Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Evolution is the "E word" in the South

When I was a Biology major back in Turkey, one day we decided to go to the Ankara Zoo with friends. I had not been there since my childhood, because back then, I was traumatized by how bad the conditions were for the animals. I remember my parents decided to leave the zoo without even seeing all the exhibits because I was crying. Years later, my visit there was slightly a better experience because the conditions seemed to have improved but there still was a lot of improvements needed to be made.

I tend to volunteer myself for big tasks (and at the time I was so inexperienced that I had no idea what I was getting myself into). I decided: "I am gonna fix this zoo!" Long story short, I put together a project plan, got some support from a popular science magazine in Turkey, gathered more than 100 volunteer university students around me and tried to "fix the zoo" in several ways. Maybe accomplished 30% of the things I wanted to accomplish, but the experience was invaluable. This was our logo:

Since then I have a "thing" for the zoos. Especially after seeing some zoos in Europe and the USA, I think if it is run properly a zoo can be beneficial in a lot of aspects. And one of these is educating the young ones.

So, I move to New Orleans for my graduate studies in 2005 (right before the Hurricane Katrina - I know, I know!I tend to have great timing!). After the city started recovering from the hurricane, and the Audubon Zoo reopened, I decided to volunteer there on the weekends. In order to volunteer, you have to take a course at the zoo (lasts about 2-3 months). Every week someone from one section of the zoo comes over and informs you about the animals at that section, how things work there and what you are expected to do if you choose to volunteer with them.

Towards the middle of the volunteer course, I was completely in love with the zoo and that week was "The Education Department"s turn. This mid-aged lady, who, we were told, was the head of the education department and had been at the zoo for more than 20 years, started talking about the "Discovery Walk". This is a section at the zoo where volunteers have either live animals or skeletons, shells, shed skins, feathers etc... of animals for the visitors to see and touch and learn. So, she explains us how we would talk to the visitors (who are usually kids). And she makes this shocking remark with her Southern accent:

No matter what you tell them, you should never ever use the "E WORD"

E word??? What the hell is the E word????

Turns out she is talking about EVOLUTION!

As soon as we realize this, one of the girls in the class got up, all frustrated, she argued with her but the "E word lady" was not going to step back (you should have seen the traces of disgust on her face when she actually had to say "evolution"), so the rightfully-frustrated girl said "I refuse to volunteer for such a bigoted institution. Evolution is the corner stone of biology." and she left.

At that point I did not want to leave and close all the doors of communication. I stayed and discussed. And then that night I wrote a letter to the volunteer department at the zoo (cc'ed anyone I could think of) and protested the situation but I said I will still volunteer if they are open to discuss this. (I tend to be too peaceful sometimes probably). In the end, I was told that they will not mention evolution as "E word" in the classes however I do not think they changed their policy about not mentioning evolution to the kids. I ended up volunteering because the volunteer coordinator there is a great person (actually everyone but the E-word Lady is great there) and it seemed to me that she was quite hopeless about the "E-word lady" who had been working there for such a long time that there was no way to weed her out of "a beautiful garden" with so much potential.

This is a great example of the situation today in Louisiana (and probably many other Southern states). As a result, I was not surprised about the news e-mail I received today from Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology that stated:

Our Executive Committee has tackled two activities that include our stand on rejecting New Orleans as a viable meeting site for 2011 due to Louisiana’s passage of an evolution-unfriendly education bill [...].
Good protest there, although my take on such issues is, if one is unhappy about a situation, yes they should protest, but also should try to make a positive contribution to change the way things are. Maybe SICB has plans to do something positive besides protesting, I do not know that.

I wish I had time and energy for trying to change the situation at the Audubon Zoo, but I felt like it would be more efficient for me use whatever time and energy I have to take a direction in creating an education opportunity (which is what we have been doing with Hard-workers for Evolution by translating Berkeley's Understanding Evolution into Turkish) instead of fighting against a deeply-rooted problem in an unknown swampy land where I am just an outsider.

I hope the bright people of Big Easy will take this issue in hand and maybe one day contribute for a brighter future (or maybe they'll just keep on partying :)


  1. Good post, Duygu. Sometimes it is heart-breaking to see that "not that great minds also think alike": see:

  2. I do tend to act too peaceful :) Maybe I, also, should have protested and left the class. To this day, I am still not sure but I think my conversation with and peaceful attitude towards the Audubon Zoo staff (except for the E-word lady of course) might have made a difference and made them think about how important evolutionary theory is for biology. (We had looong conversations).

  3. I don't know. No matter how much you explain, if they don't want to see it, they won't. So it depends who did you explain it to :) (or shall I say, depends who you poison to?!)

  4. In this case, I did not even bother talking to the E-word lady. But choosing to communicate lead me to inform the volunteer coordinator and make her more aware of this situation.

    I think this is a little case dependent and maybe being peaceful and acting after thinking is a good way to go. For example in your case, as you wrote on your blog, you can tell them the topic is "astrobiology" and give your lecture by covering evolution :) If you just shut the door instead, there is no room for improvement.

  5. I don't know. It really depends on the situation but most probably I wouldn't have stayed there either.

    But then I wouldn't have gotten the chance to watch those jaguars and smell their pee, would I :p