The website Understanding Evolution, hosted by The University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, offers its readers numerous helpful resources regarding the science and history of evolutionary biology. The site’s stated goal is to “help you understand what evolution is, how it works, how it factors into your life, how research in evolutionary biology is performed, and how ideas in this area have changed over time.” Among its resources is a list of popular misconceptions about evolutionary theory. In this two part series, we’d like to highlight some of the site’s most helpful responses to these misconceptions. The full list, and many other wonderful resources, can be found at Understanding Evolution.
Misconceptions about Evolutionary Theory and Process
"Evolution is a theory about the origin of life."
Evolutionary theory does encompass ideas and evidence regarding life's origins (e.g., whether or not it happened near a deep-sea vent, which organic molecules came first, etc.), but this is not the central focus of evolutionary theory. Most of evolutionary biology deals with how life changed after its origin. Regardless of how life started, afterwards it branched and diversified, and most studies of evolution are focused on those processes.
"Evolution is like a climb up a ladder of progress; organisms are always getting better."
One important mechanism of evolution, natural selection, does result in the evolution of improved abilities to survive and reproduce; however, this does not mean that evolution is progressive — for several reasons. First, natural selection does not produce organisms perfectly suited to their environments. It often allows the survival of individuals with a range of traits — individuals that are "good enough" to survive. Hence, evolutionary change is not always necessary for species to persist. Many taxa (like some mosses, fungi, sharks, opossums, and crayfish) have changed little physically over great expanses of time. Second, there are other mechanisms of evolution that don't cause adaptive change. Mutation, migration and genetic drift may cause populations to evolve in ways that are actually harmful overall or make them less suitable for their environments. For example, the Afrikaner population of South Africa has an unusually high frequency of the gene responsible for Huntington's disease because the gene version drifted to high frequency as the population grew from a small starting population. Finally, the whole idea of "progress" doesn't make sense when it comes to evolution. Climates change, rivers shift course, new competitors invade — and an organism with traits that are beneficial in one situation may be poorly equipped for survival when the environment changes. And even if we focus on a single environment and habitat, the idea of how to measure "progress" is skewed by the perspective of the observer. From a plant's perspective, the best measure of progress might be photosynthetic ability; from a spider's it might be the efficiency of a venom delivery system; from a human's, cognitive ability. It is tempting to see evolution as a grand progressive ladder with Homo sapiens emerging at the top. But evolution produces a tree, not a ladder — and we are just one of many twigs on the tree.
"Evolution means that life changed 'by chance.'"
Chance and randomness do factor into evolution and the history of life in many different ways; however, some important mechanisms of evolution are non-random and these make the overall process non-random. For example, consider the process of natural selection, which results in adaptations — features of organisms that appear to suit the environment in which the organisms live (e.g., the fit between a flower and its pollinator, the coordinated response of the immune system to pathogens, and the ability of bats to echolocate). Such amazing adaptations clearly did not come about "by chance." They evolved via a combination of random and non-random processes. The process of mutation, which generates genetic variation, is random, but selection is non-random. Selection favored variants that were better able to survive and reproduce (e.g., to be pollinated, to fend off pathogens, or to navigate in the dark). Over many generations of random mutation and non-random selection, complex adaptations evolved. To say that evolution happens "by chance" ignores half of the picture.
For more see our questions on "What is Evolution?" and "How do randomness and chance align with belief in God’s sovereignty and purpose?".
“Humans are not currently evolving”
Humans are now able to modify our environments with technology. We have invented medical treatments, agricultural practices, and economic structures that significantly alter the challenges to reproduction and survival faced by modern humans. So, for example, because we can now treat diabetes with insulin, the gene versions that contribute to juvenile diabetes are no longer strongly selected against in developed countries. Some have argued that such technological advances mean that we've opted out of the evolutionary game and set ourselves beyond the reach of natural selection — essentially, that we've stopped evolving. However, this is not the case. Humans still face challenges to survival and reproduction, just not the same ones that we did 20,000 years ago. The direction, but not the fact of our evolution has changed. For example, modern humans living in densely populated areas face greater risks of epidemic diseases than did our hunter-gatherer ancestors (who did not come into close contact with so many people on a daily basis) — and this situation favors the spread of gene versions that protect against these diseases.
For more see our question "Did evolution have to result in human beings?".
"Species are distinct natural entities, with a clear definition, that can be easily recognized by anyone."
Many of us are familiar with the biological species concept, which defines a species as a group of individuals that actually or potentially interbreed in nature. That definition of a species might seem cut and dried — and for many organisms (e.g., mammals), it works well — but in many other cases, this definition is difficult to apply. For example, many bacteria reproduce mainly asexually. How can the biological species concept be applied to them? Many plants and some animals form hybrids in nature, even if they largely mate within their own groups. Should groups that occasionally hybridize in selected areas be considered the same species or separate species? The concept of a species is a fuzzy one because humans invented the concept to help get a grasp on the diversity of the natural world. It is difficult to apply because the term species reflects our attempts to give discrete names to different parts of the tree of life — which is not discrete at all, but a continuous web of life, connected from its roots to its leaves.
Misconceptions about Natural Selection and Adaptation
“Natural selection involves organisms trying to adapt”.
Natural selection leads to the adaptation of species over time, but the process does not involve effort, trying, or wanting. Natural selection naturally results from genetic variation in a population and the fact that some of those variants may be able to leave more offspring in the next generation than other variants. That genetic variation is generated by random mutation — a process that is unaffected by what organisms in the population want or what they are "trying" to do. Either an individual has genes that are good enough to survive and reproduce, or it does not; it can't get the right genes by "trying." For example bacteria do not evolve resistance to our antibiotics because they "try" so hard. Instead, resistance evolves because random mutation happens to generate some individuals that are better able to survive the antibiotic, and these individuals can reproduce more than other, leaving behind more resistant bacteria.
“The fittest organisms in a population are those that are strongest, healthiest, fastest, and/or largest.”
In evolutionary terms, fitness has a very different meaning than the everyday meaning of the word. An organism's evolutionary fitness does not indicate its health, but rather its ability to get its genes into the next generation. The more fertile offspring an organism leaves in the next generation, the fitter it is. This doesn't always correlate with strength, speed, or size. For example, a puny male bird with bright tail feathers might leave behind more offspring than a stronger, duller male, and a spindly plant with big seed pods may leave behind more offspring than a larger specimen — meaning that the puny bird and the spindly plant have higher evolutionary fitness than their stronger, larger counterparts.
“Natural selection produces organisms perfectly suited to their environments.”
Natural selection is not all-powerful. There are many reasons that natural selection cannot produce "perfectly-engineered" traits. For example, living things are made up of traits resulting from a complicated set of trade-offs — changing one feature for the better may mean changing another for the worse (e.g., a bird with the "perfect" tail plumage to attract mates maybe be particularly vulnerable to predators because of its long tail). And of course, because organisms have arisen through complex evolutionary histories (not a design process), their future evolution is often constrained by traits they have already evolved. For example, even if it were advantageous for an insect to grow in some way other than molting, this switch simply could not happen because molting is embedded in the genetic makeup of insects at many levels.