February 12 is Darwin Day; a celebration of the birth of one Charles Darwin, a man who ignored dogma and, through the power of rational thought, was the first to write about the deceptively simple, yet amazingly intricate, process that is evolution.
The revolution in human thought the acceptance of this theory led to is impossible to overstate. Modern medicine, as we know it, would not exist with a firm understanding of the basic principle of evolution and how it affects organisms. Archeology would be hopelessly muddled without the guiding principle of one type of life-form branching out into others. Biochemistry would not have advanced beyond the most rudimentary stages without the framework of natural selection to build upon.
Yet, there are many (MANY) misconceptions about what evolution is. Some are intentionally propagated by those who seek to misled the uneducated (religious fundamentalists, Bill “the tides” O’Reilly) while others are spread by a media that is sometimes (ok, often) too lazy to do a thorough job of explaining the concept. Some are just spread because they sound good (no, seriously). I will address only a few of the more egregious errors because I’m not writing a full length book, just a short article. I’m kind of lazy, too!
1. Evolution is only a “theory” – This is the most often used argument by people who want to discredit evolution. Evolution is, indeed, a theory. So is gravity, plate tectonics, electromagnetism and atomic energy. No serious person considers these to be unproven. The confusion (again, often deliberate) comes from the common usage of the word versus the scientific usage. The common usage is that a theory is simply a guess. The scientific usage is “A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.”[i] That last part is key. A proper theory must be able to make accurate, verifiable predictions. “Theory”, in this context, is used to describe how a set of proven facts interact with each other, not a “guess” about how things happen.
2. Evolution is a progression towards a goal – Not even a little. This one is a major sticking point for both people on the Right AND the Left. No animal that has ever existed, including humans, was a foregone conclusion. We are not the “end result” of a process. We are the result of a complex set of environmental pressures, not all of which are known, that pushed us in the direction of intelligence. If we were to restart the evolutionary clock, there would be no guarantee self aware creatures, never mind actual humans would develop again. There are even many instances of an animal, from our point of view, “devolving”. Their ancestors possessed functional eyes but the modern versions are now blind because they no longer require the ability to see. There is no ultimate goal to reach in terms of evolving, just survival and reproduction.
3. Humans are the pinnacle of evolution – We might be the smartest (which some might debate) but that’s about it. We’re not the strongest or fastest, our five senses absolutely suck in comparison to the animal kingdom and we have no natural defenses. Without tools, we are ill prepared to survive in harsh environments, cold or hot. We can’t fly, we can only swim a limited distance and we need light to survive underground for long. We are, however, one of the world’s best long distance runners. There is almost no animal that can outlast us in a marathon. Pretty cool, right?
Even so, “pinnacle” presumes a constant upward progression, which we just covered.
4. Evolution describes how life began – It certainly does not. Neither Darwin nor ANY scientist points to evolution as the origin of life. Evolution describes how life adapts and changes over time (a very long time) but not how it sprang from inorganic matter. That is called abiogenisis[ii] and most Creationists haven’t even heard of it which is a good indicator of how seriously they’ve studied evolution.
5. Evolution claims that new animals arise spontaneously – This is the “why don’t monkeys give birth to human babies?” fallacy. Otherwise known as “I don’t understand this at all” fallacy. Speciation is the process when two or more separated (this is key) populations of a life form develop enough differences that they are no longer considered the same species and cannot successfully breed together. A good example of this is the mule. The product of a horse and a donkey, two obviously related but dissimilar species, all mules are infertile, thus “unsuccessful” in terms of species propagation. Common ancestry is the worst part about evolution for deniers. They feel that having descended from an ape is somehow diminishing to who they are. This makes exactly zero sense to me.
6. Evolution is about survival of the strongest – This is a bastardization of the theory used by humans to subjugate others with a clear conscience. The original phrase was “survival of the fittest” but even THAT isn’t accurate[iii] and it wasn’t coined by Darwin anyway. “Fittest” implies that the organism is stronger or faster or “better” in some sense which is unnecessary for natural selection to take place. It’s all about reproduction. The more successful an organism is at reproducing is the true measure of “fittest.”
7. Scientists can’t agree about evolution so it must be wrong – This is the “God in the gaps” argument and it’s a terrible one. Since the massively complex nature of evolution has not been verified down to the last detail and scientists still argue about the minutiae some would have you believe that the entire theory is on the border of being discarded. This is idiocy of the highest order. Scientists disagree on the specifics of evolution but not the principle itself. This is akin to saying that since you don’t know how many socks you own and what color they all are, you have no socks at all. See how silly that sounds?
8. Evolution defies the 2nd law of thermodynamics – “Order cannot progress from chaos in a closed system.” This is a gross simplification of the 2nd law. A closed system is one where the energy present is a constant, none lost and none gained. Evolution deniers claim that since evolution calls for more complex organisms to arise from simpler ones (increasing complexity is considered “order” in this argument) it cannot be the result of a natural process. The flaw in this argument is 864,938 miles wide, bright yellow and puts out more energy every second than all of civilization uses in a year. We get all of our energy from the Sun. The Earth is not a closed system.
As you can see, the numerous falsehoods about evolution are easily dismissed with a minimum of effort. I’m not even a trained scientist and it’s simple for me to pick apart denial “proof.” The ultimate test really comes down to which theory, evolution or Creationism/Intelligent Design, correctly explains the observed facts and which one shoehorns the facts to fit into a preconceived notion. Which one provides us with breakthroughs in medicine and which brings progress to a screeching halt.
I’ve said it before and no doubt I will say it again: Science. It works, bitches.
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