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What are some misconceptions about evolution?


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March 22, 2013 7:56PM

Misconceptions about evolution, as always, arise from ignorance. Unfortunately, they are too common. Sometimes people just don't know enough about evolution or are mislead. Often, opponents of evolution like to purposefully spread these misconceptions in order to confuse people about what evolutionary theory actually says. Here is a list of some of the most common misconceptions, each with a brief rebuttal:

Evolution tries to explain the origin of the Universe and/or the origin of life
There are separate theories for the origin of the Universe/life, and they are completely independent of evolution. The Big Bang theory is the most widely accepted scientific explanation for the origin of our Universe. Abiogenesis is a naturalistic explanation of how life could have arose from non-living molecules. Evolution explains how life changed since it began, but its origin is not the central focus. We don't know exactly how life arose, but we know that once it did, it began to diversify.

Evolution is "just a theory"
In science a theory holds much more merit than your average guess or conjecture. A scientific theory is a body of facts and observations used to explain a natural phenomenon. A theory must be supported by numerous lines of empirical evidence, and must be able to withstand scrutiny and constant testing. Evolution, for the past 150 years, has passed every test scientists have thrown at it, and with flying colors. Today, the

Macroevolution has never been proven or observed
Most people now admit that microevolution, or change below the species level, is a fact. However, there are still many who believe macroevolution (change at or above the species level) is untrue because it can't be proven or observed. First of all, macroevolution is a slow process and we would not expect to observe large changes directly. But there is no reason to believe that microevolutionary changes cannot accumulate over time and translate into macroevolutionary change. Speciation has already been observed, and macroevolution is depicted in the fossil record.

Evolution is like climbing a ladder; Organisms are always getting better
Evolution is more like a branching tree than a ladder. Natural selection does not try to produce a perfect organism or make them better, it simply promotes traits that will allow an organism to survive until reproduction. Indeed, natural selection will often favor organisms that are more complex, if this is necessary for survival. However, many organisms have survived for millions of years, almost totally unchanged. This is because they are already well adapted, meaning it is not necessary for them to evolve anymore. Sponges have been around for over 500 million years, and have barely changed at all.

Evolution can't know what direction to evolve in
Evolution is often explained using various personifying terms, suggesting there is intent where there is none. For example, one might say: genes "try" to get themselves replicated in offspring. Anybody who understands the fundamental mechanisms of evolution recognizes these personifications as no more than simple explanatory devices. Those who don't understand these mechanisms might read teleology into the explanation, and subsequently ask: "but how does evolution know how to adapt?". The only correct answer is, of course: it doesn't. Adaptation results from the differential reproductive success of variants that better utilize circumstances to reproduce. For every variant that succeeds in doing slightly better than most of the others, thousands upon thousands do slightly worse than it.

Humans evolved from monkeys
Humans and monkeys share a common ancestor. Evolution is not a seamless progression from one type of animal into another. It is a branching tree, as mentioned above.

Evolution is a theory in crisis; more and more scientists are losing confidence in it
The scientific community no longer doubts the validity of evolution because too much evidence for it has accumulated. Scientists no longer debate whether evolution took place, but the details of how it took place. Indeed we already know many of these details, and a vast majority of scientists in relevant fields accept evolution as fact. There is very little dissent, and it is not growing by much. Numerous surveys have been conducted on the scientific community, and the results have always been the same. Depending on the survey, between 90-99% of scientists accept evolution as fact.

Evolution goes against the second law of thermodynamics
This shows more of a misunderstanding of the second law of thermo than it does evolution. Some people say that the second law states that everything naturally tends to go from order to disorder, therefore evolution is impossible, but this is the wrong definition. What the second law actually states is that total entropy in a closed system will not decrease, and that heat will not spontaneously travel from a colder to a warmer body. However, earth is not a closed system, as heat from the Sun enters the atmosphere and is radiated into space constantly. This flow of energy will power local decreases in entropy on Earth. But the thing is, this doesn't have anything to do with evolution.

Gaps in the fossil record disprove evolution
The fossil record is and always has been a work in progress. The fact that some transitional fossils have not been preserved does not disprove evolutionary theory. In fact, scientists don't expect to find all the transitional fossils, because it takes special circumstances for good fossils to form, and many organisms don't fossilize well at all. We don't expect to ever find fossils of the first microbes.
However, scientists have found many transitional fossils. a sufficient amount to reconstruct the evolutionary history of life. For example, there are transitional fossils between dinosaurs and modern birds, and those between land mammals and modern whales.

There are flaws in evolutionary theory, but scientists won't admit it
Scientists have examined the supposed flaws brought up by anti-evolutionists, and have shown that they are simply misunderstandings or blatant dishonesty. There are no major flaws in evolutionary theory, and the ones that have been proposed have been refuted numerous times.

Evolution leads to immoral behavior
"If people are taught that they came from animals, they will behave like animals" is a common moral argument against evolution. Regardless of the fact that we evolved from prehistoric apes, we are still human. Humans are clearly different from other animals. We have guidelines for proper behavior. Fish act like fish, dogs act like dogs, and humans will always act like humans. Some wild animals are cannibalistic. Knowing this, should humans be cannibals too?

Evolution leads to eugenics
Just because natural selection weeds out the weak or least fit individuals, does that mean we should commit a gross violation of human rights by applying this to our society? Again the same argument as above can be used: Just because some animals are cannibals, does that mean humans should be too? Indeed, some people have used the "survival of the fittest" idea to promote eugenics, but that doesn't mean evolution teaches this. Death is an inevitable part of life. So why not just murder people?

Evolution is an atheist belief
Both atheists and theists can accept evolution. Evolution does not require a god to not exist in order for it to work, it makes no mention of a god. Many theists have already accepted evolution, but come to the conclusion that their god is its guiding force. Evolution is for everyone, the same way gravity and atoms are for everyone.

Evolution and religion are incompatible
This does not have to be true. The Catholic church has had no problem teaching it for decades, and many mainstream Protestant denominations have accepted it. Other religions such as Islam have made peace with it. Science and religion do not have to clash, as many religions have already shown. Indeed, evolution and religious fundamentalism will always be incompatible, but many religions and denominations have already made peace with evolution.

Evolution is a religious belief, so it shouldn't be taught in schools
Evolution is science that relies on evidence from the natural world. It adheres to the principles of the scientific method and scientific epistemology in every respect. The courts have always distinguished between and science and religion and know that evolution is not a religious belief.