Describe three common misconceptions about evolution.
Khalil Betz-Heinemann – SE302
Evolution of species as a scientific concept has evolved massively since it was laid out in Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859). However most of the key concepts outlined in it are still relevant today and although it is over 150 years since it was first published its basic principles are still misunderstood by many people, especially those from a non-scientific background. In this essay the basic misconceptions that exist as a product of the ignorance of a large part of humanity will not be looked at, but instead misconceptions of evolution that plague and are sometimes proliferated by the scientific community.
One of the basic double misconceptions that plagues’ the understanding of evolution is proliferated by the attitudes of major experts in the field of evolution and genetics. It is the result of misplaced anthropomorphism and as a consequence reductionism. At the very basis of science in general, is the struggle to break out of a view of the world that is based on seeing the world merely through the purely subjective human eye. Science is here to repetitively test this subjectivity thus creating ever more revelatory explanations of existence (Toulmin 1961: 99).
It is inherently a pre-scientific method of explanation to project human qualities upon the world around us and thus allow us to understand the why’s and how’s of our existence (Agassi 1968: 87). The most basic example of this is humanity’s creation of gods with human qualities that preside over us. Having gods can be a way of explaining the why and how of unexplainable occurrences (everything), thus creating a sense of personal meaning and a template for social cohesion (Schmidt 2001: 85).
There are two main anthropomorphic projections that have created this god concept, both of which go hand in hand. Initially the association of inexplicable occurrences (effects) with a cause happens. We then ask, ‘What is it that causes these effects?’ We look at what causes the biggest effects in our lives that we can comprehend. This is where the first anthropomorphic projection happens. ‘Ah, we say’, the causes for our effects/actions are emotion, thought, rationality and decision. We make this comparison because in order to explain the reasons for the inexplicable, we need to have a relatable context to explain them with e.g. our own reasons for doing things. As a knock-on effect the second anthropomorphic projection is then to assign this force to something, so we place this force within a context too, essentially we reduce it to what we can conceive as having the capability of partaking in these emotions and decisions; ourselves. Initially gods were attributed an animal context as they made more of an effect upon human existence, until human domination prevailed (Tylor 1958). So in this scenario if something happens that we can see no obvious natural cause for then we can say that a mega-human god is engaged in human-like emotion, such as anger, happiness etc… (Snyder 2009).
Hence causes and effects in the world are defined within a human context of activity.
Having relieved ourselves of gods and followed a scientific path to explain how we have ended up with the massive biodiversity among species and complex behaviour within species, we have
sometimes ended up turning the aforementioned anthropomorphic perspective on its head. That is to say, within a theistic perspective, we see the cause of effects to be a ‘something’ (god) infinitely large and all encompassing, yet like ourselves – a top down perspective – whereas now, we have allocated a basic unit from which evolution (as diversification of species) derives the cause for its effects; DNA.
However a bottom up perspective has been imposed using the same logic that gave us god; anthropomorphism and reductionism. Essentially now that we have our cause (DNA) we have sought to reduce this to what we see as the parts of the cause behind the effects of diversity among species and their respective behaviour; genes. It is when we come across issues such as emotions and social interaction and try to explain them as effects of this cause that ultimately the flaws are revealed within this bottom up perspective (as derived from the top down perspective). This leads us to revert in our explanations to anthropomorphism and so we have the selfish, altruistic, competitive etc… gene.
This is a collection of major misconceptions for the simple scientific reason that we know genes are singular molecular entities that must interact in a highly complex fashion with each other to have an effect. It is not these individual units in themselves that ‘competitively proliferate’ but essentially the resultant patterns of interaction between them that undergo selective pressure. Essentially it is the pattern between genes, best fitted to the environmental pattern that will not cease to exist. It is the patterns that don’t fit that revert to a random pool of mutations and genetic material, which evolution merely brings into play when they can interact successfully within a genetic pattern most fitted to its environment. Genes are merely a medium within which natural selection can function, where different patterns continuously reconfigure into different ways to fit together. Therefore we cannot use reductionism to reduce behaviours to genes or anthropomorphism to compare our behaviour to genetic activities.
Additionally the study of kinship across the globe shows that genetic relatedness is not the underlying reason for reciprocal altruism between family members, as kinship is not measured
merely in genetic relatedness (Madsen 2007). To summarise all of the above is to show that Hamilton’s rule (1963) isn’t a rule, when it comes to human’s at least. This therefore has a knock on effect in undermining Dawkin’s ‘The Selfish Gene’ which postulates that altruism by a phenotype is essentially selfishness on the part of their genes (1976).
It can be seen that a misplaced anthropomorphic and reductionist perspective has been handed down from Pauline Christianity to Gene-centric Reductionism. An additional misconception arises in both due to the same reasoning; Anthropocentricity. This is the view of evolution as a process of improvement from start to present, with human being’s at the pinnacle (Auger 1980). This is a complete misconception due to a fundamental of evolutionary science; natural selection.
As environmental changes are not a continuous linear event with a direction, neither is evolution. This is due to the fact that species that happen to have the right adaptations for specific environments survive and even if they do dominate the landscape another major environmental change, which they cannot survive will cause them to become extinct or selectively cause them to adapt into a different species. However as environmental change is discontinuous so are the species that survive. Though as time does pass, the one thing that does increase is the amount of available genetic patterns (McVean 2005), allowing for more complexity over time, giving evolution the appearance of having constant direction.
Nevertheless human’s, like any other species, are merely a twig that happened like many other very successful species (Darwin 1871), to grow on the tree of species diversity and
have used their particular specialised adaptations to make use of the environment at the present time.
- Agassi, J. (1968). ‘Anthropomorphism in Science’ in P.P. Wiener Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. New York: Scribner.
- Auger, P. (1980). Contemporary Anthropocentricism: On Science and Traditional Cultures. Leonardo by Cultures.Pergamon Press, vol.13 pg 223-228.
- Darwin, C. R. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray.
- Darwin, C. R. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex, 1st ed. John Murray: London.
- Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press: New York Press
- Hamilton, W. D. (1963). The evolution of altruistic behavior. American Naturalist, 97: 354–356.
- Madsen, E. A. et al (2007). Kinship and altruism: A cross-cultural experimental study. The British Journal of Psychology, vol.98 no.2 339-359.
- McVean G et al. (2005). Perspectives on human genetic variation from the HapMap Project. PLoS Genetics, 1(4):e54.
- Schmidt, F. (2001). How the temple thinks: identity and social cohesion in ancient Judaism. Sheffield: Academic Press.
- Snyder, J. (2009) & Anderson H. T. (translated 1861). Codex Sinaiticus: The New Testament in English. Translated from the Sinaitic Manuscript Discovered by Constantine Tischendorf at Mt. Sinai. Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Company.
- Toulmin, S. (1961). Foresight and Understanding: An Enquiry into the Aims of Science, chapter 6, pg 99. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
- Tylor, E. B. (1958). Religion in Primitive Culture (Part II of Primitive Culture). New York: Harper & Brothers.