evolutionary theory for beginners
December 4, 2005 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Help me introduce evolution to my parents.

My parents have been moving farther and farther away from their (evangelical Christian) faith. One of the only things they're holding onto anymore is the idea of a Designer, mostly because they don't know of any other way to think about the world. They look at things like humans and trees and think, "How the heck did that get here?" Their understanding of evolution is basically that these things happened by accident, as if one day we didn't have hands and the next day, woo! Opposable thumbs! What a lovely accident! This understanding of evolution makes it seem silly and highly unlikely.

Obviously evolutionary theory is much more complex and elegant than that, but that's not what we've heard all our lives at church. Since I find it to be a startlingly intuitive and beautiful idea, I'd like to share it with them, especially now that they're becoming open to it and are thinking about these sorts of things a lot. I'm not looking to attack the Designer idea, but to enable them to understand evolution before dismissing it (or not).

I saw this thread, but my parents' science education stopped in high school and that was a few decades ago, so I'm looking for something a bit more accessible. It might be nice (but not required) to have something that addresses the questions of those who have been raised to believe in ID, but is not antagonistic. Is there a particularly clear video series or (short) book that captures the wonder of evolution?

Further caveats: My parents don't read much, and my dad is a trucker, so he's only home about 2 days/week. A video series that they could watch together over a few weekends might be the best. Something like Stephen Hawking's Universe might be too technical in parts, but has the general tone I'm looking for. Also, websites work great for me, but my mom is totally not going to sit down and read through one.
posted by heatherann to Science & Nature (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I know you said they don't read much, but that's better than not at all. Here is the Talk.Origins reading list.

If I find any videotapes or DVDs I will post them. :)
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:22 AM on December 4, 2005

NOVA did a series on evolution.
posted by Miko at 8:30 AM on December 4, 2005

I've heard good things about the NOVA series. Here's PriceGrabber's page for the DVD version and the VHS version.

The Skeptics Society also has a booklet entitled How to Debate a Creationist: 25 Answers to Classic Creationist Arguments (for $5). It could be antagonistic, so you may not want to give it to them; however, it could be useful if you also wanted to talk with them yourself.
posted by Handcoding at 8:49 AM on December 4, 2005

i know my parents listen to tapes or cds of books in the car sometimes (and maybe your dad does while working?). if so, you could also think about something audio-based. maybe something that's more of a fiction format would be good, but i can't think of anything evolution-related (for astronomy, for example, i imagine galileo's daughter might be ok for my parents, but i have no idea about yours...).
posted by andrew cooke at 8:58 AM on December 4, 2005

I'm not sure if this would cover exactly what you're looking for, but I'd suggest Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

"This is a book about how it happened,...In particular how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since."

It's longer (~500 pgs) but it's really well-written (for the layperson no less) and a truly enjoyable read. Available where books are.
posted by carsonb at 8:59 AM on December 4, 2005

Newsweek did a piece on Darwin a few weeks ago which contained a chart showing birds whose beaks had changed to adapt to their environment/diet. My four year old found it fascinating and we had a nice long talk about evolution. The article itself addressed the effect his research had on his faith. It was relatively short and pretty interesting.
posted by jrossi4r at 9:02 AM on December 4, 2005

does you dad read thrillers? there was a michael crichton book called prey (and of course there's his jurassic park) that features evolution (of man-made bugs, as it happens).

i'm thinking that material that simply accepts the idea of evolution as normal, and them picking up your enthusiasm for it through normal conversation, might be more effective that trying to directly "educate" them. people don't like being told what to believe by sources they don't choose themselves and it's pretty exceptional (something you need university to hammer into people's heads) to believe something from a book if it contradicts what your own community holds true.

i also find this question a bit worrying. to some extent you're trying to break down their faith, and while i'm an intolerant atheist myself, i can see how faith is an important part of people's lives. so again, making evolution something that is acceptable (as opposed to correct) is perhaps a better route (hence thinking more of it being "in the background" rather than "the main event" in whatever you give them).
posted by andrew cooke at 9:08 AM on December 4, 2005

I'd suggest that instead of any of the books that are being suggested, you get them the audiobook.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:22 AM on December 4, 2005

posted by carsonb at 9:28 AM on December 4, 2005

Bryson's book is an excellent recommendation. It's an engaging read, has the excellent property of being accessible both to people who know science and those who do not, and will ground your parents in the scientific method, which is the first step. One of the great things it does is show how wrong scientific theories come into being, persist, and are finally discredited - truly excellent. It ought to be called a Short History of the Scientific Method.

While appreciating the ideas therein (facts therein; the book is a history) will involve some mind-stretching for Creation-believers, the book isn't antagonistic. It just is. If it is too challenging to their belief system, you can always point out that no one knows what happened before the Big Bang...
posted by jellicle at 9:29 AM on December 4, 2005

I've been a huge fan of this New Yorker article, titled "Devolution: Why Intelligent Design Isn't" (intelligent, that is). It pretty clearly lays out why intelligent design is not really science.
posted by The Michael The at 9:35 AM on December 4, 2005

Response by poster: people don't like being told what to believe by sources they don't choose themselves and it's pretty exceptional (something you need university to hammer into people's heads) to believe something from a book if it contradicts what your own community holds true.

i also find this question a bit worrying. to some extent you're trying to break down their faith, and while i'm an intolerant atheist myself, i can see how faith is an important part of people's lives. so again, making evolution something that is acceptable (as opposed to correct) is perhaps a better route (hence thinking more of it being "in the background" rather than "the main event" in whatever you give them).

Their faith has completely broken down all on its own. I'm not ambushing them, this is related to what they're already asking. They're already completely contradicting what their community holds true (i.e. the bible is infallible, prayer is a useful endeavour, etc.), so I'm not pushing them somewhere they're not already going. These are people who have had frank discussions with pastors about how they aren't going to join their church because they think that various doctrines are bullshit, they don't pray anymore, and my mother no longer considers herself Christian. If these things weren't true, I would be leaving things alone.

My intention is not to convince them, my intention is to give them a glimpse of what evolution is that isn't completely skewed by what the church has told them. I think it's fine if they believe in a Designer. I would just hate for them to never know how NEAT evolution is. Honestly, they're far past the point of getting defensive about the Bible. They're truly open to these ideas for the first time in their lives, and having left the faith myself a few years back, I know how overwhelming these new ideas can be. I just want to give them a decent jumping-off point.

re: audiobooks - My dad doesn't listen to anything while working because he finds that he gets distracted and misses his exits. However, he does talk about listening to NPR (while waiting for things to be loaded/unloaded?), so maybe they're still an option. I'll ask him.

Oh, and they don't read fiction. They must be quite startled to have three bookworms as daughters.

I'll check out Bryson's book and the NOVA series. Any others?
posted by heatherann at 9:54 AM on December 4, 2005

I also highly recommend the NOVA series, it does an excellent job of presenting the science in an accessible way without making you feel stupid. There's another NOVA series called Origins, which deals not with evolution but with the creation of the earth and the big bang and all of that good stuff, which is also excellent.
posted by pazazygeek at 10:08 AM on December 4, 2005

as if one day we didn't have hands and the next day, woo! Opposable thumbs! What a lovely accident!

Well, kinda. But this is only one part of the equation. Genetic mutations occur every day. Some more drastic than others.

The problem a lot of people have with evolution is that they get the impression that all evolutionary change is positive. It's not. For every "opposable thumbs" change you have a million "one-less-eye" or "one extra leg" changes that were actually bad for the organism's survival. These don't get talked up much, because the survivors you see are all the "winners" of the evolutionary design wars. You never hear the stories of the freaks that simply died out because their extra leg meant they kept tripping over themselves when they were being chased by predators.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:09 AM on December 4, 2005

Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" one-woman show dealt, in part, with how she came to understand and accept evolution. It's going to be released on CD on Feb. 1, with a book and DVD to follow eventually.
posted by scody at 10:40 AM on December 4, 2005

For a second there, I thought this post was: "help me induce evolution to my parents." For that I would suggest gamma rays.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:52 AM on December 4, 2005

Don't listen to StickyCarpet. Gamma rays work, but they have really weird side effects.

Also, how about some book by Richard Dawkins? I'm not sure if they're available as audiobooks, but it might be worth a try. Perhaps especially Chapter 3 of "River out of Eden".
posted by martinrebas at 11:21 AM on December 4, 2005

Don't listen to StickyCarpet. Gamma rays work, but they have really weird side effects.

Indeed. I believe you wouldn't much like your parents when they're angry.
posted by kindall at 11:47 AM on December 4, 2005

This might be a little too flippant, but I'm a huge fan of Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe. It's obviously accesible, but completely interesting and well researched, not for dummies at all. It looks like he has a Cartoon Guide to Genetics as well.

Your parents might take it the wrong way though. But his ability to combine words and images is pretty amazing, and neat.
posted by bardic at 12:13 PM on December 4, 2005

An excellent book on how complexity can arise spontaneously without a designer (and specifically, how complex creatures can evolve without being preplanned) is The Blind Watchmaker: How the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design by Richard Dawkins.
posted by zanni at 1:14 PM on December 4, 2005

Here's how I've always explained evolution/natural selection:

Imagine a house, painted all white on the inside. White floors, white walls, everything.

Put some white mice and some black mice in there, then add a cat.

Which mice will get eaten? The black ones, because the cat can see them better.

That's natural selection. Nobody can deny that. Some things are better suited to their environment than others.

Now do it again: the house is white everywhere, like before, but this time the mice are grey.

They're all equally likely to get eaten at this point. But the ones who survive have offspring. And the offspring vary in colour. Some of them are darker than usual, some of them lighter.

The darker ones are easier to catch, the lighter ones are harder.

And the lighter ones carry the lightness in their genes and give birth to ligher children. So over time, they will tend toward white, not black.

The first part, Natural Selection, is pretty much a no-brainer. Dark objects against a light background are easier to see, the black mice get caught.

But the second part requires two concepts which aren't necessarily obvious -- first, the colour of the mouse-children changes pretty much at random, through mutation, and second, they pass that colour on to their children. It also requires a lot of time. In the first part you can imagine all the black mice being eaten inside a week. In order to breed all-white mice from the second example, you need lots and lots and lots of generations of mice.

(You also need to ignore other factors like speed and intelligence, but that's just for the sake of the example.)

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, or to hear what happens if you try that idea out on someone.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:31 PM on December 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

Good basic stuff.
PBS had a show called "Evolution". Check the shop link for the 7 VHS tapes (I didnt see DVDs listed).
Here is the book. A quick check of Amazon and here are the DVDs.
posted by nimsey lou at 2:01 PM on December 4, 2005

Be careful.

I tried to explain it to mine and now they won't groom me or share bananas. You doin't want to know what my uncles flung at me.
posted by codswallop at 2:05 PM on December 4, 2005

To avoid a lecture (I was going to say sermon), which your folks might bridle at, you might lay a bit of groundwork before tackling evolution vs. Biblical genesis. Jesus used parables all the time; you might refer to them and reinforce their usefulness in grasping complex ideas.

Some scientists have referred to the Genesis tale as a roughly accurate parable for the development of the world and its species. The earth initially was "without form and void": barren, lifeless. Then vegetation arose, then creatures (initially in the seas, then in the sky and on land), then larger (more complex) creatures like cattle, and finally humans. Broadly speaking, that's how things did develop.
posted by rob511 at 2:17 PM on December 4, 2005

Good suggestions all around. Also, maybe you should remind them of how you got to be here, which, I'm guessing, didn't involve appearing on their doorstep bathed in ethereal light.
posted by emelenjr at 3:13 PM on December 4, 2005

How do you feel about deism? Check it out. I don't have any specific media to recommend, but I'm guessing this would make both you and your parents pretty happy.

Very, very basic oversimplification: God sets up a Sims game and turns on the "Free Will" option, then watches.

This would allow them to keep their belief in God, and to understand and accept evolution at the same time.

Also, if you want general really interesting, well-reasoned, and intelligent writing in a theological vein, C. S. Lewis is amazing. I wouldn't be surprised if your parents like it, too.
posted by booksandlibretti at 3:58 PM on December 4, 2005

The audio books for Short History of Nearly Everything are really good. You could get them, listen to them yourself, and then entirely honestly offer them to your folks as "something really interesting I've been listening to in my car."

You only need to get one of them interested and talking to the other about "did you know that ... ?"

A friend of mine has them in MP3 format, downloaded from who knows which p2p network. You might be able to try before you buy, so to speak.
posted by The Monkey at 4:07 PM on December 4, 2005

I made this toy years ago, when I was teaching myself Javascript. It was just a fun project for me, but a few people later told me it helped them grasp evolution.

I always pretty much accepted Evolution/Natural Selection, but these theories didn't become really embedded in my psyche until I saw convincing computer models.

A big stumbling block for me -- and probably for many other people -- is truly believing that something seemingly well organized and well crafted can emerge without a designer. But I got it when I SAW it happening on a computer.

It would be really cool if someone could invent some kind of toy -- not on a computer -- that could evolve via natural selection. This is probably decades away, but I'm envisioning something like The Game of Life with little robots. It really shouldn't matter whether such a game plays out in a virtual/computer world or on one's coffee table, but I think it WOULD make a difference.

There's something really compelling about seeing something play out in real time, via objects you can grasp.
posted by grumblebee at 4:13 PM on December 4, 2005

I won't attempt to answer the huge question of how to introduce evolutionary concepts to them. Instead I'd say this: if they find it incredible to think that entities such as human beings could occur without design, ask them why they do not also find it incredible to think an entity capable of creating human beings - such as a god - could occur without design.

Believers in the creator god never seem to think this question needs properly addressing, for some reason. And that's because such a god is a fudge factor, and nothing else. Nobody likes to be asked to explain a fudge factor.

This has been Decani's sophomoric atheistic observation of the day. You're welcome.
posted by Decani at 5:22 PM on December 4, 2005

It is possible that the problem isn't understanding evolution, it's an incredibly simple concept, but the thinking of life as a mechanistic process which is the problem. People seem to seperate life and non life into quite different parts of their brains, and thus don't properly evaluate mechanistic explantions.

This was present in the so called vitalist school, which held that life was innately different from non-life, and was pretty much demolished in the scientific community when urea (a so called vital chemical) was first synthesized in 1828.

To these ends, I would recomend an introduction into basic cell biology and biochemistry, though it is unfortunatley unlikely your parents would agree to that.
posted by scodger at 9:59 PM on December 4, 2005

I forgot to say, when posting about the white and black mice before, that there's plenty of room for god in it.

Why do some of the mice become lighter? Is it really random, or is that just the way it looks to us? Perhaps god is rewarding the light mice for good mouse-behaviour? Perhaps god is rewarding the cat by darkening more mice so it has a good food supply? Perhaps god is working, in mysterious ways, toward some ineffable purpose in which a pure white mouse will play a key part?

There's plenty of room for god and science to co-exist in the world, there's just no room for god in the places where the morons of the "Intelligent Design" movement want to shove it.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 11:52 PM on December 4, 2005

AmbroseChapel: For teaching evolution to skeptics, you need more than variation + selection + time. You need to show that the small changes do add up to the big changes. Anyone can buy the small changes in moths and mice, and maybe even species of finches, but real evolution skeptics have trouble making the jump from that mechanism to an interconnected incredibly complex system (such as even a single human cell) that would have had to evolve in successive beneficial (or at least neutral) steps. Even with plenty of time.

There is something of a leap of faith to suppose that microevolution => macroevolution, that even atheist skeptics can detect. Arguing this step with case studies is difficult, usually it involves appeals to authority ("the people whose job it is to doubt and prove this are overwhelmingly convinced"), just-so stories of evolutionary progression about why each step in the development of, say, the eye was beneficial, or pointing at other emergent systems and saying "c'mon!"

heatherann, the important thing is to get them to separate their religion from their science. Religious people, when they run up against the limits of their personal knowledge, like to decorate the blackness beyond with Christ and angels. That's the universal impulse to spiritualism. Can't explain X? God did it magically. They can still do that, but what you need them to get rid of is the magic part. And if that doesn't work, call them Santa Claus worshippers, spit at their feet and never talk to them again [note: don't do].
posted by fleacircus at 1:04 AM on December 5, 2005

Buy them a cruise to the galapagos! It will convince anyone the of validity of natural selection (change prompted by chance variation in the face of limitations on reproductive access). Acknowledgement of the rules of species development does not limit one's view of a diety. Indeed a deity that can create such variety with a simple process is far more awe-inspring in my book.
posted by vega5960 at 7:33 AM on December 5, 2005

Pharyngula has just (re-)released a booklist on evolution.
posted by edd at 11:32 PM on December 6, 2005

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