15 misconceptions about evolution

Take a look at this excellent list of evolution misconceptions. The entries are very brief, but mostly correct and very common: in particular, #12, “Natural selection involves organisms ‘trying’ to adapt” is one of the most common mistakes in creationist thinking — they completely miss one of the most important insights that Darwin had.

But I have to nitpick a little bit. #6, “The theory is flawed,” gives the wrong answer — it basically tries to argue that the theory of evolution is not flawed. Of course it is! If it were perfect and complete we’d be done with it, and it wouldn’t be a particularly active field of research. The “flaws” that creationists typically bring up aren’t flaws in the theory at all, but flaws in the creationists’ understanding of the science, but let’s be careful to avoid giving the impression of perfection.

#15 is also a pet peeve: “Evolution is a theory about the origin of life” is presented as false. It is not. I know many people like to recite the mantra that “abiogenesis is not evolution,” but it’s a cop-out. Evolution is about a plurality of natural mechanisms that generate diversity. It includes molecular biases towards certain solutions and chance events that set up potential change as well as selection that refines existing variation. Abiogenesis research proposes similar principles that led to early chemical evolution. Tossing that work into a special-case ghetto that exempts you from explaining it is cheating, and ignores the fact that life is chemistry. That creationists don’t understand that either is not a reason for us to avoid it.

#13, “Evolution means that life changed ‘by chance’,” also ducks the issue more than it should. As it says, natural selection is not random — but there’s more to evolution than natural selection. It’s a bit like ducking the question by redefining the terms. Much of our makeup is entirely by accident, and evolution is a story of filtered accidents. Creationists don’t like that — one of their central assumptions is that everything is purposeful — but don’t pander to their beliefs. Go for the gusto and ask them what their god was thinking when he loaded up your genome with the molecular equivalent of styrofoam packing peanuts, or when he ‘accidentally’ scrambled the sequence of our enzyme for synthesizing vitamin C.


  1. #1 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    I once met a guy who actually claimed that our inability to synthesize vitamin C was proof of the story of Adam and Eve, part of our punishment for original sin.

    I didn’t know the guinea pigs were so evil…

    Big Bang cosmic evolution merges into galactic evolution, merges into nucleosynthetic stellar evolution, merges into planetary evolution, merges into chemical evolution –> biological evolution –> cultural evolution

    Of these, only the last three should be called evolution because only they involve (pardon the pun) replication and inheritance, and the last one is so lamarckistic that calling it “evolution” is bound to lead to misconceptions, too.

    Languages evolve, though.

    I mean, in a deep sense, why does a chemical reaction appear to “want” to adjust to counteract perturbations from equilibrium?

    Use the gravity metaphor then: once it’s in equilibrium, it requires an effort to go anywhere else, so when that effort — energy — is unavailable, it doesn’t go anywhere.

    Look, evolution means “change”

    No, “change” means “change”. “Evolution” means “descent with modification”. There’s replication, inheritance and mutation hidden in that definition.

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    Toothbrushes don’t evolve?
    Mountain ranges don’t evolve?
    Indeed solar systems don’t evolve?

    No, no, and no, respectively.

    You just seem to make this stuff up as you go along.

    It certainly seems that way to you — because you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    Never, never, never cite a general dictionary on the meaning of a technical term.

    Yes, the word “evolution” has been around for longer than Darwin, Lamarck or Buffon. All the way to Darwin’s time it meant what is today called “development” in English — ontogeny, that is. (That’s because it literally means “unwrapping”, which is what ontogeny was thought to be: the unpacking of the homunculus in the sperm.) That certainly has changed. But it’s still a technical term. We biologists own it — we get to decide how it should be used, not Merriam-Webster. I didn’t say “the only common definition”, I implied “the only correct definition”.

    Sorry to go all prescriptivist on you, but I really do think that technical terms are owned by those that work in the discipline in question.

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    It is narrow to assume that evolution does not occur outside of organic/biological spheres.

    Indeed. Languages evolve, too. Perhaps even universes do. And evolution can be simulated in computers.

    That’s not just what I say, that’s the state of our understanding today.

    That’s not a matter of understanding, it’s a matter of definition. What mountain ranges and solar systems do can be compared to development, but not to evolution. Individuals don’t evolve, populations do, and when there’s no population, there’s no evolution.

  5. #5 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    I never drink coffee. It smells better than it tastes and sticks to the entire oral cavity… very uncomfortable. Currently I drink tea once every few months… I don’t drink Coke or anything similar (can’t stand the gas or the incredibly low pH).