09 December 2010

Misconceptions about evolution

I recently made the error of getting drawn into a "debate" with an evolution-denialist in the comment thread on another blog. I quit after a couple of exchanges because (a) the argument was as pointless as such arguments usually are, and (b) it was off-topic from the posting on the blog. However, it reminded me of one reason why such arguments are usually pointless: most evolution-denialists have such basic misconceptions of evolution that they don't even understand what they're rejecting.

Here are some of the mistaken ideas about evolution commonly held by denialists:

Evolution is a "random" process. A couple of times the person I was arguing with used the common tactic of pointing to some complex biological system or process and saying it could not have arisen by random chance or "happenstance". Well, of course it didn't. Evolution is not a random process. Mutation and the re-shuffling of genes by sexual reproduction are pretty much random, and those are the main sources of variation within populations. But the driver of evolution is natural selection, which is anything but random. Genetically-inheritable traits which make an organism more likely to survive and reproduce cause the organisms which carry them to survive and reproduce better than their competitors, and their success means that the genes for those traits (and thus the traits themselves) tend to become more widespread. This process preserves and spreads traits which enhance survival and reproduction, while filtering out those which do the opposite. This is not "random chance".

Evolution is an explanation of origins. It's surprising how often evolution-denialists bring up the big bang, seemingly thinking it has something to do with evolution. Evolution is a theory of the development of life. It does not claim to explain how life got started in the first place (natural selection only works when there are already self-replicating structures of some kind -- it does not explain how the first self-replicating molecules arose), much less the origin of the physical universe. As it happens, we now have a pretty good understanding of the origin of the universe, while the origin of life is harder to explain; but neither of these questions has anything to do with evolution.

"Just a theory". In common usage, the word "theory" is often used to mean a mere hypothesis or even just a guess. In science the word has a different meaning: a system of ideas which successfully explains a wide range of observed phenomena and is supported by a great deal of evidence. That's the sense in which scientists call evolution a "theory". They don't mean there is any serious doubt that it is the correct explanation for the development of life.

Evolution disproves religion. This depends on what one means by "religion". Evolution is incompatible with the stories in Genesis and with other specific beliefs of various religions (and claiming that Genesis is some sort of allegory of evolution is nonsense); so, since we know evolution did in fact happen, those specific beliefs have been proven false. However, evolution doesn't disprove the very existence of gods or other supernatural entities -- it says nothing about them at all, except that they are not necessary to explain the development of life. It's possible to imagine a god creating the universe and evolution then happening by itself, once self-replicating molecules had appeared somewhere within that universe. I don't believe there are any such entities, but evolution says nothing about their existence either way. Again, it's two separate questions.


Blogger Nance said...

Well and patiently stated. I never can present my understanding well in an argument; the whole thing gets skewed and pulled off point by the emotion of the thing. In that heat, I always wind up frustrated, which is why I never argue about the big stuff.

And we are all left so baffled by the basic fear of science; what IS that?! The dread of feeling alone in a big, cold universe?

09 December, 2010 05:28  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

This is a decent posting and one that folk's can understand as well, without having to know alot about science and so forth. I really dont see how anyone can actually "deny" that life on this planet didnt evolve .... I am such a big fan of those tele documentaries even such as National Geo, Discovery, Science Channel, etc, as well as the studies folk's have "FOUND" ... by saying you deny evolution happened is also saying that all these folk's from anthropologist's to geologist's, etc ... which are thousand's on every continent and every culture on the Earth, have some kind of conspiracy going on with an objective only to try to destroy the idea of God and religion ... which is actually also insanity. These folk's I have so much respect for and praise ... because of the hard endless work and condition's they have had to work in just to show (and actually showed EVIDENCE I may add) and explore what they found ... it is so fascinating that I could write about this stuff till my finger's turn numb concerning fossil's and life formation's, extinction's, etc. Also ... there is no connection as you pointed out on life and the Big Bang as you put so clearly in so few word's (something I was never good at ... but then ... I am not really a writer). And when I look at book's such as Genesis ... which I have formed my own conclusion's on the Bible year's ago after I completed it ... I have alway's looked at thing's like that as simply folk's with little education in comparison to today ... that simply wrote what they "thought", not that it was delivered to them through telepathic communication's scripted by an external diety. If you look at the beiginning of the Old Testament as well ... it look's clearly like a familia tree story ... and the way they descibe "God" look's like a reflection of them more than anything ... but not of some higher power who created anything. I have alway's said for decade's that the concept's there, are strictly a reflection of an evolved era of humanity (evolved being that it is much fifferent than humnan species intell level of 50,000- 100,000 year's prior)and the God's that folk's wrote about and their kingdom's are simply what "human's" want ... and eventually will become the God's that they once wrote about, creating "heaven" and "hell" right here on Earth simply.

Thanx Guy ....

09 December, 2010 05:35  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nance: Thanks. It really is pointless to try to argue about these things -- the denialists are so hopelessly ignorant that what they really need to do is read a couple of decent books on evolution first so they at least have some idea what they're talking about. A person who says "Oh, look how complicated the eye is, that couldn't just be chance" need more basic knowledge than a blog post could provide.

The dread of feeling alone in a big, cold universe?

Frankly I'd be much more worried if I thought we weren't alone in the universe.

RC: I think the real root of rejection of evolution is a desire to cling to comforting myths from the childhood of the species, like a kid not wanting to give up belief in Santa Claus. Denialists usually know almost nothing about the evidence for evolution, and don't want to learn.

09 December, 2010 05:49  
Blogger Ahab said...

Thanks for pointing out some common misconceptions about evolution. With regards to arguing with evolution-deniers, don't -- it's futile, since you can't change their minds.

09 December, 2010 06:31  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Just finished re-reading Dawkins' "A Devil's Chaplain." Great collection of his essays, tributes, and correspondences with other biologists (Stephen Jay Gould).

A book I recommend to people who are serious about understanding evolution is Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale."

Finally, I've made it a practice now never to argue with evolution deniers, they're not open to facts.

09 December, 2010 06:58  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ahab & Shaw: Sounds like you've had similar experiences with the denialists to what I have.

Dawkins is great at explaining evolution -- I have The Ancestor's Tale and several others of his.

What the denialists need to do it read his The Greatest Show on Earth, which really goes into what the evidence for evolution is (and explains the basics of how it works).

09 December, 2010 07:11  
Blogger Jerry Critter said...

Deniers often have to use spurious arguments to score their points. They rely on opinion and belief, and present both as fact. Their beliefs are based on opinion, opinion often derived without thought. Therefore when presented with facts that they don't believe, they are unable to accept it as truth because it goes against one of their opinions or beliefs.

09 December, 2010 08:54  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I forgot to link to this site, Infidel. It's run by a woman in Portland, Ore., and is wonderful to read.

This post is about square wombat poop and its evolutionary significance.

Yes. It really is!

09 December, 2010 08:58  
Blogger Robert the Skeptic said...

One of the most common misconceptions I get from evolution deniers is "man didn't come from monkeys". I like to point out to them that they are right, biological evolution agrees with them. Monkeys have tails and are a completely different branch of primates from humans and apes. Apes do not have tails and if you trace both back far enough you will find a COMMON ANCESTOR from which apes evolved in one direction and various homo genus in another.

But you see this common misconception among religious people often with pictures of monkeys. I feel for you when attempting to discuss this issue with people, it is very difficult to discuss something with someone when you first have to bridge their illiteracy.

09 December, 2010 10:18  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

JC: Funny how people think reality has to conform to what they want to believe. It's a problem which extends beyond evolution.

SK: I just recently discovered Murrmurrs -- interesting stuff!

RtS: And if you point that out, the same people think you're being pedantic for insisting that monkeys and apes are different.

And in fact the human-chimpanzee-bonobo common ancestor is more recent that the common ancestor linking those three with the other apes -- that is, chimps and bonobos are more closely related to us than they are to gorillas and orangutans.

09 December, 2010 10:42  
Blogger Lisa G. said...

I don't know why you bother with these people - they have rocks for brains and simply won't take something from scientific evidence and believe in it. Their Sky God works for them. There is scads of evidence for evolution that they choose to ignore. It isn't worth the time to explain it to it because it's not in there magic book.

10 December, 2010 23:38  
Blogger Lisa G. said...

That and they're afraid they are going to miss the Rapture plane which can't come soon enough for me. They'll be leaving behind some really nice shit for us to plunder. :)

10 December, 2010 23:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

LG: In general I avoid arguments and "debates" -- I've done enough of that over the years, I've put in my time -- but this was just one of those cases where it's hard to avoid feeling drawn in, especially since the other person wasn't just holding an opposing opinion but was flagrantly wrong about the basic facts.

The Rapture? I've often wished that would really happen. So many of the world's problems would disappear overnight!

11 December, 2010 02:32  
Blogger Rain said...

You had a good discussion with some important points. I think this is critical as it is impacting a lot of other issues in our country today. By denying science on this, they are denying it with other things and trying to damage our public education system. It is a battle worth engaging as you tried to do even if the person won't listen to begin. Maybe someone else will.

14 December, 2010 18:12  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

By denying science on this, they are denying it with other things and trying to damage our public education system.

And that's the scary part. Our kids will grow up to compete with those in other countries whose school systems just teach science without all this nonsense.

It is a battle worth engaging as you tried to do even if the person won't listen to begin. Maybe someone else will.

That's the one sense in which there is sometimes a point to it. People whose minds are made up almost never change, but there may be others reading who aren't so set in their ways.

15 December, 2010 05:45  

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