The high stakes of knowing where we come from

Updated: Mar 4

In today’s blog we take a glance at biological evolution with Dr. Ken Miller, PhD from the University of Colorado, Professor of Biology at Brown University, and long-time science advocate and debunker of the concept of irreducible complexity.

David: Have things gotten better since you started worrying about “America’s soul” a decade and a half ago?

Ken: Yes. But my concern about American attitudes towards science predates my 2007 book, "Only a Theory," which had "Evolution and the battle for America's Soul" as a subtitle. I was drawn into the evolution/creation fray in 1981 when a group of students challenged me to debate a so-called "scientific creationist." I was astonished and concerned about the amount of anti-science literature circulating at that time, and by the number of Americans who rejected the theory of evolution. Since then, according to surveys by the Pew Foundation and other polling groups, acceptance of evolution and other scientific theories has grown, especially among younger Americans. That tells me that better communication by the scientific community and improved science education standards have made a difference.

David: You have a vast experience with science denial. From that, what have you learned about people?

Ken: For many people, science is useful and interesting only to the extent that it is of practical value and that it confirms their preexisting world views about the nature of existence. The science that makes cell phones, digital TVs, and modern medicine is seen as sound, but scientific discoveries that threaten one's sense of place and time are profoundly disturbing. It therefore becomes quite easy to affirm that one's ancestry does not come from "an ape," and that the universe, which seems timeless and unchanging, originated in a primal explosion. In other words, science is OK if it helps me in a practical material way, but if it tells me something I'd rather not know about myself or my past, I'd just as soon reject it.

The personal, emotional stakes of the so-called evolution debate have been driven home to me time and time again from visits to college campuses and presentations to both lay and religious audiences. As I have told colleagues, the reason evolution is contentious is the same reason you can start a fight in a bar by saying something about someone's mother. Where we come from matters, because it affects who we are and what we think our existence on this planet means. You couldn't possibly have higher stakes than that. And, given those stakes, it's not surprising how resistant people can be to certain scientific ideas.

David: With a stopwatch, a marble, a skateboard, a back yard, and 30 minutes of attention, you can get a skeptic to derive on their own things in physics textbooks they thought they did not believe in. And that seed may one day blossom. Is there something analogously practical that can be done for biological evolution?

Ken: Well, I look forward to seeing that sort of backyard demonstration! I'm not sure there is anything in biology that is equivalent, but I have found that one of the most compelling arguments for evolution comes not from the fossil record or comparative anatomy, but from the human genome itself. There are scores of little quirks to our genome that are only explicable in terms of our common ancestry with other primates, and I have found when I explain these to a lay audience, the result is striking. One of the most powerful pieces of evidence comes from the fact that we have just 23 pairs of chromosomes while all other great apes (gorillas, chimps, etc....) have 24 pairs. That leads to a testable prediction, which is that one of our chromosomes was formed by the fusion of two chromosomes that are still separate in our primate cousins. And, if that's not true, then the case for human ancestry by common descent can be disproven.

I won't keep you in suspense. Human chromosome #2 was indeed formed by the fusion of two chromosomes still separate in other primates, and we can see the exact spot in which that fusion took place. Because DNA sequences are not hypotheses or conjectures, but hard, genuine, facts, seeing this sort of evidence amazes people who might otherwise argue that evolution was "just a theory." And that's just one example of the marks of evolution on our genome - there are many others.

David: Is it possible to identify clear technological or cultural evolutionary pressures in modern times?

Ken: It is possible to scan human genomes in a comparative manner, and from that to identify certain regions that are under strong selective pressure, so it is clear that natural selection continues to operate on our species. In other words, we continue to evolve. I'm not sure what you might mean with respect to technological and cultural pressures, but I think that everyone is subject to cultural pressures with respect to attitudes and behavior. And the continuing advance of technology on many fronts will continue to affect our species, no doubt about it.

David: Thank you Professor!

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