If you ask an evolutionary biologist what the most common public misconception about evolution by natural selection is, you’re likely to get this response: “It’s the false assumption that evolution is an accidental process and that its results are purely due to chance.”
The scientific answer to this misconception, of course, is that evolution by natural selection is a combination of an “accidental” process (the production of variation by random mutation) and a deterministic one—the sorting out of that variation by natural selection, which simply describes the eventual dominance of mutational variants that are better at replicating. Of course there can be truly “accidental” ways of evolving, as with genetic drift, but we’re talking about the kind of selection-produced processes that yield the adaptations that Darwin and his latter-day followers found so wondrous.
This is all explained in my book Why Evolution is True, and on practically every evolution website aimed at the public. But people still flaunt this misconception, either not educating themselves or willfully ignoring the scientific answer. Here’s one of the ignorant—a Catholic who loves Jesus writing in the Catholic Transcript Online (click on screenshot to go to article):
The author is identified like this:
Bill Dunn is a recovering atheist who resides in Torrington. He loves Jesus, his wife and kids and the Red Sox (usually in that order). He can be reached at MerryCatholic@gmail.com.
Apropos, just yesterday I received an email from a middle school student who, supposedly investigating evolution vs. creationism for a school project, has sent me several emails containing questions implying that she is either a nascent creationist or finds their arguments persuasive. I answered her previous questions or directed her to sites where she can find answers, as well as urging her to read my book. But nevertheless, she persists. After I got this latest email, I decided to stop corresponding with her. Curiously, she does not attend a religious school, so all I can guess is that her teachers aren’t giving her a good scientific education. Here are her latest questions, which are along the lines of her previous ones.
Good evening Mr. Coyne,
Sorry to bother you again, but I have some questions that need to be answered by a professional/expert in the evolution.
If everything in the universe came as a result of a random big bang, then isn’t that like if someone told you that there was an explosion at a printing plant and that the ink spattered onto the walls and ceilings and formed an unabridged dictionary. How likely would that be?
Also, if humans evolved from animals—from apes, for example—why is there such a huge gap between the intellectual abilities of humans and those of apes? Humans have qualities far beyond what is necessary for mere survival. In fact, we as humans care for sick people and help those who are less fortunate. Why would we do that if evolution—with its ‘survival of the fittest’ motto—were true?
Ah, the old tornado in a junkyard/Boeing 747 argument! And human exceptionalism to boot! All the readers here should by now be able to give scientific responses to both these questions. But I’m disappointed that the young lady who beleaguers me with these questions simply can’t do the legwork to find out the answers for herself.