The Theory of Evolution single handedly changed the way we think about the world, but people get confused by it even to this day. Here are 10 important myths and facts about evolution we should all know by now.
Despite the overwhelming evidence in favor and widespread scientific consensus about the Theory of Evolution, there are many people around the world who still get it wrong. Most criticisms against the very idea of evolution are ultimately grounded on myths and misconceptions about the theory itself, which shows just how much its critics misunderstand the topic. In order to clarify some of the contentions surrounding evolutionary science, here are 10 important myths and facts about evolution we should all know by now.
Myth#1: Evolution is not a fact, it is "just a theory"
The word 'theory' is used differently in everyday language than in science. Laypeople usually think of a theory as equivalent to a speculation. Others go as far as to use 'theory' as a synonym for 'hunch' or 'feeling'.
In a stricter, more scientifically-valid sense, however, 'theory' means a set of theorems which are suitable for empirical verification. A scientific theory is a rigorous, rational abstraction that serves as a proper explanation for a given phenomenon. In this sense, a theory is not the opposite of fact; on the contrary, they go hand in hand. A scientific theory doesn't stop qualifying as a 'theory' even after it has been thoroughly confirmed.
Think of it this way: to say that a confirmed scientific theory should no longer be called a theory sounds as strange to a scientist as to say that a confirmed explanation should no longer be called an explanation. It just doesn't make sense.
Let me give you an example. The idea that complex living organisms are made up of cells is called The Cell Theory. This theory has actually been confirmed: we know there are cells in us. Yet, it's still called "The Cell Theory" because it still is and always will be a set of theorems that explain a phenomenon. The same goes for the Theory of Evolution.
Myth#2: There's no actual evidence for evolution
There's overwhelming evidence for evolution across a vast array of completely independent fields. At first, observations about similarities between species and the discovery of fossils were all we had. By now, however, the development of genetics, biochemistry, biogeography, artificial selection, mathematical modeling, and a number of other disciplines has provided more evidence which, taken together, have all but completely confirmed that evolutionary theory is correct.
Comparative sequence analysis in genetics, which examines and determines the DNA relationship across organisms and species, is alone sufficient to show that all living organisms on the planet share a common ancestor, especially when you take phylogenetic reconstruction into account.
Myth#3: Evolution is not actually observable
While it is true that we cannot directly observe macroevolution (as it takes thousands if not millions of years for it to happen), we can certainly observe its signs. For example, we have observed evolution actually take place at several labs by tracking how changes occur across several generations of tiny organisms with short life-spans.
We have also observed this kind of evolution when it comes to antibiotic resistance, as well as artificial breeding on many plants and animals. We know the mechanisms that produce evolution naturally in the long term. We can also observe and test the fossil record with incredible precision.
Myth#4: But... no one has found the "missing link"
This is a rather strange objection. I'm not sure what people mean when they claim we haven't found the missing link, in the sense that I have no idea what they would expect to find. In other words: what would it take for anti-evolutionists to consider a fossil the actual "missing link" they're demanding?
In fact, scientists have found millions of "missing links." Since evolution is a gradual process rather than sudden jumps between species, pretty much every fossil out there is a link from one evolutionary stage in a species to another. Homo habilis fossils are transitional links between Homo erectus and Australopithecus. Australopithecus fossils are, in turn, links between Ardipithecus and Homo habilis. And so on.
We actually have the complete chain from earlier apes to Homo sapiens (us), with all the links we need in between to understand this process.
Myth#5: The Theory of Evolution cannot make any predictions
One of the staples of true scientific theories is their ability to make predictions. So, if a theory isn't able to even begin predicting phenomena, it shouldn't be counted as a proper scientific theory in the first place—or so the idea goes. On this basis, many undermine the Theory of Evolution as a proper scientific theory, for what could evolutionary science possibly predict? Well, it can predict plenty of things, as it turns out.
Though the phenomenon of evolution is too complex to make accurate predictions over long periods of time (much like weather), evolutionary theory can and has made successful predictions on many levels. It has predicted that it would find transitional fossils, for example, and the rough locations for where these fossils should be. It has predicted that it would find (or wouldn't find) a certain kind of fossil on a specific geological layer. For instance, evolutionary science predicts no human fossils would be naturally found on the same layer as dinosaur fossils. If this prediction turned out to be false, and we did find human fossils next to an actual T-Rex, that would give us a strong reason to reject evolution as it stands now. But that hasn't happened.
Myth#6: Humans don't come from monkeys because monkeys still exist
This is perhaps one of the strangest, most ridiculous anti-evolution arguments out there. If you hear anyone ever use it, it's safe to assume that person has absolutely no understanding of evolution—or of lineages, for that matter.
Evolution doesn't actually claim that we are descended from the great apes we see today. Our ancestors were not chimpanzees or gorillas or any other primate species that's currently alive. We come from a completely different species whose descendants went their different ways. Some went on to become chimpanzees, and others, due to migrating to different environments, went on to become humans. So it's incorrect to say that chimpanzees are our ancestors. They are, rather, something more like our (very) distant cousins.
Myth#7: There's such a thing as "more evolved" organisms, and "more evolved" equals "better."
Some people think evolution invariably leads to greater complexity, but it's actually quite the opposite. Evolution tends to dispose of things that are redundant or needlessly complex. Complexity only arises when a mutation occurs that proves crucial for survival, or when the pressure of adaptation is so weak that organisms can get away with redundancies without dying off.
Many also somehow believe that "being evolved" means "being better." That's not how evolution works at all. Being evolved merely means being minimally fit for your specific environment, so it's not about progress—it's about circumstances.
Myth#8: Evolution cannot explain certain traits, such as homosexuality
There are some people who argue that if evolution were true, we would have no gay community at all. How would a homosexual gene that produced no offspring be selected for? How would homosexual organisms transmit their genes from generation to generation?
Well, as it turns out, there are many evolutionary mechanisms that explain how homosexuality arises in nature. Homosexual behavior has been observed in hundreds of species, so we know it's a common phenomenon. One example of a way it could be an inherited trait is passing your genes indirectly: families with gay members in the natural world tend to be more fit to reproduce than families without. This "good uncle" theory posits that organisms who are taken care of by homosexual family members in addition to their parents are more likely to survive, driving that family's genetic pool (which includes homosexuality) forward more successfully.
Myth#9: Accepting evolution has terrible moral consequences
No moral claim follows from evolution. Evolution is descriptive, which means it simply tells us how the world is. Morality is prescriptive, which means it tells us how the world ought to be. These are two completely separate realms. As philosopher David Hume famously postulated: you cannot derive an ought from an is. That humans often react violently, for example, doesn't mean that humans should often react violently.
Myth#10: Creationism is a viable alternative to evolution
Creationism is the belief that a single being, a "creator," deliberately produced all the variation we observe in the natural world. Creationists believe that species do not evolve, but are instead created as they are right from the beginning. They think species are purposely and intelligently "designed" according to a pre-established natural or even divine order, and they consider this to be a "theory" on the same standing as, if not better than, evolution.
This is not the case, though. Unlike the Theory of Evolution, creationism is not a proper scientific theory: it offers no actual explanation for how anything we observe came about. While the Theory of Evolution successfully outlines the mechanisms by which natural variation occurs, creationism says nothing about what sort of mechanisms would actually be involved in creation.
We understand the process of evolution, and scientists have a lot to say about it—including how to test and confirm it. Creationists can say nothing about the process of creation. In this sense, creationism doesn't actually explain anything, which in itself rules it out as an alternative explanation to evolutionary theory.
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