and as though we’re ridiculing our perceived inferiors. I don’t like it.

    I looked at the questionnaire, and I think the results don’t actually support the statement that “one in three Americans has no problem dismissing evolution out of hand.” 33% of respondents said that “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” That’s a much narrower statement than that evolution does not occur. It allows for all sorts of interesting ideas about how the world works, while still largely supporting things like vaccination, anthropogenic pollution, finite resources, and so on. Whether or not those ideas are correct is irrelevant: what matters is how a person acts.

    For example, if a person is not a biologist, he doesn’t need to understand evolution at the scientific level. What matters is how he acts in the broader world. Does he get his children vaccinated? If so, great: he’s helping to improve herd immunity. Whether he believes evolution is a good model for explaining why vaccinations are necessary is irrelevant. One could say the same thing about many other choices.

    In conclusion, I want to urge mainline STEM thinkers to soften their outward zeal. I think it hurts our societal causes (addressing global warming, curtailing the use of antibiotics in livestock, and many more) a lot more than it helps.