The Loom

What A Waste of Quicktime

The Washington Post has an article today called And the Evolutionary Beat Goes On . . .. It is based on some interviews with scientists who are documenting evidence of natural selection in humans. I won’t be surprised if it gets emailed hither and yon, but not for the text, which is based on stuff that’s been out for some months now. No, it’s got a slick animation with the following caption: “A morphing demonstration of human evolution shows the transformation from a small lemur, up the evolutionary ladder into a human: seen here as legendary evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.”

The article goes into all sorts of contortions to accommodate this movie. In the lead, it reads,

Stephen Jay Gould would have been pleased.

No, not about his mug shot at the endpoint of evolution in the illustration above, but about the growing evidence that evolution is not just real but is actually happening to human beings right now.

But the article ends on an entirely different note…

Come to think of it, the late Stephen Jay Gould might have been upset with the above illustration. Contrary to the popular imagination, evolution is not a linear process that culminates in the triumphal ascent of humans at the top of the genetic heap. The process is analogous to a bush, where twigs and leaves push out in every direction.

So…the paper is showing something that further promotes a popular misconception about evolution–the evolutionary ladder. Nice job, folks.

In fact, of course, the movie is even more misleading. Stephen Jay Gould did not evolve from a chimpanzee, let alone a lemur. Nor did you, dear reader. I am part English, so by the Washington Post’s logic, I could make a movie showing Prince Charles morphing into me.

So much computing power, so little enlightenment…

Update: Monday 2:15. The Loom gets results (sort of): Barbara King, an anthropologist at William and Mary, first brought this movie to my attention this morning. She sent an email complaint to the newspaper, and also brought this post to their attention. She got one email from the reporter, who claimed that the last three paragraphs of the article addressed her concerns. Then she got an email from the deputy news editor, who promised to change the caption to the movie. Now the caption reads,

A lighthearted rendering of evolution imagines the transformation of a small lemur into a human in the person of legendary evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould.

A failure of a fix, if you ask me. A reader who is not familiar with the details of evolution will not understand why the movie is lighthearted. A reader who is will find the movie annoying in the way it gets evolution wrong. In a time when lots of people ask, “If monkeys evolved into people, why are there still monkeys?” this movie will just add to the misunderstanding, caption fix or not.


  1. #1 coturnix
    July 24, 2006

    Thank you for doing this – I was equally incensed when I saw it this morning.

  2. #2 Steinn Sigurdsson
    July 24, 2006

    Agree, the movie was moronic.
    Article was ok, as media articles go, in parts…

  3. #3 NelC
    July 24, 2006

    A bit of lax art direction, I think. I don’t know exactly how the WaPo handles their art, but I imagine that in this case the editorial staff just asked for an illustration for their evolution article. If the artist even saw the article, he probably just skimmed it for keywords, then let his imagination roam until he hit on the happy image of a lemur morphing into SJG.

    Shrug. I’ve never read it, but I would think that artwise WaPo isn’t SciAm. I doubt that the readers expect an illustration to be factual. A diagram or a photograph, perhaps, but an illustration, not so much.

  4. #4 micro
    July 24, 2006

    way to take things so literally, as does the rest of the populatation.

  5. #5 Mike
    July 25, 2006

    Evidently the power of images and the fact humans are primarily visual animals would come as complete surprises to the folk at WaPo.

  6. #6 dr.steveb
    July 26, 2006

    gould even more than most would have been appalled. gould wrote repeatedly about the falseness of simplistic chain of being image, the falseness of current primates (lemur or chimp be related to current Homo sap. as opposed to meaning of common descent/ancestor. WaPo gets this one so completely wrong. Hmmm.. how they doing on that encourage Bush into Iraq stuff?

  7. #7 Mel
    July 26, 2006

    The journalist didn’t address it and she knows it: statistically, only a miniscule percentage of readers will make it to the second-to-last paragraph. What journalist doesn’t know that? And as you say, the caption doesn’t help either.

    Frankly, I’m not that impressed with the animation–there are freeware programs that can make that in 3 minutes, and it’s kind of silly.

    I also think Gould would have disapproved. The horse essay comes to mind….

  8. #8 joseph duemer
    July 27, 2006

    Gould might have been amused, mordantly. In Wonderful Life, if I am remembering correctly, he writes that he as a collection of such evolutionary iconography, then goes on to demolish the reasoning behind the images.

  9. #9 Andy
    July 27, 2006

    This is sort of an unrelated comment, but you brought up a question which is in my mind a lot. The people that ask “If monkeys evolved into people, why are there still monkeys?” I know several people in this boat, and I’m not sure quite how to answer them or where to direct them for the correct answer.

    My general non-scientific (I’m a linguist/techie not a biologist) answer is “One thing doesn’t BECOME another thing, the parent species can continue just fine even if the child species has some competitive advantage over it. This doesn’t always happen, but there is nothing to prevent it from happening.” That’s probably not even a good answer, so what is?

  10. #10 Mickey Mortimer
    July 28, 2006
  11. #11 Ed
    July 28, 2006

    Evolutionary education in the form of whimsical discourse will only lead to vast misunderstanding by persons uneducated in the scientific field. It’s important our media doesn’t confuse misinformation with a chuckle. Thanks for ruffling feathers, Carl.

  12. #12 aguy109
    July 29, 2006

    Lets give “ordinary, nonbiologist people” just a little credit for common sense. Even ifthe ‘anti evolutionary ‘ lobby peddle this as a a piece of disinformation , then its still no more than another piece of visual gunk on the net.

  13. #13 bmkmd
    August 6, 2006

    I made a comment about evolution as an example of misunderstanding to a friend. He said, “You don’t believe we came from monkeys, do you?”

    To which I replyed, “No. We share common ancesters. We’re counsins, only over a huge length of time to get there. You know, like the branching of a tree with monkeys and humans way out on the periphery.” Which stopped him more or less open to learning, after all I hold some authority in the relationship as a physician.

    I thought about it too, Andy. How to peek peoples curiosity who have no idea about evolution.

    There is a great passoge in Dawkins’ The Ancestors Tale, which I’m going to use with this person. It’s about the Salimanders around the San Jaquin Valley who can interbreed with their closest neighbor Salamanders(?)(I have to look up which species he’s referring to, but I’m on vacation just now), and all the way from the southern to the most Northern areas, but not across at the Southeran end of the Valley where the ring is geographically broken, demonstrating Natural Selection when separate environments limit interbreeding.

    I hope to get this fellow’s interest, not argue a confrontation.

    Hopefully people can challenge uninformed peopole with a bit of the wonder of the process or with a scientist’s curiosity. In non-literal bible-science religionists I hope we can educate.

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