Larry Moran has a video up on his blog that first appeared at the Panda’s Thumb a few days ago, and after seeing it for myself I think I have to agree with Larry and PZ; I think it is likely to do more harm than good when it comes to educating others about evolution. Here’s the video itself;
Upon watching it, my first thought was that it seemed a bit vitalistic/finalistic in its approach. While it’s correct that members of a population vary from one another and certain ones survive and reproduce (while others do not), the video gives no reason for some individuals surviving and others perishing. Indeed, it seems like a program just picked a random number of a the assortment and carried on its equation over and over and over, and while this is likely to lead to change it’s not the way evolution actually works. Some traits are favored over others for different reasons, and even if you have a favored trait it doesn’t mean you’re not going to die prematurely or fail to leave any offspring. The video thus seems to present evolution as a vital force driving all organisms to change, but in reality not all organisms experience the same amounts of change at the same rates, making the video erroneous. The video also presents populations of a constant number over many generations, which we also know is inconsistent. Indeed, if we are to think of these as four populations in four different environments (remember, they’re presented as geographically and reproductively isolated) I doubt there would be a constant number for 800 generations.
Furthermore, while catastrophic events may be rare, I feel they important to evolution. Anytime a large population (or even entire taxa) becomes extinct, this changes the dynamics of the ecosystem and the most “fit” do not always survive. Surely some of the animals around the time of the K/T extinction were “fit” in their environments, but the impact in the Yucatan, activity of the Deccan Traps, and other factors likely caused too much change too fast, and rather than creatures adapting to the new pressures they were wiped out.
I also think it’s fairly obvious to point out that Homo sapiens did not evolve directly from chimpanzees, and so this video perpetuates the “We came from monkeys” mythology that is so prevalent today. They do get points for showing that the evolution does not orthogenic or work in a straight line, but even so it perpetuates a scientific myth (see my post on saber-toothed cats from yesterday).
In all, the main problem with the video is that it is not based on observations or evidence, but rather a hypothetical construct meant to make the process of evolution easier to understand. While I appreciate the attempts of the creators to help people grasp evolution, science should not have to be dumbed-down or oversimplified to get people to (as PZ points out) believe in it rather than really understand it. If we choose to overlook accuracy for accessibility, we’re not really being responsible and myths like “humans evolved from chimpanzees” and “saber-toothed cats died because their teeth were too big” will continue for decades to come (we already know this happens). This is perhaps why scientists find it so difficult to communicate with the public; at some point things can no longer be “watered” down and the viewer/audience is going to have to make some sort of intellectual investment to understand what’s happening. Evolution is not something that should be accepted as a belief or intuition or merely for lack of any other plausible idea, and trying to make it so would be utterly disastrous, potentially resurrecting the ideas of vitalism and finalism in science.
Simply put, if such a short video has enough problems with it both scientifically and philosophically for me to write for so long about it, it does more harm than good and I can’t say I would endorse it.