Upcoming post at 6 p.m.

January 21, 2022 • 1:30 pm

Because evening posts are often missed, I wanted to call your attention to a post I’ll be making at 6:01 (per agreement with a newspaper) involving YET ANOTHER multiply-signed letter defending a good biologist who’s been unfairly defamed. I can say no more, but do check the site or your email around 6 pm Chicago time this evening

In the meantime, this will be the last post until then as I have lectures to write for Antarctica. They’re now asking me to do some 5-minute “mini-talks” on evolution, a task I find very difficult.  I need to convey the idea of evolution in five-minute bits, and four of them.

Here’s what I’ve chosen (not in order), but the fourth one will be nearly impossible.

1.) What is the “theory of evolution”?

2.) What are the biggest misconceptions about evolution?

3.) How could you disprove evolution?

4.) What is the evidence for evolution?

I can do the other three in about 7-8 min. each, I think, but I have a 100-minute (two-session) lecture on the evidence for evolution that I used to give to my students.

If anybody can suggest other interesting 5-minute topics about evolution, put them below. One might be “why people oppose evolution”, but the answer is largely “religious belief,” and that doesn’t go down well to an audience on a cruise, who are not in the mood for any religion-bashing. Remember, these are for laypersons who don’t know much evolution,

63 thoughts on “Upcoming post at 6 p.m.

    1. I’m not a life scientists, but can we interpret the fact the we have become taller the last thousand years not be explained by evolution? Women like taller men. If you go to a museum and you look at armor people used the last 1000 years you wonder how these warriors fitted in them. And have you ever slept (or tried to sleep) in a bed that is 200 years old?

        1. Yes, although there is no unanimity here, the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural existence (more starches and less proteins and fats -not to mention vitamins and other ‘essential nutrients’) is thought to have resulted in shorter stature and many new health problems.
          Obviously diet.
          Agriculturalists could settle and hence produce more offspring (shorter intervals between births), which would explain they outcompeted the healthier and stronger hunter gatherers (again, this is not established theory, but more of a solid hypothesis). Natural selection is more ‘the reproduction of the fit enough‘ than the ‘survival of the fittest‘ (the former phrase coined by the blogger ‘Smilodon’s Retreat’, the latter by Herbert Spencer). Which might be the subject of a 5 minute mini-lecture, that Natural Selection is about reproduction.
          Note, I would not be surprised if the transition to an agricultural existence would have come with some genetic shifts, things such as the ability to handle starches (the basis of most agricultural diets) better. However, as far as stature goes I suspect the diet as such probably was/is most important.

      1. Women like taller men.

        So size matters?

        Gotta agree with Michael CJ; I think the increase in height over the last millennium, or most of it, is based on improved nutrition. I think women have undergone a comparable increase in average height over the same time.

      2. As other mention, it is mostly nutrition. There have been times in the past when average height was closer to what it is now, at least in the developed world.
        A good practical example is North and South Korea, where there is a noticeable difference in average height.
        If you look at our change over time, you don’t even need to look at medieval armor. Even WW1 uniforms are unlikely to fit an average US adult.
        On the other hand, the average height of men entering the Mexican military was higher in 1850 than it was in 1950, although they were shortest in 1900 and 1920.

      3. We have results of methods that can resolve evolution over the last two generations. And, yes, humans evolve.

        Since selection works on smaller fitness differences the larger the population becomes, I don’t understand why people think we evolve slower and not faster.

    2. I think a misconception about evolution is that it means improvement when it only means change, so maybe technology causes a decrease in improvement (slower, weaker, less healthy) but that shift is evolution. Humans could evolve into something like a chimpanzee.

      1. Jerry,
        1 – explain that the several causes and effects in mutations PLUS the several causes and effects on lines dying out, weren’t well enough explained
        2 – explain that it is deplorable that evolutionary science was hijacked to demonstrate that people are only machines
        3 – don’t attempt to disprove anything.
        People who are with reason uneasy about points 1-3 but inarticulate, may cite some religion (I call myself agnostic by the way) but your duty to the awesome universe is to address the actual issues. If so, you will win over converts to real evolutionary science and if not, you won’t.

  1. Perhaps a session on what the practical benefits of the science of evolution are. In my experience many people discount evolutionary science as a waste of money. Of course, this is also a topic that could fill an hour plus long lecture.

  2. How do we know that life on Earth has been around for 3.5 billion years?
    How do we know that humans have been around for at least 200,000 years?
    As your book exemplifies, it is often better to give the evidence FOR something rather than engage in argument to show that a particular silly belief is wrong.

    1. Yes, I thought of that this morning and was just checking if anyone else had suggested it. The evidence for the earth’s age from the daily and annual periodicity of layers in corals vs. the much earlier 411d/yr with a faster-spinning earth. It ought to be possible to cover that in 5min. Even relatively dense people ought to grasp the concept that things like spinning tops slow down over time, which is what starts the whole thing off.

    1. That could be more difficult because everyone thinks the variants of the virus have emerged through selection to avoid immune surveillance. But as I learned last night from the latest episode of This Week in Virology, detailed studies have shown first that the amino acid substitutions in e g Omicron occur with no greater frequency in the epitopes targeted by the immune system than they do in the rest of the virus, and second that antibodies still bind to those epitopes with substitutions generally just as well as they do to those from the ancestral Wuhan virus.

      The variants are probably emerging through some advantage in transmissibility, but that’s harder to prove experimentally.

  3. Great topics – How about the notion that technology “evolves” – the evolution of the car, the computer. That’s a big misconception to clear up.

    1. There are some neat little comparisons to make, where “palimpsests” exist all around us. Why do men and women have buttons on opposite sides of their shirts? Why do the texting buttons on smartphones spell out QWERTYUIOP? And why do fancy chairs usually have S-shaped legs, suspiciously shaped like animal legs?

  4. I suggest one session on the origin of life on Earth, 3.7 billion years ago.

    We, contemporary humans, are directly connected, through our genes, to the very first cell that learned the trick of self-replication. This should surprise and muse cruise ship audiences.

    Also, as Richard Dawkins showed in his Ancestor’s Tale, a surprisingly low number of forty tree of life branch-outs gets us to that primordial replication.

    Talking about the origin of life, and about the tree of life, avoids the much maligned word evolution. The faithful on board should welcome that relief: focus is not on the evolution of humans, but on the origin of life in general.

  5. “Evolution of [pick some odd feature].” Since you worked on flies, would any of their adaptations make for a good 5-minute talk? Or maybe “why wombats have cubic poo.” It’s not your research, but it would make an interesting talk that I bet most of your audience won’t know.

    I always enjoyed Olivia Judson’s light-science columns in the NYT (way back when), explaining some weird adaptation of the animal kingdom. You could do something like that, for your dros, though obviously it doesn’t have to be sex-related to be interesting.

  6. Related to 4 and the common trope that evolution is speculative because ‘no one was alive back then to witness or study it,’ I would suggest that now, evidence for evolution is hardly just about fossils and extrapolations about the past. Genetic sequencing transformed by orders of magnitude the snount of evidence that we have for its truth. It’s the map of all life on the planet, how it’s all interrelated, and a historical record of the past. With genetic sequencing services like 23andMe, we now know where humans came from, approximately when that actually happened, and that we have extinct evolutionary cousins who are now fossils.

    1. Well, we actually can observe evolution happen in our lifetimes. That’s what’s happening to COVID-19, which is evolving as we speak. It is also the reason for the crisis of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. It is also at the heart of Dr. Richard Lenski’s lab experiment in bacteria evolution.

      1. I know. We can see the facts of evolution in the present in innumerable ways such as bacterial antibiotic resistance genes being passed on plasmids to susceptible bacteria. I know about Lenski’s experiments too. The point is that lay people doubt science because they think it requires an observer who, like everyone else, is susceptible to bias. I was trying to address the 5 min time limit and give the most powerful case for evolution

  7. > You might have done this before, but of course there is the tale of the Terra Nova expedition, the deeper meaning of the discovery of Glossopteris fossils, and the tragic ending of that adventure.

  8. For laypersons like me? Evidence for/Traces of evolution in the daily – even ordinary – life of people and animals.

    Human appendix, bacteria and viruses, etc.

  9. I can’t believe I’m suggesting to PCC(E) how to talk about evolution, but I’d spend as much of the 5 minutes allotted to merely listing the broad categories of evidence (geophysical, genetic, morphological, etc.) and make the point about the consiliance between them.

    1. Perhaps a discussion of speciation, the definition of “species”, the exceptions to the general rule (dogs and some other canids that can mate and produce fertile, viable offspring, e.g.) and some of the environmental conditions that may result in a new species.

  10. Examples of where evolution does not deliver ‘progress’ in human judgement. Such as blind cave fish, parasites that cannot survive without their host, chloroplasts, mitochondria, the whale ancestors who gained legs, colonised dry land, went back to the sea and lost legs.

  11. Why is evolution important to me?

    Many answers:
    —Evolution explains how bacterial and viral resistance occurs.
    —Evolution explains why it’s not possible to transplant organs from other animals into us without altering their genetics.
    —Evolution explains the food we eat: how we can have a zillion varieties of apples, why we have varieties of wheat, how all the brassica plants (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale) were developed, etc.
    —Evolution explains innumerable human frailties, both physical and mental.
    —Your favorite answer goes here.

    As Dobzhansky famously said, “Nothing makes sense, except in the light of evolution.”

    1. Hell, make them buy it. If the only perq the Professor gets is drinks at half-price, it’s not like he’s getting rich off this gig.

  12. How about an Antarctic perspective on evolution? For example it could cover adaptation to polar conditionss; phylogenies of antarctic fauna and fossil evidence of different climatic conditions prevailing in Antarctica in previous geological periods.

    1. Another Antarctica linkage could be Australia’s marsupials (Everyone knows Australia has marsupials!), but what about South American marsupials, and how did the two, now so far apart, evolve. Then you could continue the theme and discuss only the Virginia Opossum and the Great American Interchange – it’s all cool phylogenetics.

  13. Perhaps this, as pointed out by R. Dawkins, could be a way of disproving evolution.

    “The Burgess Shale is a fossil-bearing deposit exposed in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, Canada. It is famous for the exceptional preservation of the soft parts of its fossils. At 508 million years old, it is one of the earliest fossil beds containing soft-part imprints. Wikipedia”

    If mammalian fossils were ever found and dated to this ancient sea bed. Evolution would take a severe hit.

  14. You asked for five-minute topics. For lay people to get into the subject of evolution, they need to know why it is important. So, that might be your opening: why should your listeners care about evolution? why is it important for them to know something about evolution? Just a thought.

      1. Hi Nicolaas, Perhaps I’m missing your point, but I don’t know–at least in terms of an evolutionary process, how morality is a “given.”

  15. I would be surprised if these people aren’t at least a bit better acquainted with evolution than the average person on the street. Do people spending their dosh for a trip to Antarctica not know the basics of evolution already? You’ve already done one (or more?) of these cruises so I’m sure you know best.

  16. If someone asks about a difference between the theory of evolution and religious beliefs, would it be respectful enough to suggest that they depend on different types of evidence? Evolutionary theory is based on a process that requires evidence that can be replicated and verified by other experts in the field, or whatever is actually true. Religious and cultural beliefs are usually based on wisdom handed down from authorities whose beliefs were captured by chosen messengers and recorded by followers of those messengers. The message is the sole proof needed in many religious and cultural belief systems while scientifically based belief systems need evidence that can be replicated by any human who follows the process and the evidence. Just a thought I’m playing with.

  17. I interviewed evolution deniers 20 years ago while a reporter at The Indianapolis Star. The most interesting objection one doubter had was that human evolution, with our current incredible complexity down to the nano scale just happened too fast to be the result of natural selection. Years later I read informed speculation that our epigenome knows somehow when to activate genes that speed up mutations in just the right areas. All this looks like a topic.

  18. One topic I’d be interested in hearing were I on the trip would be “do things get better” by which I mean for example are our present eyes better than the eyes of our hominid ancestors. Does evolution improve things, make things better? I’ve heard Richard Dawkins say that 5% of an eye is better than no eye in response to creationists saying how could such an incredibly complex thing evolve (and they often mean by chance!).

  19. Some attempt at impressing on them how humanly incomprehensible the evolutionary timescale is. And the combinatorial effects, in microorganisms particularly, of huge populations with short generation times.

  20. Jerry,

    Re #4, are not the Galápagos finches the classic example of evolution? An oldish Guardian article elaborates on the theme:


    As for #2, many would argue that the “biggest misconceptions about evolution” are that the “Modern Synthesis” is a done-deal, and that it’s all just a matter of random mutations accumulating over long periods of time. Many would argue, with more than a bit of justification, that self-organization plays a substantial role in the whole process. Not to mention the many other processes that have been identified since the formulation of that Modern Synthesis – even if there’s some controversy over many of them ….

  21. Something about the importance of natural selection in everyday life: bacterial resistance to antibiotics, insect resistance to pesticides, cancer resistance to chemotherapy.

  22. That the phrase, “evolved to . . .” does not mean the organisms had an intent to evolve something and then did so – it does mean that some feature evolved that RESULTED in . . .

  23. Break up the evidence for evolution into several 5 minute bits, The evidence for evolution: biogeography; The evidence for evolution: the fossil record; The evidence for evolution: imperfection; The evidence for evolution: nested homologies; etc.


  24. Under misconceptions, discuss “if we descended from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys”. Many lay people erroneously think of evolution as linear – from A to B, from B to C, …etc.

  25. One of the main points I hear from religious people is “Why are we not evolving now?” as if the expect to see it, the way a werewolf transforms under a full moon. Examples of human evolution during known human history might be a good idea.
    Also, the hiccup reflex, and it’s amphibian origins might be a good topic as well, if what I have read about it is correct.

  26. Maybe pointing out that mutations are not necessarily random, but random with regards to selection.

    And pointing out that duplications, inversions and symbiotic virus are probably more important than point mutations?

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