Making Sense of Evolution Myths and Misconceptions
Getting to Grips with a Theory
It is said that if you understand evolution, you don't know nearly enough about it. More than 150 years have passed since the publication of On the Origin of Species where Charles Darwin published his compelling evidence that all life on Earth evolved through a process called natural selection. This ground-breaking publication is still causing waves across the world as people struggle to reconcile their personal beliefs on creation with scientific fact (in scientific lexicon, the word theory has a very specific meaning, namely an explanation backed up with evidence.)
The aim of this hub is not to convince anyone one way or the other. The point of this hub is to outline the myths and misconceptions held on both sides of the evolution debate. Perhaps if we spent time engaging with each other, rather than bickering, we could find common ground. Evolution does not disregard, diminish or destroy God or any concept of a deity.
Relativism in a Nutshell
1. It doesn't matter if people don't understand/accept evolution
Many people, particularly those outside of the scientific and religious communities don't see the point of all the bickering between the two sides. After all, the world will keep spinning and life will go on, regardless of the view points of a given individual. On the face of it, this seems a sensible argument, but delve a little deeper and you can see the danger of this misconception.
What if an evolution-denier became President or Prime Minister of a Western Power? Evolution is directly relevent to many policy decisions in fields as diverse as agriculture, fisheries, hospital policy and national security. We live in a technological world that demands scientific literacy, any nation that ignores the scientific method will fall behind.
Ultimately it is not good enough to state that all opinions are equally valid (known as relativism). Making policy decisions based on faith positions instead of using evidence is foolish at best, dangerous at worst.
Hypothesis - a proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence, as a starting point for further investigation
Relativism - a philosophical view that states there is no such thing as 'absolute truth'
Theory - a collection or system of ideas intended to explain something, based on empirical evidence.
2.The Sky is the Limit!
Proponents of evolution usually state that evolution is 'limitless creative' and at first glance this idea seems to have some merit. Not only do you look at the variation between fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, bacteria and the myriad of other Phyla in the living world, but look at the difference between a kipper and a deep-sea angler fish. Evolution seems to have invented the jet engine (squid), the wheel (salamander) and the lightbulb (again the Angler) before Man, but there are certain things that are exceedingly unlikely to evolve on Earth.
One such evolutionary direction would be flying plants. Why have these not evolved? There are species of plant that float in the water, why not species that float like balloons in the air? Such structures, however, would be dangerously delicate. These plants would be unlikely to survive to pass on their genes. This seems to be at least one avenue that evolution will not explore (along with machine-gun-toting Zebra...)
3. What Use is Half an Eye?
A particularly persuasive misconception, but a misconception nonetheless. This holds that structures such as the eye, the wing, the immune system and bacterial flagellum are so complex, that they only become useful to an organism when fully formed. As evolution requires a step-wise process, creationists argue that this is proof that evolution is false.
This is nothing more than a lack of imagination. Whilst it may be difficult to conceive how half an eye would be of any use to anything, we must remember that evolution is driven by gaining slight advantages over 'rival' individuals, over vast periods of time.. For a great step-by-step see the video.
Knowledge is Power
4. The Bible is Inerrant, therefore Evolution can't be true
Theists hold that the Bible is the word of God and is therefore not liable to error (it is inerrant ). However, on closer inspection, there are many inconsistencies in the Biblical account - there are two different, opposing versions of the creation story for starters! Whilst the Bible is an excellent source of ethical and moral guidance, it is not a scientific textbook. For example, the Bible states ostriches are careless parents, the Earth is flat (and immovable), and that pi is equal to 3. Clearly, the only logical explanation of these inconsistencies is that the Bible is not inerrant.
5. Evolution is not Testable or Falsifiable and 6. No-one has Seen Evolution
The scientific method is one of testable and falsifiable observation. Many people state that as evolution cannot be observed or falsified, it violates the scientific method and is, therefore, a faith position.
Every DNA analysis and fossil find is a test of Evolution. If a scientist happened to find rabbit or chicken fossils in pre-cambrian rock, Evolution would be disproven on the spot. A Nobel Prize would follow...
As for "Evolution hasn't been observed", that is also misguided. If this were true, all the hysteria over avian and swine flu would be completely unjustified, as there would be no chance of these disease evolving into human-transmissible forms. Ask any Doctor or Nurse and they will tell you of the dangers of superbugs such as MRSA or C. difficile - these bugs evolved from their non-antibiotic-resistant ancestors.
On top of this, just because we haven't witnessed an event, doesn't mean we cannot piece together what happened using evidence. This is what CSI departments do everyday. Using the "You didn't see it, so you can't prove it" argument would mean that all murder trials would have to be settled using video evidence (eye-witness testimony is notoriously unreliable). If our courts trust scientific evidence, perhaps the rest of the world can learn to...it's the same principle.
Do YOU think it matters if people don't understand evolution?
7. Evolution Violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics
The Second Law of Thermodynamics is often quote-mined as proof that evolution cannot possibly be true. This Law states that in an isolated system, entropy cannot decrease (things cannot get less random; things cannot get more complex).
The important (and often forgotten) part of the law is that things only go from more complex to less complex in an isolated system. Our planet is not an isolated system. Therefore evolution does not violate this law.
All humans started as a single fertilised egg that grew in complexity to become a fully grown human being. Same principle.
8. Evolution Begats Perfection
Even experienced Evolutionary Biologists can make this mistake. It is often spouted that Evolution results in organisms "perfectly adapted" to their environment. This is a fallacy: think of your own job - do you need to do it perfectly? No. You need to do it just as well, or a tiny bit better, than any competitors for your job.
The red squirrel is perfectly adapted to live in UK forests, right? Wrong - it would seem that the grey squirrel is quite a bit better adapted...
The human eye is far from perfect, as is the human respiratory system. Natural selection only requires something to work - not to work perfectly. As such, once a clumsy design has been selected for, ancestors of that animal are stuck with it until they evolve a work-around improvement.
9. Religion and Evolution are Incompatible
Just like water and oil, evolution and religion do not mix. Well, as any of my Year 10 students can tell you, water and oil can be forced to mix - just add an emulsifier. Religion and Science are two sides of the same coin - our existence is richer for having both. As stated by Evolutionary Biologist, Stephen Jay Gould:
"Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain those facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values.
10. If Humans Evolved from Apes, Why are There Still Apes?
I have saved the most asked question for last. Often laid as a trump card, this argument is based on flawed thinking. After all, the people of the Americas came from (to name but a few) England, Ireland, Spain...these countries still exist. The emergence of a new species does not require the extinction of the old one. Dogs evolved from wolves, and there are still wolves. A species is a group of animals that can interbreed to create fertile offspring. If two populations of the same species become separated, and then diversify to such an extent that they cannot interbreed when brought back together, a new species has evolved .
(PS - for the record, humans and apes shared an ancestor, humans did not evolve from apes - they are our cousins, not ancestors)
Where Next? Evolution
- Evolution myths: Yet more misconceptions
More popular creationist myths: why evolution is a fact not a theory, Darwin on his deathbed, and the significance of transitional fossils and modern apes. Published by New Scientist
- An Index to Creationist Claims
A comprehensive index to creationist claims. Don't be put off by the basic fomatting - an excellent resource
- Understanding Evolution
A collection of information all about evolution. Eclectic and wide ranging. Highly recommended
BONUS: The Evolution of Whales
Evolution can neatly describe how whales evolved. It is one speciation event that we have plenty of fossil evidence for. Take a look at the video for an excellent summary