Evolution for idiots or idiotic evolution?

6 04 2007

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.


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3 responses

7 04 2007
thunderfoot

I think u r missing the point.

evolution vs creationism isnt a scientific battle, its a PR battle.

The creationist target people with no scientific education. If you say, well im not gonna dumb this down such than an idiot can understand it, you dont have to be a great strategist to realise you will never reach the target audience.

Damn straight I knew exactly what i was doing when i made this vid. I could have included the code, the genetic drift fitness and all sorts of other shit, but the target audiance wouldnt have understood a word.

Get with the programme! this is not a scientific debate among academic peers, you are not trying to win the hearts and minds of scientists, you are trying to win the hearts and minds of idiots with no scientific understanding.

7 04 2007
thunderfoot

let me follow on by saying that there really arnt that many photos from 1 million years ago.

Creationist make a big song and dance about ‘the only evidence that we came from primates is imaginary drawings’.

Taking these two factors into account I did the best I could.

This is not a scientific paper, its 2 mins of vid.
I could have made it explicit, but then it would not have reached the target audience.

Its like bein critical of those vids where one animal morphs into another cos evolution works over multiple generations, no one creature changing.

7 04 2007
Laelaps

[…] Evolution for idiots or idiotic evolution? […]

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