Evolution by natural selection is the amazing, vast, but surprisingly simple mechanism that explains the magnificent diversity of life on Earth. That’s why I love it. But through no fault of their own, so many people absorb misinformation about evolution in daily life, in and out of the classroom. I believe that evolution is a phenomenon which is only not accepted when it’s not understood. Even worse, many of us know it to be true, but don’t know enough about it to be able to defend it against someone who’s been wrongly taught about it.
That’s where this post will help. The good news is that most of the misunderstandings about evolution boil down to a handful of different objections which can be easily corrected with the right context. As you apply this advice in the real world, keep in mind that most people don’t choose to be misinformed. If you are polite and gracious in your explanation, it will go a long way.
1. Evolution is just a theory.
The difficulty with most of these misunderstandings is that they come with a nugget of truth. Evolution is a theory. The problem is that it’s not the kind of theory that you might hear about in everyday conversation, like proposing a theory that two of your coworkers are dating. In that context, a theory is more like a guess. In all honesty, the fact that the same word is used to describe guesses in one context and scientific facts in another context is unfortunate. In science, a “theory” is “the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge,” because this knowledge has been acquired through a precise testing process using the scientific method. Learn more.
|Term in everyday language||Equivalent in scientific language|
|Explanation for observation||Theory|
2. Evolution can’t be observed, predicted, or disproven with the scientific method.
Let’s face it. Evolution is complicated because it isn’t as cut and dry as the laws of physics or chemistry. Most of the evidence for evolution can’t be observed in a lab experiment. But it can be observed; you just have to know where to look.
Evolution is so expansive that the methods of observing it, predicting it, and gaining evidence are all over the place. (Literally.) There is evidence in the fossil record, plate tectonics, molecular biology, physical morphology, genetics, and the list goes on. All of these fields of science operate differently. So it’s a good thing that the evidence is so strong in each individual field that most of them would be convincing on their own.
My personal favorite is fossils. We can’t watch fossils form because it takes much longer than a human lifetime. But we can certainly use them to make predictions. Using the fossils we already have and knowing their ages, scientists can make predictions on where to look for specific fossils, if they were to exist. They have actually made predictions like this before and found them to be correct; famously, Charles Darwin used the fact that there are so many populations of apes in Africa to hypothesize that the earliest humans originated there, and decades later when the first fossils were found, he was proven true.
It’s worth noting that if those scientists had not found the fossil in the place they had predicted, evolution would not have been disproven. It would be disproven if we were to discover a fossil of a species in a layer that specifically contradicts the time and place its species was known to have lived. But this has never happened. And even if it did, part of why evolution is so cool is that our understanding of it changes as we learn more and different aspects of it are proven and disproven. Learn more.
3. There are too many missing links between species.
Speaking of fossils, it is pretty common to hear that there are no transitional fossils between species and it even might appear that they are immutably different. Admittedly, this is the objection that I can sympathize with the least. Anyone who tells you that we don’t have transitional fossils is either misinformed or lying. The transitional fossils and species are there. (However, I don’t like to think of them as just transitional species, because they did not exist solely to bridge together the species coming before and after them. They were legitimate species in their own right.)
For ancient human species, for example, it’s amazing that we have as many fossils as we do. In order for a fossil to form, the conditions have to be just right. Normally, the organism has to die in a location where the ground is soft enough that it will mold around the remains in a sort of natural cast. The best environment for this is the sea floor, which is why we have so many fossils of aquatic creatures that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. So the fact that we have any fossils linking Homo sapiens back to our common ancestors with chimpanzees can sometimes feel miraculous. Learn more.
4. There’s no way that humans evolved from apes.
So we have the fossils that link humans back to apes, but the idea of an ape giving birth to a human might sound ridiculous. That’s understandable. Even crazier is the fact that it happens every day. This is because humans are apes. You’re an ape (and I mean that in the nicest way possible). But if someone has given you this objection, that’s obviously not what they mean.
When we think about Homo sapiens evolving from apes, this is a simplified version of the truth. First of all, the thing to always keep in mind when thinking about evolution is that it takes a long time. Scientists have found that our common ancestor with chimpanzees lived roughly seven million years ago. For reference, Homo sapiens in our current form have only been around for about 200,000 years. Civilization has only been around for about 20,000 years.
We have a lot of fossils of the various ape-like and human-like species that have lived in this time. And through these finds, we’ve come to realize that there never was a linear progression from a stooping ape to a tall-standing human. The human family tree is more of a bush with dozens of branches; throughout almost its entire history, there have been at least two species of human living at once and evolving to fill the new niches created as the Earth’s climate underwent massive changes. We happen to be living in what is a relatively recent stage of Homo sapiens being the only human species alive. Learn more.
5. Microevolution is true, but not macroevolution.
It might be easier to grasp the relation between humans and chimps, but not so much humans and fish or trees. A lot of people can accept this idea of microevolution—change within a single population—but are more skeptical toward macroevolution—change that transcends the boundaries of a single population. In other words, we can see how you might get from Point A to Point B, but not from Point A to Point Z. Well, it is actually pretty simple: one point at a time. Or in evolutionary terms, one mutation, one generation at a time. Given the 3.5 billion years that life has been evolving on Earth, enough small changes have happened that we have what scientists estimate to be around nine million species. Microevolution and macroevolution are really the same thing (and they work in exactly the same way), but one shows more varied results because it takes place over a much longer period of time. Learn more.
6. We don’t know how evolution got started.
When it comes to science, one of the first things you have to learn to do is say “I don’t know.” Discussing the origins of life is a great place to practice this. Scientists have plenty of hypotheses, but we don’t know for sure how the first organic molecules originated billions of years ago. However, this doesn’t actually affect the truth of evolution. The origin of life is a mystery whether you believe in evolution or any other model of origins. Learn more.
7. Evolution is a controversial topic among scientists.
In a niche sector of society where pseudoscience meets religious fundamentalism live people called creationists. I call it pseudoscience simply because it qualifies under the very definition of pseudoscience: beliefs that claim to be scientific, often using scientific terms, but either are not scientific or even flatly contradict the findings of science. One of the ways that these creationists try to disguise themselves as scientists is by claiming that their pseudoscience is equally as viable as evolution, which is backed up by evidence. If you’ve ever gotten the impression that the scientific community is conflicted between accepting evolution or creationism, that lie is the handiwork of these creationists. In fact, evolution is accepted as scientific fact almost unanimously within the scientific community. Learn more.
8. Eyes could not have evolved, because there’s no use in half an eye.
While I’m on the topic of creationists, I’ll address in this point and the next objections that creationists are famous for posing. The idea that some features of organisms or cells that can only exist in their “most completely evolved” form is known as irreducible complexity. It can seem like a complicated idea, but any example can be debunked in the same way. So when someone says “there’s no use in half an eye,” they are wondering how eyes could have slowly evolved because they’re only useful when they’re, well, complete. This objection to evolution is especially popular thanks to a Darwin quote about the eye taken out of context. But whether it’s an eye, a wing, a flagellar motor, or a mousetrap, even contraptions that consist of various parts put together can be creatively repurposed and used for something else. Learn more.
9. Evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
This is another common creationist trope. It goes like this: The Second Law of Thermodynamics “states that as energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it is wasted. The Second Law also states that there is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.” It’s why things deteriorate over time until you interfere to fix them or why, when you drop something and it shatters, you can’t put it back to how it was before. Thus, say the creationists, life on Earth should not be getting more complex with time but rather organic matter should be descending into chaos. The response to this is actually pretty easy: this law only applies in isolated systems. The Earth is not an isolated system, because it has outside energy entering the system. That energy comes from—you guessed it—the Sun. It’s constantly adding more energy into the system of life on Earth by feeding the cells of the plants that hold up the entire food chain. Learn more.
10. Social Darwinism is racist.
One more thing that is used as an evolutionary “Gotcha” is the idea that the whole thing is racist. This one is complicated because again, there is some truth behind it, but it is a stretch to apply this to the idea of evolution by natural selection. First, Darwin was racist. Plain and simple. But as I refute this dismissal of evolution, I will take any conflation of evolution with Darwin-worship along with it: evolution is true no matter who first proposed it. Part of science is growing beyond the archaic beliefs of even those past scientists whose ideas yours are built upon.
Second, social Darwinism is applying the ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest where they don’t belong. A scientific fact being true in biology doesn’t necessarily make it ethical to do yourself in society. Eugenics is when people want to take it upon themselves to control who should or should not reproduce in order to create children who fit their preferences. Anyone who calls evolution racist at its face is conflating the truth of evolution with either the beliefs of its popularizer or its unethical misapplication in eugenics. We now know that racism is pseudoscience at its worst. Learn more.
Obviously, explaining the theory of evolution by means of natural selection is a massive undertaking, but I hope that at least setting the record straight on these misunderstandings can help you to begin learning about it yourself. The “Learn more” link at the end of each section goes into more depth on each of them, hopefully without being overwhelmingly technical. If there is anything you think I could explain further, please let me know in the comments!