BBC gives a dumb quiz on how much you know about evolution

September 25, 2018 • 8:15 am

Readers Dom and Kevin called my attention to this new quiz on the BBC website that supposedly tests your knowledge of evolution. It was compiled with the help of Dr. Paula Kover, who teaches evolution at the University of Bath.

Click on the screenshot to take the seven-question quiz. I got only 5/7, but that’s because the quiz is badly screwed up!

I won’t reveal six of the science questions (the seventh, below, has nothing to do with science), but I will say that question #5 is deeply screwed up, and the “correct” answer is either wrong or, at best, ambiguous. It could have been phrased better. Matthew and I both think it’s just wrong. (See here for an explanation.)

Matthew and I also objected to question #6. I won’t tell you what it is, but Matthew said it’s ambiguous because “better” is not defined. I agree. If you define “better” as “having increased fitness”, then the answer they give is wrong.

As for question #7, it has NOTHING to do with science, but is simply a sop to religion. And it’s personally insulting because I wrote an entire book supporting what the BBC says is the wrong answer. Here’s the question—guess what they consider the “right” answer:

The BBC could have done a much better job with this quiz since nearly half the questions come with either ambiguous or incorrect answers. So it goes.


119 thoughts on “BBC gives a dumb quiz on how much you know about evolution

  1. I did that quiz here this morning. No way was I going to give the required answer to question 7. I’m ex-BBC and am appalled.

  2. I would say that question 5 is wrong. I know that people like to phrase it that way, but if you look at a phylogenetic tree the correct answer is absolutely clear. What label might you place on that common ancestor given the groups that arose from it? I know what that label would be, but the quiz does not. I feel that this is another way in which we spite facts to cater to religious beliefs.

      1. It’s ambiguous and unclear. If you accept that the creatures of 3 million years ago from which humans are descended are not-yet-human, then surely it would be reasonable to say that the creatures of 3 million years ago from which monkeys are descended are not-yet-monkeys?

        1. What I ask my students, is what would you call the common ancestor that gave rise to both the New World Monkeys and the Old World Monkeys? I’d call it a monkey, though as JC points out, it isn’t an extant monkey.
          This is a small part of my pointing out that people often misunderstand evolution, asking if we evolved from monkeys or, after learning a bit about trees, if we evolved from fish. The understanding I hope they leave with is that both can be true, as we share common ancestors with different groups at various periods of evolutionary history and can therefore have evolved from a common ancestor shared by all life, a common ancestor shared by all tetrapods, a common ancestor shared by all mammals, and so on. If you can understand a phylogenetic tree you can grasp this big piece of evolution – the other focus is on understanding the role of natural selection and other mechanisms of evolutionary change.
          I should probably note that I teach non-majors at the community college level so the understanding we are going for is necessary basic but that doesn’t remove the obligation for making sure that they do understand the basics.

          1. That is how I approach it. Same for the issue of whether we evolved from an ape. If you want to use the term ‘monkey’ and ‘ape’ to designate a true taxon, with a set of derived characters, then we are apes and apes are monkeys.
            But my spider sense was tingling, telling me that they would use the old false trope, and they did.

        2. That’s kind of like saying blue jays didn’t evolve from birds, but that birds and blue jays evolved from a common ancestor. I’d surely call that ancestor a bird, just like I’d call our common ancestor with chimps & bonobos an ape.

        3. I think the creatures humans and modern monkeys evolved from would be entirely recognisable as monkeys. I see what they’re trying to get at, that we aren’t a ‘better branch that’s advanced while the other hasn’t’ but it’s also true that some modern monkeys and the ancestor monkey likely filled very similar niches so may not have changed all that significantly, and would appear and behave so similarly that calling them ‘not monkeys’ seems absurd.

  3. I hope that you and matthew will respond to bbc on this. I see on dr kover’s publication list that she has recently published a piece on engaging with primary schools on evolution. If the bbc writer has properly represented dr kover in the article and quiz, then i worry about what might pass for subject matter expertise impacting early science education in the uk.

      1. Yep, they’ll just « file » it.

        You’ll maybe get a better response if you contact someone like Brian Cox (the Physicist, not the actor 🙂

      1. “No it’s not!” said Constable Visit. “Atheism is a denial of a god.”

        “Therefore It Is A Religious Position,” said Dorfl.
        ― Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay

        Admittedly this is the opinion of a freed Golem and not the whole quote.

      2. Doesn’t it depend on the religion?

        For instance – let’s invent a new religion where all of the religion’s truth claims match the truth claims of evolution.

        This points out a problem with the question “is X compatible with Y.”

        The question for the BBC quizmeisters is why they are askingsuxh a question in the first place.

        1. … Or truth claims which say nothing about evolution – in other words, what would “non-overlapping” truth claims look like?

          I don’t know the answer I’m just thinking

      3. Hah! LOL over chili wonton. I got 6 out of 7which I consider a perfect score. Kind of just went with my gut on the monkeys, they’ve never let me down before. Love ’em, cheeky little critters!

    1. Everything is compatable with everything else if one is willing to contort one’s beliefs and compartamentalize. After all, how else can someone be a republican who is against abortion but supports war (killing kids) and the right for mentally unstable people to purchase assault rifles and shoot up schools. or, how can you be the “family values” party but elect a man who cheats on his wife with hookers and porn stars, sexually assaults women, and brags about it? No, nothing is incompatable if you’re willing to practice a little cognative dissonance.

      1. I was musing on the notion of “compatibility”, trying a few things :

        Atomic theory of matter and watching the football games

        Germ theory of disease and curing meats (e.g. prosciutto), or maybe cheese manufacturing

        Playing sports and eating junk food on the couch

        … it started to suggest to me the whole notion of “compatibility” is meaningless, but also peculiar when “paired off” in an apparent false dilemma.

        But I ramble…

  4. Q7! What a croc.

    Dr Kover expanded a little a couple of years back, which suggests that by ‘monkey’ she meant an existing species:

    No, your great-great-great-ancestor was not a monkey. Evolution theory indicates that we have common ancestors with monkeys and apes – among the existing species, they are our closest relatives. Humans and chimpanzees share more than 90% of their genetic sequence. But this common ancestor, which roamed the earth approximately 7m years ago was neither a monkey nor a human, but an ape-like creature that recent research suggests had traits that favoured the use of tools.

    1. Well yeah, that common ancestor from 7mya was ape-like (I’d go out on a limb and call it an ape, as was the common ancestor from 10mya and even further back when the Hominidae split from the Hylobatidae. However, go back 40mya or so and the common ancestor (prior to split of Old World and New World moneys) was monkey-like. I think that explanations like the one above make laypeople think we have a single common ancestor (following a creation event?)rather than many.

  5. I’ve learned from you over the years Jerry, from your books, articles and this website. I spotted the problem questions you highlight but it was also obvious what answers the testers were looking for! Sad.

    I intentionally answered the last question correctly . . . err, incorrectly. That last one really was horrible. Was this supposed to be a biology test or a Basic Principles Of Accommodationism test? Or maybe a Right-Think test?

  6. It’s just typical of the way the BBC has been dumbing down over the years. I can no longer bear to watch the likes of “Horizon”, which used to be good. As Richard Dawkins said, “the BBC … a once-great organisation”.


    1. I used to watch Horizon “religiously”, to the extent of never arranging either of my couple of squash games each week for Monday evening. I gave up on it many years ago when it started to always present what the BBC thought was a balanced view, regardless of whether that view made sense.

    2. I stopped watching Horizon many years ago after a program on nuclear power where the commentator kept saying « nucular »

      It was almost as cringe-inducing when news reports on the discovery of the Higgs Boson insisted on pronouncing it like it was the member of a ship’s crew.

      … and don’t even get me started on Boaty McBoatface …

      1. I stopped watching Horizon when they started doing all the weird camera angles, fast cutting and dramatic lighting and music. It looked like they some overly ambitious art student in charge; it made it horrible to watch.

      2. I stopped watching it when it became a rebroadcast of gee-whiz US “science” shows, with the occasional Brit talking head cut in to provide “balance” and a phony UK perspective, and nothing about any science done anywhere else in the world.

  7. I agree that question #5 was poorly written, but I did answer it correctly only
    after reading Jerry’s email.
    As far as question #7 You would have to be doing mental acrobatics to make them compatible.

  8. Agree with you about the quiz – it is a shoddy effort, and question 7 is definitely an absolute disgrace – having read Faith Versus Fact I gave the WEIT approved answer in spite of being 100% certain that they were looking for the other. The various errors packed in to the wording of question five are covered in detail in (among others) Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestors Tale.

  9. I answered all 7 question correctly. The 7th question, are evolution and religion incompatible, I was dishonest and said false because I knew that’s the answer they wanted.

    After Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 it became impossible for an intelligent person to believe in the god thing.

  10. I often hear the comment, “Humans didn’t evolve from monkeys, but we share a common ancestor with them.” It’s even repeated in this TED talk by Prosanta Chakrabarty:

    Of course we didn’t evolve from modern monkeys, but wasn’t our “common ancestor” with monkeys itself a monkey (even if it was different from any living species of monkeys?) Or did it lack a defining feature (tail?) that precludes our common ancestor from being categorized as a “monkey?”

    1. Yeah, probably if our ancestors were teleported into today and left to wander around in the wild, we’d say;”look at those weird monkeys”.

  11. Hmmm, I got 4/7.

    I got the ‘religion’ one wrong for obvious reasons.
    I got ‘giraffes’ wrong for – I have no idea why, just total brain fade.

    I got this one wrong:
    Evolution can only happen slowly, over long periods of time. True or false?
    I said ‘true’.

    BECAUSE, though e.g. bacteria can evolve quite fast in terms of *our* lifetimes, it requires many bacteria lifetimes. I’m guessing here that evolution does NOT occur – and cannot occur – in less than hundreds of generations.

    So it really depends on how you define ‘slowly’.


    1. (And of course it also depends on how much change you require to denote ‘evolution’ – if it’s just a change in one gene locus (or something like that, I am not a biologist!) then that could presumably happen in a few generations, but I think for enough physical change to be recognised as ‘evolution’ would take hundreds or thousands of generations?)


    2. I answered the giraffe and pace questions “correctly”, but I disliked them both. The giraffe neck is an example of evolution, but it is also a classic Lamarckist example. I routinely write quizes for students, and dumb ambiguous questions like these irk me (though I cannot say that I have never composed such).

  12. Question 4 is poorly worded as well. “Evolution can cause an individual to change during its lifetime”. I answered “true”, because individuals develop during their lives and the process of development is something that has evolved.

    Presumably it was intended to say something like, “evolution (or natural selection) can act on individuals, causing them to change during their lifetimes”. But it didn’t.

    1. Yeah, I read that too literally and got it wrong, too. “Cause an individual to change during its lifetime?” Uh, anyone ever hear of complete metamorphosis? Duh!

      On reflection, I should have tried to out-think that one, as I did the others…the only other question I got “wrong” was number 7, because, though I knew what they wanted to hear, I just could not vote for what I knew was egregiously wrong.

  13. I had a problem with quite a few of the questions. I answered the last one incorrectly because I think religion and evolution are not compatible. The BBC justifies its answer thus:

    People of many different faiths and levels of scientific training see no contradiction between science and religion

    My response would be that people are very good at seeing no contradiction in a lot of things that are contradictory, if it suits them.

    I got the answer to question 5 right because I assumed that monkeys and apes are different branches of the primate tree. Certainly, if you are on Gibraltar Rock and you say to a native “oh look monkeys” they’ll get quite angry and start explaining how they are apes. Anyway, given that we are more closely related to chimps than they are to gorillas and chimps and gorillas are both apes, how can we not be apes? Do you hear people saying “we are not mammals, we and mammals are descended from a common ancestor”.

    I also had a problem with

    Evolution can cause an individual to change during their lifetime. True or false?

    They are looking for false, and I understand why – evolution does not act on individuals. But, as worded, the answer probably should be true. If a butterfly is shaped by evolution and a caterpillar is shaped by evolution, the transitional stage between the two must be shaped by evolution.

    1. It’s a distinction between evolution as an ongoing process, and the product or result of evolution in the development of an individual.


    2. Oh, and I got 6/7 because I correctly divined the meaning of all the ambiguous questions and I got Q5 right for the wrong reason. For the last question, I was pretty sure that the BBC were looking for “false” but I couldn’t bring myself to give the wrong answer.

  14. I also got 5/7. Question #2 is ambiguous, as it equates bacterial time with human time. A couple of others is also ambiguous, but I guessed “correctly”. The given answer to #7 is simply wrong.

  15. With the exception of the last question (which was a throw away), I really don’t see a problem with these. A few are not precise (and I agree with those who’ve noted them) but they aren’t wrong.

  16. I concur that most of the questions are ill-formed. You almost had to guess which buzzword or ‘buzz-idea’ the writer wanted you to focus on.

    Catarrhine primates with external tails are vernacularly called “monkeys”, so yes, we are descended from monkeys. Since the ones we are descended from are now all extinct, and no one was around to name them, you could argue that these extinct catarrhines with external tails shouldn’t be called monkeys, but that’s what any English-speaker would call a living one if they saw it.

    The question “Evolution can cause an individual to change during their lifetime. True or false?” was another bad one. I thought they were looking for whether evolution could lead to changes in phenotype that altered within the lifetime of an individual (e.g. phenotypic plasticity), whereas they were thinking of genetic vs. somatic changes. It would be easy to write an unambiguous question that was directed to the latter point, but they didn’t. Here’s an unambiguous version “Changes occuring to an individual during its lifetime which cannot be passed on to its offspring are examples of evolutionary change. True or false.” To that question, the answer is false.


    1. The questions have to be read in context, though. The quiz was addressing evolution myths and was directed at laypeople, and most of the questions were worded in such a way that it was clear what myth they were addressing. The “change over a lifetime” question was one such question. While you can argue that it’s true because evolution created a creature’s development throughout its life, it’s also pretty clear to me that this question is addressing the myth that an individual creature can evolve during its lifetime.

      And while these questions could often be rephrased to be more accurate, they would become harder to parse for the laypeople who are the intended audience of the quiz.

      Read with that in mind, the only question I think is still flat out wrong is the “evolved from monkeys” one. The apes did evolve from animals we would still call monkeys, even if they are different from the ones alive today. While I get the myth they are trying to address, they should have said that it’s true and then given the reason – go back far enough and we evolved from many things: apes, early mammals, early reptiles, amphibians, fish, etc. And one section of our direct lineage was monkeys.

  17. Everybody keeps saying that Q7 is wrong, but I disagree. It’s certainly true for certain religious positions, but not all. It’s not even incompatible with some Christian positions. Saying otherwise just feeds into the fundamentalist Christian conspiracy theories.

      1. I did it (and got 7/7). Q7 now reads “religion and science are not necessarily incompatible”. Have they changed it from the version that Jerry did?

  18. Well I got them all “correct” but I was second-guessing what they were actually asking for a couple – “better” & “monkeys” are a little misleading.
    In addition, for the last question, I guessed what their idea of the correct answer would be and the BBC did not let me down.

  19. Q #3’s explanation:

    “… the giraffes, those with long necks were more likely to survive hard times and pass on their genes to the next generation than their short-necked rivals, who weren’t as good at reaching food from high branches.”

    Except those long-legged giraffes also survive awkward bending to eat leaves on low bushes, too. Their long necks are now believed to have evolved for intra-male sparring. Still natural selection, but seriously, do keep up, Helen Briggs!

  20. I got 7/7 but only because I lied to myself about humans versus monkeys, and about the compatibility of evolution science and religion. I figured they would ‘go’ for the tropes, and they did.

  21. The monkey/ape one always irritates me. Like I commented up above, it would be like people trying to say blue jays didn’t evolve from birds, but that blue jays and birds share a common ancestor. It’s just completely misleading and not at all consistent with the way we refer to most extinct animals. It also implies a sort of separateness. If you tell people that humans and monkeys only share a common ancestor, it implies that the human lineage split off from the monkey lineage at that ancestor, when we’re really just a part of the family tree.

  22. Have they changed the quiz? Question 7 stated “Evolution and religion are not necessarily incompatible. True or false? I responded false as I believe they necessarily are incompatible and I received 7 out of 7.

    1. Same when I took the quiz: Question 7 is now: “Evolution and religion are *not* *necessarily* incompatible. True or False.”

      But “False” it the correct answer they give credit for, although the explanation they give states the *opposite* (that evolution and religion are not incompatible).

      I suspect they may change it again soon, lol!

  23. I got 5/7 but no idea which of the answers were ‘correct’. The language of the questions was very imprecise—eg. what is a ‘long’ period of time? What does ‘improvement’ mean? Does an animal evolve during its lifetime?
    They make very little sense
    Dunno who put the questions together but I suggest they don’t quit their day job.

  24. Not sure when #7 was changed but currently at BBC it reads:
    Evolution and religion are *not necessarily* incompatible. True or false?
    This completely changes what the answer should be but they still have “false” shown as the correct answer. This contradicts their position and is contrary to the explanation given. This is really screwed up.

    1. Arrg! “not necessarily incompatible – true or false” That is screwing my brain up. There’s at least a double negative there (or maybe a triple if you answer ‘false’: “It is incorrect that religion and science are not necessarily incompatible”

      I give up…


  25. Evolution does take significant time. A single mutation might be fast, but if it is “successful” and has to enter the population then natural selection has to act over many generations. Evolution is not just genetic mutation: it is also natural selection. Always many generations (even for bacteria).

    Nearly all the questions lacked rigour in their semantics. There is little point in offering multiple choice questions if you can “haggle” for hours over the correct answer: “Ah, but that depends on what your really mean by ******!”. ***** = progress, monkey, compatible, time

    If this quiz was meant for kids, it would be misleading from an educational point of view.

    Because I was being “sniffy” about the semantics, I got 3 out of seven and would be prepared to argue the questioner blue in the face over my reasoning. The joys of science and its infinite shading of argument. And you thought the ancient Greeks were pedantic?

      1. I’m sure that certain traits might be selected for by very extreme conditions. I suppose that a hurricane could wipe out ALL individuals lacking a certain trait (like big toes).
        However for this to be so, the big-toed individuals would have to be already present as a significant fraction of the overall population for some time BEFORE the hurricane.

        When the gene for big toes occurred first, it would have to be transferred to later generations from that SINGLE individual by a mathematically geometric process. Many generations. This would be in competition with whatever process is favouring the NON-big-toed variety (I would presume that for the previous form to have persisted until the present epoch, having the smaller toes has generally conferred an advantage: maybe the big-toed form has a stronger grip, but the smaller toed maybe more agile when running).
        I suspect that we are observing the emergence of a trait that has existed for centuries, but which persists because it confers a survival advantage in extreme conditions (hurricanes).

        This is not the full evolutionary cycle (mutation plus natural selection), but just a case of (possibly cyclic) natural selection between competing genotypes/phenotypes.

        It certainly does not prove that a mutation can occur and establish itself in less than a substantial number of generation cycles.

        1. But this is gatekeeping the definition of evolution. Evolution is usually defined minimally as the change in the frequency of alleles in a population, and examples like the ones above definitely show this. And since variation will occur around the new average, extreme examples like the ones above DO have an affect on the variation of future generations, so it doesn’t make sense to me to try to cordon off such events as “not full evolution.”

          The question of whether evolution can occur quickly may be worded sloppily – even the spread of a mutation in a bacterial population takes many generations – but, in human terms, yes, it can still happen quickly. We can still see a mutation spread in a bacterial population over a few years instead of millions of years, and we can still see pretty large changes in the average phenotype of a population in finches, fish, or lizards in a matter of years. And that’s still evolution. It doesn’t have to meet some arbitrary cut-off like mutation or speciation to still be evolution.

          1. “But this is gatekeeping the definition of evolution. Evolution is usually defined minimally as the change in the frequency of alleles in a population, and examples like the ones above definitely show this.”

            Not really: the definition of evolution usually incorporates the idea of the change of inheritable characteristics: the example of the big-toed lizards would appear to involve no new characteristics, but simply a change in relative frequency of the expression of a trait which already exists. That is variation within species. The lizard toe variation is very likely a cyclic trait evolved centuries ago as a survival mechanism against periodic flooding and hurricanes.
            As Darelle stated, this change in frequency occurred in months, but this was not from the time of mutation. The title of the paper itself only cited ‘natural selection’. As far as I am concerned, natural selection is not enough, mutation is also required to fit into the definition of evolution as I understand it.

            ‘And that’s still evolution. It doesn’t have to meet some arbitrary cut-off like mutation or speciation to still be evolution.’
            Its not an arbitrary cut-off point, mutation is required for new traits, otherwise, it is a shuffling around of pre-existing traits. Without mutation, it is only half-evolution (and possibly not evolution at all, if it just means a variation of phenotype).

            I can sort of half agree with the time issue: the quiz question is implying that evolution (mutation plus spread through the species) is fast. Darelle cited months for lizards (which as I stated is a questionable claim). My point was that it is a question of generations. The number of generations is more meaningful as a marker of evolutionary time, in any case, than a vague sense of time in a human sense.

            1. I don’t read it as implying evolution IS fast, only that is sometimes CAN be fast in human terms, as opposed to the idea that it only happens over hundreds of thousands of years and is not observable to us over shorter periods like a lifetime, or years or months.

              Our definitions of what counts as evolution use a different bar, but that’s okay. We don’t disagree on the fundamentals. Thanks for the reply.

              1. Quite so: it just goes to show what a hornet’s nest can be stirred up by a BBC quiz presumably aimed at kids.
                Its interesting that even specialists have some slightly different notions as to how certain mechanisms work and slightly varied definitions.

                I found out some time back that Clostridium prefringens is supposed to have the shortest known reproduction time: clocks in at 12 minutes, saucy little devil. Not a very friendly bacterium for doing lab work on, though.
                That’s from one bacterium to about a thousand in 2 hours. A million in 4 hours through some 20 generations. 140 generations a day. That’s about 3500 years in bacteria time. I don’t know what the mutation rate would be.

  26. I would also argue that evolution is necessarily an improvement because the mutated form, having survived natural selection, is better adapted to its environment than the prior existing for. Bad mutations are NOT an evolution, since they are eliminated by natural selection. Evolution is SUCCESSFUL genes surviving natural selection.

    1. Yes, but if the environment is prone to change? One could imagine, say, a lengthy but anomalous period of milder winters when some animal’s fur gets a little shorter; succeeded by a return to colder winters when it really regrets having lost its long coat. It depends which perspective you look from whether the change was an ‘improvement’ or a ‘disimprovement’.

      There are also numerous sexually-selected changes (like some of the adornments on peacocks and birds of paradise) that are not physically useful and surely detrimental in functional terms. That could only be an ‘improvement’ if you define the environment to include ‘sexual success with the female of the species’. Seen in terms of the species as a whole it would be advantageous for the females to mitigate their preference for flashy displays.


      1. Regarding your first paragraph…in the last century we were taught the concept of “genetic load,” which IIRC referred to the maintenance of certain genetic variation within a given population in a frequency related to how often it was adaptive. I.e., there might be a mutation that is usually either adaptively neutral or in fact usually maladaptive, but that is maintained in a population at a certain frequency related to the frequency of rare environmental contingencies in which it is, in fact adaptive. Last I looked, this term had changed meaning, but the general principle still makes good evolutionary sense to me.

        Quite often students tend to think of natural selection as proceeding irrevocably to some universally ideal endpoint, when in fact it is the maintenance of certain variation within a given population that allows it to survive environmental change.

      2. “It depends which perspective you look from whether the change was an ‘improvement’ or a ‘disimprovement’.”

        I would argue that, if a trait persists, it is an improvement. If it disappears, it is a disimprovement (apart from also being non-existent). I agree that the environment might vary. Varying environment is often necessary for a new trait to emerge (prove itself as a survival advantage).
        I seem to remember reading a paper on research claiming that, in a laboratory environment, mutations may fail to survive (apparently because they are nominally “maladaptive”, but that they may emerge if the laboratory environment is sufficiently variable: obviously the “variability” would have to be such that it favours the modified gene (a lab environment is likely to be just the opposite, pretty constant and unchanging). To “nurture” a mutated gene, you would need to know what the gene is ‘for’ and adjust lab conditions to favour it. I think this has been done: changing available metabolites or chemicals and looking for a strain which has some advantage. This doesn’t however prove that a ‘new’ mutation has occured, there may have been a gene that was ‘neutral’ (no survival advantage, but no disadvantage either) which was ‘latent’ and brought out by changes in environment. Possibly, use of controls and DNA analysis and statistical analysis could distinguish between old traits and new mutations.

        I believe this is referred to as “environmental stress”.

        I also remember the same research being cited by Creationists: along the lines of “Scientists fail to show survival of mutated genes in the laboratory”.
        [the point of the paper was to show that genes need environmental change to force their survival]
        Fake news: you just can’t trust the media.

        1. “I would argue that, if a trait persists, it is an improvement.”

          This is pretty clearly not the case though. Mutations that become fixed in a population, to whatever degree, are not necessarily an improvement. They can be merely good enough, neutral or bad but tied to another trait that does confer some advantage. New traits don’t have to be an improvement to survive in a population. They just need to not be so detrimental that they aren’t passed on at all. Blue eyes are not an improvement, and yet they persist.

          Also, what exactly is meant by improvement. Over what time frame? Is a newly evolved trait that greatly improves an organisms ability to get food an improvement? How about when the organism is so successful it causes its food source to go extinct and then is starved to extinction itself?

          1. If a trait continues to exist by displacing the individuals that existed before: it has to be ‘better’ in some way than the individuals lacking it. It is not being neutral by being actively selected.
            Blue eyes presumably have been selected in the past. Whether they continue to confer an advantage later is not relevant. They may confer increased sensitivity to light. They may help attract a mate, or may increase communication due to increased visual contrast compared to a darker iris. Dark eyes may have advantages in a sunny climate since they filter bright light.

            ‘They just need to not be so detrimental that they aren’t passed on at all.’
            That makes no sense: if they are purely detrimental, they would not be passed on and survive at all. They would need some alternative advantage which supercedes any detriment (eg sickle cell anaemia which confers the detriment of the anemia but also the overriding advantage of protection against malaria. It is not therefore detrimental, all factors considered).

            Logically, even a neutral trait should not diffuse through the species: diffusion implies at least some slight selective advantage.

            If one trait is tied to another trait which has an advantage, I would argue that we need to consider the two traits together in terms of overall ‘improvement’ or not. I still cannot see how any overall neutral or ‘not so detrimental’ trait (or linked combination) could establish itself across a species. Makes no sense statistically. If it spreads, its not even neutral.

            1. Genetic drift says otherwise. The laws of probability acting on a finite population can cause neutral or even negative mutations to continue or even increase, and can cause even beneficial ones to decrease and disappear.

              It’s debatable how much affect genetic drift has on evolution over all, but it’s pretty well accepted that it has at least some affect, and more so the smaller the population.

              1. Looking at the issue from a statistical point of view, I would say that is a trait diffuses by ‘genetic drift’, there must be an intrinsic advantage in having that trait. The trait, by diffusing from a low incidence at the edge of a population to a higher or equal incidence throughout the whole species, it is implicit that that trait has a higher survival probability than any of the prior alternatives. What that advantage is, is questionable.

                I am not questioning that genetic drift can occur, but I am questioning that it can diffuse negative traits (or very likely even neutral traits). That would make no sense: pretty much by defintion, a positive trait is one that spreads through a population to a certain incidence level and that it has survived being weeded out by natural selection.

                To claim that a certain trait is neutral but also claim that it has spread through genetic drift, to me, makes no sense.

                I would suggest that there is likely some other advantage to the trait which would account for genetic drift.
                The big toe on a lizard may have evolved years ago to give some advantage which we do not know of, and which is no longer relevant. The hurricane survival advantage may be a secondary mechanism.

                I would suggest that, if genetic drift has occurred, there is probably a mechanism which requires elucidation, not faith that some unexplained statistical ‘diffusion’ of the gene is taking place.

              2. I disagree. The scientists who developed the theory of genetic drift were pretty clear that the drift in question was due to the maths of the laws of probability, specifically NOT to the beneficial quality of the mutation. I.e. stochasticity, not natural selection.

                If a mutation spreads due to it being beneficial, it’s natural selection and not genetic drift.

              3. typo:
                Looking at the issue from a statistical point of view, I would say that is a trait diffuses by ‘genetic drift’,


                Looking at the issue from a statistical point of view, I would say that IF a trait diffuses by ‘genetic drift’,

              4. “The scientists who developed the theory of genetic drift were pretty clear that the drift in question was due to the maths of the laws of probability, specifically NOT to the beneficial quality of the mutation. I.e. stochasticity, not natural selection.”

                I do not see how a stochastic process would favour a neutral or detrimental gene. I would expect a neutral gene to spread by genetic drift so that it comes to occur with the SAME incidence as it previously occurred in a localised fraction of the population. If it increased in proportion I would suspect that it has some survival advantage, that is it is NOT neutral in the extended or new environment (perhaps due to expanding into a different environment) or that it is ‘linked’ in some way to some other trait, which is skewing the data.

                I think that genetic drift is difficult to prove statistically: the ‘stochastics’ change when the organism moves into an extended environment: the conditions it faces change and therefore its probability of survival is different. You cannot compare one environment (small) with another (large) as though they are both equal from a point of view of survival probability.

                I have a suspicion that genetic drift is simply the process of diffusion of a new trait by a process analogous to gaseous diffusion or to osmosis. I would assume that the mechanism is actually normal natural selection across environments that are varying or which present survival probabilities that are not statistically comparable.

  27. Got 4/7. I answered the monkey question wrongly because I thought that monkeys = simians, I suppose religion and evolution aren’t necessarily incompatible either but I still said false.

    The final question I got wrong was the giraffe necks. I thought True would always be on top and False would always be on the bottom and so I clicked without looking.

  28. The way I see it is that natural selection results in *local* improvements, not some sort of categorical improvement. This is because it is relative to an environment, which is not constant.

  29. I saw that quiz and started on it, but when I hit the irrelevant religion question I left it. BBC could do better!

  30. I emailed Dr Kover:

    Dr Kover, I’ve just completed the small quiz that you complied on the BBC news website. I have to take issue with the answer you have for the last question – the compatability between evolution and religion:

    Evolution is not about the origins of life, but how animals and plants change over time. People of many different faiths and levels of scientific training see no contradiction between science and religion.

    This is, to my mind, simply a religious apologists answer, and the fact that people of many faiths and levels of scietific training see no contradiction between science and religion is frankly irrelevant. You’re supposed to be a scientist!

    We evolved from Archaea into what we have today, we were not created by some magic woman who thought us into existence as we are today, as the creation myths would have us believe. If Darwin is correct then Genesis

    and all the other creation myths are false; it is a great pity that Darwin did not know of the work of Gregor Mendel and his work on genetics. It therefore follows that if Genesis is false evolution and religion cannot be compatible.

    I am disappointed that someone in your position would put something so misleading where people who do not know any better might stumble across it.


    Ian Walker

    Her reply:

    Dear Ian,

    There are many branches of religion that do not take the creationist story as factual. Keeping minds open is generally a good thing, and I believe making the young generation less afraid of engaging with evolution last they will not be considered godly people a plus.

    I am scientist, and I do not tell religious people what to believe in (the pope does, and he says is OK: As long as people understand and accept the evolution theory i don’t care what their religious views are.

    Best wishes,


    I haven’t bothered to reply.

    1. Thanks for this. The reply is utterly banal and predictable- but it shows the way that Paula, or anyone really, can be a victim of religion. In short,the rejoinders draw upon some sort of patronizing sentiments.

      Your letter to them looked straightforward to me.

Leave a Reply