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Four Common Misunderstandings About Evolution

written by: Emma Lloyd•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 2/6/2013

Evolution is a commonly accepted fact for many people, whether or not they are religious. There are also many people who do not accept the theory. But some arguments against evolution are actually based on misconceptions about the process. This article rebuts four common misunderstandings.

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    Archaeopteryx There is, of course, a great deal of evidence which points to the truth of evolution. Evidence uncovered by Charles Darwin himself, evidence in the fossil record, and evidence based on modern-day observations of animal and plant species. Despite this, there are many who do not accept this theory for a variety of reasons, some of which include misunderstandings of what the theory of evolutions states.

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    Four Common Misconceptions

    The creation vs. evolution debate has raged ever since Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in November of 1859. Darwin himself concluded that “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved,” but many people at once resisted his ideas due to their contradictions of what people already believed about the creation of the universe and the origins of humanity.

    Critics called Darwin’s work and ideas ridiculous and sacrilegious, and many opponents of the evolutionary theory presented biblical quotes and scriptures as ‘evidence’ that Darwin’s theory could not be true. However, many of arguments against evolution actually stem from some very common misconceptions about the process.

    Misconception #1: Evolution has Never Been Observed

    This one is flat-out untrue. Evolution is simply a change in a species gene pool over time—and this can be observed in a variety of ways, all the time. One example of evolution is the development, in a species of insect, of a resistance to a pesticide over a period of several years.

    These are observable events, and these types of events are all that are required to produce the diversity of life which exists today—the only other requirement is time.

    Misconception #2: Evolution Violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics

    The second law of thermodynamics says, “No process is possible in which the sole result is the transfer of energy from a cooler to a hotter body.”

    What does this have to do with evolution? This law can be restated in another way, as “The entropy of a closed system cannot decrease.” This can further be misinterpreted to say that no closed system can proceed from disorder to order—or from a simple single-celled organism to a highly complex life form such as a human.

    However, the earth isn’t a closed system. The sun alone provides vast amounts of energy, meaning that a plant—which grows from a tiny seed—can grow and mature and end up with a great deal more energy than it started with.

    This argument is actually based on a misunderstanding about the second law of thermodynamics, which is actually more or less irrelevant here.

    Misconception #3: No Transitional Fossils have been Found

    A transitional fossil is one which appears to have characteristics from two different organisms—a little of A, and a little of B—and may have some characteristics which are midway between those of the two. Since “On the Origin of Species” was published, thousands of such fossils have been discovered, and to claim that none exist is simply false.

    The misconception lies in the way in which people think about species and categories of organisms. People define organisms in very rigid ways, believing that each category of animal has a very well-defined boundary, and in fact the opposite is true. A layperson looking at Archaeopteryx (image included) might say that ancient organism is 100% bird, but an evolutionary biologist, on the other hand, would see a transitional fossil which is a mixture of bird and reptile.

    Misconception #4: Evolution says life Originated by Chance

    Chance has, of course, played an important role in evolution—but chance, in the form of genetic mutations and variation, is only the raw material that evolution works with. The important point is natural selection and the ‘survival of the fittest’ concept which Charles Darwin outlined in his famous work.

    Chance provides genetic variation, but natural selection dictates which of those genetic variations will survive. And natural selection dictates that those variations which are beneficial (or even neutral) to an organism will survive. The evolution of human beings from single-celled organisms was in no way governed purely by chance.

    The origin of the first life—a process which has been dubbed abiogenesis—wasn’t exactly up to chance either. Atoms and molecules don’t align according to chance, but according to their chemical and physical properties. The spontaneous formation of complex molecules isn’t only possible, it’s probable. And the spontaneous formation of self-replicating molecules isn’t nearly as improbable as it seems. Given that there were such vast numbers of molecules floating in the primordial soup, it seems almost impossible that self-replicating molecules could not have spontaneously arisen.

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    These common misconceptions merely point to the fact that our understanding of evolution is incomplete, and that our collection of evidence for evolution is similarly incomplete. There is such a wealth of information which argues for evolution, in the fossil record and in evidence obtained in other scientific disciplines. I hope this article has helped you understand the process better.