Escape From the Woo Zoo: My Total Perspective Vortex, and Aiding and Abetting Others
In my second year as a biology student at the University of South Carolina, I begun to get my feet wet in courses beyond the standard BIO 101, 102, 110, and 120. That first semester, I took courses on molecular biology, evolutionary biology, organic chemistry, and what would prove to be my favorite course, cellular biology. These classes went far beyond the basics we’d all learned about ATP and Natural Selection in the basic introductory courses. Most of them required a level of studying on my part that I’d never had to bother with before, and I had mostly professors who expected a high degree of performance from their students, in both class and the laboratory.
My cellular biology professor was one of these. From India, he was a highly accomplished doctor, humorless, and expected no less of us than total comprehension of the material we would cover, as much so that we understood it on the same level he did. He had no tolerance for anything less than perfect attendance and attention in his class, and anyone whispering or giggling in the back of the room would be asked to leave without a warning. I knew I was going to be putting long hours into this textbook. In the end, I thanked him for his strict policy, because what he taught changed my view of life as I knew it.
On our first day of class, he asked us to raise our hand if we believed in evolution. My hand shot up immediately, and I glanced around the room, expecting a unified response. To my surprise and bafflement, only about half the hands in the room were up. I live in the bible belt, yes, but this was not a course a business or liberal arts major would take as an elective. What were these dozen or so kids doing in this cellular biology class, who didn’t even believe in evolution? I was immensely curious how their own beliefs would shape their views on what we would learn, and I would eventually find out.
Halfway through the semester, we were put into groups of four or five to work on a project involving several topics, like Eucaryotic gene transcription. Poring over the textbooks and the many diagrams, I experienced my first (of two*) moments where I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. The folding of proteins, the millions of simple molecular bindings and movements that allowed for each and every tiny process, all these motions and reactions that came together in a symphony, to work perfectly in harmony that created the simplest form of life – LIFE. From chemical bonds and protein chains and membranes that would allow certain molecules in and others out, these complex but individually merely chemical reactions that were NOT life, came together to create a single cell that was complex and beautiful nearly beyond comprehension. In that moment, I got it. I saw the big picture for the first time, how amazing and infinitely complex and miraculous life was on such a simple level, and could extrapolate that understanding to plants, to animals, to ME. Even more awe inspiring by orders of magnitude. How this could have evolved after billions of years, I had a grasp of the time frame, the process, the beauty of life itself.
*The second time I felt shoved into the total perspective vortex and had a momentary grasp on my place in the universe, was when looking at a picture of the Butterfly Nebula, but that is another story.
The only thing I know that can convey a sense of what I felt that day is this video from BioVisions at Harvard University.
My classmates noticed my sudden silence, and, I’m sure, awestruck and open-jawed look on my face. Asking me what was up, I burst into a passionate (and hopefully coherent) monologue about evolution, life, complexity, everything I was feeling. Several of my team brought up intelligent design, and tried to use my words as an argument for a creator. Because I was also taking a class on evolutionary biology at the time, I was able for once to tie the two topics together with an eloquence I’d have trouble duplicating. I didn’t know then whether anything I said made a difference. I did eventually notice my strict professor standing nearby, listening. I expected to be reprimanded for getting the group off topic, but he said nothing, and let us animatedly discuss evolution vs. creationism until the class was over.
At the end of the semester, my professor asked us again to raise our hand if we believed in evolution. All hands went up, save for six or so. Again, I looked around. All the students who were part of the discussion we had had a month or so ago had their hands in the air. I couldn’t help but smile. I don’t know if what I felt and said and argued passionately for that day played a part in changing their mind, but I think for one or two of them it did. I like to think I helped play a part in pulling a couple souls out of the Woo Zoo by my own sheer enthusiasm, aiding and abetting.
Featured image credit: ex_magician