Dinosaurs! In all the natural world, there is little that excites the imagination of most people as much as dinosaurs. They were big, bold, awe-inspiring and terrifying. Dinosaurs were giant reptilian monsters that ruled the earth until a giant meteor hit and wiped them all out, or a world-wide flood drowned them all.
At least, that is what many people imagine. For many people, their understanding of dinosaurs is vastly incomplete and outdated. For many others, it is wildly incorrect. For the vast majority, their view of dinosaurs is a tiny sliver, the smallest glimpse of the wonders dinosaurs truly represent.
This website is not really about dinosaurs, although we will talk about dinosaurs from time to time. We are really here to talk about evolution, to serve as a portal to resources available to teachers, students, parents, and the general public. So why start with dinosaurs? Because dinosaurs are endlessly fascinating, it is easy to start a conversation about dinosaurs. But like dinosaurs, the public view of evolution is incomplete, distorted, and in many cases, completely wrong.
Evolution is not well accepted in the United States. Most people will say it conflicts with their religious beliefs, but there are far too many people who share the religion and accept evolution for me to think religion is really why people do not accept evolution. I think it is a combination of four factors. 1) A fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science and how it works. 2) They don’t understand what evolution really means because of how badly it generally gets taught, if it is taught, and the lies and distortions swirling about. 3) It is really hard to conceive of the vastness of time represented by the age of the earth. People simply are not used to thinking in terms of millions and billions of years. The monumental scale is beyond their experience. 4) But the biggest reason, I think, and the most important, is fear. If there is one thing people are afraid of and hate more than anything else, above even those of rival political parties, is change and uncertainty. Change is, without a doubt, stressful.
Evolution is the scientific embodiment of change and uncertainty in the living world. It is all about change, so of course evolution is frightening to many people. But life IS change. People are born, they grow old and die. The telegraph gave way to land-line phones, which gave way to smart phones and texting. We went from a nation in which only white male landowners could vote to one in which any adult was allowed to vote. We have witnessed the revolutions of the home computer and the internet; magnetic tapes to mp4 files in the cloud; letters to wireless communication supporting diverse, interconnected, social media networks. We have gone to the moon and back and sent probes out of the solar system. Life changes all around us every day and these changes we have witnessed are nothing compared to what is before us. The rate and scale of change is increasing and we have to prepare for that. We either embrace change and learn to adapt to it or we can try to deny it, resist it, and become roadkill, forgotten memories of a bygone era. If we want our children to succeed, we have to teach them to accept and deal with change or we are dooming our children and ourselves to failure.
Science literacy is crucial for understanding many of the most serious problems affecting society today and the unprecedented changes taking place in our society and the world as a whole. Evolutionary theory in particular forms the foundation of all modern biological thought and impacts our understanding of such diverse areas as medicine, climate change effects, agriculture, water and sewage treatment, sanitation, and overall ecology. As Dobzhansky famously stated, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
But I have never understood the fear of evolution. Ignoring the practicalities of why understanding evolutionary theory is important to understand, it is just a grand way of viewing the world. Darwin said it well:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. On the Origin of Species, 1860.
There truly is grandeur in the history of life on earth as seen through an evolutionary lens. Life is a marvel to behold. In the next post, I will discuss what this site is all about and what you can expect to find here (and why dinosaurs, in addition to they are just cool). I will go more in depth on the resources you may find here and the sorts of blog posts I will make, which will range from reviews and recommendations of books and other media, both old and new, descriptions of Arkansas fossils and geology, and myths and misconceptions. But for now, I invite you to come with me as we journey into the history of life on earth (and most especially in Arkansas). Learn about the fascinating creatures that once lived here and how the current ones came to be, how they live together in a living world, how and why we think what we do; and perhaps most importantly, learn ways to help others learn as well. As John Boswell portrays so magnificently at the Symphony of Science, it really is the greatest show on earth.