The five most common misunderstandings about evolution

Feb 19, 2016

Photo credit: DaniRevi/pixabay

By Paula Kover

Given its huge success in describing the natural world for the past 150 years, the theory of evolution is remarkably misunderstood. In a recent episode of the Australian series of “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here”, former cricket star Shane Warne questioned the theory – asking “if humans evolved from monkeys, why haven’t today’s monkeys evolved”?

Similarly, a head teacher from a primary school in the UK recently stated that evolution is a theory rather than a fact. This is despite the fact that children in the UK start learning about evolution in Year 6 (ten to 11-year-olds), and have further lessons throughout high school. While the theory of evolution is well accepted in the UK compared with the rest of the world, a survey in 2005 indicated that more than 20% of the country’s population was not sure about it, or did not accept it.

In contrast, there are not many people questioning the theory of relativity, or studies on the acceptance of the theory of relativity; possibly reflecting an acceptance that this is a matter for physicists to settle. Many studies have tried to determine why evolution is questioned so often by the general public, despite complete acceptance by scientists. Although no clear answer has been found, I suspect the common misconceptions described below have something to do with it.


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19 comments on “The five most common misunderstandings about evolution

  • Religion is incompatible with evolution

    This is not a misunderstanding generally. Theistic evolution is not much different than intelligent design.

    Religion is fantasy. Evolution is fact. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains much ( less drift, flow and the like ) about the fact of evolution. Religion explains nothing.



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  • 2
    hisxmark says:

    I don’t think it is any of those five factors. I think people just don’t want to believe that they are inconsequential organisms on a speck orbiting a spark in an immense emptiness. Confronted with reality, they stand not in awed wonder, but in terror. It mustn’t be true.



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  • @OP link –5. Religion is incompatible with evolution
    *It is important to make it clear that evolution is not a theory about the origin of life. It is a theory to explain how species change over time. Contrary to what many people think, there is also little conflict between evolution and most common religions. Pope Francis recently reiterated that a belief in evolution isn’t incompatible with the Catholic faith. Going further, the reverend Malcom Brown from the Church of England stated that “natural selection, as a way of understanding physical evolutionary processes over thousands of years, makes sense.” He added: “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science” and vice-versa. I fully agree.

    This is unscientific apologist rubbish. – especially the comments about the pope’s blitherings maintaining that science is compatible with god-did-it, miracles, exorcisms, claims that evolution has the purpose of creating human worshippers etc!

    He added: “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science” and vice-versa. I fully agree.

    This drivel depends on the RCC’s redefinition of “Good Science” as being RCC dogma compliant – which of course actual reputable science is not!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_evolution#Catholic_teaching_and_evolution

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994, revised 1997) on faith, evolution and science states:

    159. Faith and science: “… methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.” (Vatican II GS 36:1)

    283. The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers….

    284. The great interest accorded to these studies is strongly stimulated by a question of another order, which goes beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences. It is not only a question of knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or when man appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of such an origin….

    There is then this laughable self-contradiction denial of paragraph 283, falsely asserting that this tripe is “mainstream science” – with a sleight of hand reference to YECs as the WRONG sort of non-RCC “creation science”!!.

    .Paragraph 283 has been noted as making a positive comment regarding the theory of evolution, with the clarification that “many scientific studies” that have enriched knowledge of “the development of life-forms and the appearance of man” refers to mainstream science and not to “creation science

    If there was any doubt about the attempts to pass off pseudo-science as science, there is this following section (claimed to be “compatible with science”)

    Concerning the doctrine on creation, Ludwig Ott in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma identifies the following points as essential beliefs of the Catholic faith (“De Fide”):[69]

    All that exists outside God was, in its whole substance,
    produced out of nothing by God.
    God was moved by His Goodness to create the world.
    The world was created for the Glorification of God.
    The Three Divine Persons
    are one single, common Principle of the Creation.
    God created the world free from
    exterior compulsion and inner necessity.
    God has created a good world.
    The world had a beginning in time.
    God alone created the world.
    God keeps all created things in existence.
    God, through His Providence, protects
    and guides all that He has created.




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  • @OP – In a recent episode of the Australian series of “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here”, former cricket star Shane Warne questioned the theory – asking “if humans evolved from monkeys, why haven’t today’s monkeys evolved”?

    When we have scientists to provide competent answers, who cares what uneducated cricketers or others on celebrity “pap for the masses” TV shows think?



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  • What is so difficult to grasp about natural selection?

    Perhaps if people would make the effort to understand the rudiments they might stop asking that dumb question about why monkeys are still around!

    It would at least be a start anyway.



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  • @OP – A common argument in favour of creationism is the evolution of the eye. A half developed eye would serve no function, so how can natural selection slowly create a functional eye in a step-wise manner? Darwin himself suggested that the eye could have had its origins in organs with different functions. Organs that allow detection of light could then have been favoured by natural selection, even if it did not provide full vision. These ideas have been proven correct many years later by researchers studying primitive light-sensing organs in animals.

    Biologists know there is a whole range of light sensing organs from the very simple to the complex.

    Creationists love to pretend their god’s creations are perfect, and humans are the peak of developments!
    Of course evolved systems are adequate not “perfect”!

    In terms of eyes, not only are very simple light detectors observable, but highly complex systems vastly superior to human eyes, are also known from the many times, and many forms, which have evolved in the biological world.

    http://phys.org/news/2013-09-mantis-shrimp-world-eyesbut.html

    We see what we see because our eyes have three photoreceptors, red, green and blue. Our vision is good compared to dogs which have only two photoreceptors (green and blue), but is nothing compared to many birds who have four photoreceptors: ultraviolet (UV) as well as red, green and blue.

    But this is not the end of the story. Mantis shrimp vision puts everything else to shame. These marine crustaceans may be well-known for their record breaking punch (the same acceleration as a .22 calibre bullet), but they also hold the world record for the most complex visual system.

    They have up to 16 photoreceptors and can see UV, visible and polarised light. In fact, they are the only animals known to detect circularly polarised light, which is when the wave component of light rotates in a circular motion. They also can perceive depth with one eye and move each eye independently. It’s impossible to imagine what mantis shrimp see, but incredible to think about.

    Mantis shrimp have compound eyes that are made up of tens of thousands of ommatidia (elements containing a cluster of photoreceptor cells, support cells and pigment cells) much like flies. In the species with spectacular vision, Gonodactylids and Lysiosquillids, the middle of the eye has six rows of modified ommatidia called the mid-band. This is where the magic happens.
    Each row is specialised to detect either certain wavelengths of light or polarised light. The first four rows detect human visible light and UV light. In fact, each row contains a different receptor in the UV, giving mantis shrimp extremely good UV vision.




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  • Hmmmmpf, humbug and drivel. There are only two reasons why people don’t understand or believe in evolution. They’re stupid (or possibly badly educated) or their religion blinds them to the truth.

    It really pisses me off when people try to suck up to religion and claim it’s not incompatible with science. Religion has fought science tooth and nail for 1500 years and will continue to do so until it is eliminated from society. Religions hate knowledge. Knowledge gives people the tools they need to see that religion is bollocks. Every survey ever conducted highlights the almost perfect correlation between high IQ and/or education and lack of belief in sky pixies. Basically it’s really hard to be both smart and well educated and still believe in bronze age drivel.

    There’s also only one reason why religions have no problem with the theory of gravity, quantum physics and basically everything else apart from evolution and the origins of the universe – their big books of bullshit don’t mention these things! You can be damn sure that if the buybull said something about there being angels at the earth’s core which attracted any unrestrained objects to fall towards them then religious nutters would be whining about Newton’s blasphemy to this very day.

    I don’t give a rat’s arse what religious types have to say about science in general or evolution in particular. I don’t want to listen to them, debate them or worst of all try and appease the fuckwits. Educate the young better and just wait for the old who are already terminally brainwashed to die off. It’s easier to outwait them than argue with them.



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  • I tackle this question like this….When people say “Evolution is just a theory” I remind them they are misquoting the original statement/book title. It says “The Theory of Evolution BY NATURAL SELECTION.” I often ask if they have read his book. Typically they say “No”. Then I comment that they seem not to have read the sentence either. Evolution itself is not a theory, it is a fact. All it means is change over time. We see that a thousand times a day, world wide. The THEORY part relates to the natural selection bit. Chopping out part of the relevant sentence (quote mining) is an illegal move when arguing against a proposition. Evolution by human selection has been going on for thousands of years. Ask any dog breeder, horse breeder, cattle breeder , pigeon breeder, horticulturalist, etc. etc. etc. Man chooses in all of these, which animal or plant is allowed to breed with which other animal/plant, in order to “improve the blood-line” and obtain offspring with a better chance of having a desirable trait. Colour, size, strength, milk-producing ability, etc. etc. (See corn, bananas, wheat, etc.) The SOURCE of these traits is a random change in the offspring of “normal” parents. Once detected, this random change can be selected (again by humans – or deselected !) for breeding, in the hope it will continue and produce more offspring with the desirable trait, whatever it is. We humans have been doing this “selection” for thousands of years, probably starting with wolves hanging around campfires, gradually turning them into dogs. Then repeat with sheep, goats, cattle, horses, etc. Those who object to “evolution” should focus their attention on whether or not there is enough time available for Mother Nature to use natural selection to promote the stronger, faster, smarter, more hardy, etc. random mutations so that they stand a better chance of surviving and having offspring carrying the random mutation. These will perhaps be better equipped to survive, than those which do not, and die out. With enough time, these random variations will grow far enough apart from their original that they can no longer interbreed and have therefore become a new species. It is like saying you cannot walk from New York City to San Francisco. You can, it just takes a long time, and for single individuals, extremely difficult. But if you stop and have children along the way, and they continue the journey, and their children after them, that is how the American West was populated by Europeans. Once the evolution deniers have entered the “box canyon” of arguing against the question of enough time, they are trapped. There is an enormous amount of geological evidence for an “old earth”. Tough/impossible to refute. No single individual wolf suddenly gave birth to a Chihuahua, but after many generations of human selection, it could be done – and has been. QED.



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  • @rod-the-farmer #8
    Feb 21, 2016 at 6:46 am

    I tackle this question like this….When people say “Evolution is just a theory” I remind them they are misquoting the original statement/book title. It says “The Theory of Evolution BY NATURAL SELECTION.”

    No it doesn’t!!! The word “theory” never appears in the title. The title of Darwin’s book is “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” No theory anywhere. Religious nutters add the word theory and then rail against it in a strawman argument but Darwin’s work has been proven as fact by countless researchers.



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  • rod-the-farmer #8
    Feb 21, 2016 at 6:46 am

    Evolution by human selection has been going on for thousands of years. Ask any dog breeder, horse breeder, cattle breeder , pigeon breeder, horticulturalist, etc. etc. etc.

    One of the quickest and easiest ways of observing a large sample illustrating genetic diversity, is to look at many seed trays of pricked out seedlings of the same species in a commercial nursery or a botanic garden. You could even get lucky and see a few mutant “sports” or some plants sufficiently different to be classed as new varieties.



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  • Dear Richard Dawkins. I know you are languishing under somewhat of a cloud at the moment and cannot undertake anything too strenuous. But I have a little task that your connections will facilitate and which should not be too burdensome even if you can’t get out and about. The phone and email should suffice.

    How about we compile for once and all a list of scientists and others of general repute who know that evolution is true and publish that on Wikipedia and in here on a permanent page so that when religious nutters say that plenty of scientists dispute evolution we can show that the vast majority don’t. Let’s reach out to David Attenborough, prof Brian Cox and others who the general public know and trust and get this done.



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  • @ #11 – who the general public know…

    A quick reference guide, sounds good. Sir David, Cox, and others are certainly known in the UK.

    I’ve thought about who would be on the US list – Coyne (naturally) and Neil Shubin for starters. Only Neil deGrasse Tyson comes to mind as ‘known and trusted’ for a portion of the general public. If only the media would spotlight these folk instead of…



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  • …who cares what uneducated cricketers or others on celebrity “pap for the masses” TV shows think?

    Unfortunately too many people do care what celebrities think and say, and that’s not likely to change. Which is why it is important to get celebrities to think and say the right things. These public figures must be publicly challenged and educated so that their celebrity can serve the cause of reason.



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  • This is a really useful article.

    If anyone asks you to explain “cognitive dissonance” you can show them this article and say “apparently item 3 and item 5 are both true”

    Actually other than that this is an utterly pointless article



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  • On a side note, my faith in God (the intelligent creator) is not held up by religion. Most people have a hard time understanding that. Not a big deal, but faith does exist best outside of heavily organized religion. I wish more people understood that.
    All-in-all, not a bad article; but for me I don’t think those are the five reasons why people debate this subject. In today’s day & age, especially in this part of the world, people are educated for the most part. They tend to study these things out with quite a bit focus and time devoted to that study in order to determine what they believe. We live in the information age.
    I think much of humanity wants to believe they are developed organisms spiraling thru space on a tiny rock orbiting a burning ball of gas in an expansive emptiness. To put it in context, for people who like to go camping, the idea of “roughing it” in nature is attractive. Similarly, authors, debaters, educators and speakers on the subject (who may or may not like camping) find it entertaining to express this same desire (obviously in the name of learning). However they do it with “evidence”, rather than campfires. They do it on paper or in forums, the pages of journals or in auditoriums; or most likely for everyday people over beers and/or burgers at the bar & grill.
    Perhaps this idea (for them) is more reflective of what is in their hearts & minds; only my opinion.



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  • Bryan Schafer #16
    Feb 22, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    On a side note, my faith in God (the intelligent creator) is not held up by religion. Most people have a hard time understanding that. Not a big deal, but faith does exist best outside of heavily organized religion. I wish more people understood that.

    Hi Bryan! Are you suggesting you are a deist or a pantheist?

    I think much of humanity wants to believe they are developed organisms spiraling thru space on a tiny rock orbiting a burning ball of gas in an expansive emptiness.

    I think that is what separates atheist scientists from “faith-believers”.
    As I comment on this thread – https://www.richarddawkins.net/2016/02/exoplanet-census-suggests-earth-is-special-after-all/
    there is rather more to planetary studies than ” a tiny rock orbiting a burning ball of gas”.

    Astronomers, geologists, biologists and anthropologists base their views on experimental evidence, objective observations, deductions, and inductive inferences from evidence about the working of nature, rather than simply choosing what it feels good to believe.

    Fundamentalists simply choose what ancient books they wish to believe and close their eyes to any conflicting evidence or information.



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  • If anyone asks you to explain “cognitive dissonance” you can show them this article and say “apparently item 3 and item 5 are both true”

    I don’t think anyone has suggested that any of the listed reasons are necessarily held by the same people. (IOW, one who thinks #3 might not also think #5 – particularly if they are contradictory.)

    Actually other than that this is an utterly pointless article

    From the article:

    Many studies have tried to determine why evolution is questioned so often by the general public, despite complete acceptance by scientists. Although no clear answer has been found, I suspect the common misconceptions described below have something to do with it.

    The point of which might be that dealing with these particular misconceptions would go a long way toward increasing understanding and acceptance of “the theory”.



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  • I don’t think anyone has suggested that any of the listed reasons are necessarily held by the same people. (IOW, one who thinks #3 might not also think #5 – particularly if they are contradictory.)

    No you’re quite right I was just having a pop at the author for allowing number 5 to up there. Evolution Through Natural Selection is not compatible with religion. Religious apologists constantly say they are but it’s simply not true. I’ve read so many articles and seen documentaries where they assert compatibility but always with some assumption that “it’s all part of the plan”

    I am however prepared to accept item 5 if there’s a religion out there that states that god made everything by accident. Not sure what you’d do in church on that one though, probably sing hymns with titles like “bloody hell now what have you done?” and “never mind, just leave us to clear this mess up, yeah?”



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