Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Explaining Evolution to the Masses

Francois asks over on his blog, in the face of such little acceptance of evolution among the general population in my country, how do I explain my research to non-scientists?

That's a good question - How do I explain my research?

I just come right out and say it, using non-jargon filled language. I explain it as if I am talking to my grandma or a 10 year old.

I study the nonverbal behaviors that humans have in common with primates. These include facial expressions, gesture, and patterns of touch. I want to know what we do, why we do it, and what it means when it happens.

Being someone who works in the field of evolutionary science (and specifically the much poopoo-ed version known as evolutionary psychology or SOCIOBIOLOGY) and being someone who is not shy about saying exactly what I think, I have experienced a variety of responses to my research.

From a lifelong family friend who is an evangelical Christian - how can you talk about animal cognition when they don't have souls? I guess I could see the point if psychology is taken as it literally means from its root PSYCHE meaning soul so that psychology is the study of the soul at least as it was originally conceived, but my field has changed a lot in the 130 years that the discipline has been around. Matter of faith have a very small place in psychology now. I think having the question of having a soul is totally irrelevant and arbitrary way to decide what should and should not be studied in psychology.

When I told a distant relative that I had just met that I study the behaviors that humans have in common with primates, she said "oh, ew" and didn't ask anymore questions of me the entire night. It was weird.

Others - scientists! - have expressed a lot of encouragement for my exploration of human-primate similarities.

But at least one person in my field, Kanazawa, has gone on the record (in a peer reviewed journal) to say that it is better to hide the similarities so as not to fuel discontent for our field among the uneducated masses.

I don't agree with him.

I have NEVER had a student attack evolution or the concept of applying it to human behavior. Perhaps that is a function of the types of colleges I have taught at.

Nevertheless, I am fully prepared to discuss evolution and human behavior with anyone, anywhere, anytime. I think it is my responsibility to keep doing what I'm doing.

Trouble is, the average American won't really read my stuff. We are self-selecting consumers. We like to consume what we like and know already.

"give us something familiar
something similar
to what we know already
that will keep us steady
steady going nowhere
~Fiona Apple

If you ask me, discomfort is the only way to g(r)o(w).

Those of us in evolutionary science ought to write columns for our local papers.

I wish I could do that but given that my husband works at the paper as an editor, I can't.

However, I do very much look forward to making my students (and any evangelical crusaders who knock on my door) uncomfortable.


Francois Rivest said...

These lines "But at least one person in my field (...) say that it is better to hide the similarities so as not to fuel discontent for our field among the uneducated masses." stunned me!

Discomforting... that's the way to go ;).

Alasdair said...

I agree with Francois. I'm also reminded of a line from a book:

Any jackass can go through life without offending people.

A little discomfort can go a long way.