Part 2: A few myths about evolution

Here’s the second part of my interview with Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan, authors of The Top 10 Myths About Evolution.

Myth 1: Survival of the Fittest
Skepchick: So much of our language is filled with violent, military images these days, that I’m not really surprised to hear that most people think “survival of the fittest” means “the strongest survive.” I found your arguments in this chapter to be quite convincing, but I also found myself thinking “my mother-in-law would not understand this.” Communicating with a general audience about scientific topics is always a challenge. How can we work to simplify our messages so even those with no scientific background can understand what we are saying?

Cameron M. Smith: Communicating the material in friendly, plain language is a challenge, but it’s the writer’s job. I’ve read ‘popular science’ that comes off as the author amusing themselves with too many cutesy metaphors, or over-simplifications, so a balance has to be found. I think we did a good job of this in The Top 10 Myths About Evolution, though I don’t think it’s possible to reach everyone with a single book.

Skepchick: As a follow up, who is the audience for this book? Would it be me (a science hobbiest), or my mother-in-law (a born-again Christian creationist has no doubt been taught that all 10 of the myths you are debunking are true).

Cameron M. Smith: That’s tough. As I recall, we started with the idea that it could be read by a high-school-educated person with some interest in the topic. A writer has to do their best to communicate, but the reader, I think, has to bring something to the table as well, they have to bring a willingness to think carefully about what they’re reading.

Charles Sullivan: What he said.

Myth 2: It’s Just a Theory
Skepchick: I think scientists should stop talking about “the theory of evolution”and just start saying “evolution” or, perhaps even, “the fact of evolution.” I mean, no-one talks about “the theory of gravity.” Do you think that scientists should stop using the word theory when communicating with the public, because the word is so widely misunderstood?

Cameron M. Smith: Yes. I’ve thought about approaching various scientific organizations to see what can be done, in the scientific community, to advance evolution from ‘theory’ to ‘fact’ status. But there’s no formal procedure that I know of for that; it has to be done by consensus and that takes time to build in science – which is as it should be. But the evidence is so compelling for evolution that I do feel we should teach it as fact, and refer to it as fact, rather than theory.

Charles Sullivan: Well, it would be really nice if most people could come to understand that a scientific theory is not a guess or a hunch, but rather “a logical, tested, well-supported explanation for a great variety of facts.” Unfortunately, this understanding of a theory is having a hard time making it into the meme pool. So perhaps it would be good for scientists to just call it “evolution” when communicating with the public. But I wouldn’t want to monkey with the concept itself as understood by scientists.

Myth 3: The Ladder of Progress
Skepchick: It seems like ever since science began, it has been slowly moving man away from a central position of “God created the universe for humans” to an outlying position of “the universe has no meaning and we are here by accident.” Most people, even those who are not fundamentalist believers or creationists, cannot stomach the second statement and, so, come up with many ways to try to keep human beings separate from the rest of nature. Do you think a crisis in meaning or a need to find purpose in our lives plays any significant role in the promotion of myths such as this one, that places human beings on the pinnacle as the final, and most perfect, result of evolution?

Cameron M. Smith: Someone called the 20th century the century of ‘demotions’ for humanity; we’re shoved from the ‘pinnacle of evolution’ into the hordes of the rest of the world of living things, then we’re crammed into the primate order among them, and even among primates we find we’re no pinnacle, only one of many coexisting branches. That all sounds like super-left-wing, politically-correct revisionism, but Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan made a great point in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors; that it’s actually the coldest facts of biology – relating to DNA – that have shown us our connection to all other living things. If people accept that DNA tells us about corn, or jellyfish or whatever, but then reject what it has to say about us and the rest of the world of living things, well, I don’t know how you can rationally communicate with someone in such profound denial.

Charles Sullivan: I think the need to explain what we are, why things happen the way they do, and how we got here are all ancient needs that eflect our natural curiosity. Throughout most of human history our answers to these questions have involved evoking supernatural entities and superstitious beliefs. This tendency to evoke supernatural explanations may even have an evolutionary basis, in that those ancient human groups who ha d a shared mythology that provided meaning and a sense of purpose tended to survive better than those who didn’t.

But science and philosophy have given us the tools to examine these old beliefs (many of them quite cherished) about what we are, why things happen the way they do, and how we got here. If we’re honest and careful thinkers, we come to realize that these myths are not true, and that there are better answers to many of these questions that we’ve pondered for millennia.

Perhaps believing that we are a special, chosen species (or the pinnacle of evolution) offers a sense of purpose and meaning to many people’s lives. But there’s no evidence to believe that we are the pinnacle of evolution. This result may lead some people to think that life is meaningless, but this isn’t a necessary outcome. Humans can quite naturally find meaning and purpose in their relations with their families and friends, in pursuing their goals and developing their talents, in love, art, and music, and in their sense of community and connection to humanity and even the rest of nature. The fact that the universe does not care about us, and that we are not the chosen species, is no reason for despair.

Myth 4: The Missing Link
Skepchick: Every time I go to the San Diego Zoo and see the hippos, I think, “Anyone who has sat here and watched these animals and who still does not believe in evolution must be crazy.” Do you think there’s any way that creationists and IDers will ever be satisfied with the number of “missing links” that are found in the fossil record (or in zoos)?

Cameron M. Smith: I think a lot of creationists and ID-believers have made their minds up. They would say that they’ve got piles of evidence for their positions, and then direct you to books and magazines showing that evidence. The problem is that their threshold for credibility in the evidence is very low. Every once in a while they show pictures of a dinosaur footprint next to a human footprint, for example, and say “look, this is the evidence!”, but that case has been shown to be a hoax a long, long time ago. To really believe something, I’ve been trained to demand independent verification of facts, repeated observations, an explanation of the principle involved, and so on. Creationists and ID folks just don’t demand that kind of scrutiny, and of course in the worst cases rely on faith, which is simply belief without evidence. I don’t see how a rational person can read and then reject the basic principles of evolution.

Skepchick: Or is the issue actually quite different: That is, the idea that species are discreet entities as espoused by biblical teachings, rather than simply part of a continuum of life that are isolated by place or time from their closest relations? From my own fundamentalist background, I know that many people are uncomfortable with any type of ambiguity. With this black and white mindset, they cannot fathom the idea that species can be less than concrete realities.

Cameron M. Smith: I would just have to ask why one would be uncomfortable with ambiguity. I suppose fear of the unknown drives that discomfort, but I don’t understand it. What is there to be afraid of? Regarding species as concrete realities, I think that’s a deep human mental ‘template’ as it were. By that I mean that we as a
species have been making things – inventions from igloos to cell phones – for so long, and with such industry and fascination, that we find it hard to imagine that Nature doesn’t also make things for a specific purpose, with certain ends in mind. But as we show in the book, that’s just not the case Evolution doesn’t have a consciousness with which to invent or build towards particular ends, although it looks that it has done exactly that. It doesn’t help that on TV nature shows they always say, for example, “Nature has perfected the mongoose for its environment.” In a way that’s true, as mongoose have been tailored to that environment by natural selection but it hasn’t been by design or intent, and that very subtle point is terribly important.

Part 3 coming soon….


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. Physicists certainly do talk about "The Theory of Gravity" or "Quantum Theory" or "Einstein's photoelectric theory". "Theory" is a very useful word for a very important concept. It would be a real wrench to drop it.

  2. csrster,

    Indeed. On my shelf right now is A. Zee's Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell.

    I recall that in Caltech's Mechanical Universe TV series (which they used to show on PBS), the host, Prof. David Goodstein, once explained that a few scientific theories had been checked so thoroughly we elevate them to the status of fact. His examples included Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity and the theory of evolution — remember, this is a physicist talking to physics students! We call these ideas "theories" for "historical reasons", basically because long practice has reinforced the habit and made "fact of evolution" jarring to the ear.

    I just discovered that The Mechanical Universe can be downloaded for free! Click the link I gave above and go through their "video on demand" registration. Free stuff rules!

  3. You know, in the RSS reader, the beginning of the article was "Myth 1: Survival of the Fittest Skepchick," which I thought was pretty amusing.

  4. I'm a physicist too and we talk about theories all the time. Outside of science I also sometimes use it the inaccurate way though. Generally someone comes in and sees me balancing something on something else or fiddling around with spoons and elastic bands and simply gets the explanation, "don't worry, I have a theory".

  5. I meant the public never talks about the "theory of gravity". It's quite obvious to everyone that gravity exists, the definition being based on the fact that we stick to the surface of the planet. The theoretical part seems to be the why and how it worked. Newton had one theory. Einstein had a better theory. But no one ever says supid things like "I don't believe in gravity. It's just a theory. There's no proof that gravity exists."

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