Pharyngula

There is no one simple evolution story

I’ve never liked this stereotypical portrayal of evolution.

i-206681b1a9ec60f178db3f0f5223978e-evo_bleh.jpeg

It implies that evolution is linear, that it is going somewhere, and of course, that it is all about people — all the wrong messages. Yet it is ubiquitous, and probably the most common rendering you’ll find anywhere. Try googling for images of evolution, and you will turn it up, or variants on it, or jokes built on it…it’s a bit annoying and trite.

(Although, when I googled to find that image — which was easy — I also found this one.

Very nice. I like it.)

This is actually a problem. When we’re trying to get the message of the science of evolution across to people, one thing that helps is having a story — people respond well to narratives. The canonical image definitely tells a story, which is probably why it caught the public imagination so well, but the problem is that it is the wrong story.

Evolution should not be portrayed as an epic tale with a beginning and an end, with a narrative drive to a conclusion, with a single hero or even any heroes at all. Trying to shoehorn it into a simple linear story destroys the meaning. Does this mean our efforts to catch the attention of a fickle public are doomed, because science does not fit the story-telling conventions that best fit the human mind?

Not necessarily. Here’s an interesting analogy, a comparison of the evolution story to a dramatic convention that the public does eat up happily: evolution is like a soap opera. I can see it.

Both have lots of characters and story lines, every one full of anguish and drama, some ending happily (for a while), others ending miserably; individuals come and go, they get their brief period in the spotlight, then poof, everything moves on to the next big new event. There is no one grand goal for the ensemble, just a series of overlapping dramas, some ridiculous, some mundane, and the vehicle to tie them all together is usually something commonplace — a town or a hospital, for instance — and stories can abandon that unifying premise freely. And it never ends!

Days of our Lives has been on the air since 1965. Dozens, probably hundreds, of characters have come and gone. There have been murders, affairs, rapes, and (for all I know) alien abductions. The show isn’t going anywhere. And yet as any soap-opera fan will tell you, their favorite soap has had dozens and dozens of riveting, heart-breaking stories over the years, that make the series so gratifying and rewarding in the long run.

And that’s exactly the deal with evolution. It isn’t going anywhere, and yet it’s going to keep on going and going and going for as long as there’s planet to go on, and even after that it’ll probably be going on someplace else.

Cool. And yet, somehow, all that chaos and confusion and complexity and strangely unresolvable big picture manages to engross viewers day after day after day, in the case of the soaps. There’s a lesson there that we need to figure out: how can we map the science of evolution onto the imaginations of human beings?

Comments

  1. #1 asb
    February 18, 2009

    PZ: If you thought the IDers had a field day with the “Darwin Is Dead” cover, how do you think they’ll react to you posting approvingly of a graphic that says “Die Evolution”?

  2. #2 PZ Myers
    February 18, 2009

    No problem. They’re illiterate, so somebody will have to read it out to them, and they’ll hear “Dee evolution” and think it’s talking about Sandra.

  3. #3 (((Billy)))
    February 18, 2009

    What a fantastic analogy. A soap opera with tens of millions of stories and trillions of characters. Thank you.

  4. #4 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    February 18, 2009

    Very interesting picture. I like the way that the tetrapods appear to be an afterthought of the whole process. Puts the proper perspective on human’s place in the world.

  5. #5 cmotdibbler
    February 18, 2009

    Maybe a better analogy would that Evolution is like Battlestar Galactica with all the subplots and dead ends. On the other hand, they do invoke deities. frack.

  6. #6 Deepsix
    February 18, 2009

    So, evolution is like a boring, poorly acted, overly dramatic daytime TV program? No thanks!

    How about, “Evolution is like pro-wrestling”. I guess it all depends on your target audience…

  7. #7 J
    February 18, 2009

    The humans up in the left-hand corner look like they’re gettin’ a little fresh with each other.

  8. #8 SC, OM
    February 18, 2009

    What’s that the white woman’s holding?

  9. #9 Sven DiMilo
    February 18, 2009

    Cool poster, nice detail; one could spend a lot of time looking at that, like a good map.
    I feel compelled to point out, though, that many of the phylogenetic relationships and intermediate forms depicted are speculative, and others are almost certainly wrong according to molecular phylogenetics. As one example, segmentation in arthropods and annelids is shown as homologous, but annelids are much more closely related to mollusks (and arthropods to nematodes) according to all the more recent data.

  10. #10 AJ Milne
    February 18, 2009

    …yet, somehow, all that chaos and confusion and complexity and strangely unresolvable big picture manages to engross viewers day after day after day, in the case of the soaps. There’s a lesson there that we need to figure out: how can we map the science of evolution onto the imaginations of human beings?

    How ’bout we get that guy with the big soap opera cliffhanger/teaser voice and have ‘em do the same thing for natural history, over that cheesy swirling organ track: ‘WILL a camera eye evolve yet again, in yet another lineage entirely? Will mammalia go the way of the dinosaurs, in the face of rapid climate change? WILL every lineage within Cetaceae go extinct? Or will the dolphins develop the ability to melt human brains to goo with focused sonar, go on a rampage and destroy human civilization? Will the next species to build a skyscraper be descended from aphids? Tune in in 600 million years, to find out, on Aeons Of Our Lives…’

  11. #11 JP
    February 18, 2009

    Why does it show ctenophores diverging before sponges? Did I sleep through a major revision of the tree of life?

  12. #12 J
    February 18, 2009

    Oh and plant life kind of gets the shaft from this poster. The whole plant kingdom, smooshed into the top-center.

    Or have I been misinformed and the kingdom plantae really IS a lot less tree’d-out than animalia?

  13. #13 Judith
    February 18, 2009

    Should be, “without a single hero”.

  14. #14 Sastra
    February 18, 2009

    One of the things I like about the soap opera analogy is that it makes non-human ‘characters’ just as significant as the human one. When you talk about the dramas which involved the crustacean species, it becomes harder to see the entire universe as nothing more than a story about Man and his choices. The soap opera analogy isn’t anthropocentric.

    The problem with the analogy, of course, is that it still feeds into our innate tendency to view reality as a narrative with plot, characters, and moral themes. One of the significant differences between creationists and evolutionists can be expressed in Bill Dembski?s fundamental divide: ?Is reality fundamentally mindful and purposive or mindless and material?? A soap opera still has a basic underlying value system of Good People and Bad People, and all the dramas are built around this. Evolution has no value system structured into it. The “fit” which survive are neither the heroes, nor the villains.

  15. #15 Judith
    February 18, 2009

    Great analogy, except the creotards would cast God as the soap company, “And now a word from our sponsor…”

  16. #16 Didac
    February 18, 2009

    Well, the linear approach of human evolution is overly simplistic. That’s true. But if you are going to reflect the origin of an individual species, you must use a line. So, in a sense the classical depiction of linear evolution is useful to see the link between past and present forms.

    Of course, people tend to forget that present is only an instant between a past time and a future one. This presentism is not only reflected in the first picture but also in the second.

    A good point for the second picture, is that there is no discrimination against extinct groups such as trilobites or triceratops. People tend to forget that all biological groups will eventually extint one day or another.

  17. #17 RickK
    February 18, 2009

    Ooooo, I’d love an English version of that chart. I like how it combines the ages of the planet with the ages of life, as the two have evolved together.

    I like the analogy. It will be useful in reaching yet another portion of the great uneducated (or religiously-indoctrinated) masses. Science and critical thinking are a great grand adventure leading to wonderful personal experiences and enlightenment. Often, the challenge is to get people to take that first step out of their small, comfortable homes to begin the adventure. Different models appeal to different people.

    A couple days ago, I saw the Nova program “Judgement Day” on the Kitzmiller v Dover trial. It is too bad that the presentations from Miller et al. weren’t recorded. So many of the people in the courtroom, including the judge, seemed to indicate that “it was the science class they WISH they’d had as kids.” How useful it would be to have such a presentation available to educators who want to present the science to their students, but who lack the knowledge, enthusiasm or charisma of the expert witnesses in the Dover trial.

    It’s just another way to get a few more people to take that first step into the adventure.

  18. #18 Deepsix
    February 18, 2009

    I always thought the first image was showing the evolution of the spear.

  19. #19 dNorrisM
    February 18, 2009

    My favorite soap was ST-DS9. (OK, laugh) Lots of alien abductions and soapy acting. Also agreeing with cmotdibbler.

  20. #20 Darwin's Minion
    February 18, 2009

    My job at the moment is putting together a museum exhibit on human evolution, and boy do I hate that “iconic” image. I hate, hate, hate it. With a burning passion. Because it’s just so goddamn wrong. So I’m with you on the mission to eradicate it as the predominant image that comes to mind when you hear “(human) evolution”.

    Also, a good storyteller can pull off any story. Linear, non-linear, simple or complex. Actually, imho, strictly linear stories with a predefined ending and designated heroes are booooo-ring. I prefer something that keeps me on my toes.

  21. #21 Richard Harris
    February 18, 2009

    Evolution is more like the Tour of California. It’s a journey that’s a race with many stages, sometimes favouring the stayers, sometimes favouring the sprinters, & sometimes mountain climbers. There are devastating crashes from time to time, & it develops according to chance events, & has multiple winners & losers.

    And there’s some confusion over whether the basic unit is the individual or the group (ie team).

  22. #22 Didac
    February 18, 2009

    Sven and JP are complaining about phylogenetics of the second picture. They are right because the poster uses data from 1990s (even controversial data then). Some corrections should be introduced.

    As for J complaining about discrimination against plants, Die Evolution der Tiere means The Evolution of Animals.

  23. #23 Peter Ashby
    February 18, 2009

    Very nice, though it does imply (not deliberately I’m sure) that only the metazoa are extant.

  24. #24 Anon
    February 18, 2009

    Wait–evolution is German? No wonder we have a “most German” links on scienceblogs!

  25. #25 Corey Schlueter
    February 18, 2009

    Here is Rhymes With Orange take on the linear model, omitting several transitions:

    http://www.jsonline.com/comics/?feature_id=Rhymes_with_Orange&feature_date=2009-02-18

    I like the newer graphic. Most evolution graphs show tree/bush of life. This more like the “roots” of life.

  26. #26 mayhempix
    February 18, 2009

    My favorite series of all time.

    “As the Universe Churns”

  27. #27 DCP
    February 18, 2009

    Hey, I remember the second picture from my school days! It was one of the posters in my classroom. It’s probably still hanging there…

  28. #28 Guy G
    February 18, 2009

    I’m interested as to why PZ and some of the commenters hate the iconic image so much. Personally I quite like it.

    I’m don’t have much knowledge of biology, but it doesn’t seem particularly wrong to me. It may be selective about what it portrays (i.e. a limited section of our own evolutionary history), but in what way is it so very wrong?

    I could see that perhaps the initial 2 forms are too similar to primates today, rather than necessarily being what our direct ancestors would’ve looked like.

    As for only portraying our own evolutionary history, I think that that is the whole point. People can identify with people. That other diagram was great, it really was, but the first thing I did was try and find where the people were.

    Like I say, I’m not a biologist, but if an image is easy to identify with, simple, tells a story, iconic, easily open to parody (funniness is memorable), *and* gets people used to the idea that evolution is fact, whilst skimping on a few details, then it’s a fantastic image in my book.

  29. #29 azqaz
    February 18, 2009

    @11 JP

    I don’t think there is any real temporality shown in the direction the divisions take. It is showing the ctenophores diverging from the common ancestor of sponges, but just because it shows them on on side or the other doesn’t mean anything in terms of time. The time markers are the dashed lines, I believe, and they are really rough huge divisions of time.

  30. #30 Epinephrine
    February 18, 2009

    I get PZ’s point about not having evolution seem to lead somewhere – to be directed, but it still looks that way on the big image. It needs more dead ends!

  31. #31 daniel
    February 18, 2009

    well, humanity is still on top, albeit a mountain goat…

    Would love to be part of making theoretical soap!

  32. #32 catgirl
    February 18, 2009

    I’ve never liked soap operas and I always assumed that people only watch them because they are extremely bored. This analogy decreases my interest in evolution. Now, if soap operas had cool things like angler fish and platypodes, they would be a lot more interesting. Imagine a story where a woman wakes up with some random guy physically and permanently attached to her body. An angler fish storyline would make divorce a lot more complicated.

  33. #33 Mike K
    February 18, 2009

    Just wanted to point out that the poster is in german – so I feel a little proud of my home country today.

    PS: I am pretty sure most people on this blog know, but “Die Evolution” simply means “evolution”.

    Nice twist: Evolution has the female german article “die”.

    So I guess evolution is female… in Germany.
    Have a nice day everyone!

  34. #34 Christophe Thill
    February 18, 2009

    Guy G (#28):

    The iconic “walk to progress” shows evolution as the faceless god, the mysterious force of progress that pushed the ancestors of man (the masculine form is intentional here) forward. This progress manifests itself in the gradual, regular and correlated change of some physical features (body size, upright stature, brain size), and well as the progress of weaponry.

    In a word, it’s a summary of an outdated view of human anthropology, and of evolution itself.

  35. #35 Carlie
    February 18, 2009

    Fucking plant haters.
    [stomps off]

  36. #36 MLE
    February 18, 2009

    Anyone else notice the stereotypical Adam and Eve picture used to represent humans? Even here…

  37. #37 Evolving Squid
    February 18, 2009

    Nice twist: Evolution has the female german article “die”.

    So I guess evolution is female… in Germany.

    In French, nearly every noun that ends in “tion” / “sion” is feminine.

    la télévision
    la natation
    la question
    la nation
    la fornication
    la diction
    l’évolution which would be “la évolution”

    I suspect, although I don’t know, that the same is true in German. There’s probably a reason in the evolution of European languages.

    The list of masculine “tion” nouns is very small, but I can’t remember any off the top of my head.

  38. #38 Holbach
    February 18, 2009

    Can you picture the impression on the faces of the creotards as they look at this poster? And can you imagine the poster they would conjure up as a counterpart to the one of reality? Suffer you morons.

  39. #39 MissPrism
    February 18, 2009

    I do like the soap opera analogy.
    (And the big branching picture, except I’d prefer one that put the Ecdysozoa together.)

    Trilobites are Bea Smith. Coelocanths are Dot Cotton. Discuss.

  40. #40 Mike K
    February 18, 2009

    @37:
    You said “fornication” – (suppressed pubescent laughter)

    Nice context to bring that up in!

    I’m off – it’s 5 pm local time, and that’s beer time in Germany! (last comment added for stereotype enforcement only).

  41. #41 Man of the sloth
    February 18, 2009

    @#17
    The poster is also available in English from here.

  42. #42 Rick R
    February 18, 2009

    Sastra @ #14- “One of the things I like about the soap opera analogy is that it makes non-human ‘characters’ just as significant as the human one. When you talk about the dramas which involved the crustacean species, it becomes harder to see the entire universe as nothing more than a story about Man and his choices.”

    This sounds like my “pet” theory about the TV show “Lost”- the key to unlocking the mystery is realizing it’s really about Vincent the dog. ;)

  43. #43 ollie
    February 18, 2009

    Ok, I’ll present a dissenting view.

    If one thinks of evolution as a type of dendreon (a type of graph starting with one node and ever branching out), the “ape like ancestor to human” series depicted above is merely one trajectory out of millions.

    Every modern animal has such a progression; of course each trajectory takes lots of twists and turns, and of course many of the branches that petered out a long time ago are not shown.

    What is wrong with seeing it that way?

  44. #44 Whatevermachine
    February 18, 2009

    The thing I hate about that ‘evolution scale’image is that it doesn’t only portray humans as the ‘standard’, but it portrays men as the default human. Seriously, WHERE are the women!? I have never seen a female version. I asked this question on Richard Dawkins’ forum, and all the replies I got were ‘but that would show the breast!’ Shock, horror. Can’t have any line drawings of breasts in our textbooks, now, can we? I suspect the reason it’s always a man is that women are considered somehow a derivative, somehow ‘other’ to that which is considered default, the male.

  45. #45 Glen Davidson
    February 18, 2009

    That’s one thing I thought when re-watching Judgment Day, the mural that Buckingham likely helped to vandalize was of just such a “linear evolution,” with apes evolving into man. I know that Buckingham didn’t burn it for its scientific inaccuracy, and I deplore his criminality across the board, but I wouldn’t have minded if the mural had been praised, yet corrected, in the program.

    And to be fair to the kid who made the mural, not only was the education at Dover likely to blame, it would have been rather difficult to have made a representative picture of evolution as a school art project.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  46. #46 Cat of Many Faces
    February 18, 2009

    I always liked the first poster so long as it was the varient that was coming out of the water.

    I never thought we were supposed to say “and then us, now it’s all over” as you look at a long line of slightly different forms like that, how can you not see that more will come? It just implies that evolution isn’t done to me.

    Though i must admit that it is definitely not showing other creatures, i think it’s a bit understandable that as a species, we happen to be a bit obsessed with ourselves. (even if other animals are a lot more interesting)

  47. #47 Tikki
    February 18, 2009

    We had something similar to this one http://cleverbytch.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/trevol.jpg in school.

  48. #48 Guy G
    February 18, 2009

    @#34: It doesn’t seem to me that way. Obviously the idea of evolution as a force with a purpose is wrong, but I don’t think that anyone would really take the picture that way (at least they wouldn’t base their ideas on evolution on it). I’m in agreement with #43 – couldn’t have put it better myself.

    @#44: The plain and simple truth is that men look more like monkeys than women.

  49. #49 Richard Hendricks
    February 18, 2009

    That is an awesome poster, and it’s too bad there isn’t an english version. But did you notice the picture of the two humans? I swear the female is holding an apple!

  50. #50 J
    February 18, 2009

    *I suspect the reason it’s always a man is that women are considered somehow a derivative, somehow ‘other’ to that which is considered default, the male.*

    Odd, given that all vertebrate embryos are inherently female. Heck, even being *genetically* male isn’t enough to penis-ify a human embryo: You’ve got to get the testosterone bath in-utero in order to grow a dong.

    Can’t remember what the condition is for children born with female (or at least, not male) genitalia but XY chromosomery. Kleinfelters? Or is that the broken-24 condition where you have no double sex chromosome and are born as just an “X”, as it were.

  51. #51 B ill Ringo
    February 18, 2009

    This got me thinking of “Spore”, a game of which my wife and grand daughter are fond. Have any of you played this using random selection, that is all decisions driven by a randomization process? Shouldn’t the game fail most of the time?

  52. #52 Jud
    February 18, 2009

    RickK wrote: A couple days ago, I saw the Nova program “Judgement Day” on the Kitzmiller v Dover trial. It is too bad that the presentations from Miller et al. weren’t recorded…. How useful it would be to have such a presentation available to educators who want to present the science to their students, but who lack the knowledge, enthusiasm or charisma of the expert witnesses in the Dover trial.

    The transcript of the court proceedings, including Miller et al.’s presentations, is available to educators and anyone else who would like to have it at TalkOrigins – http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/dover/kitzmiller_v_dover.html .

  53. #53 -Tater
    February 18, 2009

    Looks like a warning poster from the wall of a Sushi restaurant.

  54. #54 cactusren
    February 18, 2009

    Ollie, while I see the point you’re making, the problem with the image is that it ONLY shows that one linear branch. It makes evolution look overly simplistic, and it ignores that multiple hominids lived at the same time, with only one lineage surviving until the present. While there’s a way you could view the image as being correct in it’s way, it is misleading and gives the general public an unrealistic view of evolution. And that tends to make scientists cranky.

  55. #55 Kev
    February 18, 2009

    Nice image, but I too immediately noticed the woman (Eve?) holding the apple. I’m surprised they’re not wearing fig leaves. That was immediately followed by spotting the prominent cephalopod in the lower left corner…

  56. #56 Interrobang
    February 18, 2009

    I have never seen a female version.

    A couple of the old National Geographic layouts of human origins (mostly in linear or branching-linear format, admittedly) did show females, breasts and all. On the other hand, National Geographic has never really been squeamish about putting breasts in its illos, and the females in the human-origins layouts weren’t represented to anything like 50% of the figures shown.

    I think the correct response to “But that would show the breast!” is, “And? So what?” It sort of makes me wonder whether these are the same people who freak out if they so much as catch a glimpse of someone breastfeeding in public, and/or were never breastfed themselves and are somehow anxious about it. (I wasn’t, but I don’t suffer from delusions of inadequacy in that regard.)

    Do we have an illustrator here who could do an entirely female version of the former illustration, simply to make a point?

  57. #57 Richard Dawkins
    February 18, 2009

    Much better than the stereotypical and misleading “forward march to humanity” myth is to walk BACKWARDS from any modern animal (it might as well be us). On our backwards march, we can greet our cousins as we reach the branch points where we join them. You could even think of it as a kind of Chaucerian pilgrimage, back in time to the origin of life. And the cousins we greet could each be thought of as walking backwards on THEIR pilgrimage. This way of portraying it has the great advantage that it does NOT convey the false impression that evolution is aiming towards a climax. It also completely dispels the popular falsehood that modern animals are descended from other modern animals (“If we’re descended from chimps, how come there are still chimps around?”)

    Come to think of it, this backwards way of looking at evolutionary history might make a good book. And not a bad title might be The Ancestor’s Tale.

  58. #58 ThirdMonkey
    February 18, 2009

    This was always my favorite version of the linier human evolution image: http://www.topatoco.com/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=TO&Product_Code=DC-EVOL&Category_Code=DC
    I can’t be the only person saving up for his total-body prosthesis, can I?

  59. #59 Glen Davidson
    February 18, 2009

    Come to think of it, this backwards way of looking at evolutionary history might make a good book. And not a bad title might be The Ancestor’s Tale.

    As I recall, some reviewers criticized that book for its focus on humans, as it begins especially with humans.

    Which perhaps raises the question of how any portrayal could (or even should) be unbiased with respect to humans. It seems unlikely to me that we can, especially in the beginning of the learning process, understand evolution without relating it to ourselves.

    Anthropocentrism is comprised partly of the animism and the intentional beliefs that see a purpose in everything, and which continue to bolster IDiocy and the rest of creationism. Yet it’s absurd to think that we can be rid of it, rather than to push gently back against it.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  60. #60 rob
    February 18, 2009

    I’m with those who think the iconic image is ok. So is the big image, but it mostly eliminated plants, and it is way too complex for most uses (i.e. showing a simple image that conveys an idea)

    The iconic image doesn’t “imply” that evolution is linear, someone is incorrectly “inferring” that it is linear, and the problem is on their side. The image is one cross section of evolution, and the cross section that is most interesting and meaningful to most people. Is it somehow a flaw of people, that we happen to find the “path to us” to be the most interesting part?

  61. #61 Helioprogenus
    February 18, 2009

    This reminds me of all the Star Trek Series. You can think of the Star Trek universe as the Earth, where our evolution takes place. Perhaps there are other universes also with their own version of evolution, but we would be completely isolated from them until some kind of technology is devised, such as interplanetary spacecraft to introduce cross-global species (kind of like what would happen if somehow Earth bacteria end up colonizing Mars).

    All the different series would be looking at different perspectives and stories of evolution through time. The Original Series for example would be like looking at a certain block of evolutionary time, while Deep Space Nine, Next Generation, and Voyager, being nearly concurrent would be looking at evolution at the same time, from the perspective of different species. Sometimes these species interact, such as when Captain Picard, or next Gen cast members end up on Deep Space nine, or Voyager. Sometimes, a species comes in and suddenly becomes dominant in another environment, such as Worf and O’Brian, when they came into the cast of Deep Space nine. Taking DS9 as an example, the space station could represent the evolutionary story taking place on a certain continent, but there are times, when we see the story diverge into another continent, only to see the outcome at the end of either the episode or even the story ark where both continents influence each other towards permanent change. Sometimes one species dominates, such as the Alpha Quadrant Coalition, while other times, the Dominion dominates, but in the end, the Coalition wins thanks to the Romulans joining the fight. This would be like evolving a new capability, perhaps venom. It also somewhat simulates an arms race. As soon as the Breen introduce special polaron weapons that can burn through the shields of most spacecraft, the coalition discovers that Klingon spacecraft are immune to it, so they place greater responsibility on the Klingons. Eventually however, the coalition also needs the help of the Romulans, and this is when the Arms race really heats up. In the end, the dominion is forced to capitulate, just as though certain species become less dominant. Some go extinct, and others continue marching forward into a new series.

  62. #62 Pierce R. Butler
    February 18, 2009

    … they’ll hear “Dee evolution” and think it’s talking about Sandra.

    Wouldn?t John be more their style?

  63. #63 Julie Stahlhut
    February 18, 2009

    I wonder if people who are less drawn to linear, plot-driven, “epic” storytelling are more drawn to science.

    Then again (anecdote alert!) most of the scientists that I know enjoy science fiction a lot more than I do, and I’m not enough of a reader of any kind of fiction to formulate a good hypothesis about professional interests vs. reading preferences.

  64. #64 Brock
    February 18, 2009

    I think timescale is one reason the public might fight soap operas more engrossing than evolution. The soap is on every weekday, and some sort of event worth watching probably happens each time. Evolution is less periodic and the events are usually more esoteric, so it seems less “fresh”.

    Now, if there were enough biologists that something interesting and dramatic (to a broad audience!) could be published, say, every month (like magazines do), then it might work. But right now the minutiae of ankle bone morphology or allele frequency for some rare disorder just aren’t as immediately interesting as, say, a wedding or a rape or a breakup.

  65. #65 Spion
    February 18, 2009

    Hi PZ,

    The poster you posted(…) shows the development of multicellular organisms according to the “Frankfurter Evolutionstheorie”.

    Could you say anything to this ‘theorie’ ?

  66. #66 C. M. Baxter
    February 18, 2009

    That is an awesome poster, and it’s too bad there isn’t an english version. But did you notice the picture of the two humans? I swear the female is holding an apple!

    Naw, it?s an egg; didn?t you see the chicken? ; )

  67. #67 Buford
    February 18, 2009

    Years ago, I spent a lot of time developing new analogies for how computers work. The standard office or desktop metaphors are weak and break down quickly.

    So, I appreciate the soap opera example. It has a lot going for it.

    It occured to me that there might also be some utility in comparing it to the road system and traffic. You’d have large numbers of cars going many different places, travelling together and branching off. No fixed destinations for all traffic yet patterns that are observervable. Accidents and near accidents, dead-ends environmental hazards like ice and snow and wind. Various types of roads from freeways to dirt tracks. There’s a lot of potential there, too.

  68. #68 Glen Davidson
    February 18, 2009

    Relatedness IS NOT proof of phylogeny!

    Yes, you being related to your parents, and possible siblings, could just be an accident.

    That’s what’s most amazing about you tards, you believe in the most colossal accidents of all, a host of apparently related organisms which did not become that way through the only means known to produce relatedness.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  69. #69 C. L. Hanson
    February 18, 2009

    I think you’re being excessively picky not to like the second image.

    I think it has a fine narrative of how evolution spans out in all directions: you can see your own species in the top left corner so you can understand how you fit into the narrative of the evolutionary fan.

  70. #70 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 18, 2009

    Very nice. I like it.

    The presentation is nice, but the phylogeny is deeply bizarre. I mean, have you ever encountered annelid denial before?!? I haven’t.

    Also, the poster forgets about plate tectonics. It implies the Pacific Ocean is 4 billion years old, when it’s only 750 million years old or so.

    What’s that the white woman’s holding?

    Around twenty white pixels? ~:-|

    Oh and plant life kind of gets the shaft from this poster. The whole plant kingdom, smooshed into the top-center.

    Well, the poster is called “The evolution of animals”.

    I’m interested as to why PZ and some of the commenters hate the iconic image so much. Personally I quite like it.

    I’m don’t have much knowledge of biology, but it doesn’t seem particularly wrong to me. It may be selective about what it portrays (i.e. a limited section of our own evolutionary history), but in what way is it so very wrong?

    First, it presents a straight line instead of a tree. Second, what comment 34 says: It shows everyone determinedly marching into the Great Socialist Future? (you know, the thing all Lenin statues point to). It implies progress, and there is no such thing in evolution — and that’s an important point that can hardly be overestimated.

    It is showing the ctenophores diverging from the common ancestor of sponges

    No, it shows a four-way split into ctenophores, sponges + cnidarians (that’s weird), protostomes, and deuterostomes.

    Of these, the latter two are obviously sister-groups, so this should have been shown in the poster.

    I suspect, although I don’t know, that the same is true in German. There’s probably a reason in the evolution of European languages.

    Not really. These words are all borrowed from Classical Latin, in which they all happened to be feminine, into 18th- and 19th-century French, German, English and so on.

    Those that are not borrowed but inherited from Latin to French have undergone a sound change from -ation to -aison: combinaison “combination”, comparaison “comparison”, even conjugaison “conjugation”?

    Can’t remember what the condition is for children born with female (or at least, not male) genitalia but XY chromosomery. Kleinfelters? Or is that the broken-24 condition where you have no double sex chromosome and are born as just an “X”, as it were.

    Klinefelter’s is XXY (phenotypically male, but not exactly Hulk Hogan). X0 is Turner’s (3 % phenotypically female, albeit not exactly Wonder Woman; 97 % dead in early pregnancy). I forgot what XY females are called.

    Do we have an illustrator here who could do an entirely female version of the former illustration, simply to make a point?

    I’ve seen a female version in a French book. It ends with “femme moderne” instead of the expected “homme moderne”.

    Could you say anything to this ‘[T]heorie’ ?

    I can. It’s too philosophical. It talks about constructions all the time — the way organisms are built, as seen in the schematic drawings all over the center of the picture — and ignores all the rest.

  71. #71 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    February 18, 2009

    When I mett Matthew Nisbet in person, I told him that the problem scientists are having in “framing” evolution has nothing to do with the connection between evolution and atheism. It is the competition that science faces with pop culture. Only the peoople that care enough about science and culture are ever going to pay attention.

    Using a “soap opera” metaphor may be one way to bridge the abyss that “Framing Science” has been so miserably failing to bridge.

    The main problem with the progressive view of evolution in the first poster is that it depends too much on the “Great Chain of Being” view. And we know that not only is this scientifically inaccurate, it is philosophically inaccurate.

  72. #72 AJ Milne
    February 18, 2009

    Relatedness IS NOT proof of phylogeny!

    Heh. Thought that sounded like an amusingly familiar bleating…

    So is that really Wagner? Or just someone doing a nice parody?

  73. #73 Ben Riddell
    February 18, 2009
  74. #74 Wayne Robinson
    February 18, 2009

    Love the illustration. Have grabbed a copy for my photos. At least it’s much better than the usual ladder ones published (including “der Spiegel” this year when it was trying to explain evolution).

  75. #75 Midnight Rambler
    February 18, 2009

    Erm…that diagram has oligochaetes+leeches sister to nematodes, and then polychaetes sister to arthropods. That’s not even an outdated phylogeny, it’s 17th century phenetics.

  76. #76 lalala432
    February 18, 2009

    I like this analogy. I’m a humanities person (*ducks*) but I love science and am always baffled by people who don’t understand it and seemingly don’t want to.

    People understand things in stories. Science, despite having, oh, silly little facts on its side, doesn’t seem to have stories strong enough to compete with mythology in the popular imagination.

    I’m not sure how a soap opera format would work, because soap operas do have overarching plot lines, but the sort of story I want to see would be a series focussing on interactions between organisms from the point of emergence to now. A family saga, you might call it.

    Say, for instance, you examine the predator-prey relationship as one cell fights to survive long enough to reproduce, evolving defenses alongside not just one predator but many. Generations pass, the audience is rooting for the descendants of the bold pioneer, or maybe the more photogenic predators, all struggling to survive in a changing world… and it turns out that those descendants are wild roses. Which is where humans can be introduced, if they must *sigh*.

    Then the next episode goes back and traces the trials and struggles of the mighty Aphid clan. Done well, something like that could attract even people in whom evolution + monkeys -> humans = *snore*/infantile rage. Of course, after a few episodes those viewers could be zinged by having human evolution as a very minor side plot.

  77. #77 Sili
    February 18, 2009

    Now you’ve done it!

    The Expanding Earthers are gonna have a fieldday with those pictures.

  78. #78 Ferrous Patella
    February 18, 2009

    Not sure I am reading it right. Do they show North America appearing 2 billion years ago?

    Reunite Gondwanaland!

  79. #79 procyon
    February 18, 2009

    Und zo zie trichopaxen evolvened before the vendezoen? or is that an artifacten of the diagramen?

  80. #80 Kelly
    February 18, 2009

    J (post #50)
    The syndrome you are looking for is androgen insensitivity syndrome, where the body does not respond to testosterone, no matter how much it pumps out.
    For more info: check out this emedince article
    I first heard about it on a discovery channel show about gender and how it’s fuzzier than most think.

  81. #81 Jon Hartley
    February 18, 2009

    It’s no wonder “The humans up in the left-hand corner look like they’re gettin’ a little fresh with each other.” I knew I’d seen them somewhere before; in the 1970s classic ‘The Joy of Sex’.

  82. #82 Judith
    February 18, 2009

    To Brock @64: I think, if you study soap operas as extensively as I had the chance to do during my undergraduate work, you would find that they readily model ‘punctuated equilibrium.’

  83. #83 uqbar
    February 18, 2009

    Die Evolution is certainly an improvement over the stereotype, but there is still a subtle “humans at the top” flavor to it (looks like the chickens got some input as well).

    My favorite is at the link below; the diagram clearly shows that all extant organisms are “equally evolved” and does not single out homo sapiens or any other species for special treatment.

    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tree_of_life_SVG.svg

  84. #84 frog
    February 18, 2009

    Well, then PZ, you have to hope that postmodern literature sticks around. I’m not sure what is the “natural” narrative structure for the human mind, since if you read any iron age literature, it doesn’t have a modern narrative structure — even if some of the elements have survived into our current culture.

    So there’s hope that in a few centuries, the real story of evolution will actually fit the “natural” narrative structure.

  85. #85 Jaycubed
    February 18, 2009

    “Here is Rhymes With Orange take on the linear model, omitting several transitions:”
    Corey Schlueter

    So, what are the transitional forms that exist between a sock puppet and a hand puppet and a marionette?

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/comics/Rhymes_with_Orange.dtl

    (Same cartoon, different site.)

  86. #86 Sven DiMilo
    February 18, 2009

    I’m related to you because we both have human attributes but I don’t think this means there are any familial(or phylogenetic) relationships between us.

    Well, as usual, Charlie, you’re wrong.

  87. #87 Katkinkate
    February 18, 2009

    Posted by: lalala432 @ 77 “…Then the next episode goes back and traces the trials and struggles of the mighty Aphid clan…”

    That episode could end by a small colony of aphids on a rose being sprayed with white oil by a human. :)

  88. #88 Jaycubed
    February 18, 2009

    “Relatedness IS NOT proof of phylogeny!”
    Marshall Nelson

    Odd, I thought that relatedness was pretty much the defining characteristic of phylogeny.

    ie. “The evolution of a genetically related group of organisms as distinguished from the development of the individual organism”(M-W)

  89. #90 John Huey
    February 18, 2009

    The image that I would love see illustrated is the one ‘painted’ by Dawkins in The Ancestor’s Tale where a woman holds the hand of her mother who, in turn, holds the hand of her mother who, in turn,… and so on back in time. This chain extends back into deep time with the representative mother slowly changing in appearance to that of our common ancestor with Chimpanzees. At that point, the Mother now hold the hand of another daughter who holds on to the hand of her daughter and so on until the line extends to the modern Chimpanzee.

    What I like about this vision is that shows that evolution is a process that works over many many generations. So many Creationist seem to have internalize the animated version of an individual morphing over time, like in the Simpsons:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faRlFsYmkeY.

  90. #91 chaos_engineer
    February 18, 2009

    I wish evolution were more like soap operas. In soap operas, there’s a chance that popular characters will come back even after they’ve been killed off.

    So maybe it could turn out that sabre-toothed tigers aren’t really extinct; they just went into a coma and came out with amnesia. Or Tyrannosauruses really are extinct, but they’ve got an evil twin who’s out for revenge. Or the Holocene Extinction Event never happened; the whole Holocene Epoch was just a bad dream that some Australopithecus was having.

  91. #92 Ultima Thule
    February 18, 2009

    I have an idea: can’t barack obama make PZ the chief of science education program in the USA?

    Really! i am not joking i think it would be a nice idea.
    Where can i sign for PZ?

  92. #93 Sven DiMilo
    February 18, 2009

    Sure. Evidence and logic strongly suggest that all humans are, in fact, related to all other humans familially (phylogenetically). The evidence and logic are detailed in those links, so I do not have to waste time typing it all out in my own words.

  93. #94 JamesR
    February 18, 2009

    A walk back through evolution? Something like this?
    You all have probably seen this but just the same I think it is good
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lc6U7_-BeGc&feature=related

    Now if we could get that same effect slowed down so that we could have a clear understanding of times effect on evolution.

  94. #95 Jaycubed
    February 18, 2009

    “It is not. Phylogeny is an ancestor-descendant relationship.
    It us more than simply sharing similar characteristics.”

    Marshall Nelson

    You appear to have a different meaning for the concept of relative/relatedness in biology than the rest of us. You appear to use the word to mean “looks like”.

    And I always thought my ancestors were my relatives. Like in the dictionary:

    Related (adverb)
    1 : connected by reason of an established or discoverable relation
    2 : connected by common ancestry or sometimes by marriage

    Relation (noun)
    4: a person connected by consanguinity or affinity (Kinship)

  95. #96 Cath the Canberra Cook
    February 18, 2009

    I like that the big picture actually shows a woman. The linear parade one never does. (I see whatevermachine commented on this too.)

    I think that the linear parade would be OK as a history if it were known as one of millions, and we routinely saw other species’ histories. But as the sole popular representation of evolution as a whole, it’s wrong and sucks. Context.

    And by coincidence last night, I saw a new version of it at a music gig: Tom Richardson’s myspace has a picture of it part way down on the left (search for “influences”. The final man is Tom carrying a guitar. http://www.myspace.com/tomrichardsonmusic

  96. #97 DiscoveredJoys
    February 18, 2009

    I like the multiple thread narrative approach – I’d like to see the ‘soap narrative’ extended to replace “the brain is a digital single threaded computing device” analogy with a more “there’s one hell of a lot going on with lots of networks, electrical signals, chemical soups sloshing backwards and forward…” narrative.

    Of course those that challenge evolution for religious reasons already have their own soap:

    Joseph: I’ve just heard we’ve got to go to Bethlehem for the tax census in 9 months time. Everybody is going to be looking for an inn to stay at.

    Mary: Joseph, you’ll never guess who visited me last night…

    And you get 4 director’s cuts of the same story!

  97. #98 shaun fletcher
    February 18, 2009

    Prof. Richard Dawkins ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ presents evolution in a story form in a very charming, engaging and yet not misleading fashion. Im not sure if it could be represented as a pretty chart very well though!

    The only problem I have with the German chart is the fact that it still gives a ‘feel’ of humans as special, being at the top left corner like that. The lines show this isnt so, but it feels that way to me anyway.

  98. #99 g
    February 18, 2009

    Human evolution is not linear, but neither is it a tree:
    http://sealiesoftware.com/alien.jpg

  99. #100 MZ
    February 18, 2009

    So I did a Google Image Search of “evolution” to find the source of that image (to see if there was an English language version). The source is a rather remarkable and interesting site. Check it out.

  100. #101 Vestrati
    February 18, 2009

    That poster is a thing of beauty.

    It is also available on the German amazon site, but shipping to the U.S. will probably be a bit pricy.

    http://www.amazon.de/Poster-Die-Evolution-Tiere-Format/dp/3510613864

    Product descriptions
    Short description
    The poster ?the evolution of the animals? in the 4th new edition seizes newest realizations for the structural drawing evolution of the animal realm. The relations of the animal trunks among themselves was compiled with construction-morphologic methods and confirmed by molecular data. The derivative models shown in the poster answer open questions in the Phylogenie of the animal realm over many years remained unanswered and cover themselves with the current re-classifications of the animal realm in Deuterostomier, Lophotrochozoa and Ecdysozoa. The ursprünglichsten animal forms are located in the center. From them the evolution lines proceed, which lead to the today living and fossil animals. They are drawn in naturalistischer way, because they are the material existing representatives at (present) the end of the lines of development. They all are far from the original center distant and in their way highly developed equal. The traditional anthropozentrische, i.e. world view, with which humans place themselves against the point one from bottom to top, from the low one to the higher one, increasing family tree, referred to humans, is abandoned.

  101. #102 Alex/Watcher
    February 18, 2009

    PZ- Thanks for the kind words and the link.

    Prof. Dawkins- I’m very familiar with, and a big fan of, Ancestor’s Tale. It was there that I was initially introduced to the Platyrrhini rafting tale, and in fact I featured the book on my suggested holiday gift list.

  102. #103 Fatboy
    February 18, 2009

    Is it somehow a flaw of people, that we happen to find the “path to us” to be the most interesting part?

    Speak for yourself. I think birds, bats, dragonflies, hell – anything with wings, are much more interesting evolutionary stories. Sure, we evolved bipedalism, but that’s not nearly as cool a form of locomotion as flying.

  103. #104 John Scanlon FCD
    February 18, 2009

    Sven DiMilo said

    many of the phylogenetic relationships and intermediate forms depicted are speculative, and others are almost certainly wrong according to molecular phylogenetics. As one example, segmentation in arthropods and annelids is shown as homologous, but annelids are much more closely related to mollusks (and arthropods to nematodes) according to all the more recent data.

    I’m just guessing (partly from the highlighting of Trägessystem on the tetrapod branch) that the evolution poster is informed more by Konstruktionsmorphologie than by phylogenetics. In a way this fits even better with the soap-opera analogy because only character-systems are related, not actual lineages, and this reminds me of those times when a regular soap actor is off sick (or in jail or whatever) and instead of being written out of the story, at the beginning of the episode a message pops up announcing that “The character X will be played this week by Y instead of Z”. Only the storylines are essential, the actual meat-puppets are interchangeable.

  104. #105 John Scanlon FCD
    February 18, 2009

    Ah, now I see that Spion (#65) and David M (#71) already made this connection. Actually, I don’t see that Marshall Nelson’s (#68 et seq.) view differs significantly from the Konstruktionstheorists’.

  105. #106 Sven DiMilo
    February 18, 2009

    Thanks, John Scanlon–interesting comment. I onced lived with a woman who insisted on taping All My Children every day and watching the week’s worth on Saturday mornings. I well recall her gasps when those actor-switching messages appeared.
    Anybody remember these Meat Puppets?

  106. #107 Kel
    February 18, 2009

    Come to think of it, this backwards way of looking at evolutionary history might make a good book. And not a bad title might be The Ancestor’s Tale.

    I’ve got to say, I found this comment very amusing. The book is currently sitting on my shelf, along with about a dozen other pop-sci books on my “to read” list. Given what year it is, I think I might have to open it soon.

  107. #108 mrcreosote
    February 18, 2009

    @#65

    >Hi PZ,
    >
    >The poster you posted(…) shows the development of multicellular >organisms according to the “Frankfurter Evolutionstheorie”.
    >
    >Could you say anything to this ‘theorie’ ?”

    Doesn’t that go something like:

    “In just seven days,
    I can make you a Man”

  108. #109 chuckgoecke
    February 18, 2009

    I didn’t realize the Germans hated plants so much.

  109. #110 g2
    February 18, 2009

    Ancestor’s tale is one informative read. It is the best science book I have ever finished.

  110. #111 Aquaria
    February 18, 2009

    The soap opera analogy works even better than the reasons listed there. Anyone who’s ever seen these things have noticed that all-time classic plot line of the long lost child/parent/twin/sibling/whatthefuckever. Before 1859, humans were happy to think that they were humans, nothing else. Then along comes Darwin, and bam! Long lost relatives galore! Relatives you never even suspected you have!

    Also, evolution is much more like Young and the Restless than Days of Our Lives. Y&R executed their storylines at a pace that would make a snail look like a cheetah (probably still do). Some of the storylines took years to unfold. From what I understand, evolution is usually like that, too. If you watch Y&R every day, then you don’t notice how much things change over, say, a year. If you’re like me and only catch it by accident here and there (doctor’s offices seem to love this show), then you do notice how things have changed. Of course, the timeline is considerably larger with evolution in most cases, but it’s also one of those things that it can be difficult to see changes if you look at only a short span of time.

  111. #112 Anonymous Coward
    February 19, 2009

    Next to the image in the webpage: ?Mutations are not random, they are computed.? WTF? Isn’t that sending the wrong signal? The way I thought it worked, organisms didn’t compute what mutations should occur, but mutations occurred due to transcription errors and where selected for only afterwards.
    And then there is the Adam and Eva and the apple part on the left. And the hatred for plant life. And others have pointed out that the phylogeny is wrong.
    Then there is this Peter Winiwarter guy from whom the citation above (and a lot more in that page) was taken, who is frankly a bit of a cook, or at least that’s my first impression MBA, then PhD’ed in nuclear physics. I’ve meddled in that myself a little bit and I should stress that this is a very specific field of physics. It also judging by what I’ve seen either attracts the wierd ones or it does things to you. Combine that with an MBA and that could easily ignite.
    Then there is the Bordalier Institute, which judging by the website seems to mainly exist to further the honour and glory of Peter Winiwarter. It tries to tell a story about early galaxies as neural networks, and it’s all connected… even to the first seconds of the Big Bang, the age of metaphysics.
    .
    .
    .

  112. #113 abb3w
    February 19, 2009

    The page where PZ found that image has some fascinating stuff. “Note that in linguistics the only known exceptions to Zipf’s law (which holds for all languages at all times at any age) are the writings of schizophrenics and scientific literature.”

    The scope is broad enough that Winiwarter may well be a (PhD and MBA equipped) kook; however, it’s at least interesting kookery. I have the impression he should be talking with Steven Wolfram.

    Anonymous Coward: MBA, then PhD’ed in nuclear physics.

    PhD first, from the dates.

  113. #114 catgirl
    February 19, 2009

    To those of you who are mad about the lack of plants, I took a closer look on the original website, and plants, protists, and fungi are all shown at the top as being different branches that were not included on this poster which is focused mainly on the animal kingdom. I would love to see posters like this for the other kingdoms, but that is beyond the scope of this particular poster.

  114. #115 Marvol
    February 19, 2009

    To everybody complaining about the ‘plants being left out’ &c:

    The poster is actually _called_ ‘Die Evolution der Tiere’ i.e. ‘Evolution of animals’. Not ‘Evolution’ (all-encompassing).

    So it’s quite generous to mention plants at all. Maybe there is a sparate plant poster, too, that would be cool. And one for eubacteria, archaea…

    And re: gender, in Dutch, as in mentioned French and German, most if not all of the ‘abstract’ nouns ending in -ion (which is -ie in Dutch) are gramatically feminine. Including ‘evolutie’. Must be something Latin, no?

  115. #116 Crispin
    February 19, 2009

    A letter by PZ, Dennet and Dawkins in responce to the stupid New Scientist title “Darwin was Wrong” just got put up here:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126960.100-darwin-was-right.html

    Please leave polite comments to add your weight to the calls for NS to get their act together and stay on the side of science rather than dangerous sensationalism.

  116. #117 thwaite
    February 19, 2009

    The narrative structures commonly used to create stories around human evolution are the topic of Misia Landau?s studies going back to the 1980?s: good meta-science. Her book is Narratives of Human Evolution; here?s a .pdf of her 1984 paper in American Scientist.

    Stephen Baxter?s sci-fi novel EVOLUTION is an attempt at a grand narrative over the evolutionary process. His many vertebrate characters have feelings. Many end their lives in abject shit-making terror (which is of course an extrapolation for what prey may feel as they?re stalked and consumed).

  117. #118 thwaite
    February 19, 2009

    Try those links again:
    Narratives of Human Evolution
    paper

  118. #119 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2009

    Not sure I am reading it right. Do they show North America appearing 2 billion years ago?

    Yes. Sloppy beyond belief. I already complained above.

    Und zo zie trichopaxen evolvened before the vendezoen?

    Why not? The real biggie is the annelid denial.

    So I did a Google Image Search of “evolution” to find the source of that image (to see if there was an English language version). The source is a rather remarkable and interesting site.

    Nope, that’s not the source — and I find that site rather trivial.

    Trägessystem

    Tragesystem — [weight-]bearing system.

    Must be something Latin, no?

    Of course, as already mentioned above.

  119. #120 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2009

    BTW, thwaite, your links still don’t work.

    <a href=”complete URL here, with http:// and everything”>text</a>

  120. #121 thwaite
    February 20, 2009

    David, thanks, I was just checking to see if anyone was interested 8^). I think my editor was inserting curly quotes or something. So, again:
    Book: Narratives of Human Evolution
    article: American Scientist

    I was hoping someone would object to Stephen Baxter’s grievous omission of invertebrate ‘characters’ and their feelings… cuttlefish? Anyone?

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