Are you like me? That is, do you believe in evolution?
Or, to be precise, do you think evolutionary theory is our best current explanation of the way species came to be different from one another?
If you do, you might just be a big fat idiot just like me!
It’ll come as no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH* that questions of knowledge and belief are inextricably tangled up when it comes to evolution and creation. There are plenty of creationists who know what the theory of evolution says, but wouldn’t say they “know” it. And there are plenty of evolution supporters who think evolutionary theory is the best way to understand things, but they wouldn’t want to say they “believe” it.
That’s why in our recent book, Harvey Siegel and I advocated cutting the connection in our public-school science classes. Yes, let’s help students understand what evolutionary theory says, but let’s remain carefully neutral about what students might believe.
After all, we know there must be creationist kids out there who don’t want to “believe” in evolution since they think it’s against their religion. But here’s the kicker: Plenty of us who say we “accept,” “know,” or “believe” in evolution don’t really know much about it.
Exhibit A: Family Guy. In Peter Griffin’s telling, evolution happened over millions of years. In this clip, we see ambitious fish turning into to lizards, who stretch their way into dinosaurs.
We also see Family Guy’s vision of creationism (“obligated by the state of Kansas…” ha), in which Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie blinks everything into existence, including a rabbit, a car, and Jesus with a “USA#1” foam finger.
For now, though, let’s focus on the evolution part of Family Guy’s history of the world. Granted, Peter Griffin really is a big fat idiot. Nevertheless, his description of evolution is pretty close to what most of us think of as the story of life, evolution-style.
We talk about animals crawling up out of the slime to walk on land. We talk about animals that are “perfectly evolved” for their habitats. We imagine a process by which animals and plants get better and better—higher and higher up an evolutionary ladder—and we think we are talking about evolutionary theory.
The problem is, we’re not. The idea of animals working hard to improve themselves and work their way up the evolutionary ladder doesn’t match what scientists think happens. We see our comfortable myth of evolution everywhere, though. In my “Evolving Darwin Play Set,” for example, we see animals working their way up from “fish-man” to “genius.”
If you’re like me, you have a vague sense that that’s the way evolution worked. The problem is, we’re wrong.
If you ask a friendly science geek, evolution didn’t doesn’t have any sort of goal in mind. Evolution is not about getting higher up a great chain of being. Evolution is not about getting better and better until slime becomes scientist. Rather, we’re supposed to think of evolution as a bushy process, a continual series of slow-motion experiments that don’t move toward anything. We’re not supposed to imagine animals improving toward a goal, but rather just doing what they can to survive and reproduce, holding on to traits that seem to help.
Is that what you think of when you think of evolution? If so, congratulations, you’re not a big fat idiot. But if you really know what evolutionary theory says, you are an unusual person.
Most of us, whatever we say we believe about evolution, don’t know much about modern evolutionary theory. As Dan Kahan reminds us, people who say they accept, know, or believe evolution can’t do a better job of explaining it than people who say they don’t.
What about you? If you’re like me, you accept evolutionary theory. But you don’t really know much about it. Like Peter Griffin, we have a sense that evolution took a long time and that animals changed from one thing into another. But the images we carry around in our heads aren’t really evolutionary theory, but rather myths about the origins of life featuring the vague and faceless deity “Evolution.”
Does it matter? If we want to understand the creation/evolution battles, it matters a lot. Most important, IMHO, it helps us understand that we’re all a lot more similar than we might think. The folks who troop into Ken Ham’s Creation Museum might be a bunch of big fat idiots, but so are the rest of us. When it comes to questions of evolutionary theory, most of us don’t know what we’re talking about. We trust in the authority of our experts, but in a pinch, we can’t really explain what our experts believe.
*Sophisticated and Good-Lookin Regular Readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, natch.