Paul studied the philosophy of science at Leicester University and is passionate about evolution. UK born, he now lives in Florida.
Charles Darwin's Revolutionary Theory
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, revolutionized our understanding of life on Earth and the place of humans within it. Without a doubt, it was one of the greatest leaps in scientific understanding ever made, even if some people are still struggling with the radical ideas contained within its pages.
I’ve been fascinated by evolution and natural selection ever since I first encountered Charles Darwin’s scientific ideas over forty years ago in a school biology class. Since then, I’ve been passionate about evolutionary science.
Unfortunately, it’s very common to see and hear misconceptions about evolution and natural selection, particularly online. It can irritate me greatly, to be honest, especially as the core basics are essentially not all that complicated.
7 Common Mistaken Beliefs People Have About Evolution and Natural Selection
The following list presents 7 of the most common and persistent misconceptions people hold regarding the theory of evolution and mechanism of natural selection.
1. Charles Darwin was the first scientist to propose that species evolve
In Darwin’s time, the idea that animals change over time and that say, a modern giraffe has a longer neck than its ancestors, was not a new one and evolution was widely discussed.
The radical idea that Darwin came up with was natural selection, the mechanism by which the change occurs.
2. Evolution is a theory about the origins of life
Darwin himself never published anything about the beginnings of life, although he did speculate about it in private. His theory of evolution was not concerned with how the first life formed, but rather with how and why existing life changes.
Serious scientific research into the origins of life didn’t begin in earnest until the 1950’s, initially focused on the idea that life began in the ocean. While modern evolutionary theory does include some speculation on the origins of life, the vast majority of modern evolutionary studies are still focused on how life has changed since it began.
3. Humans aren’t currently evolving
Some people believe that because modern humans can alter their environment through, for example, medical treatments, agricultural methods, and economic provisions, this stops us from evolving. While it’s true that this can significantly alter the challenges to humans regarding reproduction and survival, it doesn’t remove them.
While modern humans have reduced some of the traditional challenges, others have increased. For instance, living in densely populated cities means that we are now more exposed to epidemic diseases than our early hunter-gatherer ancestors, who rarely encountered large numbers of people.
4. Animals are purposefully trying to adapt to their environment
Many people seem to believe that animals are deliberately using evolution to adapt to their environment. While natural selection does have the effect of the adaption of a species over time, there is no purposeful effort happening. Evolutionary change is not influenced by animals trying for, or wanting something.
Natural selection is enabled by genetic variation. This results in some variants being able to leave more offspring than others. It’s important to note that this variation is brought about by random mutation, not be any particular “will” or “purposefulness” generated by an organism. Achieving the right genes for a particular environment cannot, therefore, be done deliberately by an animal.
5. Humans and other animals are progressing, getting better and better over time
I suspect that this issue comes in part from how the word “evolving” is used in a colloquial sense to be mean “becoming better”. However, evolution in the scientific sense is all about adaption, which doesn’t necessarily conform with the everyday idea of better.
For sure, evolution does often result in animals gaining improved abilities to survive and reproduce. However, sometimes, “good enough” suffices and there are many species that have remained more or less the same over huge expanses of time.
It’s important to remember that evolution doesn’t develop in a linear way. The car sticker that shows an ape going through different forms before becoming a modern human might lead some to think that evolution has a particular direction of movement.
The reality is that there is genetic variation and this is generated by random mutation. Evolution is not moving in any particular direction and has no overall plan, its development is related only to what works for survival and reproduction.
6. Humans are descended from monkeys
This misconception was spread around in Darwin’s day and even used to mock the scientist, with caricatures printed showing a monkey with Darwin’s head. However, it’s based on a misinterpretation of evolutionary theory.
While it’s true that chimpanzees are close relatives and share a similar genetic sequence, the scientific evidence all points to humans having common ancestors with monkeys and apes. These ape-like creatures roamed the Earth around seven million years ago and were neither monkeys nor humans.
7. Evolution and Christianity are completely incompatible
While this can be a controversial issue and one will find both religious and secular voices that argue that evolution and religion are incompatible, I don’t believe that to be the case.
Generally speaking, the natural sciences and religion deal with different realms. Science concerns itself with natural causes for natural phenomena, whereas religion is focused on beliefs that are beyond the natural world.
While science might inform on issues such as morality in a purely factual way, the purpose of science is not to push any particular moral code, whereas Christianity has some specific ideas on human ethics. Evolution is not any form of moral code, it’s an explanation for how life on Earth changes over time.
While there are some Christians who reject evolution, most Christians around the world accept it. There are many devoutly religious scientists who actively promote evolution as a way of achieving a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural world.
It’s also important to note that, as stated in #1, Darwinian evolution is about the changes in life since it began, it’s not an origin of life theory. Mixing up the two, as if they are interchangeable, is a mistake.
Common Misconceptions About Evolution
The Evidence for Evolution and Natural Selection
While some of the finer points of evolutionary science can be complex and difficult when studied at an academic level, just understanding the main principles of natural selection shouldn’t be that hard. I am not a biologist myself, I studied the philosophy of science, but I believe that the average person is capable of grasping the essentials of natural selection.
A central problem appears to be that, for some people at least, the essential ideas of natural selection laid out by Charles Darwin can seem counterintuitive. Perhaps this shouldn’t be such a huge surprise, as the theory wasn’t universally accepted by scientists for many decades.
Darwin reached his conclusions regarding evolution through a number of means, including observation and the collection of physical evidence. While his ideas flew in the face of the established ideas of some of his contemporaries, they were eventually accepted as the only feasible explanation for the changes seen in organisms over time.
In the one hundred and sixty years since Darwin first published his theory of evolution, no physical evidence has been presented that contradicts the core science behind natural selection.
Myths and Misrepresentations of Evolution and Natural Selection
This article deals with some of the misconceptions and mistakes that I’ve often seen people make with regard to evolution and natural selection.
There’s a myth among secularists, particularly in the U.S., that misinterpretations of evolutionary theory happen purely with Christians who have a literal interpretation of the bible, but my experience is that mistakes can be made by non-believers, too.
Sadly, there are some nefarious people around who deliberately misrepresent the theory. This article assumes that people are acting in good faith and actually want to understand evolution, but maybe weren’t taught well at school, or they misremember it, or they’ve read a poor quality source of information online.
References and Further Reading
- Evolutionary thought before Darwin | Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Charles Darwin’s hunch about early life was probably right | BBC Future
- Understanding evolution | Berkeley University of California
- What does it mean to be human? | Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
- Evidence Darwin had for evolution | ThoughtCo.
© 2021 Paul Goodman
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on October 01, 2021:
Paul, very good analysis. You have very clearly removed some of the misconceptions from our minds. Thanks for posting such a well researched article.
John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on October 01, 2021:
What a great article Paul. Unfortunately, as you state, there have been far too many misconceptions spread (and accepted) regarding evolution and natural selection. This has led to countless debate, often between Christians and scientists, with really little foundation. Darwin in fact had quite a strong Christian upbringing and he did not propose how life begun. Many now accept that “creation” and “natural selection” can co-exist. Thank you for breaking it down to the basics and making it much clearer for many.