By Peter Fredson
During one of my lectures to a class in the 1960’s I used the word “evolution” several times. After the lecture two students told me that they were uncomfortable with the word, because their pastor considered it to be irreligious, satanic, and conflicting with all their religious views. They did not believe that people ever “evolved” but that they were spontaneously created intact. They also said that classifying humans as “animals” was degrading humanity, because humans possessed souls while animals had no souls. They left my side, still indignant or offended by my cavalier use of words
I couldn’t show them that the word “evolution” merely meant a change in some thing or process through some period of time. I could have shown that weapons had changed through time, from clubs, to spears, to bows and arrows, to blunderbusses and muskets, to the automatic fire of machine guns. I might have pointed out that our Cruise Missiles, battleships, and aircraft came about very gradually, and that this shows the evolution of military technology. I might have mentioned that many inventions changed our ways through time, such as using gas for street lights to electric light bulbs and air conditioning. Transportation had changed from riding animals to chariots, to the Pony Express, Stage Coaches, railroads, automobiles, airplanes. Sailing ships have changed radically from canoes to the huge battle-ships and ocean liners of today. Communication has changed from message runners, to signal fires and flags, to semaphores, to telegraph, telephone, radio, television, computers and the ever-present cell phones.
I wish I could have told them that humans had passed through long periods of coping without any technology and only gradually acquired tools, weapons, fire and shelters. Even Lucretius knew that. I could have told them of the discovery of metallurgy leading to great advances in technology, including military weaponry, shields, swords, daggers, bayonets, helmets and body armor.
I could have shown them the first camps of hunting-gathering groups, to the first villages, and thence to the establishment of towns, and cities, or to the growing population of humans occupying this earth and the consequences to the earth itself. I might have shown the establishment and destruction of many empires.
I could have pointed out the first Neanderthal attempts to cope with death by sprinkling corpses with red powder and putting food and tools in the graves. I could have show the first primitive attempts to cope with ill fortune by shamans and witch-doctors, to the establishment of supernatural entities called gods, and thence to the rise of a professional trained priesthood with elaborate buildings, rituals, art, dogma, and writings.
I might have pointed out the natural processes of mountains erupting, rising and falling, the changing landscapes through time, the extinction of animal species such as the giant reptiles, or the mammoth, mastodon, dire wolf, sabertooth tiger, and other extinctions of the late Paleolithic period. Or, the advance and retreat of successive glaciations of the earth.
I would have to admit that the exhortations of priests, the corruption of politicians, whimsical laws, the way of a man with a woman, murder, and theft may not have changed a great deal through time. But the young people would not have listened anyway. Their minds were already set by indoctrination for their life-time, dogma had taken place of reason, and fiction had taken the place of facts for them. For them, some words are a kind of evil magic which could doom them to destruction, and they would have none of it.
For them, the stars and sun are unchanging, but paradoxically can be stopped or moved by supernatural whim to accommodate religious exigencies.