I used to work at a small town science museum. It was mostly for kids. We had exhibits, activities, and demonstrations ostensibly for educational purposes, but for the most part, it was entertainment. There’s only so much science talk you can get in before kids stop listening and just want to touch the lightning ball. Perhaps our biggest draw was the plethora of live animal exhibits that we had. We had everything from tarantulas to a chinchilla to a tortoise (twenty pounds of reptile, that). All of it was designed to be interactive. If a kid wanted to hold a tarantula, we were more than happy to facilitate and supervise such an experience.
Which brings me to a particular incident involving one of our boa constrictors, a young, bright boy and a woman who was presumably his grandmother. I don’t know if you know this about boa constrictors, but they have little claws near their back ends. I pointed out the largely residual organs. The young boy, who had the constrictor draped around his shoulders, said, more or less, “That’s from when they used to be lizards, right?”
Utterly delighted, I was about to say, “That’s exactly right,” and maybe drop some sort of mini lecture about it. Unfortunately, just as I opened my mouth, the grandmother opened hers. She said, “Oh, that’s preposterous.” And then she went off on a tirade about how evolution didn’t happen. She even appealed to me, saying something to the effect that it was “ridiculous to think that people in Africa were black because it was sunny.”
I wanted to say, “Well why else are they black? Are you suggesting some other reason, you old racist?”
But I didn’t. I had absolutely no idea how to respond to the remarks by this woman. Going into the intricacies of sexual selection theories, vitamin D theory, ultraviolet radiation theory, etc. would be complex and I would never be able to explain it adequately without getting angry or distracted. There wasn’t enough time. I let it go. To this day, I’m pretty sure it was one of the most cowardly things I’ve ever done.
Later, I approached my boss, an elderly retired parasitologist, a remarkable and intelligent woman. I retold the story and asked her what I should have done. She said an appropriate response would be, “A majority of biologists agree that evolution by means of natural selection is most likely to be the primary mechanism for the origin of species.” More or less.
But isn’t this cop-out? With new evidence of humanity’s origins surfacing all the time, do we have to be so overly diplomatic? Where ought the line be drawn? It’s a fascinating question because proponents of evolution are the only people who are concerned with being diplomatic about the issue. Perhaps my availability heuristic is flawed, but the majority of anti-evolution folks that I’ve spoken with are vehemently opposed to the idea, not even open to the debate. They don’t care if they’re diplomatic about it at all. And perhaps I’m not open to the idea of a religious interpretation of creationism if it seems to contradict the evidence that I can see with my own eyes.
Why exactly do we feel the need to be diplomatic about our stance on evolution? Obviously, we aren’t all the time, but when it comes down to it, diplomacy is disarming. It’s the only way we have to get through. Being militant is not effective. Until we can find clinching proof, the smoking gun that I talked about yesterday, calm, reasoned argument is all we have. If we start calling people idiots, no matter how idiotic they are being, we’re simply not going to be convincing anyone. Psychological defenses go up and they shut down just like a kid who doesn’t want to hear a long-winded explanation of some scientific principle.
One last thing: Check it out, hobbits are a different species. Gary Gygax is vindicated.