New comic about evolution and natural selection

October 17, 2013 • 9:54 am

Matthew Cobb, who manages to find interesting stuff despite researching, teaching, and being at Dean at Manchester, sent me a link to a new comic that explains evolution and natural selection to young folks.  It might just be the ticket for the many people who ask me about resources for teaching evolution to kids.

On his website, Daryl Cunningham Investigates, he’s put the entire chapter on evolution and selection online; it will be part of his upcoming comic Science Stories. I’ve read it and it’s quite good. I didn’t spot any errors, although he does claim that criticism of the peppered moth story, in which I participated, was made by people who claimed it was a hoax.  Some creationists did, as did Judith Hooper in her execrable book on the subject, but several of us simply thought the original moth-predation experiments were poorly designed and not truly convincing. Those have now been redone, and I’m satisfied that the moth-color selection story is a good one.

Beyond that quibble, it’s a good comic, though perhaps a bit advanced for those below, say, ten years old.  You might want to read it with your kids.  It gives the evidence for evolution based on all the stuff I talk about in my book (embryology, fossil record, imperfect design, etc), although, sadly, it leaves out biogeography.  And there’s a good explanation of natural selection.

Here are three panels, but there’s a lot more.  If you have kids who want to learn about evolution, this might be a good place to start.

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35 thoughts on “New comic about evolution and natural selection

    1. Caught my eye, too. Though…it might actually be the right word in this situation. It’s a pretty safe bet that even modern protozoans are much more sophisticated than their ancient brethren.

      I think the problem might come when comparing across species. I might not be okay with a statement that E. coli is more primitive than F. catus, but I don’t think that’s a problem when comparing F. peregrinus with Archaeopteryx.

      It would probably help, though to point out that “more primitive” does not at all necessarily mean “incapable” or “incompetent” or anything like that. Many primitive organisms were still quite sophisticated — just not as sophisticated as their surviving descendants.

      Still, I wouldn’t argue with an edit that tweaked the verbiage….



      1. I would be willing to bet that modern protozoans are no more sophisticated than their ancient brethren. (I’m even more willing because there’s no way to settle the bet.) I don’t even think Archaeopteryx is less sophisticated than a modern bird, just adapted to a different lifestyle. There’s no reason to believe that evolution is progressive, a point that Darwin himself made. “Primitive” does have a technical meaning, but we usually try to avoid the word because of its everyday connotations.

        1. I’d take you up on that bet.

          Which would you rather do: hold a chicken infected with the latest strain of H1N1, or hold our last common ancestor with the chicken infected with the corresponding ancestor of H1N1? Conversely, how well do you think the human / chicken LCA would do if exposed to modern H1N1?

          Perhaps at a gross anatomical level the differences in sophistication might not be so significant…but, even then, I’d bet that there’s a damned good chance that modern bones and muscles are stronger, lighter, and have better endurance and recuperative abilities than their ancestral counterparts.

          Of course, this all applies only to geological timescales. I don’t think you’ll find significant differences in sophistication between a modern elephant and a wooly mammoth, for example.



  1. “…just a theory…” I think it is time for the “general public” to have some definitions of what we talk about.

    Starting with this: Theory vs. Hypothesis

    Giving the public this neat cartoon is a good and commendable idea, but terms need to be comparable between both the science community and the general reader.

    1. Or, for most people: Theory vs. W.A.G., which is how most people (in the US) use the owrd theory: My theory is that we need to replace our coach to win more games.

      No intersection with the scientific use of the word at all.

      1. hypothesis, hypothesis, hypothesis….

        This needs to always be emphasized, and theory given its place as the final end point, when all hypotheses have been considered and cast aside, until the only hypothesis left get elevated to a theory.

  2. To a systematist, there are problems, some of which (“relationship between humans and apes”, “more primitive species”) have already been mentioned. The idea that we can or should be able to identify lineages in the fossil record is perhaps the worst. Phylogenetic analysis by overall similarity is pretty bad too.

    I also take exception that a good theory has to make predictions. I think it just has to explain data better than alternatives, and survive new data.

    1. But if there are two models that explain the current data equally well, testing their respective predictions is a way of finding the better one: It gives you an idea of what new data you should be looking for.


      1. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with predictions. My point is that a good theory doesn’t necessarily make them.

        1. But it’s a stronger test of a model to first new data to what was predicted than to “accommodate” new data.

          A good theory doesn’t necessarily make them.

          A better theory does. See David Deutsch on this.


        2. A theory that doesn’t make predictions is sort of useless, wouldn’t you say? Think of poor old string theory, which has soaked up endless man-years of physicists’ time and has yet to produce any testable prediction.

          Indeed, Karl Popper’s definition of a scientific theory as one that can be disproved (if only in principle) pretty well demands that a scientific theory make predictions of some sort.

          And as for this: “The idea that we can or should be able to identify lineages in the fossil record is perhaps the worst” I can only say “don’t be ridiculous”. When fossilized remains of contemporary species are investigated some millions of years down the road, the paleontologists of the day will notice that two visually almost identical mice can be clearly assigned to different clades, solely on the basis of skeletal features. There are some species of mouse-like critters (voles? shrews?) that can only be distinguished from real mice by examining their skeletons.

  3. As to the nature of a good scientific hypothesis, I tend to follow Sir Karl Popper.

    I suppose substituting plesiomorphic for primative wouldn’t really help ot that much.

    As a learned colleague commented, “A difference is really a difference. A similarity is only a similarity.”

  4. Poor author. What a picky audience.

    Just where does one start when trying to reduce complex issues to comic format? I suppose he could go all Sokal with footnotes…

  5. Dean Cobb, I would suggest avoiding the term “countless”, as it harkens back to some of the Brazilian tribes that count to six, eight, then everything else is “many”….or, “countless”.

    Part of the non-acceptance, IMHO, of evolution is the result of the incredibly large numbers involved in the process of evolution. Typically, people cannot process large numbers unless they have used them on so, so, many occasions.

    I can no longer reference an article in Science News I read in the last five years, but I found it extremely illustrative of the difficulty of envisioning large numbers. A simple maze that the average person could solve in less than a minute was presented to program that could “learn”, that is, it could make use of past failures to solve the maze, and eventually it solved the maze. But it took the program some 10,000 attempts!! 10,000 attempts for a maze that that might take us sixty seconds to solve. But the number “10,000” is probably a small number of generations to go through before going from land animal to whale, etc. But 10,000 is a huge number of generations. Yet it is more accessible to our powers of reason than saying, “…over the course of sixty million years…”.

    Research papers evaluating aspects of evolution number in (silly wild-ass guess) the tens of thousands. Instead of “countless” it might be better to say something akin to “Since 1900, well over 110 years, forty scientific papers per month have tested the tenets of evolution, and have reinforced its validity.” (<<< too long for a comic strip!)

    1. Good thing so many of us here know how someone else could be doing something better.

      (General comment, aimed not just at you.)

      BTW, this strip is not by Matthew Cobb.

    2. You want the comic strip to be precise yet you don’t hold yourself to that standard. You’ve noted one problem yourself, that you are unable to condense your thought into a comic ready form. Also, I found it amusing that you insinuate an average generation to be 6,000 years, now that is a huge course of time between birth and average production of offspring.

      If a christian could be brought from their current state to the level that the comic demonstrates, I’d be overjoyed and damned proud that a species of christian was able to rise above its expected competence threshold.

  6. “it leaves out biogeography” – that is a pity as it is really the understanding of continental drift that finally illuminated how species spread & speciate in the mid 20th C. A good example I just came across is Derek Wragge Morley’s The Ant World from 1953,
    where he has to show land-bridges to explain the spread & speciation of ants. By the late 60s that was just out of date. Biogeography was a particular area Wallace contributed to a good deal of course.

    1. You should read Wallace’s Island Life, which I finally got to recently. He comprehensively shits all over ‘Lemuria’ and all those other land bridges (in pretty much the same terms as he does on creationism), in a classic example of how wrong things got in the early 20th century compared to the previous one.

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