How do you explain evolution?

Many people claim it is easy to explain. I once heard a bunch of high school teachers at a conference patting each other on the back about how easy it is to understand evolution. And I remember thinking “OK, so this must be why none of my intro college freshman students don’t have a clue….”

Anyway, Discover magazine had a contest to try to explain evolution in two minutes in a video.

Here’s one runner up and the winner:

The rest of the videos with an overview by PZ Myers are here.

Did they do it???????? Do the people who watch these now understand evolution?


  1. #1 NewEnglandBob
    November 9, 2009

    I think all 5 have merit. The question is whether or not those watching are paying attention and TRYING to learn.

    “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”

  2. #2 skeptifem
    November 9, 2009

    Evolution is a big picture kind of concept. I think that the focus on repeating information rather than learning concepts, and the absolutely shameful math skills that people typically learn in us schools are both partially to blame (and well, cultural factors obviously). I am not so sure that a good explanation will make sense to people who haven’t been given the tools to interpret it.

  3. #3 Albatross
    November 9, 2009

    It’s not evolution that needs explaining. The real trick is to explain to ignoramuses WHY THEY DON’T GET IT. In other words, why does evolution seem counterintuitive to morons?

    1) Individual creatures to not evolve, big collections of creatures evolve over multiple generations. If you don’t get this, you’ll never get evolution.

    2) There are LOTS and LOTS of creatures. While your moron brain may not be able to grasp numbers above 100, there are literally millions and billions of creatures reproducing all the time.

    3) “Geologic time” is REALLY, REALLY LONG. I mean, you may think it takes a long time to walk down the street to the corner chemist’s, but that’s NOHTING compared to how long geologic time is.

    4) Oceans are really REALLY big. Every place you’ve ever been could probably be crammed together in Lake Superior, and that’s just a splash in the Atlantic, which is lots smaller than the Pacific. A lot can happen in an ocean.

    5) Uncountable billions of single-celled creatures were all that lived on Earth, in the gigantic oceans, for BILLIONS OF YEARS. You simply can’t grasp that, especially if you’re a moron. But until you grasp that, you won’t be able to understand evolution.

    Unless we can convince people that their own stupidity prevents them from understanding evolution, we’re simply going to have to wait for their brains to evolve bigger in their heads.

  4. #4 catgirl
    November 9, 2009

    I can’t watch these videos while I’m at work, but I’ll listen to them later. I’m always looking for a simple description of evolution that I can use to explain to evolution deniers, because they usually don’t “believe” in it simply because they don’t understand it. It’s to complex too condense to a short motto though. By the time I finish explaining it, I assume the deniers have stopped listening.

  5. #5 clamboy
    November 9, 2009

    Greg Laden, you are so full of shit. You say in your first paragraph, “‘OK, so this must be why none of my intro college freshman students don’t have a clue….'”, which is very bad grammar!!!sqrt1!! It appears to say the opposite of what you meant, too!!!1^83!! Therefore, everything you say is wrong.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    November 9, 2009

    Clamboy: You are correct, bivalve.

  7. #7 Deen
    November 9, 2009

    As with many things, the basics of evolution are simple – once you understand it. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to explain it to people who don’t yet understand it, and in fact don’t want to understand it.

    And, again like many other things, when you understand the basics, you’ll realize you don’t understand near enough of what there is to learn about evolution.

  8. #8 A Reader
    November 9, 2009

    Both videos are very clever if you already know what evolution is, but are terrible if you don’t. The first video actually has some quite misleading parts. How hard is it to simply say that evolution is ‘change in characteristics from one generation to the next’? This takes far less than 2 minutes — and yet actually explains the concept. If you want to spice it up with video, just show a few generations of any organism, with changes in each generation, and say that’s evolution. To circumvent the people who say evolution doesn’t happen, you could use a real example, maybe even from humans. Some good photos of families over several generations might do the trick. Otherwise, it’d be easy enough to do using dog breeds or roses or something.

    Then, if you wanted, you could explain that the characteristics of the offspring are encoded by DNA, and thus ultimately it is changes in DNA that underlie evolution.

    And if you wanted some mechanisms driving evolution in there, you could start with genetic drift. And then maybe natural selection. Just show some offspring with obvious differences and show that chance and which animals get to mate will change the characteristics of the population from one generation to the next.

    A key thing here is to show that it is the POPULATION that chances — a key point that both videos completely left out.

    And then leave it at that, I think, for 2 minutes.

  9. #9 Jon
    November 9, 2009

    What a mess. Both videos covered far too much ground for a two minute video, and did it with flash and style at the expense of clarity. For example, neither properly explained variation among individuals in a population, a key starting place for any presentation of evolution. This was showmanship, not pedagogy. (Maybe, hopefully, I’m unclear on the purpose of the contest.)

  10. #10 catgirl
    November 9, 2009

    Whenever I try to explain evolution to someone who has very little knowledge of biology, I try to make two main points:

    1) Random DNA mutations bring variety into a group of organisms.

    2) Natural forces act on that variety to make some mutations more or less common than others. Over time, mutations that are selected for can accumulate.

    I think that if people don’t realize those two points, they won’t understand anything about evolution. I’ve heard plenty of straw man arguments about a cat giving birth to a fern or about how evolution is completely random. Both those ideas are pretty ridiculous, which is why no scientists are actually proposing them.

  11. #11 RdleyA
    November 9, 2009

    One of the difficult things to grasp, I think, is the notion that simple genetic mutations are responsible for changes in macroscale features. One thing that seems to be ignored, as Albatross points out, is that for a REALLY REALLY long time, life was single celled organisms and that much of the complexity was either developed at that stage or at least the ground work for the complexity was laid at that stage. I think the wide use of similar enzymes, proteins, etc. not just in one group of closely related animals, but throughout all animals, plants, etc. suggests that the major themes, of which we are evolutionary variations, were composed very early on, long before recognizable plants and animals had emerged.

  12. #12 Jared
    November 10, 2009

    My question is this: do you want an explanation of evolution to be accurate, easy to understand, or brief?

    You can choose any two.

  13. #13 Leigh Williams
    November 10, 2009

    The two key concepts deniers don’t get:

    Populations evolve, not individuals. (Damn comic books!)
    Deep time.

    You also have to overcome “the Bible tells me so” and “Satan is lying to you”. I don’t have an answer for those.

  14. #14 outeast
    November 10, 2009

    Applause for Jared. Nail on head.

    The simple concepts are not hard to grasp, even quickly. They may seem not to stand up to scrutiny, though, because the details are sufficiently complicated to make a simple, quick explanation inaccurate at any significant resolution.

  15. #15 edinblack
    November 10, 2009

    Qualia Soup does a good job, I think (though the whole thing takes 10 minutes, he gets to a number of points very early on that people in the thread said they’d like to see)