A falsehood is an incorrect or muddled belief widely enough held to be notable, and possibly dangerous. A falsehood is also a potentially powerful teaching tool. Evolution generally, and human evolution in particular, is loaded with them.
[Previous post: "The Falsehoods"]
“False Pearls before Real Swine” … I won’t tell you who said that, but when he did say it it was in front of a classroom of several hundred Harvard freshmen, and he was referring to the idea of telling little white lies to the unwashed masses in order to achieve the dissemination of greater truth. No one in the room but the wizened teaching assistants, clustered off to the side furtively consuming their lunch in the “no food allowed” lecture hall, got the reference. There were spit takes.
Teaching Evolutionary Biology is hard. It is not easy, like teaching astrophysics would be. Nobody really knows anything about astrophysics, so all the instructor has to do is find the empty space in the student’s brain and put some astrophysics in there. Simple
The problem with Evolutionary Biology is that everybody already knows lots of stuff about it. Everybody already knows all about animal behavior because they have a cat. Everybody already knows all about human behavior because they are a human. Everybody already knows all about mating systems because they have a mate. Or wish they did. On top of this, we have the venerable science press and the Discovery Channel. Evolutionary biology, especially the part about human evolution, is very cool. Therefore, new findings by evolutionary biologists always get press. Even old findings get press on a slow news day. But reporters are often not really reporting the science. They are writing for an audience; an audience that they have created over time with their particular way of reporting, and to which they must now attend with … well, references to and use of falsehoods, often falsehoods that started out as little white lies.
A very clear example of this is the concept of a Missing Link. Scientists seem to generally agree that there are no missing links in science. Evolutionary biologists reject the concept of a missing link. We don’t use that word. We think it is incorrect and misleading. Yet, it is as difficult to find a news story about a fossil that does NOT use the phrase “Missing Link” as it is to swing a dead cat and not get in trouble with the SPCA. (Not that I’ve not actually tried that…) By the way, reporters know all about this missing link problem. Or at least, science reporters know about it. They always apologize just before they write the story about the missing link. Having said that, it is interesting to note that the term “missing link” (as well as the term “ape-man” by the by) are routinely used by South African Palaeoanthropologists. And, I don’t think they are using “missing link” in correctly. I think, rather, that they have a different idea of what it refers to, perhaps a different idea of what a “link” is, or maybe, what a “chain” is, which makes the term work.
In other words, the term “missing link” sucks, but skepticism about the word “missing link” … if it is simply a knee-jerk reaction, as it almost always is, does no better. Indeed, there actually are “links” in an evolutionary sense and some of them are missing. The problem is not that such a thing does not exist. The problem is that looking for the missing link is rarely the main objective of the science, and many things are called “missing links” because they are newly discovered and for no other reason.
To me, there are two kinds of actual “links” in the fossil record. One is the simple phylogenetic link. For instance, we know that humans and chimps have a common ancestor that existed several million years ago in Africa, and that was pretty much chimp-like in morphology, behavior, and ecology. However, we don’t have any fossils of this population or anything close to it. As you may or may not know, depending on what kinds of falsehoods you labor under, it is rare to actually find members of any given hypothetical or desired population. Usually, we find what we call “representative forms.” These are species that are close in time and space to the population we would like to see, and close in overall morphology and ecology, so they stand in for the focal fossil creature. One difficulty is, of course, that it might be very difficult to be sure that you’ve got the original population (say, a last common ancestor of two living forms) or a “representative” BUt we assume that finding the focal population … the actual Last Common Ancestor … is difficult and unlikely, so we make the guess that we are mainly looking at representative forms.
Having said that, if we found the fossils of the human-chimp LCA, or a representative of it, I think that would be a “link” (or a representative of the link) and since it is now missing, one could say “Missing Link Found!… (or at least a representative).
The second kind of link is sometimes known as a “transitional form.” Now, the current rhetoric from palaeontologists and other evolutionary biologists is that the whole concept of a “transitional form” is bogus, that in a way everything is a transitional form, and that yes, the creationists are always saying there are “no transitional forms” but every time we find one, that does not shut them up … it just creates two new spaces in which there are no transitional forms, on either side of the newly discovered fossil!
Well, this is a case of reacting to the critiques in a way that damaged our own discourse. There are transitional forms, some are unknown (theorized) and others are well documented. Not every species is a transitional form. Rather, it works like this: For many animals (and I’d prefer to stick with animals here) there are categories that make sense. For instance, there is a group of mammals that are today represented by land mammals as well as sea mammals (the seals and their land-mammal relatives). Those are two dramatically different categories … terrestrial vs. marine. Something happened there in an evolutionary sense. To go from terrestrial to aquatic is a big deal, and … transitions must have happened. The difference between the terrestrial and aquatic species is nothing like trivial, and even though the differences among, say, the different species of seals are important, those differences pale in comparison to the terrestrial vs. aquatic differences.
From an evolutionary point of view, understanding this transition is very interesting and very important. The species that straddle this transition are transitional forms. There may be many, as there may be many steps in the transition. And the actual species we find may be “representatives” (see above). But they are all links, and those that are not found yet are … missing links.
I think that people who claim to find the missing link but who are just using the word and have not really found a phylogentically important Last Common Ancestor or a truly interesting transitional form that was not previously known should be flogged. Reporters and science writers who throw the term “missing link” and “transitional form” around like salt on an icy Minnesota driveway should be flogged as well. Flog them all, I say! Preserve these terms for what they mean, not what sells copy.
Of course, it is almost certainly too late. The misusers of these terms have ruined it for everybody. In two ways. One way is just ruining the terms themselves, so we can’t use them. The other is more insidious. By creating the backlash to the misuse of the term, you have otherwise perfectly intelligent paleoanthropologists and other evolutionary biologists, teachers, speakers, textbook writers, and science journalists running around talking about how there are no “missing links” and there are no “transitional forms.”
More Falsehoods !!!
This post is one of a series on the topic of falsehoods. The following is a list of falsehoods posts in order:
- The Falsehoods
- “False Pearls before Real Swine”
- Falsehood: A baby is not the biological offspring of its adoptive mother
- Falsehoods: Has evolution stopped for humans?
- Natural Selection is Survival Of the Fittest (A Falsehood)
- Falsehood: Nature maintains balance.
- Is it a Falsehood that Humans Evolve from Apes?
- The poor and the dark skinned have more babies than the rich and the light skinned
- Acting for the survival of the species (a falsehood)
- Culture Overrides Biology (Another falsehood)
- What is the Placebo Effect, and it it getting stronger?