Movies as the Only Source of Education for the Public:
1. In Ninja Turtles, four turtles and a rat were exposed to liquid mutagen, turning them human size with ability to speak. Impossible.
2. Hulk: physicist was exposed to gamma rays. Occasionally turns into a giant green monster. Only in your dreams.
3. In Battlestar Galactica, robots “evolved” before they acquired the ability to “procreate”, and without selection pressure. Very funny.
4. In BSG, V and Star Trek, alien reptiles/humanoids freely interbreed with human producing superpeople. In Star Trek, different races even “fuse” into one. Not based on scientific understanding of biology and evolution.
5. In Star Trek, almost all aliens are humanized regardless of planet and star system of origin. Incorrect.
6. Spiderman is spiderman because he was bitten by a radioactive spider. Wrong.
7. Wall-E just woke up sentient one day. Number 5 in Short Circuit was helped by lightning strike. Zero knowledge of human psychology and what it means for a being to be sentient.
8. (Trick Question) In Species, scientist splice DNA blueprint sent by aliens into human DNA. This is actually plausible for a highly developed alien culture.
Common Misconceptions about Biology and Evolution:
1. We evolved from monkeys. Wrong. We share the same common ancestor with all primates.
2. In fact, evolution is progressive. Fish turns into reptile which turns into mammal which turns into monkey which turns into human. Wrong. All living animals today are equally advanced.
3. Human are more intelligent and more complicated than worms. Thus we have more genes than worms. Wrong. Some worms and even rice have more genes than we do. Think embryonic development, not number of genes.
4. One gene does one thing. There is an eye gene, finger gene, hair gene, etc. Wrong. Genome is not a blueprint. It is more like a recipe. Each ingredient can interact with any other ingredient.
5. Everyone like to eat cake because cake is delicious. Excrement tastes like shit, so we don’t like to eat it. Wrong. Genes evolved to build human with propensity to “like” sugary things (source of energy). Deliciousness is not an inherent quality of food. Dung beetles surely think shit tastes delicious.
6. Evolution works to benefit a organism, or species as a whole, or an ecosystem, or even the whole Earth as a superorganism. Wrong. Evolution only works on genes.
7. City dwellers are evolving toward higher intelligence. No. Without mass dying, there is no evolution. Now, the Black Plague on the other hand did push evolution in a new direction. Spontaneous abortion is another exception.
8. If I exercise and read up on books, I can evolve my gene so that my future child is more “fit” and can better compete tomorrow. Wrong. Look up Lamarckian evolution.
9. (Trick question) Each human has either blood type A, B, AB or O. Chimps also have similar ABO blood group system. Genes involved in type A blood in human is more closely related to type A genes in chimps than type B genes in human. This is probably true. Still being researched.
Highlights in History:
1. Idea of a common descent predated Darwin (in the 1700s)
2. Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859
3. Mendel’s experiments on peas published in 1866 but largely ignored
4. Darwin published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871
5. Mendel’s work rediscovered in 1930s triggering the Modern Synthesis
6. Discovery of double-helix DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953
7. Complete sequencing of the human genome in 2003
How Evolution Works:
1. High fidelity self replication
a. Hereditary material (e.g. RNA, double-helix DNA)
b. Machinery for replication (e.g. RNA itself, cell, organism, phenotype)
2. Generations as a sieve
a. Limited resources in terms of energy and food
b. Mass dying of every organism on a daily basis
3. Gradual, random mutation
4. Habitat changes over time which drives direction of speciation
5. As Dawkins summarized, “Descendants are common, ancestors are rare.”
How Complexity is Created:
1. Individual self-replicating RNA strands form a chain
2. Double-helix DNA (more reliable replication)
3. Bacteria-like prokaryote cells
4. Single-cell eukaryotes with power plants
5. Multi-cell organisms (mitosis)
6. Embryonic development
How to Speed Up Evolution:
1. Horizontal gene transfer in bacteria
2. Reproduce every other 10 minutes
3. Shuffling of genes via splitting of chromosomes in half (meiosis)
4. Recombination of genes during meiosis
Power of Prediction:
1. Just look at the history of evolutionary theories and discoveries. We are still confirming and explaining the prescient theories of Darwin based on his initial experiments and brilliant predictions from 150 years ago.
2. Darwin’s orchid and Hawk Moth with 14-inch nose
3. Sex ratio of 1:1 in most animals including harem-keeping ones
4. Sexual selection and sexual dimorphism
5. Why men like to look at scantly-clad women
6. Animals develop senses appropriate to their environment (e.g. bats with sonar, platypus with electro-vision, etc.)
7. All cave dwellers lose their vision in time.
8. Late-onset diseases such as Huntington’s disease
Evolution At Work:
1. Wild mustard was artificially evolved into broccoli, cabbage and Cauliflower.
2. All hundreds of type of dogs were evolved from gray wolf
3. Ring species: Californian salamanders, Larus gulls in the northern hemisphere
Misguided Arguments Against Evolution:
1. Addressed by Darwin himself 150 years ago:
a. The incredible vanishing gaps in the fossil tree
b. There should be a “transitional” fossil between today’s monkey and man
c. Organs of extreme perfection (e.g. the eye)
2. Violation of the second law of thermodynamics
3. Evolution is random like a monkey typing the whole work of Shakespeare
4. Evolution is just a theory. It is not proved nor is it a fact.
A few Interesting Evidences for Evolution:
1. All fields of science paint the same picture of tree of life
a. Fossil records (paleontology)
b. Radioactive dating, plate tectonics (geology)
c. Comparison of outward appearance (aka phenotype) (morphology)
d. Comparison of the substance of inheritance (aka DNA) (genetics)
2. Without exception, all living things on Earth are based on DNA (some in RNA): virus, bacteria, fungi, plants, insects, fish, reptile, bird, mammal and human
3. Fish, reptiles, birds and dinosaurs are diurnal and trichromatic. Most mammals (with the exception of human and some apes) are dichromatic because our common ancestor was nocturnal.
4. Spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) in human is about 25%
Implications of Evolution:
1. Evolutionary Psychology
a. Emotions and instincts. Languages and art
b. Sexual love. Maternal love
2. On equality between men and women: there is no need to force men and women to be perfectly identical in their desires, drives and ambitions.
3. Genes are immortal, humans are not. Genes are faithfully cloned and passed down to the next generation, using humans as a means of reproduction. That is, a human is nothing more than a vehicle for gene’s own selfish immortalization.
4. Memes – the mind gene. It is the next step in the evolution of evolution itself. Natural selection now has a new self-replicating unit to work on, the memes.
5. On computer software: most people get it wrong. They do not distinguish between genotype and phenoty, single-cell vs multiple-cell with embryonic development.
Introduction to Evolution:
My favorite introductory book on modern understanding of evolution and its implications. You can probably find it at your local library. I recommend that you buy it from Amazon or at a local bookstore.
Simple guide to evolutionary topics, frequently asked questions and answers. Start here if you can’t find the above book.
Another nice introduction to Evolutionary Biology
Frequently Asked Questions
First stop for your initial questions on evolution.
Five Major Misconceptions about Evolution
Comprehensive list of Creationist claims and evolutionary answers to these claims
Every Last Detail You Will Ever Need to Know about Evolution:
To appreciate the breadth and depth of the science of evolution see this brilliant book. It is a very entertaining encyclopedia on evolution.
Finally, for a comprehensive coverage of all topics you will ever want to know on evolution, start at the root article on evolution on Wikipedia. The journal Nature in 2005 found wikipedia’s article on evolution to be as accurate and comprehensive as Britannica. Today, in year 2009, wikipedia far surpasses Britannica in terms of accuracy and coverage.
I am pleasantly surprised that the Chinese wikipedia pages are starting to catch up with the rest of the world. Check out this excellent Chinese version.
By Fred Hsu, March 2009.