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Is Evolution a Lousy Story?

In Tennessee a new law took effect last month that allows teachers to discuss creationism as an alternative to evolution. This happened, as nearly everyone has noted, in the same state where John Scopes was tried in 1925 for exposing impressionable high-school students to the evils of evolutionary theory. The Volunteer State has now given us both the Monkey Trial and the Monkey Bill.

But it’s not just one state. Polls show that fewer than half of Americans accept evolution. Most of us still don’t buy it. As the comedian Louis C.K. asked in a bit about people who insist that they can’t possibly be related to monkeys: “Why are you fighting this?”

Dan McAdams offers one possible, rarely discussed reason: Maybe evolution is a lousy story. Actually, McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, doesn’t think evolution is a story at all. There is no protagonist, no motivation, no purpose—all crucial elements in a narrative, whether it’s Frog and Toad Are Friends or Fifty Shades of Grey.

He mentioned this idea recently during a presentation at the Consilience Conference, which also drew researchers from biology, economics, and literary studies. Afterward, a seemingly annoyed audience member questioned McAdams’s apparent criticism of evolution, countering that it’s in fact a wonderful, elegant explanation of life. McAdams agreed that it’s wonderful and elegant. He just doesn’t think it’s a story.

McAdams’s research focus is narrative psychology—specifically, the development of a “life-story model of human identity.” As he writes in his book The Redemptive Self, “People create stories to make sense of their lives.” When you think about it, we tell stories to make sense of pretty much everything. The problem is that evolution doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative box. As McAdams puts it: “You can’t really feel anything for this character—natural selection.”

The biblical story of creation, in contrast, couldn’t be richer. Talk about drama! Characters who want things, surprising reversals, heroes, villains, nudity. There’s a reason it outsells On the Origin of Species, and it may be why scientists haven’t had more success at moving the needle of public opinion.

Jerry Coyne is one scientist who’s been trying. Coyne, an evolutionary biologist who writes the blog Why Evolution Is True, doesn’t put much stock in McAdams’s idea, adding that it’s one he’s never heard anyone else venture. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Evolution, Coyne explores why the resistance to evolution in the United States is “uniquely high among First World countries.” He looks at the data and convicts the No. 1 suspect: religion.

He cites polls like one that found that almost two-thirds of Americans say they would continue to believe what their faith teaches even if it runs counter to scientific findings. Another poll found that just 14 percent of respondents said a lack of evidence was keeping them from joining Darwin’s camp. Instead they said it’s God or Jesus or religion in general. In light of that, Coyne doesn’t think evolution’s failure as a thriller is the real issue. The only person who could conclude that, Coyne says, is “someone who hasn’t looked at the facts about why evolution is rejected.”

At the very least, though, evolution’s weakness as a story creates a PR opportunity for creationists. For example, one Christian Web site tries to fit evolution into a standard fairy-tale narrative, telling the intentionally absurd tale of an amoeba’s transformation from salamander to monkey to man, all thanks to a character called Mutation who waves a magic wand. It doesn’t read like it was written by someone with a background in biology, but it’s hard to disagree with the conclusion that evolution is a “strange story.”

Jonathan Gottschall thinks McAdams might be onto something. Gottschall is among the best-known proponents of Literary Darwinism, and in his latest book, The Storytelling Animal, he sets out to prove that the human brain is wired for story and to figure out why that might be useful. “If evolution is a story, it is a story without agency,” he writes in an e-mail. “It lacks the universal grammar of storytelling.” Stories are about a character finding a solution to a problem. Evolution has problems and solutions but no character. As a result, according to Gottschall, “it doesn’t connect as well—especially at the emotional level.”

So what to do? Coyne thinks belief in evolution will only rise when belief in God declines. McAdams isn’t sure, but he does think it’s an uphill battle regardless: “You can try to make some of these scientific theories into stories, but it is not easy to do, and science does not depend on your doing it.”

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