Op Ed
November 11, 2005

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Evolution exhibit shows a special human trait
by Roger Martin

There’s an arresting graphic in a new exhibit about evolution at the University of Kansas: a huge chart showing how few differences there are between human and chimpanzee DNA.

Maybe that’s what Leonard Krishtalka had in mind when he spoke recently to a crowd of reporters at a press briefing. Krishtalka, director of the KU Natural History Museum & Biodiversity Research Center, said, “Evolution may be one of the more uncomfortable pieces of knowledge that we learn in our lifetime.”

It’s also one of the more incredible ones. In fact, it’s so incredible that a slight majority of U.S. citizens still believe, despite overwhelming evidence, that humans have not evolved from simpler life forms.

The “Explore Evolution” exhibit at KU is also showing in five other museums, courtesy of National Science Foundation funding. Those who created the show knew quite well one visceral objection to evolutionary ideas.

They knew that someone would say, “You mean that ugly little ape is my cousin?! Get outta here.”

The exhibit teaches us that DNA and master control genes explain the kinship between our drop-dead-beautiful species and those hairy knuckle-draggers we’re supposedly related to, but to many people those explanations seem unconvincing.

Walking around the exhibit, I thought of a second reason people resist the idea of evolution. The evolutionary process sometimes drags its feet over what are to us incomprehensible lengths of time but in the end produces radical, almost magical, changes.

Here’s an example from the exhibit: Whales had legs about 55 million years ago and then, over the course of 10 million years, changed into legless ocean swimmers.

A third reason some people resist evolution is that it’s evenhanded, a benevolent despot operating equally on all creatures. It denies us our need to feel unique.

Evolutionary plotlines are repeated ad nauseam. From one creature descends two seemingly different ones, such as men and monkeys or whales and rhinoceroses. Or one species gives rise to many: A single pregnant fly may have been the mother of 800 Hawaiian species.

Evolution also robs us of our feelings of specialness by reminding us that we may be the planet’s dominant primate but we’re not invincible. Viruses can evolve so swiftly, for example, that on occasion we’re caught short. They slaughter us by the millions.

Not even our behavior is unique. A marvelous video in the exhibit shows a mating dance between a boy and girl fly. I urged an elderly man touring the show to take a look. Afterward, he said, “That should be R-rated.”

Despite all this, humans ARE a special bunch. Ants work well together — but mindlessly. Some flies buzz beautifully — you can hear them in the exhibit — but I’ll take Leonard Cohen over flies any day.

And one of our hairy relatives, the bonobos, for all their fabled empathy toward others in their clans, don’t host exhibits like this one.

The marvel of this show, to my mind, is that in viewing it, we find our linkage to other species, yet by the act of creating it, we demonstrate our peculiar ability for self-reflection.

That holds a promise — but no guarantee — of caring for life forms other than our own, a caring that other species simply don’t have.

Roger Martin is publication and features editor for the KU Center for Research in Lawrence, KS.


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