Reports of the National Center for Science Education
February 2, 2009
Review: The Evolving World
The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life
David P Mindell
Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2006. 341 pages.
Andrew J Petto
The Evolving World was a book that needed to be written and ought to be read by everyone — but particularly those of us who promote evolution education to the general public. The main message for this audience is that other scientific theories, such as germ theory and heliocentrism, that are now widely — though perhaps not universally — accepted among the general public took much longer to gain acceptance than has evolution — at least so far. This conclusion may be a little skewed, since public access to published information and the variety of media options clearly worked against rapid dissemination of, say, heliocentrism even among members of the research community. Still, the point is well made in several examples: new scientific theories take time to get accepted, and this happens more readily when the new theories connect to issues and concerns that the general public has in everyday life.
The first 190 pages of this book make this point well with a variety of examples, and supporters of evolution education would do well to become familiar with these. They show the direct impact of evolutionary science on things that matter to everyday life: health and disease, food production, conservation, forensics, and more. Mindell argues that the resistance to evolution, when it occurs, happens at the most personal level and often derives from cultural narratives that purport to inform us about the meaning and purpose of life. And this is why it is so important for supporters of evolution education to find how the evolutionary sciences affect the issues that people find most important in life.
The next section of the book deals with other common usages of the word "evolution" in the sciences and in general discourse. This is useful in a way, because it shows that, like the word "theory", the e-word has a number of meanings, and that different people — and even different scholarly disciplines — may favor different ones. Part of the reason for the proliferation of meanings is what Mindell calls the "evolution metaphor" — the idea that Darwin's basic concept of differential success in various biological structures under different environmental conditions could be extended metaphorically to human cultural institutions as well. This section is helpful for making that point, but sometimes it is less clear that the extension of evolutionary ideas into these realms is metaphorical.
There are a few specific inferences that could generate significant disagreement. For example, Mindell suggests that evolutionary science has helped "to free religions of the burden of literalism" (p 245) because the evolutionary metaphor of cultural developments allows us to identify how religions change as a result of changes in human history rather than through divine intervention. However, it is evident that the move away from literalism did not depend on modern science for its engine. Theological traditions that eschew literalism usually do so for theological, not scientific reasons, though it is clear that scientific discoveries do make certain factual claims difficult or impossible to sustain as they are written in Scripture; for example, there are no "waters above the firmament" (which contains the stars and planets) as reported in Genesis 1:7. In contrast, the move of the mainline Christian churches away from strict literalism occurred long before there was any significant evolutionary science, and this view of Scripture was — and remains — a major complaint of reformed denominations. So the extent to which scientific discoveries about the material world affected interpretation and application of tenets of religious traditions — or rather the mutual influence of the intellectual evolution in science and theology, since it is clear that it was not a one-way street — would make a very interesting, and perhaps informative, discussion. However, it is difficult to justify non-literal theology as primarily caused by the application of the evolutionary metaphor.
Aside from such concerns, this is a book that would be very useful to anyone who needs to explain to a member of the general public why evolution matters. It matters because it reaches into many aspects of our everyday lives; and not just in a metaphorical way, but in a tangible way.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.