Taking Darwin Personally

I used to teach a wonderful college course called Origins. In it, we'd ponder the origins of the universe, the origins of nations, the origins of language, the origins of faith, the origins of humankind.

We'd read about the cities of Mesopotamia and the spread of monotheism. We'd explore Yeats' poetry and Faulkner's prose. We'd study Galileo's struggle for truth over dogma, and Leakey's discoveries at Olduvai Gorge.

Everything would go swimmingly until we hit Darwin. And while many students treated his Origin of Species the same way they did Newton's work on gravity or Einstein's theory of relativity, others got upset. There'd be anger, even tears. Once, a much-pierced, much-tattooed young woman stormed out of the classroom, saying "I am NOT kin to a monkey."

Evolution hurts people's feelings. Nobody denies that cells divide or that light travels 186,000 miles per second.

Evolution's different. People take evolution personally.

This is largely an American phenomenon. Europeans can't for the life of them figure out why we pitch a hissy fit over evolution. They seem quite happy that the Age of Reason superseded the old theocratic world view. But some Americans still implicitly accept the Great Chain of Being. God perches at the top, then angels, then man (often literally men — women get shoved down a notch), then animals, bugs, plants, rocks. No fraternizing.

Americans see themselves as a people apart, living in a chosen nation.

We are a chosen species. If humans and apes descend from a common ancestor, well, then we're mere mammals. Not the measure of all things, not the pinnacle of creation.

But does accepting our place in the animal kingdom make us any less miraculous? The human brain evolved to remember the past. We can imagine the future. We can make worlds with our heads and our hands. We can delight in the stars of the night sky and know that we are made of the same stuff as they are. We are part of nature — we lose nothing by admitting it.

Diane Roberts is a writer living in Tallahassee, Fla.

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