Listener Holly Dunsworth says she doesn’t need faith or hope to believe evolution. The Penn State paleoanthropologist says evolution “just is.” It helps Dunsworth understand how she came to be and how humans are connected to all living things.
I believe evolution. It’s easy. It’s my life. I’m a paleoanthropologist. I study fossils of humans, apes, and monkeys, and I teach college students about their place in nature.
Of course I believe evolution.
But that is different from believing in evolution.
To believe in something takes faith, trust, effort, strength. I need none of these things to believe evolution. It just is. My health is better because of medical research based on evolution. My genetic code is practically the same as a chimpanzee’s. My bipedal feet walk on an earth full of fossil missing links. And when my feet tire, those fossils fuel my car.
To believe in something also implies hope. Hope of happiness, reward, forgiveness, eternal life. There is no hope wrapped up in my belief. Unless you count the hope that one day I’ll discover the most beautifully complete fossil human skeleton ever found, with a label attached saying exactly what species it belonged to, what food it ate, how much it hunted, if it could speak, if it could laugh, if it could love, and if it could throw a curveball. But this fantasy is not why I believe evolution — as if evolution is something I hope comes true.
After all the backyard bone collecting I did as a child, I managed to carve out a career where I get to ask the ultimate question on a daily basis: “Where did I come from and how?” If our beliefs are important enough, we live our lives in service to them. That’s how I feel about evolution. My role as a female Homo sapiens is to return each summer to Kenya, dig up fossils, and piece together our evolutionary history. Scanning the ground for weeks, hoping to find a single molar, or gouging out the side of a hill, one bucket of dirt at a time, I’m always in search of answers to questions shared by the whole human species. The experience deepens my understanding not just about what drives my life, but all our lives, where we came from. And the deeper I go, the more I understand that everything is connected. A bullfrog to a gorilla, a hummingbird to me, to you.
My belief is not immutable. It is constantly evolving with accumulating evidence, new knowledge, and breakthrough discoveries. For example, within my lifetime, our history has expanded from being rooted three million years ago with the famous Lucy skeleton, to actually beginning over six million years ago with a cranium from Chad. The metamorphic nature of my belief is not at all like a traditional religious one, it’s more like seeing is believing.
So I believe evolution.
I feel it. I breathe it. I listen to evolution, I observe it, and I do evolution. I write, study, analyze, scrutinize, and collect evolution. I am evolution.
Holly Dunsworth is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. She co-directs excavations on an island in the Kenyan waters of Lake Victoria, where the fossils date back some 18 million years.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Photo by Caitlin Schrein.
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