I’m writing this on International Darwin Day: Charles Darwin’s 202nd birthday. In honor of the occasion I created some special street art this morning at our downtown Farmers Market, depicting a classic portrait of Darwin being bussed by a living, breathing “missing link”, the famous Tiktaalik of the Devonion (discovered by Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish, reviewed on this blog). It was a bit of “in the moment” inspiration to add the word balloons that had Darwin saying “Mom?”, and Tiktaalik saying “Son!”. Inspired by Alaskan artist Ray Troll’s droll song “Your Mamma is a Lobe Finned Fish”, I added the phrase “our momma was a lobe-finned fish”.
Needless to say, a lot of people seemed confused (though the creationists that expressed themselves were not what I would call “confused” about the message of my art). But it was a great opportunity to tell people that it was International Darwin Day, and talk about the discovery of Tiktaalik (a recent discovery, and a beautiful example of a transitional form between our ocean-dwelling and early tetrapod ancestors). I wasn’t being facetious calling Tiktaalik “mom”, because she represents the fish body plan upon which our modern human bodies are based (after all, evolution and natural selection can only work upon what is available, adapting and mutating, but never creating anything new from whole cloth, as it were).
As the morning progressed, and my street painting took shape, I became aware of an interesting dynamic. Several people complimented me on my work, adding a tag such as “It’s really great…and brave”. Brave? I began to realize there were moments where I felt as if I were drawing a pornographic picture that some people felt they needed to shield their children from. One woman remarked as she walked past me “You don’t look like the type!” (later she came back by, and I asked “What type is that?”, to which she replied “A Darwinist”). As I was telling one group of people that Tiktaalik was our ancestor, an older woman (with her military veteran husband — he had the ball cap) turned away as she huffed “that’s not one of MY ancestors!”.
One man asked me what I thought of Darwin (only later did it occur to me that the painting could have been taken as satire as well). Turned out he was evangelical, and tried out the line of “well, that’s (meaning Darwinism) a religion too”. I told him it wasn’t, as science is based on evidence, and so scientific “beliefs” change based upon new evidence, unlike religions.
One woman really liked the work, and told me so, but also said “That’s pretty brave to do around here”. Assuming she was referring to the prominence of Catholicism, I said “But the Catholic Church officially accepts evolution”. “Yeah, but still…” she said, in a sort of lowered voice.
We humans are idiots. That’s what I felt like shouting. Here I am, in 2012, making a statement supported by hundreds of years of science and evidence from geology, anthropology, paleontology, archeology, cosmology, biology and genetics, knowing full well that only about 20 percent of those passing by in this public market are going to be people that truly accept that evidence as the best understanding of where we humans came from. I felt more like I was living in the intellectual middle ages.
Of course, to be fair, there were many, many people who were thrilled to see such an unequivocal expression of, well, reason. One young woman snapped lots of pictures to send to her boyfriend who was going to be attending a Darwin Day Dinner in (of all places) Midland, Texas that night.
Lots of people thought I was drawing a fish, or an alligator, or a salamander. But that’s about par for the course (I’ve become enough of a nerd about this stuff that I often gush about arcane details in that annoying, geeky way). But Darwin, everybody knew. Especially those that view him as an anti-Christ (quite literally, the god of a false and competing religion).
“You’ve been getting pretty political lately” a nearby herb vendor (who happened, by the way, to be the spitting image of the gray, fully-bearded Darwin I was drawing!). I guess that’s true.
I’m always walking that line between entertainment and evangelism, stumbling over it this way and that.
A great many people are really, really uncomfortable with the idea that we humans are descended from earlier life forms. I understand that discomfort only because I know it to be a reality that I have observed myself. But I’ve moved so far beyond such a view that I find it increasingly difficult to comprehend.
For myself, I am comforted, fascinated, humbled and intrigued by the facts of evolution. Today, as I painted (for the first time) my little life-sized Tiktaalik, crawling across the street in my hometown, I truly felt a kinship: as if I was, indeed, making a portrait of my own grandmother. And why shouldn’t I feel that way? The very hands I used to create the painting are the same ones that made up Tiktaalik’s front fins/feet (the same bones, the same structure). My hands are connected to wrist and upper arm bones and a shoulder structure that were present in Tiktaalik. My internal plumbing bears the marks of that earliest walking fish body. That chalk fish and I are the same creature, separated only by millions of years of gradual (and sometimes rapid) evolutionary adaptation, mutation and natural selection.
The evangelist in me wishes to share those feelings and insights with my fellow hominids, and so I took my message to the streets.
Now I can’t wait to paint “Lucy” for Mother’s Day weekend.
Tags: birthday, bob diven, chalk art, Charles Darwin, creationism, evolutions, humor, International darwin day, las cruces farmers and crafts market, neil shubin, ray troll, street art, street painting, the church of bob, the not-so-reverend bob, tiktaalik, your momma was a lobe finned fish