The long-term intellectual ability humans have developed to investigate, gather information and learn from the material world has lead us on a continuous journey of discovery. But in every generation, there have been segments of the population that either cannot or will not adjust their worldview when new paradigms, once unknown are uncovered, and then reshape our world. Even as extraordinary evidence builds to dethrone incorrect conclusions long held, wrong ideas about the natural world reside to keep those unwilling or unable to adjust past their static comfort zone.
Probably the most visible failure of our human imagination comes when those with power seek to obfuscate and deny evolution for their personal gain. There is certainly nothing wrong with being a skeptic about natural processes. Such skepticism is actually very healthy and important to science, to research and to life in general. But there is a difference between skepticism, obstructionism and the full on denial of scientific truth.
Healthy skepticism about the material world can best be described as the rational need for detailed, observable, measurable or irrefutable evidence in order to claim something is indeed true. Take gravity for instance. Although we cannot see it, we can read about the nature of the force, scientists have shown that such force exists, and none of us leave our homes by walking off the roof. We know full well that gravity, even unseen, is operating and will indeed pull us down towards Earth. We understand the nature of gravity because we understand that humans cannot float or fly without the machines we’ve invented which can defy gravity’s powers.
In perhaps one of the most important recent breakthroughs in astrophysics, scientists at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) confirmed one of Albert Einstein’s earliest predictions that swirling masses of gravity can make waves in space-time. This research helps us gain a deeper understanding of the cosmos. It unlocks nature’s secrets and provides insight as to how black holes operate and how gravity impacts celestial bodies across the universe.
Back on Earth and equally extraordinary, paleontologists recently found evidence in Morocco that the earliest members of modern humans date back 300,000 years, replacing the evidence for an antecedence of just 175,000 years. Exciting right? The search for human origins is good science. It is on par with nanotechnology, the Higgs-Boson, and every modern method of looking at the world through healthy scientific inquiry using the scientific method.
Some may find it astonishing that based on sound research methods, field techniques, and observations that paleontologists continue with confidence to find and verify how humans, and all life on the planet evolved. With such evidence anthropologists provide ongoing support for Charles Darwin’s grand theory of Natural Selection.
Astrophysicists might be bored with the study of human evolution because it focuses on a single apical lineage of perhaps a few primate species. These scientists might focus on a bigger picture, like how the actual universe evolved, to show our human connections not just with the Earth but how our “third rock from the sun” fits into a wider-angle lens of planetary evolution. This is a daunting task filled with theories and mathematics that I will never fully comprehend, and which I will always deeply respect and admire.
The late astronomer, Dr. Carl Sagan, often noted “The Cosmos is also within us…. (that) we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” Such scientific poetry beautifully links our voyage of scientific discovery concerning the mechanics of the cosmos with the same skeptical voyage investigating how our sole species came into being.
No matter how random and accidental evolution appears, to those who accept our antecedence, there is a deeper form of liberation that comes with knowing that we are one human family. However, materialistic evolution remains incomprehensible to those who wish to deny our human place in the universe in favor of personal creation mythology. Such obstructionism and denial is ripe in the United States and around the world.
Obstructionism is essentially a delaying tactic that provides individuals and often times local, regional or national governments time to deliberately delay access to evolutionary biology in favor of either no information or completing alternative analysis. A good example of this can be found in the United States when local school boards attempt to infuse the public school curriculum with the faulty concepts of Intelligent Design, or as they attempt to strip or water down the concept of natural selection from of K-12 biology textbooks through policy or legislation. Outside the United States, we need not look any further than the nation of Turkey, who in 2017 set new national science standards in public education throughout the nation that officially removed evolutionary biology from the pre-College curriculum.
What religious obstructionism attempts to deny or prevent is exactly what evolutionary theory tells us by its very existence. We anatomically modern humans are not the period at the end of the sentence in the last line of the book of creation. Darwin’s work shows that that after 14.5 billion years since the Big Bang, and 4.6 billion years of Earth’s ongoing transformations through global mass extinctions, climate change, plate tectonic, speciation, and adaptation, we humans are just one paragraph in one chapter in a grand encyclopedia of life on Earth and, by extension, perhaps life in the universe.
We are an imperfect – yet thinking, reflecting, planning and tool-making primate. We have built this science industry and requisite community to assist us in uncovering the nature of reality. A pessimist might think given all our species’ imperfections, our egos and other liabilities that self-knowledge would be impossible to acquire or sustain. Yet, as we have evolved, our modern brains have given us the ability to climb the ropes of knowledge and, for those accepting modernity, hang on tightly.
Unlike obstructionism, the Enemies to the truth of evolution who fully denial the operation of natural selection, would wish us all to accept a view of the world where a particular philosophy or religious theology speaks not only for our collective humanity, but defines theology and mythology as fact. Such a denial is a blight on our modernity, on our systems of education, and credulity.
We needn’t have to visit the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter in Kentucky to access the full denial of materialistic and naturalistic evolution. The museum is sending out their creationist agenda through sophisticated email marketing as well as the Internet. The Museum’s YouTube page is constantly adding dogmatic episodes that all fervently deny evolution while simultaneously push an Evangelical version of life begun through biblical interpretation, which isn’t science at all. And I know personally about their marketing tactics because somehow my private email wound up on their mailing list, offering me discounts to their products, passes to the museum and park and of course requests for donations.
However, should you visit the Museum, one of the finer if not more infamous evidences of human denial run amok is the exhibition of a human child in the Garden of Eden. In the background of the exhibit is his friendly pet Velociraptor. This is not science and inquiry. It is Flintstones science and denial of naturalistic reality. Yet, believers will pack up their families, spend hundreds of dollars, and go to a place that only confirms their religious biases but not truth or reality itself.
The pretzel logic of having humans and dinosaurs living side-by-side in harmony, denying the fossil, geologic, genetic and biological evidence of naturalistic evolution would seem comedic except these are very real displays within the museum. The goal of which is to bolster not science, but a particular theological belief. That the Earth is just 6,000 years old and all cosmologic and natural history, no matter what true evidence exists to show otherwise, cannot exist outside of this one religious view of creation.
Can you imagine buying a telescope, which, when you look through the lens, you could only focus your sight on the top of the trees? You’d most probably return the instrument as broken simply because you know from the evidence of your senses that the universe is both wider and deeper. But this lack of vision is what the Creation Museum sells as true. The Creation Museum sells you a broken telescope, essentially the product of a faulty human imagination to see no further than our limited religious self-interests.
To this end we should remind ourselves of the beauty by which we grasp scientific knowledge as it plays a part in defining what we know as truth. Such understanding helps to make our naturally inquisitive species willing to further push the boundaries of the known. It underscores our ideas about material reality. It allows us to build technologies, new systems and ways of thinking that would seem like science fiction or even magic to those in the past as well as to those who currently choose to be uninitiated. Perhaps this is also why we should be proud, but not in a hubristic way, to hope that our intellect will conquer our fears about evolutionary science and the acceptance of the sciences in general.
In closing, I think it’s best to remember the words of yet another physicist, and those are the words of Albert Einstein who said, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science. “ I couldn’t agree more. But for me, my personal mantra as an anthropologist is simply this: “Evidence equals knowledge. Knowledge equals truth. Truth will out.”
Dr. David Orenstein is Professor of Anthropology & Deputy Chairperson of the Social & Behavioral Sciences Department at Medgar Evers College/CUNY.