Adrift in a sea of apathy

15 02 2007

So far the interest in my idea for a peer-edited weblog about evolution for Rutgers undergrads has been essentially nil; people I’ve talked to about it think it’s a good idea but interest/motivation is certainly lacking. I’ll throw up some more flyers around campus and maybe make an announcement or two in class, but overall it seems that people (outside of one other concerned student and a professor) just don’t care. Perhaps if I actually post an article it will stir some interest, at the very least I could use it for the book I’m in the process of writing, about why evolution matters in the first place. Why should we care about evolution? Is it more than just theoretical posturing that explains nature without practical use? I certainly believe it’s the most important in biology to grasp, and while you may be able to do research or be a scientist in the biological field, understanding evolution(and ecology) is absolutely essential to truly understanding the implications of discoveries.

I picked up Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden the other day, and while dated (and he does speak favorably about Haeckel’s embryos, *sigh*) it is an absolutely enthralling read, the quotes he selects for the opening of every chapter especially interesting. Chapter 5, dealing with primate intelligence, opens with this quote from Linneaus

I demand of you, and of the whole world, that you show me a generic character… by which to distinguish between Man and Ape. I myself most assuredly know of none. I wish someone would indicate one to me. But, if I had called man an ape, or vice versa, I would have fallen under the ban of all the ecclesiastics. It may be that as a naturalist I ought to have done so.

While there are indeed differences between “Man and Ape,” I know of no character that can divorce us from our shared ancestry. It may be easy for creationists or the uninformed to say “I didn’t evolve from anything,” but I guess such people have not visited places like the Bronx Zoo and seen the gorillas there. While we are certainly not evolved from gorillas, we share a family history with them, a familial relationship that is starkly apparent when they are viewed for even a moment. As Sagan suggests in his book, perhaps we do not have any relatives closer than chimpanzees and other great apes as we eliminated them all through competition or homicide, all of us perhaps carrying the Mark of Cain and its legacy. Although some view being related to an ape demeaning, I find it wonderful; we are inexorably connected to those who came before us and all of life on this planet. As Charles Darwin put it in The Descent of Man

The main conclusion arrive at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly-organized form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many persons. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind-such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed in excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and, like wild animals, lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to everyone not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part, I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper; or from that old baboon who, descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs-as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions [emphasis mine]

It is clear that Darwin suffered from a bit of Victorian-era racism and romanticism of the natural world, for from whence did the “savages” come but the same stock that led to him and more “civilized” folk back in England? While it is easy to recognize the virtues of great apes, it is not so easy to watch males abuse females, see male chimpanzees on the hunt for monkeys (apparently they do not feel the same cross-species kinship that we have for “lower” primates), or recognize that perhaps our sometimes violent and irrational natures come from our evolutionary inheritance. As Sagan suggests in Eden, even though our neocortex is capable of very complex thought and expression, perhaps it is merely controlling the wild horses that are the limbic system and reptilian complex, the influences of such ancient systems being more influential in a meeting than complex abstraction/reasoning ability. I do not know enough about psychology or neurology to confirm or refute this view scientifically, but it seems that our enlarged neocortex has allowed us to be more elegantly barbaric at times, instead of attacking a competitor with our teeth and fists out of fear we vaporize his children with patriot missiles that we made (and justified) using our advanced brain. This is no to say we our slaves to our evolutionary heritage, the altruism expressed by humans far surpassing any found in nature, but to believe that we somehow are immune to the avoidance of pain, seeking of pleasure, and the feelings of fear or being threatened is ludicrous; such feelings are part of who we are, but not the whole of who we are.



3 responses

15 02 2007
Chris Harrison

Are submissions at darwinsbeagles reserved solely for Rutger’s undergraduates?
I would be interested in submitting a few things, but I’m not sure how kindly you’d take to a Texan posting there. I’m attending UT in Austin.
Great blog you have here Brian.
Have you ever considered posting reviews of ID books?

16 02 2007

Hi there Chris, I’d have no problem with a Texan such as yourself submitting something; I’m not a spiteful Yank, you know. Did you also link me over on If so, thank you; I definitely appreciate the good review and link. I’ve thought about reveiwing some ID books, films, websites, etc. on the web, doing one pro-creationism work and one pro-evolution work every week or so, but primarily I’d like students to be able to share what they know about evolution and how they came to understand it without being a polemic. I know my words on this blog aren’t always tempered with patience, but if possible I’d like to make Darwin’s Beagles a blog to hold no punches when it comes to science but hold back on the rhetoric. In any case, if you want to submit something, send it on over to me at and we’ll get rolling. If you have any friends that are interested, let them know too; it would be great to have a country-wide (or even global) community.

16 02 2007
Chris Harrison

That’s great. Yeah, I am the guy who tagged your blog at stumbleupon. Not much activity for it yet, but I’m sure you’ll be getting a few more hits as it circles around.

I’ll throw a few things together and send you my thoughts via email by next week. I have a few tests coming up, so I can’t promise anything until next Wed. Thanks for letting other undergrads in on darwinsbeagles. I’ll tag that blog for you as well.

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