Treating stupid questions with more respect

Several years ago, I added a frequently asked questions section to the Friends of Charles Darwin website. When you follow Darwin-related conversations on the web, and when you run a Darwin-related website, the same frankly irritating questions have a habit of cropping up. Having an FAQ section allowed me to post links to the answers without having to type them out again and again.

One question posed with monotonous regularity goes something like:

If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys around?

My response to this frequently asked question began as follows:

This is a spectacularly silly question, often posed by creationists…

My answer remained on the website for many years, attracting little feedback, apart from occasional, immediately trashed emails from random creationists who seemingly hadn't read my request not to be contacted by them.

Then, last October, someone posted the following comment on my answer:

I do not think this is a silly question. If we evolved from apes, there would now not be any apes, if we are from the same species, we could reproduce with each other, but we can't.

Something about this comment got to me. This was not some idiot wilfully misunderstanding Darwinian theory; this was someone who seemed genuinely confused. To them, it wasn't a spectacularly silly question. Which made me feel bad about describing it as such.

I didn't know what to do with the comment. I didn't want to approve it, as I have a general policy of not approving comments perpetuating creationist mythinformation. But I didn't want to trash it either. So it just sat there in my unapproved comments queue, niggling me every time I logged in.

Eventually, the niggling became too much for me. I decided to rewrite my answer (in the process of which, I learnt that my original answer was not strictly correct—so much for silly questions!). I then emailed the commenter a note with a link to the revised answer, and trashed their comment, as it was no longer relevant.

This whole experience got me thinking. I still do not wish (or intend) to engage in debates with hard-line creationists: life really is too short. But some otherwise reasonable and decent people clearly have genuine misunderstandings about evolution and other scientific matters. Dismissing their questions as 'silly' (or 'stupid') is not going to win anyone over to the cause. Naïve questions ought to be treated as opportunities to express ideas clearly—and hopefully to enlighten. In the case of revising my FAQ answer, the process also ended up enlightening me: I now know more about monkey evolution than I did previously.

With a new-found, self-righteous determination to treat naïve questions more seriously, shortly after Christmas, I was disappointed to see the following tweet from whoever tweets on behalf of Richard Dawkins [Postscript: Oh, apparently Richard Dawkins does his own tweets these days]:

Yes, it seems like an amusingly stupid question. But is it really? Of course there is only one moon, but the moon in Antarctica is different to the moon in Texas in a number of ways. As I tweeted back to @RichardDawkins:

Not only is the Antarctic moon (pretty much) upside-down compared to how it looks in Texas, but, if you observe it long enough, you will see it cross the sky from right to left; not left to right, as it does in Texas. And it will appear lower in the sky. All of which are fun and interesting observations. I think @RichardDawkins missed an opportunity to explain to the Texan how being in the southern hemisphere affects one's perspective (pace, Wilkins).

So, one of my New Year's resolutions is to try to treat naïve questions more seriously. Which I guess, amongst other things, means I'm going to have to revisit my other frequently asked questions.

But the good news is that my resolution is already paying dividends. Last night, I was at a large dinner-party with my partner Jen's family. I don't know how the conversation turned to Darwin—it usually does when I'm around—but Jen's mum, who is a devout catholic, suddenly asked me why, if we are descended from monkeys, there are still monkeys around. I answered her using the analogy of her two daughters (who were sitting next to her), observing how they are both descended from her, but that she is still around! I could almost hear the penny drop, and was rewarded with the best response I could have hoped for:

You're starting to convince me, Richard!

6 comments on “Treating stupid questions with more respect

  1. Mehmet Akif Kilic

    Well... I can understand your frustration and also 'the degree of silliness'. Unfortunately, when you try to explain evolution to someone who has not slightest understanding of biology, that what happens... Anyway, at least he/she referred to our 'living' closest brothers, rather than saying, Ok, create a cell now!

  2. John the Plumber

    Leading on from your 'rewrite my answer' comes the question, Why did Old World monkeys evolve into apes and humans, but New world monkeys did not?

    What evidence is put forward to explain this?

    An explanation of the absence of ape and human evolving in the New World, could give guidance to why their presence in the Old World.

    You have no doubt pointed out to Jen's mother that a couple of years back, the Vatican did endorse that change and variety in life is as a result of evolution - and that the Pope having a pet cat is better than him having a pet rock.

  3. Richard Carter, FCD Post author

    I'm afraid, as an evangelical cat hater, my views on the Pope were only re-enforced when I heard of his liking for the vile creatures. But, yes, I did point out that the Pope (and lots of other religious leaders) fully accepts evolution as a fact.

    In terms of why New World monkeys didn't evolve into apes/humans, it would be a miracle if they did. No species on earth has evolved twice - that's not how evolution works - although the phenomenon of convergent evolution, where superficially similar (although entirely different) species evolve similar features under similar conditions is extremely interesting (and, I hasten to add, entirely in-line with Darwinian theory).

  4. John the Plumber

    It's difficult not to use the word species (then species human) but I might have better said, 'loosely similar life forms'. [In the way life forms are loosely similar in Hebden Bridge and Bacup (though the sheep tend to come in a common mould.)]

    Loosely then, my question is. - In Africa, from monkeys evolved apes, then humanoids. - Africa is similar South America, with a similar mix of froest and grassland. - But in South America monkeys did not spawn an ape-like creature, ancestor of humanoid-like anything.

    Something limited monkey evolution in the old world. - I wonder what that was?

    The miracle argument (I presume: Even with a myraid variants, for one variant to generate the origin of a new species, it is reliant on a myriad environmental variables - hence we have a limited few species rather than a full spectrum.) works both ways in this particular case. (From a myriad variants, there are reasonable odds that the course of evolution will be similar on two similar continents, when a common ancestor links both continents.) It would be a miracle then if evolution did not follow similarlines.

    This second interpreatation is supported by its effective opposite. - That Australian animals differ considerably from the rest of the world becuase of its long physical and bilogical separation from all other continents.

    As you put it, superficially similar species do evolve under similar conditions. - In Australia, from a different start we have a similar range of type.

    Considering Old and New World monkeys though, then from a similar start to Africa, we might reasonably expect a South American ape-like creature descendant of those monkeys.

    My point is simply, what limited new world monkey evolution?

    Something did - they have no apelike descendants.

    Clearly that same limitation was not present in Africa - or we wouldn't be here, either side of Inchfield Moor, debating the point.

    I wonder how different the last few million years would have been if our origin was New World Monkey not Old World.

  5. John the Plumber

    P.S.

    As for no similar form/species evolving twice, the disappearance of Corals in the early triassic and their re-inventing themselves in the late triassic after a gap of 20 M yrs is an interesting case of such a phenomena, depending on ones interpretation of the word species - and with 26 different definitions to date you will have to choose your own.

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