A False Start

by James Morris

How much do you know about evolution? Take the following quiz to find out.

This week was the start of the semester at Brandeis and many other colleges. On the first day of a class on evolution, I began by asking the students a series of questions to try to get them curious about what we will be studying together. Then I shifted gears and asked the students to close their notebooks, take out a pencil and sheet of paper, and answer seven true-false questions about evolution.

This had a chilling effect in the classroom – a pop-quiz on the first day? But I had something entirely else in mind.

Here is the quiz. Try it for yourself before reading the answers.

For each of the following statements, indicate whether it is true (T) or false (F).
_____ Humans evolved from chimpanzees.
_____ Natural selection is the only mechanism of evolution.
_____ Evolution explains how life originated.
_____ The leaves changing color in the fall is an example of evolution.
_____ As living things evolve, they become more complex.
_____ By far, the most diverse group of organisms are mammals.
_____ If you compressed the history of life on Earth into 60 seconds, you would see the
first humans at 55 seconds.

Ready for the answers? Here they are:

For each of the following statements, indicate whether it is true (T) or false (F).
__F__ Humans evolved from chimpanzees.
__F__ Natural selection is the only mechanism of evolution.
__F__ Evolution explains how life originated.
__F__ The leaves changing color in the fall is an example of evolution.
__F__ As living things evolve, they become more complex.
__F__ By far, the most diverse group of organisms are mammals.
__F__ If you compressed the history of life on Earth into 60 seconds, you would see the
first humans at 55 seconds.

As you can see, it turns out that none of these is true; they are all false. In fact, these are common misconceptions that many of us have about evolution. How did you do?

I didn’t actually grade the quizzes, or even collect the answers. But that moment of fear that we all feel when a pop-up quiz is announced had a real effect: Students took it very seriously, and then were surprised to learn that they too carry around these at least some of these misconceptions.

Let’s consider each in turn.

  • Humans evolved from chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees are the closest living relatives of humans. What this means is that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor, and that this ancestor lived more recently than the common ancestor of humans and any other organism, about 5-7 million years ago. However, we didn’t evolve from chimpanzees, since chimpanzees are alive and well today.

This slip of the tongue reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that evolution works. It would be like saying that you are descended from your cousin, when in fact you both share a common ancestor – your grandparents.

  • Natural selection is the only mechanism of evolution.

This one is a bit more complicated. Most of us understand that natural selection is a mechanism of evolution. There is variation; some of this variation is passed on to the next generation; and some of this heritable variation gives organisms a slight edge in terms of survival and reproduction. The result is that populations change and organisms become better adapted over time.

However, natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolutionary change. In the early 1900s, Godfrey Hardy and Wilhelm Weinberg independently recognized that the genetic make-up of a population tends to stay the same under certain conditions and therefore evolution occurs when these conditions are not met. There are five of these conditions (and therefore five mechanisms of evolution).

Selection, it turns out, is just one of the five. The genetic make-up of a population can also change, for example, due to chance over time. But selection is particularly important, and receives most of the attention, because only selection results in adaptations, the close fit between an organism and its environment.

  • Evolution explains how life originated.

How did life begin on Earth? This is a question fraught with uncertainty. How did life evolve once there was life? This is much better understood.

The two questions are both interesting, both the subject of lots of research. But the questions (and the answers) are fundamentally different. The reason is that the processes by which we get life from non-life are not the same by which life changes over time. However, by conflating the two, it makes it seem that our understanding of evolution is just as uncertain as our understanding of origin of life. It’s not.

  • The leaves changing color in the fall is an example of evolution.

Most people realize that leaves changing color in the fall is change but not evolution. However, many popular visualizations of evolution show changes occurring in an individual over time, just like the leaves of a tree. There is a well-known Guinness advertisement showing three people at a London pub taking a sip of beer and then morphing backwards over time until they are fish (mudskippers, to be exact), ending with the line, “Good things come to those who wait.”

And Homer Simpson goes forward through the entire history of life, from a single-celled organism to a human, while staying unmistakably Homer. Marge asks, as Homer finally arrives on the couch, “What took you so long?”

These are fun, but problematic. Evolution by natural selection, as conceived by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, is a theory about populations, not individuals. In other words, populations change over time, and this change is evolution. Individuals may or may not change over time. But, either way, this change is not evolution because, for the most part, these changes are not passed down to the next generation.

What’s next?

  • As living things evolve, they become more complex.

This one is based on the erroneous, but stubborn, idea of evolution as progress. Evolution doesn’t proceed toward a goal and doesn’t make organisms “better” than they were. Natural selection leads to adaptations. And, as environments change, so do organisms. In addition, there are many examples of reversals in evolution. For example, cave-dwelling mammals lose eyes and the ability to see, and marine mammals lose limbs.

  • By far, the most diverse group of organisms are mammals.

Mammals are familiar to us, but are not the most diverse group of organism in terms of number of species. That prize goes to the insects, and specifically to beetles. There are perhaps 5,500 species of mammals that have been named, compared to about a million species of insects. Among the insects, fully half are beetles. So beetles make up a quarter of all named species on Earth! This is why J. B. S. Haldane, when asked about what he learned about the creator after a lifetime of study, quipped, “He must have had an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Finally,

  • If you compressed the history of life on Earth into 60 seconds, you would see the first humans at 55 seconds.

Modern humans arrived late in the history of life on Earth. Very late. First life evolved about 4 billion years ago, and modern humans about 200,000 years ago. If the history of life were compressed into 60 seconds, we wouldn’t even have a second time.

How can we unseat strong misconceptions that many of us hold? In The Unschooled Mind, Harvard professor Howard Gardner found that schooling often does little to budge misconceptions that are in place before school starts. He famously asked students schooled in science seemingly simple questions such as what causes the seasons or the phases of the moon, and found that they often reverted to explanations that were in place as five-year-olds.

One way to have students literally sit up and pay attention is to surprise them with a pop-quiz that forces them to confront these misconceptions head on. But the mind is powerful and tends to seek simple ways to understand the world around us over more complicated or subtle ones.

So it’s a bit of an uphill battle. Against gravity, which we can’t see, even though we see its effects everywhere, everyday.

Just like evolution.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2015

4 thoughts on “A False Start

  1. Emily Koch

    Perfect! I love your last point– that the mind seeks simple ways to understand the world around us over more complicated or subtle ones.

    Reply
  2. Sam Richardson

    I noticed that the interactive quiz you mentioned is posted here: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/01/25/pop-quiz-on-evolution/
    It received many comments, which are fun to read. Unfortunately, it looks like you were left out of the conversation. That’s odd, as some of the comments are directed to you. I am glad to see you were able to provide context toward the end of the comments, though it’s a bit like coming late to your own party, isn’t it? It is relatively easy (predictable?) to encourage people to poke at the questions. No wonder evolutionary biologists have trouble getting their message across (see, for example, Randy Olson’s excellent documentary Flock of Dodos). It’s interesting that some of the readers found a couple of the questions ambiguous. Honestly, they are common misconceptions, phrased in a fairly typical way, if you don’t mind my saying (see Zimmer and Emlen, Evolution-Making Sense of Life). I like what you asked at the end – how do you get students to sit up and realize they hold misconceptions? That’s definitely a more interesting challenge than nitpicking an online quiz.

    Reply
    1. James Morris Post author

      Yes, but the good news is that the site brought a lot of attention to the quiz – it was taken something like 48,000 times. This means that there were a lot of people thinking about and discussing evolution, which is wonderful.

      Reply

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