Cristián Samper on Appreciating Evolution

The director of the Natural History Museum discusses why understanding evolution is so critical

Cristián Samper, evolutionary biologist and the director of Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, discusses his favorite evotourism sites. (Brendan Smialowski)
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One of the things I love is seeing my kids’ reaction to the Hall of Human Origins. We have a 5-year-old daughter, and that may be her favorite hall in the whole museum.  She loves it. She’s been through it so many times that she can give a pretty good guided tour. She’ll walk through it and talk about the Turkana Boy and how it had an abscess and that’s why she has to brush her teeth.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about evolution?
One of the things we always deal with is the issue of evolution and creationism. When we were preparing the Hall of Human Origins, we spent a lot of time thinking about that and understanding it, and one of the pleasant surprises we learned was that the major faiths actually don’t have any problem or issue with evolution itself.

Another misconception is that it’s a question of whether or not you believe in evolution. Evolution is happening. The evidence is absolutely clear. As a term, evolution just means change over time. There are still some questions about how evolution happens: What are the underlying mechanisms, is there punctuated equilibrium, questions about how slow or fast it happens.

One big misconception is that evolution is this thing in the deep past—whereas in reality, evolution is happening all around us. If you think about agricultural crops, the things we eat, we are shaping evolution and evolution is happening all the time.

Rejecting evolution itself is just like being blind to the beautiful natural world that surrounds us. And if it weren’t for evolution by natural selection, we wouldn’t be here having this conversation.

Why is it important for people to understand evolution?
Because, first, we are the product of evolution through natural selection. The science has come so far, through both the fossil evidence and the genetic evidence, that we are really starting to understand our own human history in a fascinating way. 

It’s been a journey of six and a half million years [of hominid evolution], with multiple evolutionary dead ends. We happen to be one little branch of that enormous tree of life that made it. We almost didn’t make it. It’s so important in understanding who we are.

Also because evolution through natural selection shaped the whole world around us. And of course we are intimately tied to the world and we are impacting it.

Take agriculture and the things we rely on for food and nutrition. We as humans have had an enormous impact by influencing natural selection. Through all the early attempts at agriculture and people selecting various traits, we’ve become a force in evolution.

We are also having an impact on evolution in terms of accelerating the rate of extinction. Many species would have gone extinct anyway, but I have no doubt that we are actually accelerating the rate of extinction of a bunch of species. In many ways, our activities are shaping the future of life on earth.

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