I’ve never liked this stereotypical portrayal of evolution.
It implies that evolution is linear, that it is going somewhere, and of course, that it is all about people — all the wrong messages. Yet it is ubiquitous, and probably the most common rendering you’ll find anywhere. Try googling for images of evolution, and you will turn it up, or variants on it, or jokes built on it…it’s a bit annoying and trite.
(Although, when I googled to find that image — which was easy — I also found this one.
Very nice. I like it.)
This is actually a problem. When we’re trying to get the message of the science of evolution across to people, one thing that helps is having a story — people respond well to narratives. The canonical image definitely tells a story, which is probably why it caught the public imagination so well, but the problem is that it is the wrong story.
Evolution should not be portrayed as an epic tale with a beginning and an end, with a narrative drive to a conclusion, with a single hero or even any heroes at all. Trying to shoehorn it into a simple linear story destroys the meaning. Does this mean our efforts to catch the attention of a fickle public are doomed, because science does not fit the story-telling conventions that best fit the human mind?
Not necessarily. Here’s an interesting analogy, a comparison of the evolution story to a dramatic convention that the public does eat up happily: evolution is like a soap opera. I can see it.
Both have lots of characters and story lines, every one full of anguish and drama, some ending happily (for a while), others ending miserably; individuals come and go, they get their brief period in the spotlight, then poof, everything moves on to the next big new event. There is no one grand goal for the ensemble, just a series of overlapping dramas, some ridiculous, some mundane, and the vehicle to tie them all together is usually something commonplace — a town or a hospital, for instance — and stories can abandon that unifying premise freely. And it never ends!
Days of our Lives has been on the air since 1965. Dozens, probably hundreds, of characters have come and gone. There have been murders, affairs, rapes, and (for all I know) alien abductions. The show isn’t going anywhere. And yet as any soap-opera fan will tell you, their favorite soap has had dozens and dozens of riveting, heart-breaking stories over the years, that make the series so gratifying and rewarding in the long run.
And that’s exactly the deal with evolution. It isn’t going anywhere, and yet it’s going to keep on going and going and going for as long as there’s planet to go on, and even after that it’ll probably be going on someplace else.
Cool. And yet, somehow, all that chaos and confusion and complexity and strangely unresolvable big picture manages to engross viewers day after day after day, in the case of the soaps. There’s a lesson there that we need to figure out: how can we map the science of evolution onto the imaginations of human beings?