Evolution is Not an Obvious or Intuitive Concept

Kirk Johnson: It was an amazing discovery that we’re all related, but it was not obvious.  It’s not obvious that I’m related to a strawberry.  

Do you know that you are related to a strawberry?


This is not an easy concept to grasp. On some level it requires us to channel the abstract thinking of a poet. Consider these lines by Walt Whitman:

I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons...

In these lines, from "Song of Myself," Whitman restructures our sense of reality. The concept of the "self" is not fixed, but fluid. Not only are all men related, but so is all of nature. This is not how we tend to apprehend the world around us. After all, we observe the world in the time frame of an hour, or a day, or a lifetime - not in the context of the deep time of evolution and cosmology. 

So what is the best way to teach this complex idea?

Since the time of Darwin’s discovery that humans are descendants from other forms of life, we have gained a wealth of information about evolution. The Human Genome Project has given us "the ultimate tool for mapping our position in the rest of the tree of life," says Kirk Johnson, director of the National Museum of Natural History. Furthermore, Johnson says that museums have played a crucial role over the last hundred years in the public discussion of evolution. 

By presenting dinosaur skeletons and other exhibits, Johnson points out that museums are able to "frame the three-dimensional evidence that we have for evolution." A current exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History called "Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code" aims to do just that.

While Johnson sees museums as "the most accessible portal for understanding science that we have," a Big Think video featuring Bill Nye, "The Science Guy" has prompted an online debate between the science educator and creationists - most notably the leadership of the Petersburg, Kentucky-based Creation Museum. Nye will debate evolution with the creationist Ken Ham on February 4th. Some have criticized Nye's decision to do so, arguing that "debate is a sport, not the way we decide scientifically how the world works."

Kirk Johnson, for his part, says he has had "many rational conversations with creationists who often feel that they haven’t seen the evidence for evolution." And so, the most powerful way to educate, Johnson says in the video below, "is to walk through an exhibit and say 'here are the elements of evolution manifest.'" Because, after all, "evolution is not an obvious or intuitive concept."  

Watch the video here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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