Mashable video: Common myths about evolution

July 30, 2014 • 6:14 am

A short while back the people at Mashable told me that they wanted to produce a short video on evolution—one dispelling some of the common myths about it.  I talked to them in detail, and, using their ideas as well as input from me and others, they came up with this 3-minute video:

The video is also on a Mashable website with text that reprises and debunks the myths in more detail, “5 Common Evolution Myths, Debunked.”

I was particularly insistent on items #1 (“It’s just a theory”) and #4 (“Evolution isn’t science because it’s not observable or testable”) —especially the latter, which is Ray Comfort’s stupid trope that seems to have gained some traction. I asked for #3 (“Individual organisms can evolve in a single life span”) because research has shown that this is one of the most common misunderstandings of evolution. Evolution is a populational phenomenon: populations rather than individuals evolve, rather than an individual phenomenon like stellar evolution, in which single stars evolve over their lifetime. It’s important to let laypeople know that evolution is not “change of an individual.”

This is one of a series of Mashable videos in the Debunked series—the other two involve climate change and phone charging (?)—and there will be more.

I think they did a pretty good job for non-scientists, though I can already spot one ambiguity in the bit about timing of our common ancestor with other primates.

If you can think of other myths, put them below, and offer any criticisms or suggestions you may have. I don’t know if the folks at Mashable are amenable to changing the video or the five misconceptions they chose, but they could tweak the text, and I’ll refer them here. You can also leave comments at their website.



103 thoughts on “Mashable video: Common myths about evolution

  1. I liked it, but it feels a bit rushed. Maybe it’s the music and the relatively fast changing of text.

    A bit more chilled music and perhaps a wee longer running time would be me advise.

        1. I also agree. All of us here are probably aware of these myths, so it wasn’t hard to follow, but for someone who is just learning I think it could have moved a bit slower.

    1. Why people put sound tracks (of any sort) on videos like this is utterly beyond me.
      The content is fine as far as it goes, but there’s a continuing confusion between biological evolution across generations and cultural evolution which can change, significantly, within a single organism’s lifetime. While the distinction isn’t significant for most organisms (ants, horses), it has become important for humans, and possibly for some other primates (popes excluded) – and the inheritance of these acquired (cultural) characteristics hugely speeds up the potential rate of evolution.
      But yeah, it’s probably too subtle a point for mass-market consumption. There are bigger fish to fry.
      How epigenetic modification of gene expression works into the Lamarkian-vs-Darwinian question, I haven’t worked through. That’s a process that seems widespread in animals in general (and I just don’t know about plants, fungii, or most bacteria. It’s an issue, but not one I’m going to lose sleep over.

  2. I’m a fast reader, but I found it hard to read the text before the frame moved on. So, yes, it would be better if it were slower.

    This was also a problem with the other videos I went on to watch.

  3. It would have been good to go over the terminology used and what it means. I’ve never heard of a creationist that understands evolution but I have seen plenty of creationists that believe in evolution, they just use words like adaptation and micro-evolution.

  4. I’m not on a personal computer at the moment so can’t watch the video, so I apologize if this is in the video…

    Re: myths. The YECs I occasionally deal with on the internet seem to have a very saltational view of evolution. It doesn’t help that we now have hollywood movies and TV shows in which “evolution” involves some quite impressive change in a single generation. Dispelling such notions would be good; teaching people that the changes we are talking about tend to be extremely small and at no single point in history does one species ‘give birth to’ a different species.

  5. It was quite good even if, as noted already, it seems a bit rushed.
    I have one pet peeve though. Almost everyone (in the US) thinks a “doctor” is clinical MD. Given that, it annoys me to see it said that “doctors are developing new antibiotics” – which is only rarely true.

    1. Yes indeed. I often hear the argument, “My son/neighbor/wife is a doctor, and they say, {*something stupid that sounds sciency*}”.
      I then point out that MDs are almost never scientists, and that education for a MD mostly involves a lot of memorization and regurgitation, and almost nothing in the way of original scientific research.
      The conversation usually stops at that point.

      1. Ugh! I hate that too – they think they have defeated your argument with their appeal to pedigree!

  6. The best way to rebut the contention by evolution deniers “evolution is only a theory” is not to explain what the term “theory” means, but rather to point out that they are flat wrong. It seems to me that both evolution deniers and we evolution “accepters” repeatedly confuse and conflate the FACT that evolution occurs, with the THEORY that Darwinism (or, more appropriately, the modern evolutionary synthesis) explains that FACT. The National Academy of Sciences, in its 2008 publication “Science, Evolution and Creationism” notes that: “[T]he past and continuing occurrence of evolution is a scientific fact. Because the evidence supporting it is so strong, scientists no longer question whether biological evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur.” Thus, even if the modern evolutionary synthesis were proven to be wrong (i.e., rabbits in the Cambrian) that would do nothing to falsify the FACT of evolution, and would simply require us to come up with an alternative theory to explain that fact.

    1. JohnE, for this layperson that is an enlightening point. Thank you. While I’ve rarely been able to discuss evolution with the religious, I do get the opportunity from time to time. Understanding the facts more clearly is always beneficial to my stance.

    2. I made the same point independently a bit later, and would have acknowledged you if I’d seen this.

      There was a beautiful example recently on BBC TV, when a anchorman (Jeremy Paxman, who really should have known better) turned to Prof Alice Roberts, who was arguing against the teaching of creationism in schools, and said, sonorously, “evolution is a theory”. Whereupon she went directly into the factual truth of evolution, leaving him floundering.

  7. I suspect that Jerry’s influence on the video is seen most clearly not by what ‘myths’ are on there, but by what ‘myth’ is not:

    Myth #1: The theory of evolution is not compatible with religion.

    Thanks, Mashable.

    We’re all so tired of the constant focus on gosh, look how easy it can be to insert science into a magical world view and call it harmony. Lookee lookee at all the religious folks who accept evolution. Myth debunked! In all its forms!

  8. Number 5 is just one example of a larger myth — the “ladder” model of evolution, wherein “lower” organisms are replaced with “higher” organisms. I think this is the most widely held misconception about evolution. Even many biologists who really ought to know better seem to believe it.

    1. Yes — also known as the Great Chain of Being.

      There are people out there who accept evolution (or rather think they do) only because they see it as confirming their notion of spiritual progress.

    2. Memo to self : What’s the commonest organism on the planet in terms of count of genomes?
      Answer : for certain a microbe of some sort, and there’s a good possibility that it’s the organism that became either the choloroplast or the mitochondrion.
      (Yes, I know that there were probably at least two symbioses. And thinking about it, Margulis’ suggestion that there were other symbioses involved in producing eukaryotes raises a number of other possibilities.

  9. I found the text a bit difficult to read – the choice of font and colour doesn’t really work.

    It should have had somebody narrate it.

  10. Other common myths:
    1. That evolution is just a random process. Of course the truth is that evolution by natural selection has a random component, which are mutations, but it also has a non-random component which is selection.
    2. Evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics. No step of evolution ever violates thermodynamics. Mutations do not violate the law. Development and growth of the new body does not violate the law. Selection does not violate the law.

    1. Good ones!

      My take on #2: If growth violated thermodynamics, crystals wouldn’t grow. If development violated thermodynamics, snow flakes wouldn’t grow. Both implying refrigerators would be impossible (makes ice cubes, and could make snow flakes).

      Growth is the largest free energy requirement of an organism, way larger than a gene change (allele mutation) in a minuscule part of the germ line cells.

    2. That was the one I thought of too. I hear it a lot even among people who accept evolution.

    3. Your response to the myth that “evolution is just a random process” is spot on — except that to creationists the word “random” is a deepity. When they use it they don’t only mean unsystematic or arbitrary. Sure, sometimes they do. But they’ll also employ it as the opposite of planned or intended.

      So even natural selection is going to qualify as “random” in that it’s not being guided by an Intelligence. It’s not directed towards and intentional goal. That’s what they mean.

      Unless they’re in a situation where suddenly they don’t — and it looks like they’re capable of following your fine explanation.

      I’m not sure if the sloppy understanding of the concepts effects their language … or if their fuzzy use of language confuses their understanding. But a fairly safe bet is that there’s a vicious circle spinning around somewhere.

    4. In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Alex Rosenberg sets out an argument the evolution is an inevitable consequence of thermodynamics. But I couldn’t even hope to précis that here!


  11. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like the text jumping all over the page. It would be easier to focus if it was in the same place on each slide.

    Especially with the speed of this video, trying to guess where the text would show up next, then reading quickly, I’m not sure the ideas really had time to sink in.

    The one issue I notice with many evolution presentations is that many of the points are great, IF you know the reasoning behind them. Too often, just making the statement, means the idea will fly right over the head of the intended recipient who is not well acquainted with the topic. (This is my perspective as a person who only within the last two years has started to learn about evolution.)

    On the other hand, I personally don’t like to spend a lot of time watching videos, so I appreciate that this one was short, and I could squeeze it in while doing some other work.

    1. I agree and I’m unfortunately in the middle of a discussion with an imbecile on another website about evolution. He called it “speculation” which is even worse than “just a theory. Anyway, I posted a link to this video and suggested it might be a good starting point for him if he really wants to learn about evolution. If it’s interesting, I’ll let you know his objections to the video, although I think he’s in the hopeless category and I’m sorry I bothered to respond to him.

      1. Anyway, I posted a link to this video and suggested it might be a good starting point for him if he really wants to learn about evolution

        Almost certainly he doesn’t want to learn. He wants to proselytize to you (and anyone else viewing the “discussion”).

        1. Yes, he’s yet to show any sign that he wants to learn anything. My last sentence states, “…I think he’s in the hopeless category and I’m sorry I bothered to respond to him.”
          It’s such a big, complicated world. The idea that anyone can think they have nothing to learn says a great deal about the level of idiocy and insanity in it.

          1. The idea that anyone can think they have nothing to learn

            Is cognate to my saying that “the day I go to bed having learned nothing is the day that I woke up dead and didn’t notice.”
            Another cognate : “there is no sadder a sight than visiting a friend’s house and finding they have a book case, but it’s empty.”

    2. At least it’s not a video of somebody writing on a whiteboard. Those things, which seem to be sll the rage these days, drive me nutz. I can read much faster than they write, and I soon run out of patience. I thought that this video was not bad at all.

  12. Myths:

    The one bad apple myth, e.g.:
    1. Because some of Haeckel’s sketches were inaccurate, the entire field of embryology is falsified.
    2. Because a few errors in C14 dating occurred due to contaminated samples, all radiometric dating results are false.

      1. After thinking about it, I think you’re probably right. They would probably be better described as, “Myths about why we know evolution is true,” rather than evolution itself. Still annoying though.

      2. Myth: the theory of evolution rests on fine and specific points like Haeckel’s sketches, the infallible accuracy of C14 dating, and the Piltdown Man skull.

    1. Because a few errors in C14 dating

      … which says precisely nothing about uranuim-Thorium series dating, argon-argon dating, potassium-argon dating, uranium-lead dating. And they’re just the chronometers I can name off the top of my head.

      1. But they also refer to discrepancies between uranium lead and potassium argon dating, even when quoting a paper that explicitly discusses the apparent anomaly (as I recall, in the Precambrian basalt of the Grand Canyon) in terms of later heating by known subsequent volcanic episodes. So it’s not just carbon-14. Carbon-14 crops up a lot, though, precisely because it’s so easy to get a date within the past hundred thousand years by minimal contamination. Masochists may wish to check out the RATE project.

        1. But they also refer to discrepancies between uranium lead and potassium argon dating, even when quoting a paper that explicitly discusses the apparent anomaly

          Let me guess – argon loss? And a creationist who doesn’t have the braincells to RTFM on dating techniques and their limitations.

          1. Yes, Larson et al Precambian Research 65, 255 (1994), Cardenas Basalt, cited (!) by e.g. John Morris, “The Young Earth.” Larson even correlates degree of Ar loss with rock composition. More recent papers confirm Larson. Many other examples in Morris’s book, which I suspect of being derivative of a RATE reprot that I have not read and don’t plan to.

  13. I would like them to also address the myth that a benevolent God is pulling the strings of evolution and that the life created through the evolutionary process is beautiful.

    Brain-eating amoebas, the ebola virus, the tetanus bacterium Clostridium tetani, among many, many other organisms are NOT beautiful. The idea of a benevolent God is incompatible with the reality of evolution.

  14. The treatment of “theory” is flat out wrong. The correct response is to say, as Jerry implicitly says in the title of the book from which this blog takes its name, and explicitly in the introduction, that we are not talking about theory but about facts. To quote from the preface:

    “Evolution is far more than the “theory,” let alone a theory in crisis. Evolution is a fact”

    Or again, from the introduction, we see the word “theory being applied, as it should be, to sets of ideas regardless of the truth:

    “Why teacher discredited, religiously based theory, even one widely believed, alongside a theory is so obviously true?”

    When Darwin himself refers to “my theory,” he is using the word in something more like its general than its alleged technical sense, since in the absence of a rich fossil record, an accurate theory of inheritance, or a realisation that there was a process (mutation) that could introduce novelty into a population, it was indeed highly speculative. What has changed is the information available, and if we now apply the word “theory” to the present day conceptual apparatus that includes population genetics, and understanding of mutation, and molecular phylogeny, then for a change we are the ones who are moving the goalposts.

    1. I mentioned, as I recall, that it would be good to say that evolution is both a theory and a fact (i.e., a “true” theory), but remember that these video-makers have their own ideas, agenda, and the ultimate decision about what goes out.

      1. Jerry, I’m not holding you responsible for detailed content at this level. I found the posting very useful and generally praiseworthy, and am glad that you brought it to our attention. The video has already had over 600 shares, and is indeed worthy of this level of attention. But for this very reason, it is worthy of detailed criticism.

        I do think that the “two meanings” response that they and many others put forward is logically wrong, since the meanings merge into each other, as well as rhetorically wrong since the issue is not the epistemological status of evolution, but its truth. And I’m beginning to think that the survival of the “only a theory” objection may owe something to logical inadequacy, as well as a rhetorical weakness, of the “two meanings” response.

        I think this is a topic that requires considerable further discussion. I will be writing about it, for what that’s worth, and we greatly value input from yourself or others.

  15. Three suggestions on the current video:

    Myth #3. There is an unfortunate non-branching “ladder” graph for humans in there, which is partly redeemed by the explicit myth #5. It is nicely done but could be confusing, as a layman I would rather see a tree with vanishing ‘side branches’. But not a big deal, mind.

    Myth #4.

    – Mentioning astronomy, geology or cosmology as similar in nature of (non-lab) experiments could be helpful. Especially geology in this context, it is a sweet marriage of nature (fossils used for dating, minerals that are produced by life). Should be an easy text change.

    – The micro/macro scale of evolution. Lenski’s 20 year long experiment shows that macro scale ecological ‘speciation’ has been seen, same as two 1 year long experiments showing evolution of multicellularity of sorts (by selection for ‘clumping’ during gravitational settling). And I think I read somewhere that fish studies now unequivocally has seen recent speciation, even though it is a “natural experiment”!? A text change could possibly elaborate.


    A suggestion of myth for the next video of “5 more myths about evolution”:

    That evolution must describe emergence of life. That would be like asking gravity to describe emergence of mass. (Which not even general relativity, or GR with the standard model of particles do fully.)

    Or perhaps more suitable in this context, it would be like asking geology to describe emergence of planets.

    Same as for geology, some mechanisms are shared. (For geology impact effects of some form or other, for biology inheritance of some form or other.) But it is rather an area of its own.

    1. On the last myth, maybe this is additionally suitable for a video description:

      Would evolution (basic biology) fall if it can’t describe emergence of life? No, it describes “everything else” of biology foundational nature. If no possible geological setting is found that would share traits (say, chemistry) with emerging life, today’s evolution theory couldn’t be rejected. If a precambrian rabbit fossil would be found, today’s evolution theory must be rejected.

      1. This is one of my hobbyhorses, and I discuss the thoroughly dishonest use that creationists make of the issue at Evolution does not explain the origin of life, for exactly the same reason that chemistry does not explain the origin of the elements. Evolution, in the relevant sense, is what happens once life has come into existence, just as chemistry is what happens once the elements have come into existence. Lavoisier put forward his theory of chemical elements around 1780. We did not have a good account of the origin of these elements until the 1950s, but it would have been quite irrational, on such grounds, to regard this gap in our knowledge as an obstacle to accepting the facts of chemistry.

        So even those who believe that the origin of life cannot be explained by natural processes, have no right to use this belief as an argument against the scientific account of how life has since evolved.

        1. There was a really good exposition of the history of the theory of chemical elements, atomic theory, and the like in a book I read recently. From Stars to Stalactites or something like that.


        2. I think it’s a mistake to insist that evolution applies only after life gets started. In fact it’s quite reasonable to suppose that Darwinian thinking can shed light on how life arose from prebiotic chemistry. There’s nothing in the notion of natural selection that prevents it from applying to nonliving chemical replicators. This is the approach taken by Addy Pross in What Is Life? and I think it’s a good one.

          Of course you’re right that the truth of biological evolution doesn’t depend on the success of Darwinian approaches to life’s origins. But that doesn’t mean we should declare the concepts of evolution out of bounds when investigating those origins.

          1. There’s nothing in the notion of natural selection that prevents it from applying to nonliving chemical replicators.

            Worth a read (if you like dense reading) is Manfred Eigen’s “Steps Towards Life” (1992). and I’ve just discovered that my copy is AWOL, so I can’t give you an ISBN.
            Mike Russell’s work from Tynagh and in the lab at Glasgow is good too.

  16. I thought it was a great video. And I didn’t have any trouble reading the words in the allotted time. I also thought the music was pretty good. A video this length can’t be comprehensive, of course, and I think it did a great job in a nice digestible length.

  17. The content is fine but it would be more effective presented as a single static webpage. For me the text is nearly unreadable: a weak, small font on a too-bright background, constantly sliding and moving against a background of chopped-off, “oozing” photos. I can’t comment on the music because I watched with the sound off. If you’re not going to use video clips or have someone reading the text, why present “moving” content? A well-designed webpage could include all the information and more relevant pictures, and could be made printable as well.

      1. I must be old fashioned. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hate watching videos online, but I much prefer reading in almost all instances where it’s an alternative to video. For example, in this case, when I saw there was a website with the same information, I followed that link instead. Obviously, there are some instances where video can aid in understanding or show something just not possible with text, but unless the video actually does add something novel, it seems a waste. Most people can read faster than they can listen, it’s easier to go back over sections you had a hard time understanding, and from a more pragmatic view, there usually aren’t any buffering or bandwidth problems with text.

      2. Who’s the audience?
        Targeting the audience you want to address is a basic, but important, strategy.

  18. “fact” also has the meaning “what is the case”, i.e., the referent of a true factual statement. Sometimes it is important to use that too, to counter subjectivism.

    I think another most important “antievolution myth” to counter is that evolution is studied by about 10 guys all friends of or identical to Richard Dawkins or Steve Gould. The idea that there could be thousands of scientists doesn’t seem to occur to people. This is not an appeal to numbers, but rather, an attempt to defuse cult of personality. More has to be said than this here, though, to go this way.

      1. [Shrug] Just because you don’t “contribute to evolutionary biology” doesn’t mean that you don’t have a say in the evolution-vs-god debate. I’m a practical scientist who uses evolution and palaeontology day-in, day-out to achieve the eminently practical end of putting fuel in your car/ train/ plane/ boat engine and you heating system. To me, it’s as much a tool as my grain-size and colour charts and my gamma ray spectrometer.
        (OK, the spectral GR tool is rented from another service company. Meh.)

        1. “Just because you don’t ‘contribute to evolutionary biology‘ doesn’t mean that you don’t have a say in the evolution-vs-god debate.”

          Well, no.

          I was just musing on the point made above.


  19. Another myth–evolution is synonymous with “Darwinism.” Creationists believe that evolution starts and ends with Darwin; if a scientist says that Darwin was wrong about this or that, they believe that this debunks evolution itself. As Ann Coulter once asked, “How can you have Darwinism without Darwin?” in the same way someone would ask, “How can you have Christianity without Christ?”

    This is why many creationists insist that Charles Darwin recanted in his old age or on his deathbed, or whatever. They do not understand that even if Darwin DID recant (he didn’t) that this would not affect the truth of evolution; evolution does not stand or fall on what Darwin did or did not say.

    1. See my comment up-thread about the relative speeds of biological evolution (genetically mediated, as per Darwin) and cultural evolution (taught from teacher to student, much as per Lamark).

  20. In Myth #1, the video explains that “Before the theory is accepted by the scientific community, it needs to be strongly supported by an even stronger line of evidence.”

    What about String theory, it’s neither widely accepted in Science, nor strongly supported (even any evidence at all), why call it a theory?

    1. I’ve heard physicists say that it really should be a hypothesis. I don’t know how that one slipped through though.

      1. a hypothesis.

        A large bucket load of hypotheses. Possibly (I don’t try to keep track of the more distant reaches of theoretical physics) an infintely large bucket full of infinitely complex hypotheses.

    2. Because modern physicists tend to use “theory” in the more colloquial sense. “Model” (which I recall Jerry objected to in another thread) tends to be used for the established body of knowledge now; viz. the Standard Model.

      Or they’re just inconsistent.


    3. String theory is a branch of mathematics, like number theory, group theory, set theory, etc. The word “theory” is perfectly valid in this context.

      Whether string theory describes anything interesting about fundamental physics is an open question. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a theory in the mathematical sense.

      1. The mathematical sense, also used in physics and various branches of economics and other math-heavy fields use a useful stipulative use:

        theory =df system of propositions (or sentences, etc.) closed under a consequence relation.

        The propositions themselves are the hypotheses (or axioms, whichever terminology, it again varies).

      1. So would “you and Old World monkeys” be ok? Can we define some relevant group of monkeys to be a clade? Of course, if apes are a clade, we ARE apes. In the same way, if we want monkeys (or even old World monkeys) to be a clade, would we have to say that apes are monkeys?

        1. If I’ve interpreted John correctly, yes.

          Nowadays I just get confused about whether or not I should correct the children (and parents!) who say, “Look at the monkeys!” when pointing at the gibbons at Twycross.

          But I think the clades are really (very simplified!) {monkeys and their allies {apes and their allies {man}}}, if we want to preserve “correct” idiomatic English usage.


  21. This video – kill/change/lower the volume of the music – it’s very distracting. And I had to work hard to read white text on blue. Others might not find these a problem, but if the video makers want to reach as many people as possible, then make it as easy as possible to read.

    Future video myths:
    1)Evolution is the result of dramatic changes from parent to child (or change the existing video where it talks about changes in populations over time to emphasize more the slow incremental nature of evolution). Some creationists have convinced themselves that evolution is impossible because 2 hairy ape parents couldn’t have a hairless human child, and even if they could, who would the child breed with 20 years later? The video does mention slow change, but possibly not emphatically enough.

    2)There are no transitional fossils.

  22. The video is reasonable. It is too long. It assumes the audience is partly educated, but willing to listen to what might be something not agreeable. I found myself not wanting to think this was only meant for children. It makes me realize hastily that the majority of people on earth know very little about science. And care even less about science. In that manner, the video was depressing to watch.

  23. The article “Replaying evolutionary transitions from the dental fossil record.” Nature, 2014 is pretty new ( And is another good argument against the problem – so to say – that evolution cannot be seen. When someone experimentally reproduces processes in lab that required millions of years, it’s is a new tip that this argument makes even less sense. In the abstract one can read:
    “We found that intermediate phenotypes could be produced by gradually adding ectodysplasin A (EDA) protein in culture to tooth explants carrying a null mutation in the tooth-patterning gene Eda. By identifying development-based character inter-dependencies, we show how to predict morphological patterns of teeth among mammalian species. Finally, in vivo inhibition of sonic hedgehog signalling in Eda null teeth enabled us to reproduce characters deep in the rodent ancestry.”

  24. I wished it was narrated & they cut the ‘music’ which does not help, but I applaud their efforts & maybe ‘young people’ like it like that!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *