Communicating Evolution via Creationist Cousins

In the course of my travels I get to talk to all types about evolution, from professional biologists to journalists to open-and-curious members of the public to died-in-the-wool creationists.

I met a few of the latter at the Murray family reunion I attended in Graff-Reinet, South Africa ten days ago. Through my mother’s side I’m a direct descendent of Andrew Murray, the Scottish Presbyterian minister who immigrated to South Africa as a missionary in 1822. Andrew Murray had sixteen children, of whom eleven survived and nine married. The boys all became ministers, and the girls all married ministers. The youngest of his sons, George, is my great great grandfather, and George’s sixteen children all had kids of their own. If evolution is all about genetic proliferation, Andrew Murray, with more than 4,000 living descendants in the family registry, was a high fitness individual.

On the first day of the family reunion there was a concert, in which many of the cousins performed, sang, danced, told funny stories in Afrikaans, and otherwise displayed their many Murray talents. I signed up to perform my infamous “Creationist Cousins” rap. I was aware that there would be a high proportion of evangelicals in the crowd and it would be a stark first impression (a lion released among zebras as my dad put it), but it seemed too perfect that this song, written years before about the young earth creationist cousins on my dad’s side of the family, could now find a new home among a whole new branch of as-yet-unmet cousins on my mom’s side (some of whom surely assumed it was written for them). To paraphrase Star Wars, the force of creationism is strong in my family.

If you haven’t heard the song or seen the video for Creationist Cousins yet, check it out:

The performance received polite applause from most, stony unimpressed stares from many, and wild applause from a few of the two-hundred or so Murray cousins in attendance. I was told later that there had been a behind-the-scenes debate among the event planners about whether to allow the Darwinian atheist Canadian cousin a place in the concert. The green light came from several of the more pluralistic thinkers in the family, who figured it would be a good idea to use my performance to open a family discussion about inclusiveness, specifically about whether the Murray clan’s “family’s values” were strictly biblical, or whether it was possible to find common ground among cousins of divergent opinion. I’m pretty sure my performance had the desired effect, if not shaking anyone’s faith then at least alerting the more cosseted minds among them to the bold fact that not everyone would sign on to the majority view that “Murray values are the values of Jesus.” Believe-or-burn doesn’t sit high on my list of moral precepts.

The rest of the weekend gave me the opportunity to reenact the discussions dramatized in the rap. One cousin suggested I read Darwin’s Black Box and extolled the virtues of “irreducible complexity” as a refutation of Darwin. Another solemnly informed me that recent scientific findings had confirmed creationism: a dinosaur fossil had been found with human remains in its stomach! Others told me there was zero evidence for evolution because there were “no transitional fossils.” And one of the more open-minded of them (a medical student) declared that she would happily accept any scientific finding, so long as it either confirms or doesn’t contradict the literal truth of every word of the bible. When I asked her if they taught Darwinian medicine in her coursework, she said yes, but luckily it has zero clinical applications so there was no need for her to believe any of it.

I weep for her future patients, but on the positive side I got an email yesterday from a prominent cancer researcher who uses evolutionary models to understand and improve treatment and prevention methods, and there might soon be a “Rap Guide to Darwinian Medicine” in the works. More to come on that, but back to my cousins.

Over the course of the weekend I spent hours discussing evolution and science and religion with my Afrikaner cousins, and frankly enjoyed the experience immensely. It was the most devoutly and overwhelmingly creationist group I had interacted with in years, and I lived in Tennessee for a month earlier this Spring. Now, as a strategy for communicating evolution, arguing directly with creationists may not be a winning formula. I understand why most scientists refuse public debates with them, since it gives the false impression that there’s any controversy about the truth of evolution in the science community. I’m also aware that not everyone has the appetite to debate tenaciously held metaphysical beliefs for a prolonged period, as I apparently do.

Public debates aside, I find discussing evolution with cousins and other family members is uniquely valuable, because the blood ties are a constant reminder never to let the discussion devolve into ad hominem attacks.  Instead of employing lazy but tempting responses ranging from “you’re stupid” to “you’re crazy,” the family ties keep me on the civil and respectful straight and narrow, instead framing things in terms of “from what I’ve read” or “from a scientific perspective” or “the evidence suggests,” etc. My cousins are intelligent people, and they are far from mentally ill, and yet they believe something that appears plainly ridiculous to someone with a modern scientific worldview. It’s a striking juxtaposition to behold up close.

In the end, these debates tend to reach a stalemate at divergent beliefs about absent but ultimately accessible evidence. When my cousin stated his belief that a dinosaur fossil was found with digested human remains inside it, proving his Flintstonian version of creationism, all I could say was: “I’m sorry, but there’s no chance that’s an authentic find.” One of the strongest fields of evidence in support of evolution is the consistency of the fossil record, which shows a continuous line of ancestral species in continuously older strata. It calls to mind J. B. S. Haldane’s famous quip about how “fossil rabbits in the precambrian” would effectively falsify evolution, or at least the current model of how it works. A dinosaur eating a human would presumably have the same effect, but creationist claims about the fossil record fail the test of evidence every time. Did I go look up his claim? Of course not. Did he go look up my claim that there were public museums where you could view dozens of “missing link” hominid fossils dating back millions of years, showing clear signs of gradual change from a more ape-like to a more human-like physiology? Probably not. And therein lies the stalemate.

So if the evidence overwhelmingly, invariably supports the evolutionary view and rejects the creationist one, the real challenge is to motivate creationists to go look at the evidence. It’s a harder task than it ought to be, partially because creationists are embedded in a god-centric worldview imposed on them by their parents since infancy, and more importantly because they are embedded in a social environment where acceptance of evolution would be grounds for ostracism. The respect and support of friends and peers is more important to almost everyone than the empirical truth. This is where communicating evolution becomes a propaganda war, a battle for hearts and minds, to see who can point their opponents more compellingly towards the evidence. The evidence doesn’t lie, but it is often ignored, and sometimes it’s willfully manipulated and made to seem to lie, although this latter tactic is always vulnerable to debunking.

Evolution communication needs a PR wing – not to substitute for evidence gathering and hard science, but to inspire the curiosity needed to investigate it – and the arts can help. I doubt if I converted any of my cousins to a scientific worldview, but I hope I made some of them curious to at least investigate my “here’s what scientists currently believe and here’s why” claims. That curiosity might lead to an honest reflection on some piece of physical evidence that doesn’t fit the biblical-literalism mould – the world is filled with such evidence at every turn – and that might in turn lead to an increased openness to investigate the richness of evolutionary science. In Lenhard Cohen’s words: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

The stint I did in Tennessee illustrates this communication challenge perfectly. Jamie (Mr. Simmonds) and I were the songwriters in residence at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, NIMBioS, in April and May, tasked with the challenge of communicating the intricacies of mathematical biology to the general public. Computational biology is complex work; it involves mathematical modelling and quantitative data analysis – number crunching – to make predictions about ecological and population-level change, comparing models with data from field observations. I think I understood the design of the equations when they were explained to me by NIMBioS faculty, but I was stuck for a long time on the problem of how to make this field entertaining enough to make popular rap songs about.

My first draft of a NIMBioS song was essentially a rant against creationism and pseudo-science, detailing the potentially life-saving work being done at NIMBioS, including infectious disease modelling and climate change modelling, and how inane it is to reject evolution and science in general given the potential it has to alleviate human misery. But ranting is ugly, so I scrapped that draft. I was moaning about this communication challenge to a friend in Vancouver shortly after our songwriter tenure was up, and he presented me with the obvious solution: “just make it all about sex!”

So here’s the next chapter in my attempt to communicate evolution, produced by Mr. Simmonds and featuring Chantel Upshaw on the chorus, a brand new name-your-price download: Mad Scientist (Talkin’ Nerdy).

It’s light on the technical details of computational biology, but heavy on many of the key themes and areas of research being conducted at NIMBioS, and my hope is that it will at least help to popularize and humanize the field, and spark some curiosity. It may be a bit risqué for my some of my cousins, but hey, what’s rap meant to be if not provocative? In Pump Up the Volume Christian Slater’s rallying cry was “Talk Hard,” but it’s 2012 – high time to inspire people to Talk Nerdy.

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2 Responses to Communicating Evolution via Creationist Cousins

  1. Greg Kamper says:

    I will pray for you cousin… on your dad’s side. Your grandfather was a brother to my grandmother… believe or burn is a fact. I know that is the driving force behind your atheism. There is no burn if there is no God, there is just eternal sleep, or whatever you think happens to your soul when you die. I hope for your sake you believe before it is too late.

  2. Greg, I would love to hear how you know that “believe or burn is a fact”. Can you write a bit about how you know that? To me, it is something that is not knowable. Instead, I think it is a matter of faith.

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