46% of Americans don’t believe in evolution. To put this in perspective, 54% of Americans think that the TSA is doing a good job. More Americans would rather be manhandled by a security guard named “Bertrand” than admit they may share a distant relation with chimpanzees.
But that’s okay! Because I am convinced that a large portion of the nonbelievers simply don’t understand the theory. I accept that people tend not to believe what they don’t understand. I myself have trouble believing that Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t still dreaming at the end of Inception, because I had no clue what the hell was going on in that movie.
So let me take the time to dispel a few myths on the subject. I have said this blog isn’t political, and it’s not. But if I’m writing about evolution, certain misconceptions bear addressing. Starting with the whammy:
Evolution is just a theory! Why should I believe it?
The classic response here is that gravity is just a theory, too. Really, though, this isn’t even a question of biology—it’s terminology. What you call theories, scientists call hypotheses. When they think something is almost definitely true, then it’s a theory. Also, cookies are “biscuits.”
Well, I didn’t come from a monkey!
No, humans did not evolve from monkeys, but the myth here is that the theory of evolution ever makes that claim. We share an ancestor with monkeys, and with apes, and with ostriches, for that matter, if you want to look far back enough. But the common human/ape predecessor is not something you’d recognize today.
Think of humans, apes, and monkeys as one big, extended family. We all have those creepy, distant cousins who collect moist towelettes and own a broadsword and maybe throw their feces around when they’re upset. But it’s okay, you remind yourself, because you’re barely related.
Now, you did both come from Great Grandpa Jeb, and yes, you might be a little ashamed of that, because Jeb thought “the Muslims” were putting “chemicals” in the mail. But let’s face it—Jeb is almost 5 million years old. You may be related, but that doesn’t mean you have a lot in common.
Okay, I really didn’t come from a monkey. But monkeys and apes are still my closest living relatives—so if we want to learn about ourselves, we should only study them, right?
I didn’t say that. Don’t put words in mouth.
I’m you. I’m literally the only person who can put words in your mouth.
Even so. Yes, we have a lot to learn from studying our closest living relatives. But “closest” and “living” taken together make the distinction a little bit arbitrary. What if every ape and monkey in the world were wiped out today? Maybe Lex Luthor genetically-engineered a new breed of super-competent jaguars, I don’t know.
The truth is, we have a lot to learn about ourselves from all niches of the animal kingdom. In fact, we can understand more about evolution as a whole by looking at how different species have responded to different pressures. Or by noticing how species with the same pressures can come to resemble each other, even when they’re at best distantly related.
Evolution as a process is a beautiful thing. My writing is a different matter—so please don’t be turned off by the occasional, drawn-out analogy involving racist family members. Stick with me long enough and you might find yourself more interested than you’d expect.