One good subject to write a blog post on is something you’re passionate about. Something you want to exclaim to the world. For me, one of them has to be evolution. Hank Green, a science educator (probably more well-known as half of vlogbrothers) made an excellent and hilarious video on some facts that simply cannot be disproven. Check that out here – Facts are Facts..OK?
I had a substitute teacher for Religious Education class the other day and I was reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Through coincidence the teacher happens to despise Dawkins (probably because he’s an advocate for atheism), and he saw the book on my friend’s desk.
She’s been wanting to read it for a while and for some reason it had to be that class (her idea not mine). Now… I understand why he takes a particular disliking towards Dawkins, however saying that the biologist has no qualification to talk about evolution is ridiculous in its own way. Well, not only did he state that the Selfish Gene is Dawkin’s little self invented theory (that everything in the book is nonsensical and had no evidence to support it), in the most ignorant way possible he basically denied natural selection claiming that it isn’t capable of explaining the existence of giraffes.
Trying to invalidate evolution without any empirical evidence behind your argument is a complete futile act. Below are five myths regarding evolution that I personally think are most common – and let me re-emphasise that these are “myths” and even though they are popular, they are not true.
1. Evolution is just a theory
I had stumbled across a video (can’t remember when) and it was of a GCSE student asking a scientist a question, “If evolution is just a theory then why do we have to learn it as a fact to pass our exams?”
In everyday life context the word theory is really just a proposed possible explanation to something. Therefore many people argue that because we call it “the theory of natural selection” evolution is just one possible explanation some scientist came up with, not a FACT. This is simply due to unawareness that the scientific definitions of certain words vary from our everyday definitions. Natural selection is our best way to explain life on Earth and has millions upon millions of evidence backing it up. What we call a theory, a scientist calls a hypothesis. What we call a fact, a scientist calls a theory.
A good theory: e.g Natural Selection
- It is testable
- It is guided by natural law
- It is an explanation with reference to natural law
- Its conclusions are formed by experiment and empirical data
Therefore evolution through natural selection is what we should regard as a fact because it ticks all the good theory boxes, and I doubt it is ever going to be disproven.
2. If we evolved from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?
This question is so common among evolution deniers that I feel the need to mention it. The question itself proposes a complete misunderstanding of the theory of natural selection. Firstly, humans did not evolve from monkeys or apes. Both humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor several millions of years ago, and the evolutionary tree branched out from that ancestor into many similar primate species. I’m thinking when people talk about “monkeys” they are in fact referring to that common ancestor. Though the question could be answered with a simple mind blowing question – if Americans were originally Europeans then why are there still Europeans?
Note, evolution is not a linear process.
3. No one has ever seen evolution happen
Yes. Fine. I admit we will never see evolution occur through our own eyes, but how does that disprove the theory?
Nobody was there to see how the Universe came into existence but through a widely accepted theory The Big Bang Theory, the Universe originally expanded from a Space Time singularity. How do we know? Red shift, the Universe is expanding. Extrapolating back 13.8 billion years, everything would be on top of each other, at a single point in space-time, a singularity. Of course we couldn’t have seen that happen, but how do we know? We can’t see evolution happening, so how do we know? Same idea.
It is impossible to actually perceive evolution occur because of its grand scale. For it to happen, the type of life must bear a genetic difference, and that genetic difference must continue on for millions of years in order for evolution to occur by natural selection and for us to see a consistent physical change. And we do this by examining fossil records plus a whole load of other independent lines of evidence from fields such as zoology, paleontology and botany. Other ways of collecting data include comparing genetic differences between species.
4. If evolution was a gradual process then why do fossil records have gaps?
Even though there are plenty of intermediate fossils, it is true that the fossil records do not generally show gradual smooth change from one species to another. Therefore we’d think that there must be something wrong with the theory. However that is not the case, the modern evolutionary theory do not claim that species change gradually over time, but rather swiftly and abruptly. This is due to a proccess called punctuated equilibrium, stating that species are in fact in a stable state for the majority of their geological history. So, one species will retain their phenotype for a long period of time however changes are generally rapid.
I’m not going to go into the specifics about punctuated equilibrium, firstly because it could become quite lengthy and also this is not a field I think I could talk about for too long without being skeptical about my knowledge. But if you have time for a little reading, this could be an interesting topic.
5. Evolution is random
Personally I’m not entirely sure how this myth came about as I don’t see any idea in evolution that offers this explanation but I do realise that the “random” process of natural selection is often mentioned and exploited by evolution deniers, frequently using it as an argument for their own case.
Only the first step of natural selection can be accounted for as “random” and that is the genetic variation, so the mutations. Everything after that is anything but random chance. Natural selection favours genes or traits that better help sustain the survival of a particular species. A gene that serves no advantage in longevity/sustainability will gradually disappear in future generations. A species’ ability to survive comes down to their adaptibily to change in their environment and how effective their genes are in supporting them to do so. So for example, let’s take something like the size of our brains. The reason why we have the largest brains relative to our bodies must be because evolution favoured this – they have helped us to better survive and reproduce. Therefore the large size of our brains did not occur by random chance but millions of years of our inner systems analysing the effects of multiple mutations.
Author – Susan Chen
Susan is a 5th year high school student currently studying three STEM subjects at Scottish Higher level-Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry (Crash Course). She particularly loves ideas in astrophysics and hopes to embark on an academic journey in the area of theoretical physics.