Home Log Join mailing list

Evolution and my cousin

Published: Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | Edited: Saturday 24 Oct 2020

When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I sat in a human biology class, and tried to convince my high school teacher (who was also my second cousin) that discussing evolution was a worthwhile endeavor. We had hit the evolution chapter, and I thought:

Here we go. Finally, something I'm really interested in! Finally, something that doesn't feel like a review or a rehash from material I was exposed to in middle school or junior high.

And Mr Miller's opening statement was:

I don't understand evolution.

What the hell?

He didn't understand evolution? I got that he was a high school science teacher. Not like, "... the high school teacher that inspired me to become a doctor." Not that. Like, the high school teacher who coached the basketball team; had his players meet him in class while we watched a video clip; inflated his ego using our adolescent insecurities. The American coach-teacher is the commonest trope, and it's a waste of time lamenting the disappointment he or she is to us teenage academics.

But...

You mean to say, you don't understand evolution? And you're teaching us human biology. <-- [ not a question ]

Dear god...

He then goes on to basically say:

If we're just the product of random mutations, how can there possibly be a point to any of this? How can life have purpose if there's no ultimate plan?

In lieu of an education, we were getting some country boy Mormon theology. As he droned on, I felt this fury rise. I raised my hand and asked:

Who says there has to be a point?

And he didn't answer my question. He redirected the discussion to his bewilderment around the nihilism of evolution by natural selection. I tried to say something like:

But this is a science class. We don't have to bring meaning into it.

But I was fifteen, and I was nervous engaging this way with a teacher, especially a coach-teacher, and I dropped it. Even though he didn't come right out and say it, everyone understood. He was saying:

I don't believe in evolution because Jesus, so I'm not going to teach you about it.

I tried to skim the textbook and imagine what the discussion would have been like. I had heard of evolution probably back when I was in middle school. I think most of what I knew about it was from TV. The Discovery Channel. It was a controversial issue where I grew up, but I understood that people who really knew how it worked unanimously accepted it as a reality.

But I didn't understand the deeper truth of evolution myself for several more years. Eventually in college I was exposed to scarcity, selection events, vestigial structures, taxonomy. The evidence for evolution as the explanation for life's complexity was so clear, so incontrovertible.

Just last year, for the first time, I read Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The language of the text sort of dates the work (published in 1859) but it holds up so well. Darwin, unfortunately, died too early to witness the unfolding of genetic discoveries that would have given his thesis even more explanatory power, so there are some gaps. But ho-lee shit. He basically figured it all out, and he was wrong about very little. I cried as I finished the book, in awe of Darwin's achievement.

It's possible that since the week-long unit of evolutionary material I experienced in college, I have thought about evolution every single day; partially because the products of evolution make up literally everything of interest and value in my life; and maybe because I once fought my dad's cousin for my understanding of it.

It shapes how I view politics and religion; how I feel about my friends, family, and strangers; and, even informs the purpose and meaning of my life and how I want to live before my time comes, like it has for every single one of my evolutionary ancestors (minus three), to die.