Confession: I was once an evolution skeptic. Not for the sake of religion, not from a distrust of science, but out of youthful rebellion and hubris. As a high school student, I thought I’d discovered a disproof of the mechanism of natural selection: the mosquito! In a fervent essay mailed to some science publication I wrote that it’s bad enough that mosquitoes steal our blood, but for them to gratuitously add itch to injury demonstrates both malice and a death wish. If natural selection were true, I argued, then polite mosquitoes, mosquitoes that sip and run, leaving not so much as a welt behind, should have long ago outbred the irritating variety.

The essay was never published, and the Nobel Committee never called. Instead, a kind and patient science writer sent me a letter explaining that the mosquito’s saliva contains an anticoagulant that makes it easy for her to drink up our blood but also provokes a powerful, itchy immune response. Thanks to natural selection, the immune response rarely kicks in before the mosquito has drunk her fill and flown off. Every time we swat one, he explained, the remaining pool of mosquitoes is just a little more stealthy.

I was humbled and astonished. The incident began a long, slow, unending fascination with evolution. I read more and more about it, including several of Darwin’s books, and as assaults on the teaching of evolution in public schools continued in my writing and my community I became an advocate for science, and especially evolution. In 2000 I was invited to participate in a Metanexus conference at Haverford College and thereafter devoted an increasing effort to reconciling religion with science. In 2002, along with several university scientists, I founded Nebraska Citizens for Science. We led a successful effort to defeat a petition drive to change the state’s science education standards to include so-called intelligent design. I organized a public debate about evolution versus intelligent design, and founded a twice-monthly public forum to engage the public in understanding science. In 2005, I was commissioned by the Gale educational publisher to assemble and edit an anthology on evolution. It’s still a favorite among the works I have produced. In my 2012 book Free God Now, I explain how evolution offers the basis for a secular, eternal mission for humanity and its successors.

In recent years, as science and religion correspondent for The Humanist magazine, I have tried to spread an understanding of the amazing power of human nature studies, also known as evolutionary psychology, to explain our behavior. It’s a tricky challenge. The field is young, and the evidence in many instances patchy. Excessively confident claims sometimes undermine its credibility.

What’s more human behavior is so variable that it is easy to find counterexamples to most evolutionary propositions. Suicide, for example, can be hard to explain in evolutionary terms - and such an explanation would be unwelcome to grieving loved ones.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the patterns of behavior that matter most, an evolutionary lens most often gives us the clearest vision of what's going on. When a bully picks on an outsider or scapegoats someone who differs, it’s important to recognize that they are tapping instincts of xenophobia in an attempt to construct and surmount a dominance hierarchy. When people proclaim belief in some outrageously insupportable claim -- that the Sandy Hook massacre was carried out by the Obama Administration to undermine the Second Amendment, for example -- it’s crucial to recognize that they are engaging in coalition-building, not truth-seeking. When young male rappers pose as gangsters or peel off wads of cash, it’s important to recognize that they are lekking -- competing to display their fitness to females.

The view of life that Charles Darwin unveiled has endless lessons to teach us, sometimes beautiful, sometimes not, but none more important than those about ourselves. As a participant in TVOL1000, I look forward to learning and sharing more.

For more on Clay Farris Naff’s work:
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