Once again, I’ve been drawn into debate with creationists, and it got me thinking about how I understand evolution. While some of my opponents have suggested that I’ve somehow been brainwashed by the public school system, a materialist culture, etc., this is far from the truth. In reality, I never received much of a public school education when it came to evolution, the topic receiving only a week’s worth of biology classes during my junior and senior years, and then not again until I specifically took courses on evolution later in college. Why, then, am I so enthusiastic about it?
I don’t remember much of my childhood, but my parents regularly tell me how I was enthralled with elephants as a young boy. I would watch them on TV documentaries, wear a safari hat everywhere, and pretend that I was hunting elephants (I called the imaginary gun my “mover”, because when it went off the elephants moved). This, of course, gave way to dino-mania, and I often pleaded my parents to stay up to ungodly hours taping the Christopher Reeves, Gary Owens, and Walter Chroncite-hosted dinosaur specials on a regular basis. None of this, however, would have come to pass without a few trips to the American Museum of Natural History, and I’ll never forget seeing the “Brontosaurus” skeleton towering above me in the dim fossil hall for the first time; I swear I could hear the ghost of the beast breathing.
While I continued to be enthralled with dinosaurs throughout my life, I realized that I lived far from famous fossil sites in the badlands and there didn’t seem to be much opportunity for me to end up being a paleontologist. My interests shifted to sharks for a number of years, waxing and waning throughout early college, until I ultimately began to devote myself to broader evolutionary studies in May of last year. As you can tell, however, all through my life I’ve had an intense interest in the natural world and how life came to be, learning about more weird creatures (extinct and extant) than most people my age seem to be familiar with. I wasn’t told about evolution and accepted it outright; I saw it in the animals I loved so much. Indeed, evolution was so starkly apparent that I can’t really think of a time when I did not somehow understand it; how else would the vast diversity and unity of life come to be? I was even disappointed when my wife (girlfriend at the time) told me that one of my hypotheses had already been discovered long ago; there seemed to be increases in evolutionary rates and diversity following mass extinctions in the fossil record, and as always it seems, Gould beat me to the punch before I was even born.
To tell you the truth, I hadn’t even heard of creationism or intelligent design until I was barred from teaching evolution to 5th grade students last year as a part of a college course designed to correct scientific misconceptions in elementary schools. I remember being somewhat agast and infuriated: “What kind of backward person doesn’t believe in evolution?” Apparently, there was much I didn’t know. Even though evolution seemed apparent to me in everything I saw, I didn’t really study it or try to gain a better understanding. It was almost like common sense; of course evolution produced me, you, the cat, and every other organism in earth’s history.
Now, even though I’ve begun amassing a library on evolution and related topics, after reading seemingly innumerable books, articles, and websites on the topic in the past year, the greatest evidence I see for evolution does not come from any text I know of, but rather from what I have come to understand about nature. Whenever I go to the Bronx Zoo, I don’t just look at the animals as they are now, but wonder what made the cheetah different from other big cats, why the gorillas are so much like us, how the spoonbill wound up with such feeding equipment, all the while recognizing that these animals are all built on a tetrapod body plan that arose hundreds of millions of years ago. Simply put, there’s no way that I can ignore evolution; every creature practically screams such a conclusion at the observer. This isn’t some idea that I’m just going along with because I have an active imagination or have been unknowingly indoctrinated; even before I could truly understand it, it was blatantly obvious to me and has become even more so now that I’ve made an effort to educate myself.
In any event, I know this post was likely not very interesting, but I just felt the need to share my own personal evolution. It is not enough to know what someone thinks, but also why they think it and what factors may be influencing those ideas, and if nothing else this has been a practice of full-disclosure so that others can understand why I have the passion for the subject that I now hold. Hopefully I’ll be able to inspire a similar thirst for knowledge in others, but even if I do not, I still can’t think of what else I would be better suited to do.