Five Major Misconceptions about Evolution

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  1. 007
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    Five Major Misconceptions about Evolution



    Copyright © 1995-1997 by Mark Isaak
    [Last Update: October 1, 2003]


    A large part of the reason why Creationist arguments against evolution can sound so persuasive is because they don't address evolution, but rather argue against a set of misunderstandings that people are right to consider ludicrous. The Creationists wrongly believe that their understanding of evolution is what the theory of evolution really says, and declare evolution banished. In fact, they haven't even addressed the topic of evolution. (The situation isn't helped by poor science education generally. Even most beginning college biology students don't understand the theory of evolution.)

    The five propositions below seem to be the most common misconceptions based on a Creationist straw-man version of evolution. If you hear anyone making any of them, chances are excellent that they don't know enough about the real theory of evolution to make informed opinions about it.

    *Evolution has never been observed.
    *Evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics.
    *There are no transitional fossils.
    *The theory of evolution says that life originated, and evolution proceeds, by random chance.
    *Evolution is only a theory; it hasn't been proved.

    Explanations of why these statements are wrong are given below. They are brief and therefore somewhat simplified; consult the references at the end for more thorough explanations.


    "Evolution has never been observed."

    Biologists define evolution as a change in the gene pool of a population over time. One example is insects developing a resistance to pesticides over the period of a few years. Even most Creationists recognize that evolution at this level is a fact. What they don't appreciate is that this rate of evolution is all that is required to produce the diversity of all living things from a common ancestor.

    The origin of new species by evolution has also been observed, both in the laboratory and in the wild. See, for example, (Weinberg, J.R., V.R. Starczak, and D. Jorg, 1992, "Evidence for rapid speciation following a founder event in the laboratory." Evolution 46: 1214-1220). The "Observed Instances of Speciation" FAQ in the talk.origins archives gives several additional examples.

    Even without these direct observations, it would be wrong to say that evolution hasn't been observed. Evidence isn't limited to seeing something happen before your eyes. Evolution makes predictions about what we would expect to see in the fossil record, comparative anatomy, genetic sequences, geographical distribution of species, etc., and these predictions have been verified many times over. The number of observations supporting evolution is overwhelming.

    What hasn't been observed is one animal abruptly changing into a radically different one, such as a frog changing into a cow. This is not a problem for evolution because evolution doesn't propose occurrences even remotely like that. In fact, if we ever observed a frog turn into a cow, it would be very strong evidence against evolution.


    "Evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics."

    This shows more a misconception about thermodynamics than about evolution. The second law of thermodynamics says, "No process is possible in which the sole result is the transfer of energy from a cooler to a hotter body." [Atkins, 1984, The Second Law, pg. 25] Now you may be scratching your head wondering what this has to do with evolution. The confusion arises when the 2nd law is phrased in another equivalent way, "The entropy of a closed system cannot decrease." Entropy is an indication of unusable energy and often (but not always!) corresponds to intuitive notions of disorder or randomness. Creationists thus misinterpret the 2nd law to say that things invariably progress from order to disorder.

    However, they neglect the fact that life is not a closed system. The sun provides more than enough energy to drive things. If a mature tomato plant can have more usable energy than the seed it grew from, why should anyone expect that the next generation of tomatoes can't have more usable energy still? Creationists sometimes try to get around this by claiming that the information carried by living things lets them create order. However, not only is life irrelevant to the 2nd law, but order from disorder is common in nonliving systems, too. Snowflakes, sand dunes, tornadoes, stalactites, graded river beds, and lightning are just a few examples of order coming from disorder in nature; none require an intelligent program to achieve that order. In any nontrivial system with lots of energy flowing through it, you are almost certain to find order arising somewhere in the system. If order from disorder is supposed to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics, why is it ubiquitous in nature?

    The thermodynamics argument against evolution displays a misconception about evolution as well as about thermodynamics, since a clear understanding of how evolution works should reveal major flaws in the argument. Evolution says that organisms reproduce with only small changes between generations (after their own kind, so to speak). For example, animals might have appendages which are longer or shorter, thicker or flatter, lighter or darker than their parents. Occasionally, a change might be on the order of having four or six fingers instead of five. Once the differences appear, the theory of evolution calls for differential reproductive success. For example, maybe the animals with longer appendages survive to have more offspring than short-appendaged ones. All of these processes can be observed today. They obviously don't violate any physical laws.


    "There are no transitional fossils."

    A transitional fossil is one that looks like it's from an organism intermediate between two lineages, meaning it has some characteristics of lineage A, some characteristics of lineage B, and probably some characteristics part way between the two. Transitional fossils can occur between groups of any taxonomic level, such as between species, between orders, etc. Ideally, the transitional fossil should be found stratigraphically between the first occurrence of the ancestral lineage and the first occurrence of the descendent lineage, but evolution also predicts the occurrence of some fossils with transitional morphology that occur after both lineages. There's nothing in the theory of evolution which says an intermediate form (or any organism, for that matter) can have only one line of descendents, or that the intermediate form itself has to go extinct when a line of descendents evolves.

    To say there are no transitional fossils is simply false. Paleontology has progressed a bit since Origin of Species was published, uncovering thousands of transitional fossils, by both the temporally restrictive and the less restrictive definitions. The fossil record is still spotty and always will be; erosion and the rarity of conditions favorable to fossilization make that inevitable. Also, transitions may occur in a small population, in a small area, and/or in a relatively short amount of time; when any of these conditions hold, the chances of finding the transitional fossils goes down. Still, there are still many instances where excellent sequences of transitional fossils exist. Some notable examples are the transitions from reptile to mammal, from land animal to early whale, and from early ape to human. For many more examples, see the transitional fossils FAQ in the talk.origins archive, and see http://www.geo.ucalgary.ca/~macrae/talk_origins.html for sample images for some invertebrate groups.

    The misconception about the lack of transitional fossils is perpetuated in part by a common way of thinking about categories. When people think about a category like "dog" or "ant," they often subconsciously believe that there is a well-defined boundary around the category, or that there is some eternal ideal form (for philosophers, the Platonic idea) which defines the category. This kind of thinking leads people to declare that Archaeopteryx is "100% bird," when it is clearly a mix of bird and reptile features (with more reptile than bird features, in fact). In truth, categories are man-made and artificial. Nature is not constrained to follow them, and it doesn't.

    Some Creationists claim that the hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium was proposed (by Eldredge and Gould) to explain gaps in the fossil record. Actually, it was proposed to explain the relative rarity of transitional forms, not their total absence, and to explain why speciation appears to happen relatively quickly in some cases, gradually in others, and not at all during some periods for some species. In no way does it deny that transitional sequences exist. In fact, both Gould and Eldredge are outspoken opponents of Creationism.


    "But paleontologists have discovered several superb examples of intermediary forms and sequences, more than enough to convince any fair-minded skeptic about the reality of life's physical genealogy." - Stephen Jay Gould, Natural History, May 1994


    "The theory of evolution says that life originated, and evolution proceeds, by random chance."

    There is probably no other statement which is a better indication that the arguer doesn't understand evolution. Chance certainly plays a large part in evolution, but this argument completely ignores the fundamental role of natural selection, and selection is the very opposite of chance. Chance, in the form of mutations, provides genetic variation, which is the raw material that natural selection has to work with. From there, natural selection sorts out certain variations. Those variations which give greater reproductive success to their possessors (and chance ensures that such beneficial mutations will be inevitable) are retained, and less successful variations are weeded out. When the environment changes, or when organisms move to a different environment, different variations are selected, leading eventually to different species. Harmful mutations usually die out quickly, so they don't interfere with the process of beneficial mutations accumulating.

    Nor is abiogenesis (the origin of the first life) due purely to chance. Atoms and molecules arrange themselves not purely randomly, but according to their chemical properties. In the case of carbon atoms especially, this means complex molecules are sure to form spontaneously, and these complex molecules can influence each other to create even more complex molecules. Once a molecule forms that is approximately self-replicating, natural selection will guide the formation of ever more efficient replicators. The first self-replicating object didn't need to be as complex as a modern cell or even a strand of DNA. Some self-replicating molecules are not really all that complex (as organic molecules go).

    Some people still argue that it is wildly improbable for a given self-replicating molecule to form at a given point (although they usually don't state the "givens," but leave them implicit in their calculations). This is true, but there were oceans of molecules working on the problem, and no one knows how many possible self-replicating molecules could have served as the first one. A calculation of the odds of abiogenesis is worthless unless it recognizes the immense range of starting materials that the first replicator might have formed from, the probably innumerable different forms that the first replicator might have taken, and the fact that much of the construction of the replicating molecule would have been non-random to start with.

    (One should also note that the theory of evolution doesn't depend on how the first life began. The truth or falsity of any theory of abiogenesis wouldn't affect evolution in the least.)


    "Evolution is only a theory; it hasn't been proved."

    First, we should clarify what "evolution" means. Like so many other words, it has more than one meaning. Its strict biological definition is "a change in allele frequencies over time." By that definition, evolution is an indisputable fact. Most people seem to associate the word "evolution" mainly with common descent, the theory that all life arose from one common ancestor. Many people believe that there is enough evidence to call this a fact, too. However, common descent is still not the theory of evolution, but just a fraction of it (and a part of several quite different theories as well). The theory of evolution not only says that life evolved, it also includes mechanisms, like mutations, natural selection, and genetic drift, which go a long way towards explaining how life evolved.

    Calling the theory of evolution "only a theory" is, strictly speaking, true, but the idea it tries to convey is completely wrong. The argument rests on a confusion between what "theory" means in informal usage and in a scientific context. A theory, in the scientific sense, is "a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena" [Random House American College Dictionary]. The term does not imply tentativeness or lack of certainty. Generally speaking, scientific theories differ from scientific laws only in that laws can be expressed more tersely. Being a theory implies self-consistency, agreement with observations, and usefulness. (Creationism fails to be a theory mainly because of the last point; it makes few or no specific claims about what we would expect to find, so it can't be used for anything. When it does make falsifiable predictions, they prove to be false.)

    Lack of proof isn't a weakness, either. On the contrary, claiming infallibility for one's conclusions is a sign of hubris. Nothing in the real world has ever been rigorously proved, or ever will be. Proof, in the mathematical sense, is possible only if you have the luxury of defining the universe you're operating in. In the real world, we must deal with levels of certainty based on observed evidence. The more and better evidence we have for something, the more certainty we assign to it; when there is enough evidence, we label the something a fact, even though it still isn't 100% certain.

    What evolution has is what any good scientific claim has--evidence, and lots of it. Evolution is supported by a wide range of observations throughout the fields of genetics, anatomy, ecology, animal behavior, paleontology, and others. If you wish to challenge the theory of evolution, you must address that evidence. You must show that the evidence is either wrong or irrelevant or that it fits another theory better. Of course, to do this, you must know both the theory and the evidence.


    Conclusion

    These are not the only misconceptions about evolution by any means. Other common misunderstandings include how geological dating techniques work, implications to morality and religion, the meaning of "uniformitarianism," and many more. To address all these objections here would be impossible.

    But consider: About a hundred years ago, scientists, who were then mostly creationists, looked at the world to figure out how God did things. These creationists came to the conclusions of an old earth and species originating by evolution. Since then, thousands of scientists have been studying evolution with increasingly more sophisticated tools. Many of these scientists have excellent understandings of the laws of thermodynamics, how fossil finds are interpreted, etc., and finding a better alternative to evolution would win them fame and fortune. Sometimes their work has changed our understanding of significant details of how evolution operates, but the theory of evolution still has essentially unanimous agreement from the people who work on it.

    http://talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-misconceptions.html
     
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  2. PsuedoGhost
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    :rotflmao: LOL YOU JUST PULLED A HOBBIT!!!! Quoting a source that disproves any points you may have been trying to make about evolution, this site clears up misconceptions about evolution. Rofl... Talkorigins.org is one of the most pro-evolution websites out there. It might help to do some reading before you post something like this again.

    Edit: Had to fix smiley tag.
     
  3. Mr.Conley
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    PAWN3D*


    *Assuming Pale was trying to disprove evolution and/or support ID or creationism.
     
  4. 007
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    007 Charter Member Supporting Member

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    Just posted it for the reading, no other reason.

    Yeah I'm pro creation, but that hasn't been proven either.

    Evolution is a theory. Not a bad one, but still just a theory. Until we can come up with something better, I'll entertain any reasonable explanation.

    I'm a Christian, and I believe we were either created, or dropped off here somehow, like planted. I think that's a better explanation of where we came from than evolution, which again, has never been proven, and most likely never will, because it lacks evidence.
     
  5. PsuedoGhost
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    Really now, because the article that YOU linked to gives some pretty damn convicing evidence of evolution, or at least evidence against some of the common arguments against evolution. So I ask you, how are so many highly educated professionals deluded into accepting evolution when there is "no evidence" for this "theory."
     
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  6. catatonic
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    I just repeat that you have to test the data in terms of evolution or ID in order to test evolution or ID, and that I have made what I believe is a solid enough case against the evolution of a single useful novel gene in that other thread, and can elaborate a little.

    I'd also like to specifically state that both evolution and ID are supported by the second law of thermodynamics, which is however not necessarily true depending on how motion transforms your state space.
     
  7. theHawk
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    I wouldn't say that the article is convincing for Evolution. It still does not address any of the major problems of Darwin's theory.

    There are still contradictions about the Theory of Evolution.

    An occurance of this does not prove evolution. This is an example of nature weeding out those that cannot adapt. Darwin himself used the example of birds. Those with longer(stronger) beaks were more likely to survive a drought that caused plant life to die off, because they were able crack open dead hard shells more easily than short beak birds. So over time the gene pool changed to favor the long beaked birds. This is simply eleminating a gene trait from the pool, not the creation of a new one, although it may appear that way when the birds change in appearance over time to have longer beaks.




    Same agruement as before. Changes in environment allow for the weeding out of those organisms that don't already have the traits to adapt. Again this is not evolution, organisms are not developing some new trait out of thin air (or "mutating")in order to adapt. Maybe a small population of the species survives and takes over the gene pool with their trait, but the trait already existed.


    Evolution only works for life, with DNA. A molecule is piece of matter(a couple of atoms), not a living organism, so how can the theory of evolution apply to it?

    Its rediculous to say that "natural selection will guide the formation of ever more efficient replicators", why would natural selection play any role in a molecule? Will the molecule and atomic particles "die" if they don't adapt? Of course not. So why would they need to adapt or change? This is where the theory of evolution falls flat on its face.

    The fact is a single cell is alot more complex than Darwin could of ever imagined. A single strand of DNA is more complex than any computer program ever written. It is a set of instructions, meaning it has DATA in it, not some randomly formed molecule formation. An intelligent, coherent set of instructions is not something that can be accidently formed in nature.


    LOL excuse me? Lack of proof is not a weakness? We are talking about science here. Most scientific minds want proof and evidence to support any thoeries. And this far, Darwin's theory of evolution is not backed by enough scientific facts.
     
  8. PsuedoGhost
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    Not exactly the same story there bud. The evolution of insect species to resist pesticides is microevolution, in that their ancestors lacked any such protection and now the entire population has that protection. Those who were able to resist the pesticides lived on via natural selection and propogated the necessary genes for the mutation. This is EVOLUTION at its very core.

    The bird example demonstrates natural selection which leads to evolution. If we have a species with two beak types and the one with a certain beak type is less capable of surviving it does not mean that a gene is being destroyed. In reality no genes ever are destroyed, it's just that a particular mutation is favored over another one. This is evolution at its core.







    I don't understand what the problem here is? This is a pretty simplistic understanding of evolution but you have the basics correct, besides the fact that mutations in the genome do occur randomnly, and most often are the side effect of sexual reproduction.




    Theory of evolution says nothing about the origins of life on Earth. It merely states that at some point life appeared and from there was controlled by the actions of natural selection.

    Whats your point here? There are many scientific theories/facts that fall short when describing the incredibly small level of atomic interaction. Again, evolution never says anything about this.



    Again, the theory of evolution does not specifically deal with the formation of life on Earth or the origins of DNA/RNA. There is a great deal of misinformation out there by people who do not truly understand the theory. I will reiterate THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ORIGINS OF LIFE!.



    Perhaps you missed the general gist of what he was saying. "We can never know anything with 100% certainty." This argument is as much scientific as it is philosophical but it is absolutely true. What we represent with theories are more or less facts of the modern world. You can say, but its only a theory, but keep in mind that a scientific theory is an explanation for a broad series of observations. The Theory of Evolution is as much a theory as Germ Theory or the Theory of Gravity are. (If you can explain how the last two theories are not proven, then I'd like to see that).
     
  9. manu1959
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    evolution and creationism are not mutually exclusive.....

    why do people care what other people belive?
     
  10. theHawk
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    You just contradicted yourself. You say the insect species ancestors lacked any such protection. If thats true then how did any of them survive? Some, even if very few, DID have that protection. They survived through natural selection, so then most of the population carried that trait now. So it is the same, exactly like the other cases of natural selection I pointed out. We can call that evolution if you want. But I beg to differ that such traits that help them survive appear "randomly" through mutations. I mean how often does a mutation in a species occur that not only creates a NEW trait that NEVER existed before in its gene pool, but lets the mutated specimen procreate with its species?

    I did not mean to imply the gene of the less desirable trait would be "destroyed".




    Then why are so many opposed to the idea of Intelligent Design, even though thats what the evidence points to?

    Again, I AGREE that evolution does occur through natural selection in this manner through natural selection. But a species changing traits for the most part over time (short beaks to long beaks for example, or few that can resist pesticides to many that can within the population) is a FAR cry from changing from one species to an entirely different species.
     

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