Note: This turned out to be my oddest post yet. I almost tanked it, but had fun writing it and decided to go ahead and post it. If you don’t like (or get) it, well hey, go read the post about Weevils or something…
So last week- as anyone who reads a newspaper knows- was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. Whatever you think about evolution, if you know anything about Darwin, you must at least grudgingly agree that he came up with a really, really, clever idea to explain the variety of living things around us.
But the point of this post isn’t to argue Darwin’s theory, but rather its frustratingly lame and perennially weak sales pitch.
But first, let’s talk about me.
This Part Seems Like A Tangent But Isn’t
Here’s an embarrassing revelation about my past which may seem tangential, but will help tie this post together later on. My sophomore year in college, my roommate- let’s call him “Dave Kim”- and I scheduled all of our classes so that we would be able to watch Days of our Lives (DooL) 5 days/week. Sophomore year was an scholastic low-point for me, with a solid 2.0 GPA, and I fear that time spent watching and discussing DooL with Dave Kim may have in part contributed to my dismal academic performance.
Junior and Senior year I dropped DooL and my GPA rose accordingly. I didn’t watch soaps again until 2001-2002, when I was learning Spanish, and started watching telenovelas while I rode the trainer. (Note for Non-Cyclists: By “trainer”, I mean “indoor bicycle trainer”, which is something all cyclists pretend to do daily, but most of us grudgingly do maybe 8 times per winter. If you read bike-related blogs you’ll notice that the only time a cyclist will ever admit to watching television is while “riding the trainer.”)
Tangent: My absolute favorite telenovela was Pedro El Escamoso (“Scummy Peter”) about a country guy, Pedro Coral (played by Miguel Varoni) who moves to the big city and lands a job as a chauffeur for a company CEO, but falls way in love with ravishing colleague Paula Davila (played by the uber-hot Sandra Reyes) who is- of course- in love with the CEO. Pedro is the consummate anti-hero; he sports a mullet, dresses terribly, and lies continuously as he insinuates himself as Paula’s confidante in an ongoing effort to divert her affections.
I haven’t watched DooL since college, though I’ve been able to keep abreast of general plot developments over the past 20 years largely by scanning “Soap Opera Digest” covers in the supermarket checkout line.
Tangent: So here’s something kind of creepy. When I watched DooL in college, I used to “admire” Marlena (pic right, played by Deirdre Hall) as an Attractive Older Woman. Recently I was in the checkout line, Marlena was on the cover of some soap opera mag, and I found myself “admiring” her as an Attractive Younger Woman. When did that happen? What is she, in some kind of time warp or something? I am telling you, she looks exactly the same…
Back to Darwin
If this “birthday” has been marked by anything, it has been an uptick in the always somewhat-steady stream of “People Don’t Get Darwin” articles appearing in magazines, newspapers and on websites. Many (most?) of these articles are very good and well-written, but they all follow the same, tired 4-point outline:
1- Darwin was an amazing guy with brilliant insights who changed how we think about the living world
2- But most people don’t get the whole idea of evolution by Darwinian natural selection. They think it explains some consistent, continuous inexorable “ascent” towards Homo Sapiens, when that’s not what it is at all.
3- Because what it really is is a complex process of changes and dead-ends and peaks and valleys and variable selection pressures fueled by random mutation and facilitated by sexual recombination of alleles, and zzzzzz…. What’s that? Were you saying something, because this story is not gripping, it is not holding my attention, it’s not giving me an image or a “visual” to latch onto. It is BORING, and unless I belonged to the Science Club in High School I am never going to get it.
4- Some sappy, Kumbaya-ish wrap-up about how we all get along and there’s no conflict between science and religion and aren’t we all happy now that I gave you this patronizing and confusing explanation of how evolution really works.
Seriously, all these articles follow this same outline, and when I read one I want to yell, “Yes, nobody gets evolution. They don’t get it because you explain it so crappily!” (OK, I know it is a really cranky middle-aged guy thing to yell at the newspaper, but hey, I will be 45 the end of this month…)
Now, I know that I am a total science amateur, and by no means would I ever claim to understand evolution and natural selection better than a “real” scientist, but I do know a bit about sales. I’ve been making a living for 2 decades selling complicated, technical, thoroughly intangible services to all sorts of companies, universities and governments, and I know that if you’re going to convince someone that something pretty complicated and very different is really great, you need a simple, clear and effective story. And the best, clearest pitch stories are analogies.
What evolution lacks is a good story. The story people tend to fall back on is the “Inexorable Ascent” story, that evolution has always been headed somewhere, and that somewhere is us. But that story is a bad one, not just because it’s wrong, but because it breaks down so quickly. If evolution has been working toward H. Sapiens, then why do we get cancer, and have lousy backs, bad eyesight and appendices?
The “alternative” explanation to evolution- well, to science, really- has a great pitch. Whether it’s couched in the form of “Creationism” or “Intelligent Design” or “Progressive Creationism”, the pitch is the same: “There’s a Magic Man in the sky. He’s making things happen, and he’s got a plan for you. You may not understand all of it, because the Magic Man is so far above you, but he’s taking care of business.” That’s an awesome pitch! Who cares if it’s true? It’s simple, clear and everybody gets it.
Evolution needs an analogy, a storyline that people can get their heads around. But what kind of story? What’s the common “storyline” of evolution? First, let’s read this snippet from my last post, about Lodgepole Pine:
Murrayana survived somewhere way South along the Sierra-to-coastal mountain spine of California, probably down in Baja, where those remnant stands persist today. But contorta’s story is also fascinating; it appears to have survived in 2 distinct refugia. The first was almost certainly along the Pacific coast South of the ice. But the second appears to have been some kind of a “Pine Atlantis”, in that it was located somewhere West of the ice, out on part of the continental shelf which later became submerged as the ice sheets melted and sea levels rose a few hundred feet.
OK. Lots of things happening there. Different characters, all striving and surviving and overcoming obstacles the best they can, but all following their own paths and winding up different places. Here’s another snippet, more technical (and frankly better) from my favorite science blog, Catalogue of Organisms:
The Smerinthinae have been suggested to be the basalmost subfamily of Sphingidae, and in some features they are more like members of closely-related families than other sphingids - their short proboscides (like Brahmaeidae) and preference for tannin-bearing trees over tannin-free shrubs (like Saturniidae). On the other hand, a genetic analysis by Regier et al. (2001) found support for a Sphinginae-Smerinthini clade excluding Macroglossinae. Mind you, Regier et al.'s analysis did not include representatives from the other smerinthine tribes.
OK, Christopher’s talking about moths here, and he’s talking a bit more science-ese than I was, but the theme is the same- different moths, all striving and surviving and overcoming obstacles the best they can, but all following their own paths and winding up in different places, or in this case, with different-length proboscises. It’s a different bunch of critters, a different story, but the same theme.
So what popular “story-vehicle” best captures this theme? I noodled over this for a while, and my first, misguided-if-high-minded attempt was the classical heroic epic. Let’s check out this plot summary (mine) from Virgil’s Aeneid:
Aeneas leads a rag-tag group of escapes from the flaming ruins of Troy, and together they set sail to found a new homeland from which Aeneas can sire a line of noble kings who will build a mighty and enduring empire (psst- it’s “Rome”, if they never made you read this in college.) They sail to Crete, where they run into all kinds of problems and hassles and delays and what-not, but Aeneas keeps his mind on his task- new empire, homeland, etc.- and gets his crew in gear and they sail on westward. Then they get stuck in Africa, where Aeneas meets Dido, the powerful (and presumably hot) Proto-Carthaginian queen. They hang out for a while, and one day while they’re out hunting together take shelter from a storm and get it on in a cave, after which Dido assumes Aeneas is committed, but Aeneas keeps his mind on his task- new empire, homeland, etc.-and bails on Dido, who then kills herself in grief, setting the pseudo-historic stage for centuries of warfare (the Punic wars) between Carthage and Rome. Whatever. Aeneas gets to Italy, but there’s some local Italians there who put up a big fight and things look bad but Aeneas keeps his mind on his task- new empire, homeland, etc.- and in a big finish kills the Italian chieftain mano-a-mano.
Great story, terrible analogy. Even though this is, frankly, the best Classical Epic Plot Summary Ever, the classical epic is a lousy storyline for evolution, because it is always, steadily, relentlessly, going somewhere. It’s the fall-back “Inexorable Ascent” story.
Here’s a much better story:
Meanwhile, Lucas was feeling guilty about him and his mother framing Sami, for a crime that he committed. But Kate was determined to keep Lucas's mouth shut. So to get Sami off the hook to keep Lucas's mouth quiet, she blackmailed Roberto, Franco's old mob friend, into confessing for the murder (as he lay on his deathbed), saying he's the one who shot Franco. Roberto agreed, and called the station confessing. The police station were just calling the execution chamber to stop the execution, but it was too late. All of the execution drugs were already injected. Meanwhile, Lucas burst in the room, also confessing of killing Franco. The guilt was just too much to bare (sic) for him. But both Roberto and Lucas's confessions were useless now, the execution drugs had already been injected. For hours, Sami's family prayed to God that he gives them Sami back. The prayers worked. Sami came back to life. Her family's prayers were answered. Sami was now alive. But there was still a problem: Who was telling the truth about killing Franco? Roberto, or Lucas? The police decided to believe that Roberto was the real killer. Roberto later died. Lucas and Kate were off the hook, as was Sami.
In case you haven’t figured it out, this is a (partial) plot summary of several dozen episodes of the 1998-99 season of Days of our Lives. I could probably dig up another plot summary of last year’s season, and it would be equally confusing, with both some of the same, and new characters. But whether it’s this year’s, or the 98-99 season, or the Tony-DiMera-in-an-iron-mask plot that I was watching in 1984, any of these plotlines reads way more like a typical evolutionary plotline than does the Aeneid.
Days of our Lives has been on the air since 1965. Dozens, probably hundreds, of characters have come and gone. There have been murders, affairs, rapes, and (for all I know) alien abductions. The show isn’t going anywhere. And yet as any soap-opera fan will tell you, their favorite soap has had dozens and dozens of riveting, heart-breaking stories over the years, that make the series so gratifying and rewarding in the long run.
And that’s exactly the deal with evolution. It isn’t going anywhere, and yet it’s going to keep on going and going and going for as long as there’s planet to go on, and even after that it’ll probably be going on someplace else.
I’ve saved the best part of my Evolution-as-a-Soap-Opera analogy for last. One of the big problems people have getting evolution is that that evolutionary history is periodically marked by significant, single, chance (in the short run) events that have huge ramifications on hundreds or even thousands of species. People don’t have a problem intuitively accepting the logic behind the “big” events, like the K-T boundary or the Great American Interchange, but they have a tougher time with the more “chance”, or seemingly, unlikely events. A rather mild example from this blog is the probable origins of Creosote (pic left) in the Southwest, most-likely the result of a few seeds stuck in the tail-feathers of some Plover-like migrator from South America. Another mild example is the origins of Rhipsalis baccifera, or Mistletoe Cactus, the only cactus apparently “native” to the Old World, and seemingly introduced within the last few thousand years, again, by migratory birds.
But here’s a tougher example: New World Primates (Parvorder = Platyrrhini.) Primates evolved in the Old World, and didn’t show up in the New World (South America) until around 35 million years ago. Both the fossil and DNA evidence suggest a separation from Old World primates, and an appearance in the New World, roughly around that time. (pic right = White Faced Capuchin Monkey, Cebrus capucinus, photograhed when Bird Whisperer and I were in Costa Rica in 2007. Pic below, left = Old World primates photographed in Costa Rica.)
Back until about 110 million years ago, Africa and South America were joined (in my favorite prehistoric supercontinent, Gondwanaland.) But by 35 million years ago, they’d long since separated, and though not nearly as far apart as today (1,700 miles), there lay the better part of a thousand miles of ocean in between them.
The only possible explanation is a “rafting” event. Somehow, some way, around 35 million years ago, some group of African (presumably monkey-like) primates (or at a minimum, one pregnant female primate), clinging to some clump of debris or mat of floating vegetation (think floating mangrove), got blown/drifted/washed from Africa to South America.
It sounds like a one in a million chance, and it may be, but over a hundred million years or so, a couple of one in a million things are bound to happen, and in fact, similar “rafting” events of smaller-scale/distance, have been observed and documented between islands in modern times.
Soap operas have a well-established and easily-understood plot device that is wonderfully analogous to such unlikely-but-world-altering events: Hospital Scenes. In a typical soap-opera hospital scene, secrets are revealed, relationships are broken, oaths are sworn, and the paths of dozens of characters are changed forever in a single scene. On an evolutionary scale, the rafting of Old World primates to South America was a classic Hospital Scene.
Tangent: Hospital scenes were my biggest problem with Spanish-language telenovelas. The music would build, the key characters would enter the hospital room, and the dying patient would utter some crucial revelation…. which I would always miss. I would always be like, “What did he say? Did he say he was Soledad’s real father, who used to be a bullfighter (matador), or that he killed Soledad’s real father with a fork (tenedor)? What did he say??”
Alright, this post is long enough. That’s it- evolution is like a soap opera. Not just a soap opera, but thousands of overlaid, interwoven soap operas, all happening at the same time. Now that’s a riveting storyline. Millions of people all over the world watch, love and get soap operas. Sell it like a soap opera, and people will get it.
Now if only I can figure out what Paula said at the hospital…