Five misconceptions about evolution: one is dubious, another wrong

Prowling around at The Conversation, I came across a 2016 article by Paula Kover on common misunderstandings about evolution.  It’s important for those of us who teach evolution to know these, for we need to dispel them implicitly—or, better, explicitly—when we teach evolutionary biology. I keep a list on my computer, and you can see a comprehensive summary of such misconceptions at the UC Berkeley site Understanding Evolution.

Click on the screenshot to read Kover’s short article:

Kover’s list is straightforward, though not original (and, indeed, how could it be since these are well known?), and the first four are these are generally true, but #2 has a hitch and #5 is just wrong.  In the narrative below, I’ve put Kovar’s points in bold but I’ve made a brief comment on all the points in non-bolded text.

1.) It’s just a theory.  That’s used to discredit evolution since, although it is a theory in the scientific sense, evolution is also a highly substantiated theory—so substantiated that evolution is also a fact. Yes, this is one of the most common misconceptions about evolution.

2.) Humans are descended from monkeys.  Well, this isn’t so clear. What is true is that we are not descended from any monkey living today. However, we did descend from primates that had long tails, the early members of the Catarrhini, a group of primates that includes the modern old world monkeys (Cercopithecoidea) as well modern apes + humans (Hominoidea). Another branch, the New World monkeys (Platyrrhini), are more distantly related to us than are Old World monkeys and apes.   (“Monkey” is a vernacular term, not a formal biological one.) But the point is that that the common ancestor of us, and all monkeys, in the Simiiformes, would have been called a monkey because it looked like a monkey. Here’s a diagram of our ancestry (we’re in the Hominoidea):

 3.) Natural selection is purposeful. Yes, this is a common misconception. Natural selection has no externally imposed purpose, and no consistent direction in terms of morphology, behavior, or physiology (i.e., there’s no evolutionary drive towards “greater complexity”). But there is one consistent direction: evolution by natural selection always improves the reproductive fitness of an organism. Fitness can go down, however, by other evolutionary mechanisms like genetic drift or meiotic drive.

4.) Evolution can’t explain complex organs. As Richard Dawkins masterfully explains in his book Climbing Mount Improbable, complexity is attained through a series of small steps, so an organ like the eye, which seems unlikely to have evolved de novo, did in fact not do so, but rather, in a series of small, incremental improvements of a light-gathering organ. We see this as plausible (for the eye) because we can make models of how fast a complex eye could evolve from a simple one (it’s pretty fast, see here), and we can observe in nature organs that function well but also resemble what we think are the intermediate evolutionary steps of our (and the octopus’s) “camera eye.”

Here’s what Kover says that doesn’t belong with the others, as it has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with theology and accommodationism. These are all her words:

5). Religion is incompatible with evolution

It is important to make it clear that evolution is not a theory about the origin of life. It is a theory to explain how species change over time. Contrary to what many people think, there is also little conflict between evolution and most common religions. Pope Francis recently reiterated that a belief in evolution isn’t incompatible with the Catholic faith. Going further, the reverend Malcom [sic] Brown from the Church of England stated that “natural selection, as a way of understanding physical evolutionary processes over thousands of years, makes sense.” He added: “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science” and vice-versa. I fully agree.

Yes, but science posits that life arose from inanimate matter, and we know that all living things descend from one Ur-species. If what Kovar is referring to here re life’s origins is that “God could have done it,” well, we have no need of that hypothesis.

And in terms of conflict between evolution and the most common religions, the graph below, from a recent Gallup poll, shows that 73% of Americans accept a theory of evolution that involves either de novo creation (40%) or God’s tweaking of the process (33%, often to create the Special Species, Homo sapiens).

As far as what the Pope says, well, many Catholics (27%, as I recall) reject evolution and embrace creationism. They can’t even stomach their own Church’s position. Besides, Catholicism isn’t wholly down with evolution, for it accepts Adam and Eve as the literal ancestors of all humanity, which, as population genetics tells us, could not have been true. Finally, Catholics (and many from other faiths) think that humans are distinguished from all other species because we have a soul. There is no evidence for that.

A large percentage of Muslims also reject evolution outright and embrace creationism by Allah outlined in the Qu’ran. Many Orthodox Jews reject evolution as well.  And what Malcom [sic] Brown says about natural selection “making sense” has no bearing on the truth of evolution. To many, creationism makes more sense than evolution. You judge a theory not because it makes sense, but because it’s supported by evidence. After all, quantum mechanics doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Finally, examine the claim “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science and vice versa.” Nope, not true at all. Science works best when it stays far away from religion, rejecting any supernatural entities or forces. We don’t need that hypothesis, and I can’t imagine a way science would be improved by working with religion.

Religion, on the other hand, does need to work with science if it wants to avoid promulgating lies, but that is a “destructive” conversation, not a constructive one. What science does is tell religion where it goes wrong, as in its false stories in Genesis, about the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, about Herod’s census involved in the birth of Jesus, and so on. Religion needs science if it wants its historical narrative to comport with reality, but many religions don’t care about that. And, again, science doesn’t need religion.

I’d recommend, if you want a list of the misconceptions about evolution, having a look at the Berkeley site I linked to above.



  1. darrelle
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Number 5 is always on these sorts of lists and I think it is entirely disingenuous. Evolution most certainly is incompatible with most religions. And the religionists know it. That’s why so many of them are against it. That’s religions are slowly having to adapt to accept some form of Evolution. But they don’t accept it all. The Catholic Church certainly does not. They insist on certain exceptions that allows them to maintain the supremacy of their doctrine.

    • dabertini
      Posted July 3, 2020 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      That is religion being accomodating and weaselly at the same time.

    • dabertini
      Posted July 3, 2020 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      That is religion being accomodating and weaselly at the same time.

  2. jezgrove
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Not for the first time, I find the statistics about US belief in creationism astounding and somewhat scary.

  3. Posted July 3, 2020 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    One error (stronger than a misconception) that I sometimes hear which is not on the Berkeley list is that the theory of natural selection is a tautology.

    • Posted July 3, 2020 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      The phrase “survival of the fittest” is indeed a tautology. However, that phrase is not central to the theory of natural selection.

      • Posted July 3, 2020 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        I suppose it depends on how “fitness” is defined. If it is defined as traits that make the organism most likely to survive, it is tautological. If fitness is defined as traits useful for the organism to function in its environment, it is not.

        • Posted July 4, 2020 at 2:12 am | Permalink

          But the only way of defining “useful to function” is “helps it survive”.

          I think it was Dawkins who remarked that the only good definition of “fittest” was “whatever it takes to make SotF tautological”.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted July 4, 2020 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        The phrase was coined by Spencer, not by Darwin.
        Smilodon proposed to replace “the survival of the fittest” by “the reproduction of the fit enough”.

    • Posted July 3, 2020 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      That summary of evolution by natural selection: “survival of the fittest” is still a true statement since we observe it directly. Survival of the fittest (or rather reproduction of the fittest) is a fact.

      But the summary is so stripped down of details of the process, that the structure of natural selection is fairly broken into a circular argument. A tautology. And tautologies are criticizable b/c they lack explanatory power. We can rephrase the phrase by saying “reproduction of the reproducers”, or “survival of the survivors”. In these forms the useless nature of the phrase is laid bare even though they too are true statements without explanatory or predictive power.

      To fix the issue one simply needs to re-infuse the summary with the various steps and details that existed all along. Those must include variation. Inheritance. And restriction by the environment. Once those are put back in the structure of the theory is not drawn as a circle; it is more often drawn as a “Y” shaped diagram and so is no longer a circular tautology.

      • darrelle
        Posted July 4, 2020 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        Nicely said. Dismissing tautologies as an explanation is one thing. Dismissing the thing a tautology is describing merely because the descriptor is a tautology, without further consideration, does not compute. If all you’ve got is a tautology, that’s a problem. But if there is more explanatory information in addition to the tautology, that’s something else entirely.

        I think people get too hung up on things like aughts from is’s and tautologies.

  4. rickflick
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science…”
    This sounds like a lack of critical thinking. Everybody wants everybody to “just get along”. Kumbaya. They haven’t even gotten around to asking whether the two are compatible, which would require describing how each operates as systems of thought. Science based on rationality and empiricism. Religion based on magic.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted July 3, 2020 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      It’s like that statement made popular by the orange one. There are good people on both sides.

      • rickflick
        Posted July 3, 2020 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

        Both sides were probably infiltrated by FBI agents, so hard to say.

  5. Linda Calhoun
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Religion is incompatible with science.

    Science is always willing to be wrong. Religion is never willing to be wrong.

    The scientific method starts with a hypothesis, and attempts to disprove it. religion starts with a conclusion and looks for “evidence” to support it. If facts are uncovered that cast doubt or outright disprove the conclusion, those are discarded. The conclusion is NEVER discarded.


    • dabertini
      Posted July 3, 2020 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Thank goodness you put evidence in scare quotes. Many religionists think that miracles qualify as evidence, when they are as fictitious as their religion.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        • rickflick
          Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

          Nice to see you chime in Ant. Do you suppose Lama is leaving the religious life for a second career in science?

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:53 am | Permalink

  6. George
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I blame physics (in part) for the theory issue. Physicists talk about string theory and the like. It should be the string conjecture at best. In mathematics, a theorem is something you prove. If you cannot prove it, it is a hypothesis at best.

    • Posted July 3, 2020 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      It is correct to call it “string theory”. The term “theory” is given to a set of ideas that explains something. The word (in itself) doesn’t carry any connotation as to whether the theory is well established or correct or not.

  7. Jenny Haniver
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I can’t but guffaw that in her attempt to ‘justify’ #5, the author abdicates established processes of reasoning and adducing evidence to establish the veracity of one’s position and instead pulls the old argumentum ad verecundiam, appealing to authority. And whom does she quote as authorities? A pope (as opposed to A. Pope), and a prelate in the Church of England.

    It should go without saying that the fallacy of appealing to authority is a primitive fallacy and the bedrock of theological justification across the board with respect to religious belief. It’s certainly not an explanation.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted July 3, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      And whom does she quote as authorities? A pope (as opposed to A. Pope), and a prelate in the Church of England.

      Goes to show, a little learning IS a dangerous thing. 🙂

      • Robert Bray
        Posted July 4, 2020 at 10:09 am | Permalink

        ‘drink deep, or taste not. . . .’

  8. Historian
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Kovar’s case for the compatibility between religion and science is strictly an appeal to supposed authority. I do not consider appeals to authority necessarily incorrect, but Kovar must know that there are strong arguments against her position. For the sake of intellectual honesty, she should have discussed the views of the other side. But, she chose not to, which makes her case a polemic, not worthy of serious consideration.

    • Posted July 3, 2020 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      I always wonder if scientists like Kovar who pull this stunt consider themselves so powerful that believers will take them so seriously that their mere words words will cause distress, or if they’re just personally averse to controversy. Either way, they should just shut up!

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted July 3, 2020 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        In the absence of countervailing evidence, I take these appeals merely to be an effort to lure believers into the scientific tent — wrongheaded, but benignly intended.

        • Mike
          Posted July 3, 2020 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

          Hanlon’s razor…

  9. Posted July 3, 2020 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    My favourite misunderstanding is the American who wrote an Amazon book review and said…’I don’t believe that a lizard decided to grow bumps on its back that turned into wings and it became a bird’
    But seriously my researches are into how traditional ideologies like Social Sciences and religions carry within them certain powerful preconceptions that prevent them understanding the facts of science. Just listen to famous Creationists. It’s almost as if there are intellectual blockages whereby the facts of Evolution are unavailable to them. One might assume that fear of refutation to their beliefs triggers mental blockages, but I think there is nore to it. The sillier ideologies mal-form thinking processes such that glaring facts simply cannot be grasped. It might just be that silly ideologies flourish and survive because they contain within them a brain deadening mechanism. Creationism is so fascinating. How could such a crackpot set of beliefs with all their ludicrous claims (dinosaurs on The Ark) possibly survive in a world that is so rich in accidental and well thought-out refutation?
    I think and write about this subject. And what a brilliant, compelling and satisfying thing is The Theory of Evolution which is key to our understanding of life and everything else.
    George in France

  10. Posted July 3, 2020 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Apologies for length, but here are a few thoughts, as I find topic especially interesting.

    1. No pilot refers to “the theory of aerodynamics” when trying to assure passengers that the plane in safe. In the same way, no one should ever refer to the “theory of evolution” but rather, evolutionary theory.

    2. The monkey problem reveals that such people believe evolution to be somehow pre-programmed into all members of a species individually, and have missed the fact that individuals don’t evolve, but rather populations. They need to hear about variability (and not necessarily that this arises from “random mutations” etc), and selection over many generations.

    Most importantly, this misconception also opens people to the idea that evolution is some kind of unfolding, meaning some species or races of humans might be better evolved than others. This will either lead them to oppose evolution out of fear that it supports racism, or accept evolution because they’re racists themselves.

    This is a good opportunity to point out Darwin’s brilliant insight that ties selection to a particular habitat, rather than to some grand hierarchy, either divine or somehow pre-programmed. This not only demolished the Platonic Great Chain of Being so beloved of theologians, but also the basis of divinely ordained racism of the Church, as well as the less well known esoteric New Age racist tendencies. (Steiner’s Anthroposophy, or Marlo Morgan’s racist fantasies about Australian Aborigines, for example.)

    5. If you really want to mess with a religious person’s brain, pretend you’re a religious authority and tell them evolution is compatible with their religious beliefs. This will give them false confidence and make them hit the wall even harder if they ever do any serious reading.

    If you respect religious folk, just give them the facts the same as everyone else, accepting that they probably haven’t instantly granted you so much authority over them that your mere words will reduce them to a howling nervous wreck. They’ll deal with it over time time in their own manner.

    (And of course, present the basic facts of species altering slowly over time to children from the earliest age. Then it won’t shock them later as they learn more about the implications.)

  11. JP415
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science. . .”

    I’m wondering how that would work in practice. I’m picturing a bunch of scientists sitting at a conference table with a group of priests. They’re poring over a stack of papers with equations written on them, and Father O’Malley is saying, “You’re on the right track, but The Lord says that you’ve misplaced a decimal in that equation there . . . .”

  12. fvisser3
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    The Berkeley website on evolution does state, however that religion and science are compatible:

    “Misconceptions about evolution and religion

    MISCONCEPTION: Evolution and religion are incompatible.

    CORRECTION: Because of some individuals and groups stridently declaring their beliefs, it’s easy to get the impression that science (which includes evolution) and religion are at war; however, the idea that one always has to choose between science and religion is incorrect. People of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion. For many of these people, science and religion simply deal with different realms. Science deals with natural causes for natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.

    Of course, some religious beliefs explicitly contradict science (e.g., the belief that the world and all life on it was created in six literal days does conflict with evolutionary theory); however, most religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution. For concise statements from many religious organizations regarding evolution, see Voices for Evolution on the NCSE website. To learn more about the relationship between science and religion, visit the Understanding Science website.”

    So you can’t recommend over this article it if that’s not your view.

    • KD33
      Posted July 4, 2020 at 12:31 am | Permalink

      I saw this too. The Berkeley statement isn’t as strong as Kovar’s – but yeah,*why* do they feel the need to include this?? Other than this topic, though, it’s an excellent site.

  13. Posted July 3, 2020 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that accepting evolution, understanding the scientific rationale, voting wisely or even intelligently investing your money involves a facility for critical thinking absent in a large proportion of the general population. This can mainly be attributed to what is NOT taught at school.

    Critical thinking skills first – knowledge and understanding next. Hopefully.


    • A C Harper
      Posted July 4, 2020 at 4:25 am | Permalink

      But if you taught children critical thinking it would make the job of teachers much harder.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        Yes! I remember a story from a few years ago where two teachers started teaching critical thinking in their class (whatever it might have been) and had to stop because other teachers in the school complained that they pupils kept taking them to task about sloppy logic!


  14. Posted July 3, 2020 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Just remember that some Heavy Hitters would have no problem with #5. By that I mean the AAAS & Francis Collins. They too are wrong, of course!

  15. Kenneth Pidcock
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I think probably the most common misperception about evolution is that adaptation is a process. That somehow populations are reacting to the environment.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 3, 2020 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s wrong to call adaptation a process. But, it operates at the individual/gene level.

    • Mike
      Posted July 3, 2020 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

      @rick the meaning of “adaptation” varies: I think KP means that adaptation is a product (a population of individuals that on average have higher fitness than their ancestors would have had), but the process is natural selection or sexual selection plus heritable variation. But I think you mean adaptation is the series of changes over time that lead to that increase in mean fitness. Is that a fair statement?

      • rickflick
        Posted July 3, 2020 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

        Yes. Semantics for sure. We all know what we are talking about.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Lately the level of conflict between religion and science has become the same as the level of conflict between astrology and science or homeopathy and science.

    That is not “little” except in the eyes of apologists for any of the many humbugs.

  17. Mark R.
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I’ll keep this post bookmarked as it is always a good refresher course. I know about these bad interpretations/definitions and such, but it’s handy to have it all in one place. Good points for those who don’t believe that evolution is true, or who don’t think about it much and say stupid things like “it’s just a theory”.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted July 4, 2020 at 12:35 am | Permalink

      Good idea. I’ll do the same.

  18. David Billingham
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    Is there no way to squeeze God in through the back door? 😏

  19. FB
    Posted July 3, 2020 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    I struggle with Number 3. It’s not very hard to understand that there is no evolutionary drive towards “greater complexity”, but “greater complexity” happens anyway. Is it just statistics and time?

    • rickflick
      Posted July 4, 2020 at 12:39 am | Permalink

      I’d say complexity arises, but not because of any drive or innate force toward complexity. It’s just statistical over time. A population of primordial single celled organisms can change in any direction at random. If it becomes a multicellular species it is more complex, but that is only one of a number of possible changes.

    • A C Harper
      Posted July 4, 2020 at 4:31 am | Permalink

      Perhaps if you call ‘greater complexity’ ‘greater ability to exploit the environment’ it would be easier to envisage.

      For instance change in the ability to digest previously indigestible nutrients could confer additional reproductive success, even at the ‘cost’ of more digestive processes or behaviour.

      And by extension ‘greater simplicity’ can also arise as extra unused costly bits are lost.

  20. James Walker
    Posted July 4, 2020 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    I attended a Catholic high school in the early 1980s and, although the church’s official position was that evolution was true, and the teachers (well, the ones that talked about it) were pro-evolution (though they promoted the “god-guided” version), the majority of my fellow students and their parents were anti-evolution.

  21. Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    But the point is that that the common ancestor of us, and all monkeys, in the Simiiformes, would have been called a monkey because it looked like a monkey.

    I often make the same point in conversations on social media, and often get very strong pushback from others advocating for evolutionary theory.

    I find it quite surprising. Maybe they’re annoyed because it undermines (or seems to undermine) their retort to a creationist, “Humans aren’t descended from monkeys.” Which is often why I jump in with, “But …”


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