Most people who know me, know that since 1968, I have been enamored with the film, The Planet of the Apes. I saw the film as a child thanks to my father. The movie’s multiple themes of loss, displacement, alternative universes, the roles of power, religion, friendship, and science all blew my little seven-year-old mind.
I credit the film with heightening my curiosity about our human place in nature the way all good-science fiction does. Planet was released about the same time Jane Goodall was researching, writing, and gaining notoriety for her work with the chimpanzees of Gombe. Concurrently, Dian Fossey was doing her primatological work with gorillas in Congo, and National Geographic’s support of the Leakey family’s paleontological excavations and public work, all hooked me. I embraced the story of humankind and our relatives.
I have been a public advocate for paleontology, primatology, and the importance of science my entire adult life. As a writer, I’ve published books and articles on the value of both the discovery and uncovery of facts about our human origins, and our connectedness to our ecology and the cosmos. It is vital to know and understand our collective past so that we can rationally, by using the tools of science, gain knowledge and insight into our present. So that we can ultimately explore the possibilities of our collective future.
As an educator, I teach the discipline of anthropology and its research methods from a four-field approach. I frequently take the widest, most expansive and holistic view of how anthropology can help us build bridges and see our human similarities and differences as variations on a wonderous primate theme. While at the same time, teach history, culture, and language as adaptations to the world around us all.
As I enter my sixth decade on the planet, I think back to the germination of those wonderous feelings about the universe and the expansive potential of that seven-year-old little boy from a housing project in Brooklyn. A gregarious but sometimes sickly boy whose family had few financial recourses and whose connection to nature was perhaps a local park or two, and a walk to the public library to read books by Pierre Boulle, George B. Schaller, Louis Leakey, and Charles Darwin.
How humans began to make scientific sense of the world is its own modest and dynamic area of study. We do know that the connection between early human curiosity and contemplating our place in nature was animistic. It relied on observation of the natural world but did not hold the tools of science to explain the seasons or natural disasters. Thus, a sense of conntected spirituality served as the earliest attempt to “know” how nature operated. This simultaneous pull of wonderment, superstition and utility concerning natural causes relied on the supernatural to understand and explain our world.
The slow grinding of understanding nature has taken thousands of years to move from our earliest animistic thoughts to our most modern accepted common synthesis of life. Throughout this grand time, numerous thinkers, scientists, poets, politicians, and theologians have placed our understanding of deep time, evolution, and nature into what I consider three camps of thought. They sometimes overlap even as they appear to be distinct and other times in conflict.
While this may appear to be an oversimplification, one camp relies on a deity-free material understanding of our human place in nature to explore and explain all of existence. It uses a self-correcting scientific method to develop and learn what we commonly call facts, theories, and laws. It attempts to offer unbiased insights into the nature of nature, from its start through our current operational understanding, based on observation and the rational creation and consumption of information.
Yet another, closely related camp combines the natural sciences, as well as a material understanding of space/time, and evolution but within the context of an omnipresent and omnipotent hand to create and guide all life. This camp also accepts the value and importance of the scientific method. Those who inhabit this view, often combine the idea of god as first cause with science. They seek to understand the power of divine forces through the use of human tools to examine the universe.
The final camp includes those who cannot or will not accept what science tells us about the nature of the cosmos, our evolution, and our place in the universe. Those in this camp choose only to accept a wholly supernatural cause of all past, present, and future life. People in this camp ignore accepted scientific evidence and, in its place, supplants knowledge with superstitious belief and metaphysics.
This camp in its modern guise may appear to use complex theology and apologetics, however, it essentially and fundamentally is supported by ancient forms of superstition as a primary and exclusive way to view the world.
It is this last camp that precisely brings me back to 1968 and The Planet of Apes. In one scene about midway through the film, Dr. Cornelius, played by the actor Roddy McDowell, and his fiancée, Dr. Zira, played by Kim Hunter, are discussing the existence of the jailed and shackled, yet thinking and writing, astronaut George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston).
The good doctors begin to discuss natural selection and Cornelius’ theory of evolution. Essentially that the talking and cultured apes, “indeed evolved from a lower order of primate, man.” Fearing his ideas will damage his career as a young scientist, it is Cornelius who says, “Dr. Zaius and the academy said my ideas were heresy.” For additional context, Dr. Zaius, played by Maurice Evans, serves two important roles in Ape society. He is both Chief of the Academy of Sciences as well as Chief Defender of the Faith. You can almost feel the conflict growing!
It is a bit later in the same scene that Cornelius emphatically suggests, “Well, if he (Taylor) were a missing link then the Sacred Scrolls wouldn’t be worth their parchment.” To which Dr. Zira quickly retorts, “Well, maybe they’re not.”
Heady dialog for a fifty-year-old science-fiction film and still for every succeeding generation dealing with issues regarding the role evolution, science, and scientists play in our daily lives. Not to mention the way open or closed-minded theological belief can impact scientific institutions and scientific thought as well as our very real modernity.
Since the scientific method is just like every tool created by our combined humanity, we are all indeed empowered to use the knowledge that comes with an understanding of evolution and natural selection for both good and bad. We are empowered to advocate and protect. Empowered to project and make accessible. And equally empowered to pollute or deny knowledge and understanding regarding how nature operates to intentionally dissuade evidenced truth.
Perhaps this is why I feel so strongly that the advocacy work of the Broader Social Impacts Committee (BSIC) of the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins is so important. Knowing and understanding the natural processes of evolutionary science brings us all closer to a greater and more connected human family. For camps one and two noted above, such advocacy work affirms the Smithsonian’s role in the public education, public discussion and public understanding of Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s work, within the context of scientific discovery and material facts.
Such scientific work, whether it be funding or doing the excavations that unearth our fossil and cultural history or the equally important lab work doing analysis, leads us to a more complete, if ever complex picture regarding the story of life on Earth. Such good work brings to light the evidence that ultimately highlights human existence and our connectedness to each other and the cosmos.
Indeed, the important outreach the BSIC does for each of the three camps is equally important for dialog about evolution and humanity’s place in nature. The committee helps science remain vital at a time when our politics related to biology and natural selection have become abusive at times. And where daily censorship and the willful ignorance and denial of science amongst sectors of society has seemingly become a virtue. Where funding for science and allowance for academic freedom are each under attack by politicians and their enablers who seek to make scientific understanding opaque rather than clear.
To complain without offering solutions to these challenges is tedious and would just be plain wrong. That is the immense value of the BSIC and the role the committee plays in emphasizing the need to work across isles and islands of thought. All to promote scientific acceptance.
The Committee offers answers when our scientific understanding is lacking with new knowledge. It checks and reinforces our ideas when knowledge needs to be further evaluated. It stands up for access and the sharing of information in an effort to oppose ignorance and the folly of unevidenced beliefs. All to ensure the public good and offer current and future generations the ability to access, build upon and further understand evolution regardless of where such knowledge is found.
We know that scientific knowledge need not be a wedge issue or a set of culture war talking points. The role and goals of the BSIC has always been to reach out and to grow community. I am proud to serve as a member of the BSIC and look forward to taking the best and the brightest knowledge to all those who show curiosity and who wish to learn what it means to be human by understanding our human place in the material nature of the cosmos.
Certainly Dr. Cornelius, Dr. Zira and even time-traveling-astronaut George Taylor knew better than to disrespect the power and meaning of good science. Even Dr. Zaius knew better (and the truth), although he swore by his faith to keep Taylor’s identity and all of ape history shrouded in mystery. Such lying to oneself and others rarely ends well. Just as it ended very badly in the films. And if you watch the five original Planet of the Apes movies as often as I have, you come to realize the difference and also respect the outcome between accepting and understanding science rather than rejecting and hiding from it.
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Knowing the past, gain insight into the present, explore the future.
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