Eric Meikle's picture

Connecting the Links: Introduction

This will be the first of an occasional series of posts dealing with human evolution, the history of paleoanthropology, and their relationship to NCSE’s mission to defend the teaching of evolution and climate change in the public schools.

There is at least one very good reason why so many anthropologists have been conspicuously active in the creationism/evolution struggles over the years in America (beyond our inherently pro-social, self-sacrificing natures). We study people, what they are like now and how they got to be that way, biologically and culturally. And humans are precisely ground zero for the religiously-motivated opposition to evolution which has percolated through American society since early in the twentieth century.  It was teaching about human evolution that was prohibited by Tennessee’s Butler Act, under which John Scopes was convicted in 1925. It was human evolution that contemporary laws in Arkansas and other states made illegal to present in the public schools or textbooks. And still today it is the threat of hearing about human evolution that provokes the most resistance among students or parents convinced that it presents an existential threat to their worldview.

No offense to botanists or microbiologists, for instance, but no one really cares about the evolution of archaea, or bacteria, or fungi, or plants, or anything, really, except maybe a select few vertebrates—especially us. (When I say no one, of course, I mean no one among the ranks of the professional and committed creationists. They may write or comment about some of these other organisms if there is something in the news about evolution among them, but the emotion and feeling just aren’t there, compared to the frenzy inspired by any hint that living humans may be related to and descended from non-human ancestors in the past through natural processes.)

My title for this series, of course, alludes to “the missing link,” but I won’t say any more just now about this most persistent of misconceptions about human evolution, except that “connecting” is meant to convey the historical continuity both of all life on earth through shared common ancestry and of the scientific studies that continue to uncover that story.

Finally, as a transition to the next post in this series (coming tomorrow!) I want to suggest that the rich history of discoveries in the human fossil record since the mid-nineteenth century can be viewed as a series of case studies that inform the creationism/evolution controversy as a whole. In the first hundred years of these discoveries, we can point especially to the original Neandertal find (1856), Eugene Dubois’s explorations of Indonesia (ca. 1890), the discovery of Australopithecus africanus (1924), and the geological dating of Olduvai Gorge (ca. 1960). Part 2 tomorrow, with a special anniversary to commemorate.