No common groundSeptember 17, 2008
Last Friday, I got into a cab that had the radio on to Science Friday. I wasn’t really paying attention (I was thinking about my upcoming trip to NYC) when all of the sudden, the cab driver says that the effort scientists are putting into figuring out the differences between chimps and humans is “a big waste of time and money.”
I knew what was coming. I knew that I was a biological scientist in the presence of a creationist and I knew I had a duty to make the case for evolution. But, the whole idea seemed overwhelming. First of all, I didn’t want to tick off the driver, I mean, I was sort of at his mercy sitting in the back of his cab. Second, I felt singularly unqualified to make a case for evolution. I accept evolution (I hate the term “believe in” as though it were in article of faith) but I don’t know enough to have an argument with a creationist about it. As I told my husband later, I don’t have any talking points prepared for this situation. All I’ve got is a set of disjointed facts that I can offer up (and several are molecular biology related so I’ve got to deal with the fact that most people don’t know a damn thing about molecular biology). My argument would have been something like, “Fossils! Homologous genes! In vitro evolution!” Hardly convincing.
So, first I asked why he thought looking for the differences between chimps and humans was a waste of time and money. As I thought it was because he believed that God created humans fully formed and since scientists did not want to take God into consideration, they were never going to find the answers they are looking for. I tried to explain that divine intervention is not a scientific argument and therefore scientists cannot take God into consideration as it were (despite their own personal beliefs about faith). Somehow this led to a discussion in which the driver asserted that Darwin wanted people to become atheist and that’s why he came up with evolution, as though the theory of evolution was simply a means to make people atheist.
So, I tried to shoot that down. But, unfortunately, Cab Driver had read about the life of Darwin and I haven’t (where he read about the life of Darwin, I am not certain and probably would be scared to find out) so he asserted that Darwin became atheist after the death of a child. Whether this is true I couldn’t say, but I could at least argue that if what Cab Driver said was true, that didn’t necessarily mean that acceptance of evolution leads to atheism because lots of people lose their faith in God after a tragedy. To which Cab Driver agreed so I guess I came out the winner (?) there despite my lack of actual knowledge.
I further tried to explain that there are scientists who believe in God and accept evolution. Cab Driver argued this was not possible, it had to be one or the other because the two were mutually exclusive. The problem here was that he was equating belief in creation with belief in God. Now, here we get into the idea of a literal interpretation of the Bible versus a non-literal interpretation of the Bible and this was really beyond my ability to debate.
Fortunately, we had arrived at my destination, so I paid Cab Driver, who thanked me for the good conversation (!) and I went on my way.
I left this conversation feeling very uneasy and even a little ashamed of my lack of knowledge. This is exactly the kind of situation in which contact between the public and a scientist can foster understanding of evolution and instead of diving right in, I held back because I wasn’t sure what to say. True, I also didn’t want the guy to kick me out of his cab on Lake Shore Drive, but still, the fact that I felt completely unprepared for this conversation while Cab Driver felt fully prepared for this conversation having “read up” on the subject because, he said, he wanted to know more about it was, well, embarrassing. Never mind the fact that where he got his information might not be a reputable source, the fact is he had actually bothered to become more informed and I haven’t. I just haven’t.
Beyond that, we had no common ground theologically, either. He’s right, you can’t believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and accept evolution. You can’t believe in Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and simultaneously accept that people evolved from lower primates, you just can’t. So, where do you go in that sort of argument? There really isn’t anyplace.
I suppose I just have to accept that I did the best I could. There wasn’t anything more I could have said or done and I’m not sure that more knowledge on my part would have persuaded him that evolution is valid. What I hope, though, is that when he thinks about scientists and God and evolution, he’ll remember that once he had this girl in his cab who was a scientist, who believed in God, who accepted evolution and who was nice and didn’t yell at him and didn’t call him an idiot for his beliefs and tried to explain her point of view without being insulting. So that, when he hears about scientists and evolution he doesn’t automatically think of atheism, doesn’t automatically think of unreasonable people. I suppose that’s the best I can hope for.