Believing and understanding

Larry Moran criticizes a dramatic Youtube video that purports to show how evolution works. He asks if we think this helps or hurts the cause of evolution education. Speaking as an evo-devo guy (forgive me, Larry), I’d also say it hurts. Without understanding the mechanisms of morphological change underlying the simulation, it’s useless. It doesn’t explain anything about the roots of the variation it’s demonstrating or the principles of the propagation of genetic change through a population — funny faces shift generation after generation, with no explanation given. It asserts change without showing how. That is not science.

This is also where I have problems with the Nisbet/Mooney thesis. I presume this kind of simplified, cartoony presentation is what they think we need more of, and that scientists ought to just swallow their pride arrogance and go along with the “framing”…but there’s a point where simplification and flash become the antithesis of good science. I don’t want people to believe in evolution, I want them to understand it.

Would the cartoon help them believe? Maybe.

Does it help them understand? No.

If you want to grasp the goals of scientists (and, tellingly, the goals of atheists), you have to understand that distinction between believing and understanding.


  1. #1 TheBrummell
    April 6, 2007

    you have to understand that distinction between believing and understanding.

    Agreed. I try to avoid believing in anything – I’d like to understand, and failing that, to trust that some other person does understand.

  2. #2 Colugo
    April 6, 2007

    What are the views on Richard Dawkins’ biomorphs, Karl Sims’ Block Creatures, and other kinds of digital organisms and artificial life – are these useful for informing the public, training students, and/or scientific research?

    Karl Sims’ block creatures

  3. #3 MarcusA
    April 6, 2007

    “I don’t want people to believe in evolution, I want them to understand it.”

    This quote gets to the crux of the matter. The message to creationists should be about education more than the specifics of evolution. Biology education is the great litmus test for general education. Make people interested in education and evolution will follow. The curious mind cures itself of delusional thoughts.

  4. #4 Russell
    April 6, 2007

    PZ writes, and I mostly agree:

    I don’t want people to believe in evolution, I want them to understand it.

    The problem is that science is large. Very, very large. How much of science do we expect even scientists to understand, outside their own fields? I doubt more than a small minority of biologists understand Gödel’s theorems. In fact, I think one would be optimistic to think that the majority of people with graduate degrees in math and computer science understand them. Personally, I would not claim to understand quantum mechanics well, despite an undergraduate and graduate course in the topic.

    And for people who aren’t scientists? Only a small minority could explain what a chromosome is.

    Yet… you want people to understand evolution?

    It’s good to want things. :-)

  5. #5 Zombie
    April 6, 2007

    I also found that video inadequate.

    One thing that most simulations, or at least demonstrated simulations, don’t do, is add structure. They can vary a set of predefined parameters, but they don’t go further than that. In creationist terms, they demonstrate microevolution and not macro evolution, and for once, you can define the difference: macro adds new parameters, micro only adjusts their values, and most simulations do the latter (it’s a heck of a lot easier to program).

    Of course, we know what the biological mechanism for “macro” evolution is, its just harder to demonstrate with an animation or simulation. Unfortunately, animations like this one may simply end up reinforcing the idea that evolution can only make tweaks to an existing structure.

  6. #6 caynazzo
    April 6, 2007

    I agree with PZ. I’m a science writer and scientist, and constantly run up against editors who want my pieces tainted with that distracting human interest angle everyone seem’s so fond of. Call it the Oprah curse. I want to write and communicate science, not Mrs. Bartleby’s personal struggle with diabetes. However, it is a way to put the science into context, make it identifiable.

    However, it’s my assumption that people are generally believers not understanders. If you can’t wrap the science in the comfy personal interest story, you settle on the “wow” factor with flashy lights and wicked cool images. You create a spectacle and hope a little content breaks through the noise.

  7. #7 Sonja
    April 6, 2007

    People who don’t yet understand the concept of time (i.e. IDists) might get something out of watching this video.

  8. #8 Dan
    April 6, 2007

    The video didn’t strike me as “dramatic” so much as cheesy and condescending.

    It shares an ideological underpinning with those “how to behave” filmstrips from the 1950s.

  9. #9 MadHatter
    April 6, 2007

    I just cosponsored Nisbet as a speaker for a joint Communications-Biological Sciences lecture, and we had a very interesting discussion. He doesn’t advocate overly simplistic explanations, but he wants biologists to think more about how to communicate with non-biologists. Personally I think there is very little good science writing aimed at the general public. For example it does little good taking an authoritarian stance on evolution with someone who does not accept your authority, and in fact has another authority (religion). It is easy for such people to see such a debate as one authority vs. another, so why shouldn’t both be presented? That would be an example of a poor way to frame evolution.

    But as someone who has spent many years teaching biology to non-biologists, and evaluating and field testing all manner of explanations, I did not find anything particularly special about U-tube video.

  10. #10 Joe Shelby
    April 6, 2007

    Harbison: is Physics any different when freshman Mechanics teaches Newton, all of which has to be unlearned as you get into relative and quantum physics?

    THAT is why science also teach about standard deviations and measures of “acceptable uncertainty”. That is why we teach science as the scientific method and how it allows for acceptable uncertainty. Then the 17th-19th century approximations of science, good up until you get into certain particular details (the very big or the very small, in physics), had to be replaced. If anything, what has replaced them is also utterly wrong beyond a certain error threshold, and something else must replace them at that point. But they’re right enough within an acceptable range.

    For example, while learning Freshman physics, much is taught on the Newtonian assumption of “perfectly elastic collisions”, which are inherently not the case, but to get to the point of correctly modeling inelastic collisions requires a lot of electro-magnetic properties for details that are, at the Freshman physics level, negligible. Every Mechanics test I ever had in high school and first year physics stressed “elastic collisions” and “ignore friction” (until it too was taught).

    So it all depends on how it’s taught. If it’s presented as absolute fact, then it’s something that must be unlearned and the apparent contradiction becomes a weapon by the anti-science crowd. If it’s taught (as physics was taught to me) as an acceptable approximation that doesn’t account for all details, then one can accept the change as one reaches the point of learning about those details.

    So too, I now see your point, biology.

    The question then becomes what is “enough” understanding at the right levels of education. Chemistry has it’s approximations at the middle school, high school, freshman, and graduate levels. Physics certainly has its own as well.

    Here’s the important bit: so does biology.

    The problem is that the “controversy” surrounding evolution as a political tool has so tainted the school systems that the local schools ignore the acceptable levels of understanding and exposure that the school science committees, supported by scientists and educators at the collegiate level, have standardized on. There is no reason a 7 year old can’t understand Darwinian natural selection, and more importantly common descent. No reason at all.

    Except politics.

    And politics has so damaged this nation’s understanding of biology that we are reaching this point of having to feel like we have to start over at the “cartoon level” with the whole country, because if we try to just start over with the current generation, their ignorant parents and local school administrators, all driven by religiously influenced politics, will resist and the cycle of ignorance continues…

  11. #11 greensmile
    April 6, 2007

    The Boston Museum of Science used to have an abstract simulation of evolution in which graphic features, mapped to some abstraction of traits with fitness advantages against a battery of equally abstract perils would run for however many generations you cared to watch. The user could interact by an initial choice of traits and by periodic input to vary the mix of perils. The damn little wiggly icons would morph one way for a while and then if you changed any of the selection pressure parameters, they’d start morphing in some other direction.
    I was hypnotized by it. I felt it confirmed things I already knew about the theory but I have no idea what portion of the patrons “got it” or even liked it. It was mothballed years ago. nowadays whatever hardware it took [perhaps a mini] would be outperformed by your Treo so it ought to be a free java program…but I have not seen one.

    I once modified Conways “game of life” to support competeing populations but it is such a simplified substrate that years-long runs on massive systems might be needed to get to mix-n-match self replication…if it could happen at all.

    The basic ideas of evolution have of course had many successful applications in programming and other non-biological domains but do those successes model clearly enough for acceptance of the ideas by general audiences? Probably not.

    Abstraction is not simplification and simplification is not abstraction. What would really impress me would be an abstraction that did not start from the point where the equivilent of DNA, transcription and mitosis already were givens but rather those feats of biochemistry had to emerge from even simpler abstractions.

  12. #12 dorid
    April 6, 2007

    You know, as a lay person I found the first part of the film confusing, because it doesn’t at all clarify why the changes were occurring, though I thought the cartoon style claymation would be catchy for kids… and I could EXCUSE that, but the second part, which shows humans evolving from chimps was problematic. I think we need to be very clear that although we are evolved from primates, we aren’t evolved from chimps, but that they are our evolutionary cousins. Not that I find anything particularly offensive if we WERE evolved from monkeys (or apes) mind you, just that it’s the kind of oversimplified nonsense that creationists latch on to, and it still presents humans as some sort of evolutionary pinnacle, instead of just another animal on the tree of life.

  13. #13 Jeff Chamberlain
    April 6, 2007

    I wonder if “understand” is too broad to be helpful, and whether “belief” is always appropriately modified by an implied “mere.”

    As an amateur, I “understand” some evolution — but not at a level that a biologist would, and it is surely neither possible nor expected that an amateur would “understand” evolution at such a level. I “understand” how internal combustion engines work, but I’m no mechanic.

    And I “believe” lots of things I don’t “understand” in any detailed way, and I’ll bet everyone else does, too. This is not a bad thing, provided that the grounds for the belief aren’t bogus (and providing that I’m not expected to “understand” them for some operational purpose). I have little real undestanding of much of the genetics Dr. Myers writes about, but I believe him when he describes the findings.

  14. #14 AL
    April 6, 2007

    In the sidebar on YouTube, the author explains what the video is supposed to be about. He is claiming that evolution is an intrinsic part of any system in which you have diverse self-replicators and a selection mechanism acting on them. So in other words, he assumes these things are already present in the system, thus why he didn’t explain anything about genetics or the environment, or many other details.

    He then goes on to show how this simple setup can produce dramatic change over long periods of time.

    So in fairness, the video was meant to address a particular detail, not be a full-blown documentary series on evolution itself.

  15. #15 efp
    April 6, 2007

    As an educator (in physics), I certainly strive for understanding from my students. But as a public strategy, I’m with Russel and Jeff above. Understanding is hard work. Hardly anyone that’s not a scientist or educator is going to take the time to understand evolution, or quantum mechanics, or chemical equilibriums.

    It’s not belief I would like to shoot for so much as trust. When someone’s car breaks down, they go to a mechanic. When they get sick, they go to a doctor. Why don’t they trust biologists when it comes to the origin of species? Or geologists when it comes to the age of the earth? Or physicists when it comes to the history of the universe?

    Because there are very profitable organizations who benefit from them believing otherwise. I think this is the reasoning behind the big push if “Nature of Science” education. It doesn’t seem to be working.

  16. #16 DeafScribe
    April 6, 2007

    Ok, so it wasn’t executed perfectly – it loses points on clarity, it glosses over a lot of important detail, it does appear condescending in some ways. But it does a fair job of portraying the *scope* of evolutionary time and change. Getting that one concept across creates a pathway toward larger mindshare on evolution.

    As others have pointed out, half of America rejects evolution, and most of the remaining half that buys in are fuzzy on the details. So first we build the footpath to true understanding with video clips. We can pave and widen it later.

  17. #17 Joe Shelby
    April 6, 2007

    Of course, the use of the word “believe” it itself problematic because it ignores the reality of how science works and how scientists accept the evidence.

    They may use the word “believe” in a layman’s way to describe how they accept the conclusions of other scientists and the community as a whole, but really the proper word I think is “trust”.

    I don’t “believe” a damned thing a scientist tells us in a book or a published paper. I *trust* that the scientific process followed by the authors and reviewed by people with similar experience and verified by others through experiment is accurate. I trust the process, so I trust, to a degree of acceptability for my own application, that it is correct.

    I don’t want people to “believe” evolution. I do, like PZ, want them to understand it to an acceptable degree, or at least a degree to where they understand it can’t possibly be to blame for any of the evils of the men of the world. I want them to trust the science and that the scientists who study it and write about it know what they’re talking about.

    I want them to understand that even when the science, and scientists in particular, have been wrong in the past, that it is science that corrects our understanding, not trumped up lies by religious writers or corporate flunkies with political motivations.

  18. #18 Kseniya
    April 6, 2007

    Yes… Creationism not only plays to the lowest common denominator, it feeds on it (or tries to). But what does “lowest common denominator” mean in this context? I think it means, “Pretty much anybody who doesn’t have the hard-earned scientific background to truly comprehend the mechanisms behind evolution and the mountains of detailed evidence that support the theory.”

    We all know the primary creationist tactic is the appeal to incredulity and emotion. It say, “This can’t be possible – I mean, just lookit! Besdies, who’s your daddy: some dirty old monkey, or God The Alimightly Father?” while fastidiously avoiding any questions that start with the words How or Why. What we need are materials and presentations that counter-balance this tactic, that illustrate the truth and beauty of evolutionary process while providing some basic insight into the How and the Why.

    Though this particular video may not be quite on the money, the intentions are good and the direction is positive. If at first you don’t succeed…

  19. #19 Axolotl
    April 6, 2007

    I think videos they have in the Evolving Planet exhibit in the field museum are a lot better at explaining evolutionary theory to beginners.

    Here is their video on natural selection:

  20. #20 dhonig
    April 6, 2007

    I don’t want people to believe in evolution, I want them to understand it.

    I think you have put your finger on a far larger problem, one grossly exacerbated by the modern trend in primary and secondary education to “teach the test.” Teachers give the answers. Students get the answers. Nobody asks questions. Schools sell answers, not thought or knowledge. Standardized testing as THE measure of a school’s success (and funding) leaves little room for understanding, rather than simply believing the answer is “b”.

  21. #21 Mooser
    April 6, 2007

    If I had the temerity, which I most definitely do not, to suggest a line of arguement which may prove sucessful against God-bots it would be: do not deny attempt to prove or disprove the existence of God, instead try to get the God-bot to prove that he believes in God. In otherwords, don’t say “There is no God”, instead say “Of course you don’t believe in God, You are just going along with what you feel is in your interest. Prove to me you believe in God, cause I don’t think you do”.
    In almost every case where I have used this technique, the God-bot has ended up admitting that their belief in God is totally conditional! That is, they say they believe, because doing so confers advantages, or they think it will. Try it today, and you’ll see how well it works.

  22. #22 notthedroids
    April 6, 2007

    IDers will claim the video does nothing to refute ID’s claims.

    Regarding the video, I prefer my pop-science videos to be a little quieter and more thought-provoking.

    Like Powers of Ten. The original seems to have been removed from youtube, but here is the Simpsons version:

    [Is this the clue to which state Springfield resides in?]

  23. #23 Jason F
    April 6, 2007

    As others have noted in this thread, expecting the public to “understand evolution” rather than just “accepting it” (“believing” may not be the proper term) may be asking too much.

    Does the general public understand tort law? What about the corporate tax code? Quantum physics? HTML code? Diesel mechanics?

    People tend to “understand” what they need to understand, and hire experts to understand the rest of it for them. Heck, we even do that in science with a myriad of sub-disciplines.

    Does the guy on the loading dock driving the forklift need to understand evolutionary biology? What about your accountant? Or the guy cooking your dinner?

    They’re about as likely to understand evolutionary biology as you are to understand how to run a loading dock, do corporate taxes, or make a souffle.

    Now, the other side of this is that I do think it’s reasonable to expect anyone who criticizes evolutionary biology to understand it. If someone is going to lobby a school board to “teach the controversy” or actually be on a school board and push that position, then yes, they’d damn well better know what they’re talking about.

    To the rest of the public, it may be reasonable to say “If you’re interested, please ask questions and I’ll do my best to answer them. Otherwise, trust that the scientific community knows what it’s doing.”

  24. #24 kmarissa
    April 6, 2007


    I think a big part of this is that it’s so much *easier* to just “have faith” than to learn. When you think about it, the precepts of Christianity are pretty confusing. If you really try to understand them, they don’t make much sense (Okay, so Adam and Eve were punished for doing wrong before they knew right from wrong, so God cursed all their children for it, but then he wanted to forgive them so he made a virgin pregnant so his son could be born and killed, in order to let God forgive the people he had cursed… and etc). The point is, you don’t HAVE to understand Christianity (or any religion, really). All you have to do is say, “God works in mysterious ways,” and have *faith* that God knows what he (she? it?) is doing.

    Learning is hard; faith is easy. Much much easier than actually understand anything. That is, except for a handful people out there who like to ask questions and find out the answers just a bit too much.

  25. #25 ice weasel
    April 6, 2007

    Speaking as someone who is not on the side that needs convincing here that video was beyond lame. I watched half of it and besides the visuals only attentuating my ADHD, I have no idea what was supposed to be happening there.

    Bad idea. Do it again. And this time, actually explain something.

  26. #26 Sastra
    April 6, 2007

    I was much more pleased with the video than I thought I would be after reading your review of it. I thought it managed to get across some key concepts behind some major misunderstandings — and as for being quick and confusing, young audiences weaned on MTV are unlikely to have problems with the constant flash. I had feared that this was another “watch one species morph into another species” show — which only succeeds in convincing people that individuals themselves evolve, and that there is a goal to the process. I do agree with others that that bit at the end, where chimps turn into other modern primates, may have undid the good of the earlier bit.

    However, I thought the most glaring drawback was the title: “Evolution for IDiots.” No, no, no. Snide little nicknames do not belong in an educational video aimed at the people you’re calling names — or those who aren’t sure of the subject. It not only looks amateur, it will turn off an audience composed of folk who don’t know the reason for the hostility, and tend to give respect to those who show it.

  27. #27 Caledonian
    April 6, 2007

    Most people are believers instead of being understanders.

    We need to get over the idea that the majority ought to rule and tell the mindless minority to sit down and shut up. Least-common-denominatorism is what led the U.S. from being the most-informed and politically-active country in history to our present state.

  28. #28 Krystalline Apostate
    April 6, 2007

    If you want to grasp the goals of scientists (and, tellingly, the goals of atheists), you have to understand that distinction between believing and understanding.

    How telling I find that, as I consistently hear from believers that if I ‘only understood’ what they were talking about, I’d do a complete about-face & become a soldier in their little army.
    But they insist I don’t, regardless of how I can demonstrate clearly that I do comprehend their inanities, or that comprehension isn’t agreement.

  29. #29 Steven
    April 6, 2007

    I always say “Evolution is not for you to believe in. Evolution is a fact if you believe in it or not. It is a fact if 100% of the world doesn’t believe in it”.

    If everyone thinks the moon is made of cheese it doesn’t make it true.

  30. #30 coturnix
    April 6, 2007

    This is what I write on my blog:

    I think I’ll stop the movie [when showing it in class of science-fearing adult non-majors taking BIO101] a moment before the first chimp appears. Until that moment the animation, though not 100% accurate, and quite oversimplified, is GREAT for a visceral understanding of evolution. We can debate neutral selection and population sizes, but that is what we do. For a regular citizen uninterested in science, this brief movie is sufficient to “grok” evolution. This is a great example of “visual framing” (as opposed to language-based framing). You don’t have to tell all the science. You dont’ have to have your science 100% accurate. But you hit a nerve, and you end up with a convert. Nothing more is needed, though if anyone gets interested, there is plenty of information out there.

  31. #31 sparc
    April 7, 2007

    If evolution is framed inappropriately, many people won’t take the trouble to consider it seriously. So we have to work on the framing problem before we can succeed at the understanding problem.

    I would concede to that point if we were talking about new discoveries rather than a 150 year old proven theory. Indeed, much of Darwin’s own writing was framing evolution with examples that laymen could grasp.

  32. #32 Kseniya
    April 7, 2007

    What is a “logical” population? Well, I’d say the film-makers have borrowed a term from computing here.

    The populations are logical as opposed to physical, as in logical disk vs. physical disk. No tangible (physical) locational or environmental attributes or conditions have been attached to the populations. The divisions between populations in the film are arbitrary and abstract, and are made only to demonstrate how isolated populations diverge. The film makes no attempt to impose any real-word type of explain on how and why the populations are isolated from each other because, for the purpose of this film, all that matters is that they ARE.

    That purpose may have been better served by a less esoteric term, like “hypothetical” or “sample” or “imaginary”…but there it is. XD

  33. #33 Deb
    April 7, 2007

    ” but the second part, which shows humans evolving from chimps was problematic. I think we need to be very clear that although we are evolved from primates, we aren’t evolved from chimps, but that they are our evolutionary cousins. ”

    I can’t believe more people aren’t jumping all over this! This part of the video cancelled out anything beneficial gleaned from the beginning of the video!

    I can just see ID-iots watching this video, all enthralled until the very end, where they slap their knees and say “See? They are trying to say we evolved from the damn monkeys!!!”

  34. #34 jack*
    April 7, 2007

    I liked it. I think being critical because it didn’t explain enough is misguided. Scientists and lay people steeped in this stuff would be more comfortable with a long lecture about the processes and the details and the exceptions and the latest research, and that’s fine. But that’s not who this is for.

    The video is very good at showing (rather than just telling, which is the way a movie is better than a lecture) three things. First that the basic processes of evolution are familiar everyday things: death, reproduction, and how children are similar but different from their parents. Second, that if you repeat this process over a very, very, very large number of generations you start to see differences. And finally that there is no distinction between so-called micro- and macro-evolution.

    I know some commenters have argued that macro-evolution really is something different and that this simulation didn’t have the capacity for it. Maybe not but that’s not the point. The types of genetic changes associated with macro-evolution are indistinguishable at the generational level. The child with the novel crossover duplication that will lead to a whole new protein pathway still looks and acts just like its mother. It’s never a matter of dogs giving birth to cats.

    The condescending tone was probably not helpful, and the bit with the morphing apes made me cringe. But the tone can be changed and the application of the lessons from the simulation to real biology can be improved. As a work in progress I consider it a good attempt.

  35. #35 Laelaps
    April 7, 2007

    I recently got a response for the creator of the video to my critique of it. It reads as follows and can be found here as well;

    ” I think u r missing the point.

    evolution vs creationism isnt a scientific battle, its a PR battle.

    The creationist target people with no scientific education. If you say, well im not gonna dumb this down such than an idiot can understand it, you dont have to be a great strategist to realise you will never reach the target audience.

    Damn straight I knew exactly what i was doing when i made this vid. I could have included the code, the genetic drift fitness and all sorts of other shit, but the target audiance wouldnt have understood a word.

    Get with the programme! this is not a scientific debate among academic peers, you are not trying to win the hearts and minds of scientists, you are trying to win the hearts and minds of idiots with no scientific understanding.

    let me follow on by saying that there really arnt that many photos from 1 million years ago.

    Creationist make a big song and dance about ‘the only evidence that we came from primates is imaginary drawings’.

    Taking these two factors into account I did the best I could.

    This is not a scientific paper, its 2 mins of vid.
    I could have made it explicit, but then it would not have reached the target audience.

    Its like bein critical of those vids where one animal morphs into another cos evolution works over multiple generations, no one creature changing.”

  36. #36 Caledonian
    April 7, 2007

    If you say, well im not gonna dumb this down such than an idiot can understand it, you dont have to be a great strategist to realise you will never reach the target audience.

    The target audience is idiots? Why exactly do we want them to come over to our side in the first place?

  37. #37 Krystalline Apostate
    April 7, 2007

    Why exactly do we want them to come over to our side in the first place?

    Ummm…strength in numbers?
    Like it or not, it’s how the world works.

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