This week, we present two stories about evolution, from one man's journey from creationist to evolutionary biologist, to a sixth-grader's graduation.
Part 1: Adam Andis was raised as a creationist, but grows up to become an evolutionary biologist.
Adam Andis is a PhD student at Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies where he uses population genetics and landscape ecology of vernal pool amphibians to understand ecological and evolutionary dynamics…or to put in more succinctly, he plays with frogs in the woods. In addition to frog-science, Andis also loves designated Wilderness. He was a founding board member of the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance and spends summers guiding wilderness expeditions in Alaska. He loves taking photos, too. You can check them out on Instagram @azandis
Part 2: In grade school, Angel Yau excels at science -- because her mom does all her work.
Angel Yau is a storyteller, sketch comedian and filmmaker from Queens, New York. She began her comedy career (unintentionally) writing her high school student government speech. She's been featured on the Risk! and Mortified podcasts. Her performances were apart of the Seattle Sketchfest, New York Sketchfest, North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, Women in Comedy festival and more! Currently, she has a monthly show called, "VHS Present" where storytellers bring their home videos and childhood creations back to life. She is working on an autobiographical, stop- motion animation series. She is also part of AzN PoP!, the first all Asian- American female sketch group to have a run at UCB Theater in NY. She finds humor in solitude, rejection and alienation.
Part 1: Adam Andis
So I’m from the heartland of the United States in the Midwest. When I was first born, my family and I lived in a trailer home on the hills and the outskirts of this town called Gnaw Bone, Indiana. We went to the kind of church where people regularly spoke in tongues, and travelling evangelists would come and they would cast out demons. We believed in faith healing.
It’s a kind of church where people were baptized in cattle troughs or in bathtubs or in pools. Really, any time that there's standing water seems like a good excuse to have your second or third or fourth baptism, it seemed like.
So eventually, my parents divorced and we moved to a new, more progressive church. But I have to say “progressive” with very, very heavy air quotes because this is the same Indiana church consortium that we shared with now-Vice President Mike Pence. So it’s only progressive in context.
But it was at this church that a leading speaker really inspired my trajectory in life. The speaker was from an organization called Answers in Genesis, and the organization’s mission is to expel the dogma of evolution and replace it with a biblical interpretation of the creation story.
So the speaker told us about how the stories in Genesis are real. The world was really created in six days, just as it says in the book, and that happened about six thousand years ago. That Noah’s flood really did occur and it lasted for about a year, four thousand years ago. And that everyone spoke the same language before the Tower of Babel, that giants really existed, like Goliath from the story of David and Goliath.
But, more importantly, it told about the earth before the flood, that there was this hydrogen firmament that enveloped the globe and it kept in higher concentrations of oxygen and humidity. It also filtered out all the blue light so it cast the whole globe in this rosy hue.
During the flood, there were these giant geysers that shot up through the earth’s crust, and this is what created the tectonic action that created mountains and inscribed things like the Grand Canyon into the crust of the earth. But those geysers also broke the firmament. All that hydrogen came raining down as rain, which caused a global flood and, of course, it released all the oxygen which led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Because dinosaurs are denser and heavier, they were the first to settle in this newly formed sediment of the flood, which is why we have stratification in the fossil record.
So I’m this ten-year-old kid sitting in the pew and I am just enrapt because this gentleman has just handed me this story that perfectly weds everything that I knew and loved about the natural world from science and fit it to this narrative that I knew and love from the Bible. At that moment, I knew what my path in life was. I was going to be a world-renowned creation scientist.
So I took it seriously, and I bought every book that my meager ten-year-old savings could afford from this gentleman and I memorized everything that I could. All the facts and explanations that those books afforded, I just soaked it up. But the thing that those books really taught me was that the biggest obstacle I would face as a creation scientist was the systematic bias against alternative theories perpetuated by the secular scientific establishment.
So in addition to having these facts and explanations, I also had this moral imperative that I was a crusader of the truth. So I marched off to school with this moral imperative and with this very literal explanation of how the world works.
Any time a biology teacher in high school would tell me about speciation and how two animals could come from a common ancestor, I would say, “That’s absurd. Because think about it. if you have a crocodile and a hummingbird, to think that they could come from the same species due to nothing but random genetic mutations, that’s like thinking a tornado could come through a junkyard and create a perfectly formed Boeing 747. Or that a chicken randomly plucking at a keyboard could draft a perfect facsimile of Moby Dick.”
Or if someone brought up transition fossils or transition species like Archaeopteryx, a feathered dinosaur, and claim that it was a transition between reptiles and birds, I would say, “Why couldn’t it just be a dinosaur with feathers? After all, platypuses have a duckbill and a leathery tail like a beaver, but we don’t think that they're transition species between beavers and ducks.”
So I really followed this martyr’s errand because I was—I was a crusader. I took this all the way through my undergrad. I went to a little school in northern Wisconsin and I kind of shifted my focus and gravitated more towards ecology and environmental studies rather than taking evolutionary biology head on.
But one of the amazing things about this school that I was surprised was to meet all of these people who had wildly different backgrounds than I had experienced in Indiana. And these people who lived very different lifestyles. So I met folks who were gay, who were transsexual, who were atheists, people who had very, very disparate ideas than anything I had ever experienced.
One of the things that surprised me the most was that, from everything that I'd read in the Bible, these are some of the most Jesus-like people I’d ever met. They were kind, they were compassionate, they were generous, and I really struggled for a long time with this. Because the moral compass that I was given in the Bible told me that these folks are amoral, but my kind of internal moral compass told me that these are wonderful people and it shouldn’t really matter who they chose to love or how they choose to live. I struggled with this for a really long time.
The only way that I could kind of make those two arrows of the compass align was through really arduous Bible verse cherry-picking or these kind of theological acrobatics and justifications. But one of the tenets of creationism is that the book is a literal document. It was written the way it was meant to be interpreted. It’s not in play to try and cherry-pick and make justifications.
So all this struggle kind of precipitated into this slow erosion of my faith and the literal nature of the Bible. I realized that it probably wasn’t meant to be taken literally and, in a lot of instances, it was probably just flat-out wrong.
The wonderful thing that happened because of that realization is that it absolved me of the need to try and shoehorn all of the facts I knew from science into this proscribed narrative. I felt like I had been spending years just trying to pound puzzle pieces together that I just couldn’t get them to fit and then someone had delivered me a box with all the missing pieces and everything started to fit together.
So as I was progressing away from creationism, my parents were moving in the opposite direction.
So this was really my reawakening to science. I set a new trajectory in life that brought me here to Yale. Now I study ecology and evolutionary dynamics. But every time I would go home I would see a new book on my parents’ bookshelf, like Taking Back Biology or The Truth in the Fossil Record, or The Greatest Hoax on Earth. And they started going on vacation to the Creation Science Museum in Kentucky, which is great. On the foyer in the entryway, there's an animatronic dinosaur playing with an animatronic kid because, before the flood, dinosaurs and humans walked on earth at the same time.
It’s been really hard for me especially because I know how I felt about people in my position when I was a creationist, the kind of ivory tower academic elite who are advocating for the secular agenda and just trying to sweep away and obscure any evidence of creationism. It’s really sad to have this perspective and to know that my parents… I’m probably the only first-generation college student whose parents are disappointed that he's getting a PhD.
For the most part, it’s been easier to just avoid all these conversations. We tend not to talk about what I do now.
But I was on this seven-hour drive from Denver, Colorado to Telluride for my brother’s wedding and we had lots of time on our hands and there are all these questions that I just never thought to ask, or subconsciously intentionally never thought to ask maybe, when I was a creationist that I’m just dying to ask. So I asked my stepdad about the Noah’s Ark story.
Noah was building an ark for two of every animal to survive a global flood. So I asked him in the creation theory, all species that we've ever found in the fossil record had to have existed at the same time. Which means that Noah, when he was building this ark for two of every animal, must have also intended for every species, including dinosaurs, to fit on this floating box. And that seems like an untenable amount of biomass.
But my stepdad didn’t really even miss a beat and said, “Well, obviously Noah took baby dinosaurs,” which is an attractively plausible explanation. So even if Noah did take baby dinosaurs, how was he able to provide habitat for both a Namib sand gecko and a polar bear before the era of modern climate control? Or how was he able to provide food for obligate feeders like koalas that only eat eucalyptus or monarchs that only eat milkweed?
There are endless questions that you could ask to poke holes in these theories, but in the end, there's also an endless number of equally plausible answers. I think that’s the thing that my ten years as a creationist really impressed upon me is an appreciation of story and the realization that no matter how great the facts are that every scientist or however robust my evidence is, it’s only as good as the narrative in which it’s embedded.
So while I'd like to think that, for me, being a better scientist just means being a better storyteller, when I look back at my own progression, it really wasn’t the facts or the stories that made me change my mind. It was the people. So I’m starting to think now that for me to be a better scientist, it’s more about the infinitely harder task of just being a better person, of being the kind of person that people inherently trust, and the kind of person who has the patience to walk with someone along their journey of discovery.
I know I’m a long way from that, and I still have probably a lot of self-discovery in myself to go through, but, in essence, it’s just like everything that I love about science. No matter where you are, there's always a ton more to discover and a lot more work to do.
Part 2: Angel Yau
So I won my first science fair project in first grade. We had to create the solar system, and mine was the best. It was carefully detailed, it was created with finesse, and it was just a great piece of art that my mom made for me.
So that felt really good, guys, but it was a secret that I lived throughout all my life and it felt good to just let it out. But I have another secret. My mom did all my science projects.
So you see, my mom was a stay-at-home mom at that time and I was the only child. My dad kind of coaxed her to come to live in America. Then he tricked her to marry him. Just kidding. They're in love. Yes, they're still in love. Thank you.
So my dad was getting a degree in interior design at FIT at the time, but he thought that he should stop putting money into this degree and just start working so he could start a new family and so he could give money into that. Because of that sacrifice, my mom was grateful, but she felt trapped. My dad was an old-fashioned guy so my mom was just at home all the time cleaning and cooking and taking care of me.
But then when I got into school and started doing all these projects, that was kind of her time to shine. Guys, we won like every year mostly because, to be fair, we lived in kind of a poor school district. I just remembered this girl, Annie. She would photocopy a chapter of a book and hand it to the teacher and she was like, “I typed it on a computer and here is my report.” This was the early nineties so computers weren’t that popular, but I’m like, “Annie, come on. We could see the edges of the paper.” At least just put a cover on that report.
So not a lot of competition. And then sixth grade comes around and that was kind of like the last project. We wanted to win because that was the last year before I go to junior high school and high school so it would suck if we didn’t win.
Earlier that year, we did a – excuse me, my mom did a report on acid rain so she thought we should do something about pollution. So I was like, "Yeah, sure. It sounds great. Pollution sounds good.” Then she would come to me, and she went to the school library and the public library and just borrowed all these books about, you know, science. I would just look at reruns of Mutant Ninja Turtles and I’m like, Oh my God, cartoon pizza looks so delicious.
My mom would be, “When do you want to collect this polluted water?” and I’m like, “Later.”
A week later, she's like, “Come on. Let’s collect some polluted water.” I’m like, “All right.”
Then a week later, she's like, “The project is due in a week and we have not collected any polluted water.” She's like, “Let’s go to Costco.”
So the Costco by us, there's this kind of like a lake behind it and it’s, like, near factories. I guess, to my mom, it was just the dirtiest water there was in New York. So that was where we decided to collect the water in.
So it’s my dad, my mom, and me. My dad’s driving the construction van, because that’s what he does, and we’re going to buy bulk food anyway. Might as well since we’re at Costco.
So we drive there and we get to the water and we realize it’s so hard to get to the water. There's like a wall and then we would have to climb down these rocks. There's no way.
My mom got so angry, she's like, “Why do you always do things last minute, Angel? This is impossible.”
Then my dad, he thought of getting… he had these takeout containers, like the cylinder ones. He put holes in them and he had string. He just fashioned this and he made, like, this pail. So we just went to the edge. Hopefully, no one was watching us. And I kind of dipped, collected the water with the pail. It took a few times, but we finally got the water and it was great.
So since it was due in a week, we kind of fudged the data a little bit. We microwaved the plants to make it look a little bit more gross than it was. And we won. We won.
Thanks. Guys, did you know that polluted water is worse for plants than not polluted water? What a great discovery, right?
So then a few months before sixth-grade graduation, my teacher pulled me to the side. She's like, “Come here, Angel.” I was like, She knows. She knows everything. I’m a fraud. She's going to be like, “Give me back all those ribbons, give me back all those A-plus-plus pluses.”
She was like, “Angel, all the sixth grade teachers decided that not only you have great grades but you're the sweetest girl. We think that you should be the valedictorian of the elementary school.”
At first I was like, There's valedictorian in elementary school? But then she was like, “Your parents would be proud.”
Then I was like, First of all, Asian parents are never proud. They're never proud of their kids. Secondly, I just felt like a fraud. Like my mom did all this and I didn’t do anything. Now, I’m placed number one.
It’s funny because I always overhear my parents talking on the phone with their relatives in China and Hong Kong and, apparently, the school system there everyone is ranked. Like if you're best, you're number one, and if you're average you're number two hundred and fifty-two, or whatever. So my relatives are always asking what’s my number, so I’m glad we don’t have that in America.
Now, I’m like, Now my mom could say I’m number one.
But feeling guilty, I just took that one sentence my teacher said. She was like, “You're also really sweet.” So I’m like, My mom, I didn’t copy that from my mom. I’m sweet on my own. That’s why I got valedictorian.
Then, also, we had to make a speech for being valedictorian. So this is the last thing I have to do during sixth grade, grade school. I’m going to write this speech on my own. That meaning I borrowed a book. It was Tricks and Treats for Kids. And there were articles like “How to Make Your Own Business,” by Mrs. Fields, or “How You Can Be A Good Neighbor,” by Mr. Rogers. And then my favorite, “How You Can Get Mighty Biceps,” by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
All these articles are for kids and they're just inspiring. So I kind of took like bits and pieces of it for my speech.
So I have a treat for you guys. I have my speech. I’m going to read it to you. But before I read it, I just want to say I always question my smartness because of my mom. Because my teachers and peers they're like, “She's the smartest girl,” but they don’t know that I procrastinate a lot, I’m lazy, I like to cut corners, I have to read things at least five times before it gets in my head because I can’t retain information.
So when I was reading this speech earlier recently, I was like, I think I really did learn something from my mom.
So here’s the speech. I’m going to try to read it like a twelve-year-old Angel Yau. It was in Howard Beach, Queens.
To give context, and I always give this context about Howard Beach, Queens, it’s the New Jersey of Queens. I was the only Asian. That’s another. So here’s the speech.
“Good morning, Mrs. Gerimeda, parents, and students. Hi. My name is Angel Yau, and I will be doing the final speech for this morning.
First of all, I would like to congratulate everyone for being here. You all deserve it. You've already learned much of what it takes to be successful in elementary school. It’s much the same no matter what kind of school you're attending or what work you're doing. If you want to know what being successful is, it’s a combination of doing and wishing. Wishes can always come true so you can certainly start by doing.
The most important part of being successful is learning to think for yourself. Now, thinking for yourself is the single most important part of your life. That means seeing your options, learning to make smart decisions, and taking responsibility for your own actions. It also means being aware of what’s around you.
So you make some mistakes along the way. It’s all right. We all make mistakes. At least you tried.
I have found that in order to be successful, you must determine what you want, what your goal is. That’s what graduation is all about. Who here is aware of the wonderful world around us, the opportunities, and much more?
But first we have to thank all our teachers throughout the years, especially sixth-grade teachers, Ms. Cantrell, Ms. Carlson, Mr. Goodman, Mr. RIalo, faculty and our office people. We also have to thank our principal, Mrs. Gerimeda.
Lastly, we want to give our hand to our parents because I know that each and every one of us have supporting parents and they're always trying to help us along the way.
As you build your own path, always remember that there are so many people who want to help you, your friends, your family, and teachers. They can help you, but remember, you have to help yourself.
Study hard. I hope you do well in the future. Yesterday is the past, today is here, and there is always tomorrow.
That’s the best advice I can give you. So all you have to do is this. Think first, think fast, and be yourself.”