Seth Godin is a marketing guy, and he recently turned his eye to the evolution-creation wars and offered a marketing perspective. That’s useful, but I don’t think he looked deeply enough, and his suggestions don’t really help much. In particular, he compares the acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution to Newton’s “law of gravity” and tries to extract a message about why one is unquestioned and the other is not.
1. If the story of your marketing requires the prospect to abandon a previously believed story, you have a lot of work to do.
Nobody had a seriously described theory of gravity before Newton named it. No one walks around saying that they have a story about why we stick to the earth better than the gravity story. As a result, there was no existing story or worldview to overthrow. Naming something that people already believe in is very smart marketing.
Actually, there was an existing theory of gravity — several, in fact. The best known was Aristotle’s, who posited that there was a natural place where every object ideally wished to be located. For most solid objects, that ideal place was the center of the earth, and for less substantial objects, like steam and smoke, it was in the heavens, so everything was drawn naturally to it’s optimum destination unless hindered. Simple.
Newton’s laws were accepted by the common people without question because they didn’t know what they were. Ask anyone now, outside of a university at least, and you won’t get many who say ‘G•m1•m2/d2‘, or even understand that he quantitatively described the force of attraction between any two masses. It’s enough that he didn’t say something crazy, like that apples fall up, therefore it was OK.
Godin is right here. Everyone simply takes the force of gravity for granted, so hearing that some smart guy figured out how to calculate the exact magnitude of that force is unchallenging. Evolution is different. There are lots of creation myths around, all of them created out of a complete absence of evidence and describing past phenomenon of which the storytellers had no understanding, and evolution is directly challenging all of them with facts and evidence. So, sure, it makes for a harder sell. It’s not particularly helpful to be told that your product is hard to market, though: it’s the product we’ve got.
2. If the timeframe of the message of your marketing is longer than the attention span (or lifetime) of the person you are marketing to, you have your work cut out for you as well.
Evolution is really slow. Hard to demonstrate it in real time during a school board meeting. Gravity is instantaneous. Baseball players use it every day.
Baseball players do not, however, use Newton’s laws. People can hit a ball with a stick without using a single equation, and had been doing so long before Newton started scribbling. Try going into a schoolboard meeting and convincing them that students need to learn G•m1•m2/d2, rather than that they have to fund supplies for athletics. Then you’ll discover how well established gravity is as an educational essential.
We also have some immediately persuasive props for evolution, too: fossils. Plop a dinosaur bone down in front of students, and it is immediately effective, and far more impressive than bouncing a ball. What you find, though, is immediacy is not enough. Creationists go to great lengths to contrive elaborate rationalizations to dismiss direct demonstrations. There’s something more going on.
Godin’s explanations miss the key points of contention.
Number one is human evolution. All those surveys of people’s attitudes towards evolution experience major shifts if the questions are simply reworded: ask whether they believe humans evolved from apes, and half of Americans will say no. Ask them if animals evolved from simpler forms, and the yes answers surge upwards by tens of percentage points. It is not an objection to evolution in principle, but to evolution as an explanation of their personal history. I’m sure there’s a marketing principle to be stated there.
The second objection is to chance and the lack of purpose. People really, desperately want there to be a personal agency to causality — they become utterly irrational about it all if you try to imply that no, fate, destiny, and ultimate cosmic purpose guided them to their mate, for instance. It couldn’t have been just chance. I suspect this is a consequence of the first contention: people want to believe that they are important agents in the universe, and one of the implications of evolution is that they aren’t.
If a marketing guy wants to help out with the evolution debates, those are ideas I’d like to know how to sell better.