BY NATHANA O’BRIEN AND ILANA GREENE
An Evening of Science and Drinking at the Museum: Debunking the Scientific Myth of Evolution
Drunken revelry amidst dinosaur bones sounds like a dream but in fact becomes reality the first Wednesday of every month at the American museum of natural history.On Wednesday October 5th, Ian Tattersall and Rob Desalle, museum curators and world famous scientists gave a talk debunking the science behind race to a packed auditorium. Every seat was filled and people were standing several rows deep. Museumgoers learned that although race may be a social or cultural concept, it is not a well-founded scientific concept.
Anne Canty, the AMNH’s vice-president for communications and marketing, who organizes the series, said that the Museum, as a non-profit entity with a mission to spread awareness of science and scientific knowledge as widely as possible, started the event series to encourage a class of museum attendees who would otherwise not be interested in coming to the museum. Anne says, “By having the event at night and including a bar, we really change the profile of who is interested in coming. It’s something a young professional can go to with her friends, as opposed to families with their kids.” An event attendee, Hannah Reinhardt said, “I loved the event, it was really interesting and I was intrigued by the opportunity to go to the museum in the evening.”
The museum is engaged in other kinds of radically innovative programming. They will be starting a new accredited program for the education of science teachers, the first outside of a university setting. According to Anne, “the goal is really to bring science teachers in contact with practicing scientists to enliven the process of what it is to teach science to children.”
Meanwhile, anyone who cares to explore the museum at night, drink in hand, has the opportunity to learn some truly fascinating science. Rob and Ian walked the audience through some fascinating stories in both historical anthropology and genetics. They pointed out that over the course of millions of years, it is only in the last 10,000 that human beings settled into small isolated communities. “The sort of small isolated communities that are just places where you’d expect to see a wide variety of genetic variation, leading to phenotypic variation” says Rob. Genetic variation are differences in the underlying DNA of an organism, while phenotypic differences are differences in the way an organism looks.
Rob and Ian pointed out the fascinating statistic that if you take a random member of your own geographic population (the phrase they use instead of the charged ‘race’) and compare your DNA to that person’s and also to the DNA of a random person from a different geographic population, your DNA is statistically significantly more likely to be more similar to the DNA of the person from the other geographic population.
Another fascinating statistic the two shared is that when you go back six generations, your ancestor’s DNA is no longer closer to your own than a randomly selected person’s. One of the quotes of the night that got the most laughs was Rob’s sobering response to an audience question about the genetic differences between males and females. “From a genetic perspective, my DNA is closer to a male chimpanzee than to my wife’s” Rob answered.
The two also helped to discount the popular notion of “survival of the fittest” – a tagline invented Herbert Spencer, a notorious social Darwinist, and used by Darwin only at the prodding of his colleague Wallace. “As a genuine account of the process of evolution, ‘survival of the fittest’ is at best incomplete and at worst completely false” Ian told the crowd.
A strong point that the two made is that the religious notion of moving from simple to complex, from less perfect to more perfect, from less God-like to more God-like, has infected popular consciousness and led to the myth that evolution is a process that leads to perfection. But according to our expert scientists, that couldn’t be further from the truth. For proof, just look at the development of the human brain in teenagers, where development of the Pre-Frontal Cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision making, lags behind and consequently teenagers are far more driven by the emotional inner brain. “Surely we can all agree that’s a stupid way to have the brain develop if we were aiming for perfection?” Rob said to the audience, only half-jokingly.
The science of evolution is complex and beautiful and scientists are making strides as we speak to understand the story of human migration from sub-Saharan Africa throughout the world. Ian and Rob plan to write a book aimed at children to share this important and fascinating story with young people. Both stressed that scientific education of children needs to move forward into the 21st century to take advantage of the tremendous hard won advances at the cutting edge of scientific fields. Luckily the American Museum of Natural History is doing its part bring science to the public through its cutting edge programming.
Ultimately the two scientists encouraged us to see the endless rainbow of human difference as a beautiful expression of underlying genetic variation. “It is deeply unfortunate that this beautiful natural phenomenon of a range of different skin colours has resulted in so much ugly human behaviour” Ian said to the crowd.
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