Six Misconceptions About Evolution That Deserve Extinction
Don’t be fooled by these common unscientific claims.
Posted March 9, 2019
Life changes over time. Of course, it does. We know this thanks to a wealth of converging evidence in the form of millions of fossils, clear genetic clues, and observations made out in the field and in the laboratory. Understanding evolution is central to knowing life in general and ourselves specifically. This is the foundation of modern biology. As the late evolutionary scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Imagine trying to understand influenza with no knowledge of viruses, the ocean with no awareness of tides, or Earth’s atmosphere without knowing something about weather and climate change. It just won’t work.
As thinking residents of a world currently teeming with perhaps a trillion or more species, do we all not have an intellectual obligation to learn about the destructive and creative process that shapes so much beauty, wonder, and horror all around us? It is life alone that defines our planet as a unique and special place. Without it, this would be just another rocky, barren world. At the basic level, evolution is not theoretical physics or 19th-century Russian literature. This is a topic of study that is within reach of everyone.
We do not live on a planet of clones with guaranteed outcomes for all. Put simply, life evolves because living creatures produce offspring that are genetically different from others. This variation means that those with enough of an advantage may produce more offspring than those with less favorable genes. Over time this can change the gene pool and possibly give rise to an entirely new species. The unintelligent, non-random, and indifferent phenomenon that rewards and punishes species like this is called natural selection. This process has been the most remarkable story of our spectacular planet for billions of years as changing environments nudge most species off into the abyss of extinction while simultaneously generating astonishing biodiversity.
In my book, At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life, I list several common misconceptions about evolution that often confuse and obstruct people who might otherwise understand evolution. Here are six of these deceptive cognitive-bugs, condensed for quick reading:
1. The false claim says: “A random process like evolution could not produce the kind of complexity and beauty that we see in nature.”
Bring up the theory of evolution in a group of people and there is a very good chance that at least one person will invoke the image of imaginary monkeys mindlessly banging on typewriters for a billion years but never producing sensible prose or beautiful poetry. Similarly, a tornado ripping through a junkyard never manages to assemble a working jumbo jet from all that scrap metal and spare parts.
The conclusion to which these scenarios are supposed to lead us to is that evolution is a failed, invalid theory because nature can’t possibly throw molecules together randomly and build by chance a big complex elephant or a tiny complex Euglena. The problem with this is that evolution is not random. So, what we have is a false conclusion drawn from an incorrect premise.
I suspect that this claim works on many people because they have the mistaken notion that “blind” or “unintelligent” evolution equates to “random”. But it doesn’t. Genetic mutations may be random, but natural selection is not. Over time, an environment tends to select favorable traits and discard less-favorable traits. This is a systematic process, not one that is purely random.
2. The false claim says: “If people evolved from monkeys and apes, then there would be no monkeys and apes today.”
In one form or another, this absurd idea is repeated often and seems to confuse many people. It can be explained away with ease, however. Like the previous problem with “random” evolution, this is another case of garbage in-garbage out. The premise is wrong because the theory of evolution does not claim that humans evolved from the living monkeys and apes we currently share the Earth with. Rather, very good fossil and genetic evidence indicate that modern humans, modern apes, and modern monkeys share common ancestors who lived millions of years ago. Since then, we all have been on our respective evolutionary paths.
3. The false claim says: “Evolution is a ladder of progress and some species are more evolved than others.”
Evolution is not synonymous with improvement. In the big picture, there is no foresight, no plan, no goal, no ladder to climb. There can be no ranking of superior and inferior lifeforms, from the evolutionary perspective. Well, except for one, perhaps: Being alive may be generally regarded as superior to extinction, I suppose. Evolution is about the impact of what happened to a population across previous generations. It is not preparation for the future. It can’t possibly be, because the future is unknown. Sooner or later, environments always change, and traits that are great today may be valueless or even doom a species tomorrow.
Many people view our brain, with its tens of billions of neurons and fancy convolutions, as the pinnacle of evolution. Because of this extraordinary three-pound blob of electrochemical magic, some imagine Homo sapiens standing tall on the top rung of life’s ladder. But what if we were to use intelligence to destroy ourselves, possibly through nuclear war, ecocide, AI run amok, nanobots, or some other technological doomsday scenario? If that were to happen, then the evolution of the big human brain would have been as bad an evolutionary result as any species was ever cursed with.
Every species alive right now is an evolutionary winner. It’s a tie. The only clear and meaningful measure of defeat in this game is extinction. A human being is no better or worse from the evolutionary standpoint than a species of bacteria or plankton because all three have made it this far. You may feel evolutionarily superior to a bacterium squirming about in the dirt beneath your shoe. And you might assume you are better than one little fleck of life floating in the ocean. But are you? You and your entire species could be finished in a flash should a big-enough asteroid come calling one day. And left behind, still holding on, might well be that lowly bacterium and the drifting plankton.
4. The false claim says: “Intelligent design makes more sense than evolution.”
Intelligent design (ID) is the claim that the lifeforms we see are too complex to have been the result of evolution. The core of the ID claim is as follows: Life is irreducibly complex. Some biological structures and processes defy satisfactory explanation today and seem too ordered and complex to have just happened by undirected processes. Therefore, life must have been created and engineered by a higher intelligence. This is nonsense. Even if Earth life were intelligently designed, it still would be wrong to accept the ID claim today as a scientific fact or theory. It can only sensibly be described as a belief because there is no evidence or logic behind it. Notice that the most prominent ID proponents prefer fighting their battles in courtrooms rather than labs. They seem to favor getting their hands dirty in public school-board elections rather than in the field searching for the fossils that would make their case.
The intelligent design idea is an anti-science philosophy. It’s intellectual surrender. Unsolved mysteries and unanswered questions in the biological sciences prove nothing. Many things about the structure of matter, life, Earth, and the universe once seemed “irreducibly complex” but are understood much better now. There was a time when no one could figure out how continental drift worked, for example. Should scientists have given up back then and declared it too complex and mystifying to be anything other than magic or an intelligently designed process? The answers to many questions that were once thought impossibly difficult are taught casually in middle-school science classes today. Ignorance is not an explanation of life and should only motivate us to keep seeking real answers.
5. The false claim says: “Evolution is just a theory.”
Unfortunately, the word “theory” is tossed around in popular culture to mean a flimsy guess that is short on evidence. In science, however, “theory” is far from that. Scientific theories are high-level explanations of the natural world. Theories earn their lofty status only through extensive observation and experimentation. A theory is an elaborate mansion built with a million bricks called facts. Theories may not be perfect and sometimes they turn out to be just plain wrong, but that’s okay. When a theory is challenged by new evidence it just needs to be revised or discarded. This process of self-correction is what makes science work so well and enables it to produce so much valuable knowledge and technology.
The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould explained the high degree of trustworthiness of evolution and other scientific theories in an essay he wrote for Discover magazine back in 1981: “Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. Facts and theories are not rungs on a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away while scientists debate theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air pending the outcome.”
6. The false claim says: “Scientists aren’t sure about the origin of life. Therefore, evolution is in doubt.”
This is another case of a bogus claim based on muddled thinking. Who cares if scientists aren’t sure about the origin of life? What does that have to do with the theory of evolution? The beginning of life on Earth, known as abiogenesis, is a separate phenomenon. Evolution describes how life—species that are already alive—change over time. It does not directly address the beginning of life as this false claim suggests.
With apologies to Dr. Frankenstein, it’s of no consequence to evolution now if lightning did or did not strike the proverbial primordial pool four billion years ago. Who cares if extraterrestrial life may have ridden to Earth long ago atop a flake of space dust? It also is beside the point if a god or gods created the first life on Earth. Regardless of how it got here, life evolves. Of course, it does.
Abiogenesis is an incredibly problematic challenge, by the way. Life’s origin may prove to be an unanswerable question, given the more than 3.5-billion-year backward reach in time involved. Finding fossil evidence of some “moment” when non-living matter transitioned to living matter, for example, is extremely unlikely. To make matters more difficult, the concept of life itself is surprisingly elusive. Currently, there is not even a basic definition of life that the scientific community universally agrees on. There may be a vast gray area between non-living matter and living matter. The “beginning” of life may be an event that spans hundreds of millions of years. Looking back billions of years and trying to sort that out will be tough. We may never have anything better than very good, evidence-based explanations of how it probably happened. But that’s okay. Science can handle it because honest ignorance is preferable to made-up, unearned answers.
No one need shy away from the fact of evolution or the theory that seeks to explain it. This is reality in motion. It is ongoing and everywhere. Understanding this remarkable phenomenon and its consequences are important because it enables us to better glimpse and appreciate the profound wonders of both our living planet and ourselves.
Why Evolution Is True, Jerry A. Coyne
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
The Fact of Evolution, by Cameron Smith
Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, by Carl Zimmer
The Top 10 Myths About Evolution, by Cameron Smith and Charles Sullivan
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, by Richard Dawkins
At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life, by Guy P. Harrison