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Lucy Tours US
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Currently, the Lucy specimen, a 40% complete skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis, is making a tour of the US.

There's a lot of talk going on over at ScienceBlogs about how to promote science to the general public. There are two deeply divided factions: those that think that scientific theories that potentially conflict with the public's religious views should be couched in sensitive ways to avoid conflict, and those that think evidence and theories should be presented without any sort of sugar-coating, even if they potentially threaten religious beliefs. I personally favor the second approach, if you haven't already guessed.

I do wonder what most people who read the morning newspaper in their respective state think when they see a headline about Lucy visiting their local museum. I make the assumption that most people in the US just don't know a whole heck of a lot about evolution, specifically human origins. But it seems to me there are two initial reactions to hearing such a story: curiosity and a desire to follow up and learn a bit more, or dismissal.

When it comes to views of the age of the Earth and the lineage of humanity, three views are probably the most prevalent in America today:

1) The earth is relatively young (e.g. 10,000 years old), and god created the Earth and species very much like they exist today.

2) The earth is much older (e.g. several billion years old), and god worked through universal laws he created to allow things like the Grand Canyon to arise over processes that took millions of years. Species today are the result of a tree of life that began with a single species and fanned out through evolution to give rise to the species we see today, but god guided this process.

3) All the stuff in #2, but without god.

There is the possibility that most people just don't care. This might be true, but is an awfully strange point of view for any thinking person. Most people are interested in the history of their families, and this makes want to know what sort of stuff you're made of and where you came from. Also, there's an awful lot of seemingly conflicting information that has to fit into some kind of mental framework. For example, a lot of Americans saw Jurassic Park and they've at least heard about dinosaurs. They have to reconcile them into one of the three views above.

The first type, young-earth creationists, tend to cherry-pick scientific findings that support their ideas, while rejecting those that don't. And they often end up having to tell very strange stories about dinosaurs dying in the flood or hominid fossils really belonging to people with extreme gout.

I personally don't see how you can soft-peddle such something like Lucy, who is estimated to be about 3.2 million years old. We know she was female, and that she walked upright, because of the features of her hip and leg bones. I think it's irresponsible to try to present what is known about a fossil like Lucy in a way that makes people feel comfortable about their religious beliefs. You pretty much just have to lay out what is known, and what isn't, and let people decide.

Some people are going to make excuses and reject it out of hand. Others are going to compartmentalize, maybe believe it, but stick it in a box as isolated information that doesn't tie together with anything else. And others are going to incorporate this information, but may have to do some rearranging. My guess is that people mostly either ignore/reject, while a lesser number compartmentalize, and even fewer end up changing their perspective.

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