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Education Science

Correcting Misperceptions About Evolution 838

Beagle writes "The science of evolution is often misunderstood by the public and a session at the recent AAAS meeting in Boston covered three frequently misapprehended topics in evolutionary history, the Cambrian explosion, origin of tetrapods, and evolution of human ancestors, as well as the origin of life. The final speaker, Martin Storksdieck of the Institute for Learning Innovation, covered how to communicate the data to a public that 'has such a hard time accepting what science is discovering.' His view: 'while most of the attention has focused on childhood education, we really should be going after the parents. Everyone is a lifelong learner, Storksdieck said, but once people leave school, that learning becomes a voluntary matter that's largely driven by individual taste.'"
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Correcting Misperceptions About Evolution

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  • RTFA (Score:5, Informative)

    by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @02:23AM (#22584892)

    (Yeah, yeah, I know... no one RTFAs on /..)

    They discuss that, and agree with you. The reason is that in the eyes of the public, the two are regularly conflated, especially by religious hacks trying to dispute evolution. So, they discuss the relationship and lack thereof (they're not completely unrelated, actually), and also discuss why they're talking about both.

    The short answer is that they were trying to summarize the current state of scientific knowledge as relates to a particular political and religious debate, and both evolution and the origin of life are part of that debate.

  • Re:Origin of life ?! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Nasajin ( 967925 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @02:28AM (#22584918)
    The article does actually detail that Darwin's theory of evolution doesn't cover the origin of life. What the article details is that DNA's survival can be explained through natural selection.

    He started by noting that simply defining life is as much of a philosophical question as a biological one. He settled on the following: "a self replicating system capable of Darwinian evolution," and focused on getting from naturally forming chemicals to that point. To do so, Ellington developed three different themes.
  • Re:Origin of life ?! (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 28, 2008 @02:34AM (#22584954)
    If you could count, you'd have seen that the summary agrees with you:

    covered three frequently misapprehended topics in evolutionary history, (1) the Cambrian explosion, (2) origin of tetrapods, and (3) evolution of human ancestors, as well as the origin of life.
  • by presidenteloco ( 659168 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @03:00AM (#22585106)
    Life must have originated by a generalized and initially weaker version of the evolutionary process.

    Essentially, in

    a. certain intermediate-free-energy thermodynamic regimes (regimes in which common
    elements and molecules can co-exist in all three of solid,liquid, and gaseous phases so that rigid and semi-rigid
    structure can be combined with constrained energy flows),
    and with

    b. the right soup of lots of different common and chemically combinable elements trapped together in a gravity well,

    you get the preconditions for randomly occurring structural and process experiments.

    Some of these randomly occurring but probable-due-to-the-regime-and-the-ingredients experiments
    end up making structural and process fragments that alter/interact with/use their environment in such a way as to
    incrementally, or in some cases dramatically, increase the probability of a similar structure or process
    fragment recurring nearby in time and space to the first one. This is already a positive feedback loop.
    Eventually, by chance, some cluster of these self-probability-improving structure+processes, a cluster
    most likely made of smaller self-made-more-probable structure-process fragments, reaches a threshold
    at which its robustness leads to a probability of 1 of structure and process like that existing in the general
    Pattern self-preserving functionality transcends pattern occurrence improbability.

    Call it stochastic evolution transforming into classical evolution.

    Call it the origin of life if you like.
  • by Jafafa Hots ( 580169 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @03:05AM (#22585134) Homepage Journal
    Wrong. Scientists don't leave the basis of evolutionary theory to random chance "luck." There are hypotheses and theories to explain how and why the genetic changes happen, and experiments to back them up. Copying errors, environmental factors, etc. There is WAY more to it than just "it was random chance."

    Whereas there is no suggested mechanism for a god intervening, let alone a suggested mechanism of a god itself.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 28, 2008 @03:07AM (#22585142)
    That's "sapiens". With an S. It's Latin. It's the root of the word "sapient". But more importantly, it ends in an S. As these type of Latin agentive suffixes in the nominative case generally do.

    Sorry, it just makes me cringe when I hear people talk about the "Homo sapien" [sic].
  • by sethawoolley ( 1005201 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @03:24AM (#22585246) Homepage

    Ah yes, George Carlin. One day you'll learn the difference between median and mean.
    Mean ("sum over count" average), median ("middle" average), and mode ("the most" average) are all different types of averages. He was using the median in his joke, which, yes, is an average. You can only criticize Carlin for being not specific enough, not for being wrong.
  • by siddesu ( 698447 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @03:27AM (#22585254)
    on the contrary, there is significant difference between the two. the evolution theory (especially in the context of modern genetic research) provides a plausible, conceptually simple, statistically and exprimentally testable theory of how species evolve.

    the ID "theory" does nothing of the sort. the only "innovation" it has over the overtly religious stories is the simple substitution of "god" with "intelligent designer". still, it does not explain why an "intelligent designer" is necessary, nor does it provide a fact (or a reason) that would point to the existence of such.

    in other words, it performs the act known on teh internets as "epic fail".
  • by Jafafa Hots ( 580169 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @03:39AM (#22585312) Homepage Journal
    I think he just knew that the average person in his audience had only heard of the word average, not the others.
  • by Knuckles ( 8964 ) <> on Thursday February 28, 2008 @03:41AM (#22585336)
    Median and mean are both a type of average. So no, he was not wrong, just not specific enough for some tastes. And anyway, assuming that intelligence has a normal distribution, median and mean are the same.
  • by darthdavid ( 835069 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @04:27AM (#22585562) Homepage Journal

    I think that the physical facts, such as the massive quantities of rapidly-buried fossils, the Grand Canyon, []
    While this link more or less covers these points I'll summarize as it's a lot to slog through. The fossil record is sorted based on time. Radiological dating coupled with clear evolutionary progress as you look at progressively higher layers proves this. If much of the life on Earth died in a flood then you'd expect to see sorting based on density, size and swimming ability with the metal and stone tools of the time at the bottom and a spectrum of animals ranging from big slow creatures that couldn't make it to higher ground and live longer or swim very well on top of the tools and birds, bats and things that can swim for a long time at the top. Considering that the remains of tools are all well above the likes of T-Rex skeletons this is clearly not the case.

    The Grand Canyon is pretty much a poster-child for modern geological theories. It's layering is not consistent with a rapid flood and the canyon its self is best explained by the long slow process of erosion by river. I could probably find some detailed studies if you'd like.

    the mitochondrial DNA studies performed at Berkeley in 1987 [1]
    I don't know where you're getting that 6000 years figure. The study you cite puts her as living approximately 200000 years ago and it's a bit more complex than "our common female ancestor". I'm tired and it's three am so here's a link... []
    If you have more questions about this part I'll gladly answer them when it's daytime.

    and the existence of comets
    Seriously? WTF...
    What about comets causes problems for you. Tell me and I'll do my best to clear up any misunderstandings you may have.

    Also, I've noticed you seem to have a problem common to many Creationists, you conflate geological evolution, astronomy, abiogenisis and biological evolution. Geological evolution is, as the name suggests about the changing of our planet over time and includes stuff like erosion, desertification and plate tectonics. Astronomy is the study of the stars and can include stuff like the big bang and the formation of our solar system.Abiogenisis is the idea that life originated from non-life due to the chemical conditions present on Earth at the time. Biological evolution is what you seem to want to debate and it's all about the adaptation of animals over subsequent generations due to natural selection. Even if one is disproved it doesn't necessarily invalidate the others because they're all separate theories with their own evidence and implications. The fact that they all tend to support each other where they overlap just adds credence to them all.

    Talk more when it's day
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 28, 2008 @04:52AM (#22585676)
    Hi. I was raised as Roman Catholic. I went to a Catholic elementary and a Catholic high school. I was baptized, had my First Communion, and even was Confirmed (on my own, more or less). I was even an altar boy for many many years. You could say that my education as a Catholic was complete.

    In my studies, I read the Bible in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek (with help of course) and learned that many things that are said in English are either out of context or blatantly wrong due to translation and just plain *HUMAN* error. Yes. The original Christian church showed me all of this in theology classes. The Church didn't seem to have a problem telling me that "P" and "J" and other sources wrote down the Old Testament and that Moses was looooooong dead by then. Or that the English "7 days" in Hebrew really meant "a long time." Among other things.

    The Roman Catholic Church does not say that Evolution contradicts religion. In fact, the Church even explicitly said it had no argument against Evolution and that science is just fine.

    It appears to me that it's the Fundies/Literalists with their King James translated Bible and absolutely no theological training whatsoever that are coming up with this Religion vs. Science debate. There isn't one. The writers of the Bible "the Jews" don't even have a problem with it.

    Oh, and I hate to break it to you, but Jesus isn't coming again. His second coming was his Transfiguration (after he rose from the dead). It's just that the Fundies/Literalists don't even bother looking up "Revelation" in a dictionary. Revelations is basically another story about Christ *in the past* but written with a lot of religious symbolism. No prophecies.

    What are you going to do with your free time now? Please consider donating your labor to charity groups such as Habitat for Humanity.
  • Read the book first (Score:3, Informative)

    by Epeeist ( 2682 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @04:57AM (#22585708) Homepage
    > Only real diffrence is that evolutionary theory suggests that everything is completely random

    It is probably better if you actually know something about the topic before you put down your comments in (virtual) print.

    Mutation is random, selection is not.
  • by Tatarize ( 682683 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @05:43AM (#22585954) Homepage
    PZ Myers put it pretty distinctly:

    "'Evolution is a theory about the origin of life' is presented as false. It is not. I know many people like to recite the mantra that "abiogenesis is not evolution," but it's a cop-out. Evolution is about a plurality of natural mechanisms that generate diversity. It includes molecular biases towards certain solutions and chance events that set up potential change as well as selection that refines existing variation. Abiogenesis research proposes similar principles that led to early chemical evolution. Tossing that work into a special-case ghetto that exempts you from explaining it is cheating, and ignores the fact that life is chemistry. That creationists don't understand that either is not a reason for us to avoid it." []
  • by sethawoolley ( 1005201 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @06:04AM (#22586068) Homepage

    Plato records the opinion that man was the original species. If an individual wasn't worthy it got reincarnated as a lower species. Sort of reverse evolution with a moral twist.
    This also has to do with his ideology, as most pre-scientific beliefs boil down to:

    Plato believed in idealistic realism. He believed that the basic types had transcendental archetypes that represented perfectly the form of an uncorrupted object.

    It wasn't until the scholastic movement when William of Ockham introduced the world to nominalism -- that words are merely approximate descriptions we apply to enable generalization of a real world of many diverse specifics. Reality was reality, and names and generalizations were the source of imperfections in reasoning, not that there are ideal forms for everything.

    The archetypal example is the chair. Plato believed that there's such a thing as a perfect chair that personified and was what people should think of when you think of a chair. Ockham believed that people used the word chair as a symbol, or name (nomen) for the many things in the world that we used as chairs. The names were merely conventions.

    How does Plato's ideology lead to inaccuracy in his theory of evolution? Well, to him, animals are a type, and as a type, they had a perfect form, the human, naturally, since it was the smartest and most powerful. Thus, any non-human was naturally inferior to the human. Combined with the common belief among Platonists and the religious gestalt of the time that things naturally tended toward corruption when left to their own devices (without, say a Philosopher King to step in and control the masses), Humans were the first and foremost species -- all the rest are merely corruptions of the animal archetype.

    Platonism (more specifically neoplatonism) was the philosophic foundation for Christianity and the Catholic Church Fathers more than any other influence. Yes, Catholicism borrowed from Jewish, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek Mystery, etc. religions, but the philosophical foundations of its theological systems lay directly with Plato.

    For more information on the scourge of Plato and Platonic Essentialism, see Ernst Mayr's "Growth of Biological Thought", particularly the 180 page introduction if you can't read a thousand page book.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 28, 2008 @07:28AM (#22586444)
    One way to address the issue is by analogy, although you do have to be careful with it.

    Who was the very first person to invent money? What was used to represent it? Where was it first used? Don't know? Well, I guess that calls the entire monetary system of today into question, doesn't it?

    It's really easy to show that you don't need to know the *exact* time, procedure, or individual involved in the formation of a system in order to understand how it works NOW, or even how it has worked over recent history. Sometimes there are ample clues about the early stages, even if it is inevitably incomplete. And, most importantly, any uncertainty about the initiation of a process certainly isn't grounds for questioning the existence of that process at all when the evidence is all over the place today.
  • by Ihlosi ( 895663 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @08:19AM (#22586680)
    like it is within the protestant church,

    There's no such thing as "the protestant church".

    And most churches in the US that claim to be protestant didn't even exist when the "protest" took place that the term "protestant" refers to (1529).

  • by kiracatgirl ( 791797 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @08:34AM (#22586770)
    Oh, and I hate to break it to you, but Jesus isn't coming again. His second coming was his Transfiguration (after he rose from the dead). It's just that the Fundies/Literalists don't even bother looking up "Revelation" in a dictionary. Revelations is basically another story about Christ *in the past* but written with a lot of religious symbolism. No prophecies.

    Tsk. Don't go to church much, do you?

    "On the third day He rose in fulfillment of the Scriptures; He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end."

    Straight from the Nicene Creed. Said at every Catholic Mass, and a recital of the cornerstone of Catholic beliefs. Yes, the whole Fundamentalist interpretation of what that specifically means isn't accepted, but that doesn't mean the Catholic Church doesn't believe Jesus is going to come again. You should've just kept your post on the topic of Evolution. :P
  • Skepticism (Score:3, Informative)

    by cyborg_zx ( 893396 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @09:11AM (#22586992)

    And what's so weird is that I'm not even a skeptic. I like to believe I'm pretty open-minded. If any of my knowledge comes into question, I'm ready at the drop of a hat to re-examine things and see where I stand.
    That is skepticism.

    It is a common meme that skeptics are "closed-minded," when the reality, as you have explored, is that it is the closed-minded who will proclaim, "BE OPEN MINDED!" to those who will not accept their chosen beliefs because they are unable to actually support them with little things like, "facts congruent with reality."
  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @09:20AM (#22587042) Homepage Journal
    Actually, Martin Gardner in one of his books discusses a nineteenth century minister who thought he had successfully resolved the creationism/evolution debate.

    He speculated that when God made the universe, he made it as an ongoing affair with a prewritten history for the bits before the moment of creation. When Adam awoke, he didn't faint from hunger because he had the remains of meals in his blood and digestive tract, meals that he never actually ate. Likewise, he had a belly button for an umbilical cord that never, in fact, existed.

    The world (according to this theory) is littered with fossils (not to mention descendants of the natural variations that Darwin observed in the Galapagos) of animals that never, in fact, lived. However, every trace that an actual animal living millions of years ago would have left is there.

    This is a profoundly un-scientific theory, in that it is completely un-falsifiable by any observation. You really can't disprove that the universe wasn't created in this fashion, whether it was six thousand years ago or in the last millisecond. However, this notion gives science full rein to explore where it will; it even arguably puts science on par with Bible as a means to discover the mind of God. The problem is that this didn't satisfy the creationists, who weren't going after "old time religion" so much as pursuing new and rather muddled version of modernism in which science and scripture are awkwardly yoked to each other.
  • by Kagura ( 843695 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @09:26AM (#22587084)
    Woah, I'll put a couple points of karma on the line here for this guy! He doesn't deserve to be modded -1... he's quoting from a very famous Monty Python sketch, and it's rather funny of Hognoxious to say it in this article. :)

    Here's a link to it: Spanish Inquisition Part 1 [] Spanish Inquisition Part 2 []

    The parent post is definitely not worthy of downmodding. :)
  • by bunratty ( 545641 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @09:57AM (#22587392)

    I was under the impression that the layering was, in fact, consistent with deposit by a flood followed by tidal pumping and liquefication. I will have to look into this in greater detail. The hydroplate theory, in its full detail, actually accounts for most of the points in article you link to, but not all of them. The points it does not explain are the interesting ones, from my point of
    No, most of the layers of the Grand Canyon [] are consistent with deposits over millions of years in a shallow sea off the coast of a continent. You can tell from the radiometric dating, the size of the deposited grains, and the fossils of life that lives in shallow seas. How could a flood thousands of years ago result in nice horizontal layers deposited with fossils of animals that live in calm, shallow seas, that happen to date to millions of years ago? I'm not a geologist, but I did take several geology courses in college, including two field trips in a nearby area (the Sierra Nevadas and Death Valley) that was deposited and uplifted in the same way, and a course on the geology of the Grand Canyon.
  • by node 3 ( 115640 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @09:59AM (#22587422)

    The Theory of Evolution is still a theory because, by definition, it has yet to be proven by any method.
    Theories are *never* *ever* proven. Never. No theory in the history of the universe has been proven, and never will be proven. Theories to not graduate to "laws" like many people think.

    The only place in science for proofs are math and logic.

    Theories are the "hows" for the "facts" of the universe. Take gravity as an example. Gravity is a fact (things fall to the Earth, masses attract each other, etc.). The *theory* of gravity is the "this is how it works". In fact, there are multiple theories of gravity *in use this very day*. Both Newton's and Einstein's theories of gravity are used, even though Einstein's is significantly more correct more often. But neither theory has been proven correct because you *can't* prove they are correct. All you can do is show how well they match observation.

    As for evolution, we know about the fact of evolution. We've seen it happen in real-time. We've seen it happen in the fossil record. We've instigated and directed it ourselves. That's evolution the fact. Evolution the theory (in fact, just like with gravity, theories) are the details, the "how it happens". Exactly *why* do animals evolve? Just *how* does this happen? These are aspect of the *theory* of evolution which all seek to describe the *fact* of evolution.
  • by AGMW ( 594303 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @10:24AM (#22587644) Homepage
    For precisely the reason evolution feels counterintuitive in the first place.

    Say what now? I like the concept of "evolution" for exactly the opposite reason - the simplicity of it. A specimen which is better adapted to the environment will more likely survive to pass on its genes. How, in the name of all that is (or isn't!) holy is that counterintuitive? A truely simple concept that provides for the complexity of live on Earth. In truth, it's staggeringly beautiful!

    For much the same reason, I'm uncomfortable with talk of "chance" and "coin tossing" when discussing "evolution". Luck has nothing to do with it. At the start of life we weren't tossing a coin to try and make homo sapiens! Whatever was best survived, and it turned out to be us.

  • by graft ( 556969 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @10:41AM (#22587856) Homepage
    As a scientist (and one who works in evolutionary biology) I disagree. There is no concerted political attack on science - there is a diffuse one that has not even come close to penetrating through the shield of the pop-culture debate to affect science policy. And it probably never will, because there is a political and medical establishment that stands in the way that would never tolerate that kind of meddling. I NEVER have to worry about what some creationist thinks when I do my research, and my PI never has to worry about creationists when he is writing grants.
  • by zulater ( 635326 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @10:43AM (#22587874)
    I think you need to re-read the Bible.
    Genesis 1 clearly separates each of the events into literal days. "And there was evening, and there was morning--the first day.", "And there was evening, and there was morning--the second day.", on until the sixth day. How much clearer does it need to be?
    But just in case it's not clear enough, Exodus 6:9-11 connects six working days with the six literal days God created everything. Again Exodus 31:15-17 connects six working days with the six literal days of creation.
    Still if not clear enough, Matthew 19:4 Jesus reaffirms that God created man and woman. Mark 13:19 again affirms creation by Jesus' own words.
    Genesis is literal history. You wouldn't take stories about old Greek myths and say their days were figurative and really represented a longer time. Specially when it's connected with evening and morning day x. Why is thing being done with the Bible?
    Obviously we can disagree on whether the Bible is real/accurate/fiction etc. but it is definitely meant as literal days.
  • by Adambomb ( 118938 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @12:08PM (#22588940) Journal

    Genesis 1:
    1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
    1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
    1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
  • by i2878 ( 736937 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @12:43PM (#22589388)
    It's a Christian preoccupation, because it is part of the historical theology and an essential part of the doctrine of salvation in Christ. (Though I also believe most current evangelicals do not know/understand this, and are still allowed to ride the bandwagon).

    Romans 5:12-20 understands Adam to be a literal man, and a 'pattern of the one to come'(14). Take away 6 day creation, you remove a literal Adam, you remove original sin, and you remove the need for Christ.

    I'd say it's one of my preoccupations.
  • by ricegf ( 1059658 ) on Thursday February 28, 2008 @06:19PM (#22593848) Journal

    Thanks! A quick example - if you're offended by religion, skip to the next message now, and please accept my apologies for the off-topic detour. :-)

    Find a duck sauce packet that barely floats, and put it in a 2L soda bottle filled to the brim with water with the cap tightened. The packet should float normally, but sink when you squeeze the bottle.

    Science: This is the basis for hydraulics - water doesn't compress, air does, so squeezing the bottle makes the air bubble in the packet smaller, increasing the density so that it sinks. It also shows why an air bubble in your car's brake line is not a good idea!

    Religion: (From a Christian viewpoint) God gives us free will rather than lightning bolts from on high. If a Christian is sensitive to His guidance (i.e., pressure on the bottle), his heart will respond (i.e., heart == bubble).

    It's called a "Cartesian diver", I believe - much easier to make that the old pen-cap-and-paperclip design I used to use. And it's not so much the kids as the adults that love to play with the bottle. :-)

    I have about 250 or so lessons like this, with a dozen or two published thus far on my website [] ("Lessons" on the left menu). As is not uncommon with personal websites, I have great plans but not as great timely implementation. I guess I love teaching more than writing websites. :-/

Mr. Cole's Axiom: The sum of the intelligence on the planet is a constant; the population is growing.