Issues on understanding evolution

A couple of things intersected over the last week or so that have had me thinking a bit more about evolution and how it’s presented. More specifically, I’ve increasingly noticed a phenomenon that seems to get little attention and might be worth a bit more consideration. In short, there do seem to be a good number of people who, for whatever reason, are really quite happy with the concept of evolution as a whole (species arise, natural selection happens, common ancestry etc.) but seem to profoundly misunderstand how and why it works.

It’s perhaps understandable that a lot of focus goes into winning over the people who don’t accept that evolution even exists, but we should not ignore those who are happy enough with the idea, but actually don’t understand it at all well. After all, they might well be vulnerable to misinformation or further misunderstandings, when in fact they should be the kind of people who would be resistant to such things. I’ve heard or come across all sorts of basic mistakes and misunderstandings like the idea that evolution is directed (or has some predetermined outcome), that mankind is all but inevitable, that evolution occurs at the individual level, that X is the exact and direct ancestor of Y and so on.

All of these things are the kinds of fallacies that creationists use to undermine evolution or promote confusion about how it really operates, yet these are also errors made by those who have no problem with the concept. While these mistakes are not ignored when it comes to public outreach in science, I do wonder if in part, we are paying too little attention to a sizable number of people who would benefit from knowing more and having a better understanding and appreciation of evolution, and likely be interested in learning more. We’re not talking about deep and complex evolutionary theory, merely some fairly basic concepts that should be easy and simple enough to explain quickly and effectively, the question is, are we doing that for the people who need it?


7 Responses to “Issues on understanding evolution”

  1. 1 protohedgehog 06/06/2012 at 4:26 pm

    Totally agree Dave – the amount of time I quiz even Palaeontologists/Geologists on the basic facets of micro/macroevolution and they get details wrong, or simply don’t know them, is incredible.

    Worth starting a small blog series for? No-one better to do it than a Palaeontologist 🙂

  2. 2 Kilian Hekhuis 06/06/2012 at 7:58 pm

    The thing is, evolution is not on peoples minds, usually. I’m happy with them accepting it as a fact, and perhaps have some very basic idea about some details, but you can hardly expect the general public to go beyond that. Would we be interested in, say, astronomy, we might be having the same discussion about people knowing the earth revolves around the sun, but not having a clue about the distance, the shape of its orbit, or what causes the seasons.

  3. 3 Kilian Hekhuis 06/06/2012 at 8:08 pm

    The above said, what topics should the layman at least know about? In random order, I’d say at least the fact that though it is caused by random mutation, it’s not a random proces. The fact that there is no “micro” or “macro” evolution as such, but just small and large time scales. The fact that evolution is fairly gradual (don’t think we should bestow punctuated equilibrium on the general public?) The fact that there are no “missing links” as such, but that every fossil is just a step in a long chain. The fact that we have overwhelming proof of evolution, both by series of fossils (first land vertebrates, whales, humans) and small scale observance (Galapagos finches, E. Coli). Your thoughts?

    • 4 David Hone 06/06/2012 at 8:14 pm

      Well yeah, that kind of thing. And I think that basic enough and not much (in terms of information of volume) that most people should know it. I know sod all about astronomy, but I know the order of the planets in the solar system, that the moon goes round the Earth (and indeed that the moon was formed from part of the Earth) which goes round the sun which goes around in the galaxy. That the sun is basically a massive fusion bomb, about the red shift as a way of measuring distances, that it’s all linked in movement by gravity which is an inverse square of distance, and various other bits and pieces. I’d call my knowledge minimal, but I think that (in relative terms) it’s above someone who doesn’t know about mutation, or that new species don’t appear from individual organisms.

      So a bit more basic knowledge beyond ‘evolution is true’ is needed. I’m glad they accept the first bit, but well, if that’s it, that’s not very good for something so utterly foundational to all biology (and by extension arguably medicine and indeed, just being human).

  4. 5 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. 07/06/2012 at 12:51 pm

    About the only main concepts about evolution that most people seem to know is descent (although not always common descent of all living things) and “survival of the fittest” (as an incorrect stereotype of natural selection).

    In contrast, the public in general has some very odd ideas about:
    * Mutation: public perception is more X-Men than the real thing
    * Speciation: still this common idea that the entirety of a population will change from one species into another; hence the old “objection” to evolution “if we came from apes, why are there still apes?”
    * The time scales involved
    * Thinking that it only has to do with “big” changes

    And plenty more.

    • 6 Manabu Sakamoto 10/06/2012 at 11:16 am

      I agree with what Tom’s written here. The public perception of mutation, speciation, etc are very strange and always seem to involve super-mutations at the individual level (the emergence of superior specimens, if you will). The latest film Prometheus also has some cringing misunderstandings about genomics, mutations, and evolution…

  5. 7 Kilian Hekhuis 11/06/2012 at 10:07 am

    “The latest film Prometheus also has some cringing misunderstandings about” – Hollywood doesn’t often get it right. Jurassic Park anyone?

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