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Evolution in the media: the translation of our story in The New York Times

hlehman's picture

 One of the most significant ways in which I have learned from our class this semester is through its manifestation in other realms of my life.  As new themes evolved in our discussions, their appearance in my life outside of class has progressed into my social life, other class discussions, and I have even noticed their presence frequently in the newspaper.  I think it speaks to the nature of the course that almost every conversation we have had has followed me outside of the classroom and I know others feel the same way.  Even though, at first, I thought it was just a random coincidence that all of my classes were connecting and every day when I opened The New York Times I was reading about the same concepts that we were referring to in class, now I realize that randomness is what it’s all about.  One of the most significant themes of the semester is randomness- what it means, how it follows us, and how we can use it to explain some of our greatest questions of the universe.  I am still not convinced, however, that anything is really random, and, after much reflection, I decided that I do not like the term “random” as much I do “fate”.  Not “faith” as in a religious context, but “fate” as in things just happen for a reason; fate as in change that can be good or bad and fate that explains the big question why?  

Throughout the semester, I have kept track of the articles in The New York Times and other places where themes from our class have materialized.  In the past I have loved cutting articles out and posting them on my bulletin board when I find something inspirational or interesting, so I thought it would be fun to add stories that connected to our class as well.  Although when I began I thought it was just a fun activity and it seemed like a random coincidence that so many articles related to our class discussions, after looking through the articles again, I realize the contents of my collection may not have been as random or meaningless as I first conceived.

One of the first articles I bookmarked was published on February 7th in the Science section of The New York Times.  “On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray From Lesson Plan,” is about the question of teaching evolution in schools vs. teaching creationism.  The article references a national survey in which only 28% of high school biology teachers claimed to teach the evidence for biological evolution while 13% of teachers advocate creationism and the remaining 60% avoid endorsing either side of the topic completely.  It can only be random that this article was published the same week as our first assignment on some problem on the discussion of biological evolution, right?

Seven days later an article was published on controversy over a celebration in honor of Darwin’s 202nd birthday.  “A Nationwide Day for Honoring Charles Darwin, but Handled With Caution” is about a group of scientists who tried to spread their celebration of “Darwin Day” to new, unusual places such as schools in rural America where ideas of biological evolution are uncommon to the curriculum.  Before they arrived, however, one school required parents to sign permission forms for their children to attend the events, and another avoided publicizing the event completely due to criticism from the surrounding conservative Christian community.  

I think that these articles are significant to our story of evolution because they are more than just random articles that happen to relate to what we were discussing at the time.  I think that the greater problem to the question of teaching evolution in schools is about what it means to support thinking, questions, and expression.  As I said in webpaper 1, teaching evolution is important because it supports the right we have to an education in which we will be provided with a foundation to make our own our judgments and be inspired to think bigger.  If young students were only taught creationism or if they were taught that creationism was just as valid an explanation as the “theory” of biological evolution, how would they be able to trust scientific evidence in other realms or believe in science in general?  Although there were questions as to my understanding of what science is because I claim “science provokes people to think in a new way without limitations or rules,” I stand by my position.  The reason I love science is because I like how science makes me think.  Science has always caused me to think harder and experiment in new ways.  I enjoy seeing my results directly and being forced to analyze them and reflect on what they mean in a greater context.  I think that science provokes us to think without limitations or rules because although science requires many specific rules for chemistry problems and the interworking between cells, etc., the way we have to think in order to answer these questions has no limits.  Science thinking is about thinking about life on microscopic levels and the universe in its infinite nothingness.  It is also about being comfortable with the fact that there will always be things we do not know and will not answer in our lifetime.  How can you be a scientist if you cannot think without limitations and cannot open your mind to the story of evolution and life? 

A 16-year-old 10th grader said in the article about "Darwin Day" that she was “pleasantly surprised by the visiting biologists who, she wrote on her blog, “told it like it is…I had imagined that these periods in the auditorium would be cold and boring, but I liked it" (Harmon).  Although some of her classmates probably did not feel as strongly about the presentations, I assume that many students did agree with Shae Carter.  I felt a similar desire to just hear the truth from teachers or guidance counselors in high school, and hated nothing more than listening to someone belittle me by talking to me as a child or waste time disciplining the class instead of having an interesting discussion on a novel.  In my experience and after watching my peers, students in high school lose focus very easily and when teachers are not strong in the subject they are teaching or feel ambivalent toward something in class, students are easy to catch on and adapt indifferent feelings no matter what it is.  This is why I feel so strongly that it is unacceptable for 60% of high school biology teachers to be unsure of their feelings on evolution.  These teachers’ feelings leave a negative impression on students about a critical subject that everyone needs understanding of not just to further one’s career in the sciences, but in most other aspects of life.  As I discuss below, Darwin and biological evolution make constant appearances in the media and without basic knowledge and understanding of these facts, one’s professional life has the potential to be severely critiqued.

One week later, I came across another article that related to this question about how evolution makes people think and is important to teach because it allows us to expand our minds. “A Romp Into Theories of the Cradle of Life” is about a group of scientists- chemists, geologists, biologists, physicists, etc., who have been working together to “find Eden” by studying molecules, RNA, and complex processes that could potentially explain life and how we came to be.  Such studies and discussions could not exist without Darwin’s evidence and work, which shows how significant the study of biological evolution is to the scientific world and its influence on scientists in every discipline.  I also found this article extremely interesting and exciting because it shows how much progress has been made since Darwin’s work.  I think it is inspirational because it shows the power of science over time and supports my opinion that biological evolution should be taught in schools.  In addition, I think evolution should be discussed beyond the general topics of Darwin and finches because it can influence people to think in new ways and actually find something new. 

On March 1st I found yet even more support for my opinion in another article referencing Darwin and On the Origin of Species in new research about the evolution of the eye.  “In a Marine Worm’s Eyes, the Theory of Evolution” again shows Darwin’s influence today and how scientists use his research as a foundation for their work and advancements every day.  These scientists took Darwin’s description on how the evolution of the eye took place and discovered a “swimming eyeball” that could possibly represent the first steps he described.

So what are the chances that after writing a paper about my opinions on teaching biological evolution in schools and then reflecting on it further, three articles would appear on the homepage of my browser in support of my arguments?  Random? Well I thought so, but the universe was not done sending me signs of Darwin. 

A special multimedia slideshow appeared on my screen just a few days later following a biologist’s expedition to the Solomon Islands to study evolution and island species.  Chris Filardi, scientist from the American Museum of Natural History, introduced his study:

"For biologists, islands have always been illuminating places. In part, this reflects both the relative simplicity of island ecosystems and also the richly unique, and sometimes bizarre, turns that life takes on islands – think parrots behaving like big rodents, massive dragonlike lizards and miniature hippos, giant flightless dodo birds and tiny ground-foraging bats" (Filardi).

Cloud Forests, Birds and the Origins of Island Life” is the modern day Darwin trip to the Galapagos Islands and Filardi’s study of different species is very similar to that which Darwin describes in On the Origin of Species.  I think that this is significant because even though Darwin’s experiment took place over 150 years ago, it is still influencing scientists to perform similar studies today, and use modern technology to build off what Darwin started.

As we moved on from Darwin and started reading Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, the course followed me to a new place: Park Science room 20.  As I discussed in class, on the forum, and in my second web project, trees and evolution started taking over my life and I made it clear to everyone.  Between phylogenetic trees tracing humans and primates in Biology 113 lab, trees tracing the evolution of lizards in Biology 114 lecture, Dennett’s complex diagrams of the Tree of Life, and even studying actual, physical trees in Biology of Plants, there was no escape.  At first I was excited by how much my classes were connecting and the random timing of it all, but then grew bored of the repetitiveness and I could not understand why everyone was putting so much emphasis on trees.  Then last week I saw an advertisement for a new movie coming out called “The Tree of Life” and I realized there must be a greater significance to it all and some explanation as to why this was all happening and what I was supposed to do with the information.  I wanted to fight the randomness of the situation that caused me to resent my work and lose focus in class. 

After thinking about it more recently, however, I think that my questions can all be answered by our discussion of The Plague by Albert Camus.  Although we came to a few different conclusions as to what “the plague” really was, one metaphor that stood out to me was that it stood for the unpredictability and inevitability of change.  I think that this is different than randomness because randomness is the excuse for this type of plague.  The uncertainty of change is something we can expect but we cannot prepare for it in any particular way so we blame randomness for our frustration because it is not part of our plague.  There was no way to predict that we would discuss the same concepts at the same time in all of my classes, so I blamed randomness, but now I realize it is part of the plague of uncertainty that always exists and the inevitability of change and chance that builds the constructs of which we must learn to work around.

The same day that I found this slideshow, another article caught my attention, but I did not realize until recently how it applied to our class in multiple ways.  I mentioned “WELL; Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges,” in one of my comments about the question of being happy when we were reading Generosity.  The article is about self-compassion and the effect it has on our health.  Recent research suggests that how kindly we treat ourselves has a significant impact on our physical well-being and happiness and can impact things such as weight loss and anxiety problems.  I related the article to Generosity because I think that if we had more self-compassion for ourselves, being happy like Thassa would not be as unrealistic as we discussed in class. 

The idea that “giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health” relates to our class in another way because it is similar to the concept of searching for meaning that we discussed with The Plague.  One of our last discussions on The Plague was about how it stands for our desire and need to have meaning in life.  Everyone has a different cure for their plague- whether it is finding meaning in compliments from others, a sense of pride after playing well in a sports game, accomplishment by volunteering in one’s community, etc.  The plague is what makes people less self-compassionate because we constantly “beat ourselves up” over our inability to do the things that will give us the meaning we so desire and work hard for.  When things do not go the way we wish and we fail to achieve a good grade or play well in a game, we feel insignificant and worthless and often take out our frustrations by emotional over eating or causing physical harm to ourselves.  One of the doctors in the article suggests a similar remedy to the plague as I discussed in one of my posts, “reminding yourself that nobody is perfect and thinking of steps you might take to help you feel better about yourself,” (Parker-Pope).  

I think that it is more than a random coincidence how I happened upon these articles throughout the semester.  Although I read the newspaper on a regular basis, especially the Science section, and evolution is such a prevalent topic that, therefore, it would be extremely likely that I would find so many things that related to the course, I did not expect to find so many articles that correlated specifically to the relevant topics of class each week.  Although I believe in the idea of randomness in life and its influence on evolution and change, and I like the idea of finding answers in science, I think there can be exceptions to the rules, and like I said earlier, this is part of understanding science and what evolution teaches.  I do not think that randomness can explain how I found these articles because I think that it is a force beyond randomness, such as the power of chance and fate.  I think that randomness can partially contribute to the work of these higher powers that have aided the evolution of my thinking throughout the course, but I do not think it can fully explain every connection I made. 

I think that limiting oneself to create a simple answer to explain why things happen the way they do is what evolution and our work this semester has taught me not to do.  Settling for the idea that the reason I was able to see the themes of the course in other disciplines is because they are universal themes that can cross in science and literature is not a good enough excuse for me. 

Maybe this is just part of my plague though: the fact that I have difficulty in things just happening because they are “random” or it is just part of the uncertainty of chance that does not necessarily have to have meaning.  In one of my posts I came to the conclusion that my plague for meaning cannot be cured with compliments or praise, but a fulfilling sense of accomplishment and understanding.  My plague even appeared while writing this paper because I had so many ideas, I wanted to see what the greater meaning of it all was and why I was able to make the connections I did.  I think that although the universality of these themes is the most sensible reason why I could make so many connections to my other classes, it does not explain why this happened to me now, what caused me to choose the classes I did, and what caused me to read The New York Times on some days and not others.  There is that extra spark of chance that makes me question what really makes something random and not questioning why would be unacceptable after everything I have read and reflected on this semester. 

In the end, I have learned that this is my plague and something I will have to deal with my whole life.  There are things in life that I will never be able to reason and even though that is sometimes what I find interesting about life and science, it can also have the tendency to drive me crazy.  Since I know this about myself, however, combined with the unpredictability and randomness of the universe, I can start to accept it more with every question I come across, and learn to view the situations that could cause me to suffer as fate and opportunities to help me grow.



Works Cited

Balkalar, Nicholas. "On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray From Lesson Plan." New York Times 7 Feb. 2011, Print.


Filardi, Chris. "Cloud Forests, Birds, and the Origins of Island Life." New York Times March 2011, Print.


Harmon, Amy. "A Nationwide Day for Honoring Charles Darwin, but Handled With Caution." New York Times 14 Feb. 2011, Print.


Overbye, Dennis. "A Romp Into Theories of the Cradle of Life." New York Times 21 Feb. 2011, Print.


Parker-Pope, Tara. "WELL; Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges." New York Times 1 March 2011, Print.


Zimmer, Carl. "In a Marine Worm's Eyes, the Theory of Evolution ." New York Times 1 March 2011, Print.