We spent about half this semester talking about evolution in theory and in how it pertains to human origins. I feel the case for evolution is compelling, but among the general public evolution is not as popular as it could be. A September 2011 CNN poll asked “Do you believe that the theory of evolution is definitely true, probably true, probably, false, or definitely false?” (via NCSE) The results only slightly favor (57%) a positive view of evolution:
Definitely true: 21%
Probably true: 36%
Probably false: 16%
Definitely false: 25%
No opinion: 3%
Perhaps as a consequence of it unpopularity evolution is one of the most misunderstood scientific topics. Admittedly, some parts of it certainly are counter-intuitive. One of my CNU students brought to my attention a particularly interesting Wikipedia page titled “List of Common Misconceptions,” which is a cursory inventory of inaccurate or incorrect, yet popular, beliefs that people hold in a wide variety of subjects.
Although some professors won’t admit to it, I’m a big fan of Wikipedia because it (and other websites like it) are important ways for experts to interact with people looking for information. Yes, there are many shortcomings to Wikipedia and there’s something of a utopian bent to my fascination with it. It is not a perfect system of communication by any means.
The whole “Common Misconceptions” page is a hoot! I found myself corrected on a number of fronts. If you’re the type to just kick back and read some encyclopedia entries you should take a look. Of course there is an entire subsection concerning evolution.
From the subsection on evolution:
The word “theory” in the theory of evolution does not imply mainstream scientific doubt regarding its validity… While theory in colloquial usage may denote a hunch or conjecture, a scientific theory is a set of principles that explains observable phenomena in natural terms. “Scientific fact and theory are not categorically separable”, and evolution is a theory in the same sense as germ theory, gravitation, or plate tectonics.
Evolution does not attempt to explain the origin of life or the origin of the universe. While biological evolution describes the process by which species and other levels of biological organisation originate, and ultimately leads all life forms back to a universal common ancestor, it is not primarily concerned with the origin of life itself, and does not pertain at all to the origin and evolution of the universe and its components. The scientific theory deals primarily with changes in successive generations over time after life has already originated.
Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees, monkeys, or any other modern-day primates. Humans and monkeys share a common ancestor that lived about 40 million years ago… Humans are part of the Hominidae (great ape) family, which also includes chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Similarly, the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, which lived between 5 and 8 million years ago, evolved into two lineages, one eventually becoming modern humans and the other the two extant chimpanzee species.
Evolution is not a progression from inferior to superior organisms, and it also does not necessarily result in an increase in complexity.
According to the California Academy of Sciences, only 59% of U.S. adults know humans and dinosaurs did not coexist. However, the last of the non-avian dinosaurs died 65.5 million years ago… whereas the earliest Homo genus (humans) evolved between 2.3 and 2.4 million years ago. This places a 63 million year expanse of time between the last dinosaurs and the earliest humans.
Evolution does not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. A common argument against evolution is that entropy, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, increases over time, and thus evolution could not produce increased complexity. However, the law does not refer to complexity and only applies to closed systems, which the Earth is not, as it absorbs and radiates the Sun’s energy.
Evolution does not “plan” to improve an organism’s fitness to survive. For example, an incorrect way to describe giraffe evolution is to say that giraffe necks grew longer over time because they needed to reach tall trees. Evolution doesn’t see a need and respond to it. A mutation resulting in longer necks would be more likely to benefit an animal in an area with tall trees than an area with short trees, and thus enhance the chance of the animal surviving to pass on its longer-necked genes.
Dinosaurs did not go extinct due to being maladapted or unable to cope with change, a view found in many older textbooks. In fact, dinosaurs comprised an extremely adaptive and successful group, whose demise was brought about by an extraordinary event that also extinguished many groups of plants, mammals and marine life.
Mammals did not evolve from any modern group of reptiles, just like humans have not evolved from chimpanzees. Very soon after the first reptiles appeared, they split into two branches. The line leading to mammals diverged from the line leading to modern reptilian lines about 320 million years ago… The mammals themselves being the only survivors of the synapsid line make them the “cousins” rather than “siblings” of modern reptiles… An example is Dimetrodon, which is often thought of as a dinosaur, but is in fact neither a dinosaur nor closely related to modern reptiles.
Many of these were already incorporated into our lessons. Others are more bizarre. I had never heard of people objecting to evolution based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Maybe future classes should incorporate more about dinosaurs?
In the comments section below, take a moment to reflect on what you’ve learned about evolution in this class. What was your opinion of evolution before and what is it now? Is there anything about evolution that makes it particularly difficult to understand? What, if anything, should scientists be doing in order get their message to the public more clearly?
And, frankly, does the average individual really need to comprehend evolution in order to go about their daily business? Sure it matters to specialists and educators, but for the man or woman on the street does it really make a difference?