Take the Monkey and Run: Science, Evolution and the Public

Image credit: http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

Yucca Plant
Image credit: http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

The science community was buzzing last week with coverage of the Bill Nye (aka “The Science Guy”) vs. Ken Ham (aka Creation Museum CEO) debate on evolution vs. creationism. Instead of spending three hours watching the live-streamed event, I decided to focus on more constructive uses of my time (e.g., working on STEM outreach projects). Granted, I probably should have listened to a bit of the debate to be able to make small talk with other scientists, but for me personally, evolution is an established theory that no longer requires debate with people who refuse to acknowledge scientific evidence. Pitting science against religious beliefs in a bipartisan-type debate may also be a futile attempt to promote a science-minded society because it gives the false impression that people must abandon their religion to accept science. Instead, I think we have to focus on consistent and honest science communications with the public to keep them informed of new science and how to interpret the information to understand the world around us.

It is people like David and Sheila Spakes of the Spirit and Truth Fellowship of Knoxville in Tennessee who are organizing science cafés to regularly engage the public in open dialogue with science professionals that are doing the most good to advance public understanding of science. For their most recent cafe (which appropriately corresponded to Darwin Day celebrations), the Spakes invited Dr. Andrew Kramer, Department Head of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, to discuss the discovery of “Skull 5” at an archaeological site in the Caucasus of Georgia — a finding that may add support to the single-lineage hypothesis of human evolution.

Prior to the find, scientists thought that the hominid family tree resembled more of an intricately branched tree with many bipedal, human-like species that each represent a terminal branch in evolution. With the new find of five skulls, most likely specimens of Homo erectus (our closest relative), who all had differing morphological features from each other but existed within similar geological time spans, it may be that many of the different “species” of our early hominid ancestors were not different species at all. They may have interbred to eventually lead to the current human population with all the physical variation that we see today. This new evolutionary perspective sketches a straighter lineage of human evolution, much like the shape of a yucca plant.

Throughout the Q&A session, Dr. Kramer interacted genuinely with the audience, patiently answering questions and explaining basic scientific principles to help us interpret the recent find. He also used illustrative descriptions, such as the image of the yucca plant, to describe an overview of Human Evolution 101 and to share his own perspectives on the discovery. As a non-expert in this scientific area, the event sparked my curiosity in the topic, and I am reading on the recent work in human evolution research. I hope that more scientists and public organizations will focus their outreach efforts on activities (e.g., science cafés) to interact directly with the public. So I ask the science community, how can we create sustainable outreach and communications programs to reach the public? Based on my experience, it seems that community-based activities may be the best approach. I would be curious to hear what others think on this topic.

(Disclaimer: The interpretation of the “Skull 5” finding and the topics at the science cafe are my own interpretation of information from this open public discussion and further fact checking may be required.)

2 thoughts on “Take the Monkey and Run: Science, Evolution and the Public

  1. Dave S. says:

    Well said and well written. There will always be a part of the population that will choose to ignore science and reason (willful ignorance). However, I think the discussions you describe are fantastic for the vast majority of people who rarely have an opportunity to participate in a scientific dialogue. I also think scientists, especially ones that receive public funding, have an obligation to educate the public.

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