Who understands evolution?

I am critical of the use of soundbites in discussing science, but in a few cases this can lead to some pretty memorable one-liners by scientists. For example, there is the line attributed to J.B.S. Haldane in response to the question of what can be inferred about the Creator from a study of nature: that He has “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Similarly, when asked if it is true that only three people understand relativity, Sir Arthur Eddington is said to have replied “Who is the third?”. These particular examples may be apocryphal, of course, but they do convey some important points about nature or the difficulty in understanding complex scientific theories.

Inspired by a recent post on Evolving Thoughts, I have decided to start a collection of quotes dealing with the fact that evolution, despite being deceptively simple and thought to be well-understood by many, is actually grasped by a very small percentage of people (and I include most biologists in this claim).

“Another curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it. I mean philosophers, social scientists, and so on. While in fact very few people understand it, actually, as it stands, even as it stood when Darwin expressed it, and even less as we now may be able to understand it in biology.”
Jacques Monod 1975, in Problems of Scientific Revolution

“Evolution is so simple almost anyone can misunderstand it.”
David Hull, [source under investigation!]

“Most of us are happy to admit that we do not understand, say, string theory in physics, yet we are all convinced we understand evolution … Evolution must be the best-known yet worst-understood of all scientific theories.”

“If you think you understand [evolution], you don’t know nearly enough about it.”
Michael LePage 2008, New Scientist

“[Evolution] was one of those focal points of debate on which practically everybody was compelled to have some sort of opinion. Needless to say, the opinion cannot in most cases be called an informed one. Only a small proportion of those who took sides one way or the other had even a rudimentary knowledge of the facts on which the theory was based.”
Alvar Ellegard 1958, Darwin and the General Reader

If you have other examples, please post them along with citation in the comments thread!

6 comments to Who understands evolution?

  • The reason why most people are willing to admit that they don’t understand string theory or relativity is that these theories require knowledge of mathematics only known to mathematicians and theoretical physicists. Evolution isn’t like that. Even the parts that require math (such as population genetics) typically only require algebra. So most educated people could in theory handle evolution.
    So why is knowledge of evolution among the public poor? Well, obviously there’s the whole issue of religions either being hostile or at best uneasy with the topic, but another reason that can’t be ignored is that many science writers on evolution seem to have an axe to grind and aren’t interested in giving a fair assessment to the field as a whole, just their own take on it. Laymen who start off reading writers like Dawkins who are firmly in the selectionist camp will get one bias, those starting out with people like Gould will get the other bias where natural selection plays only a minor role. I rarely get this sense of “popular literature as battleground” when reading about scientific fields other than evolution, but I know that maybe I just don’t see them as readily because I’m a outsider to their debates.


  • JIm Cliborn

    May I draw your attention to John Wilkins himself, viz.
    “…because we cannot say without ambiguity, a priori, what it is that natural selection is selecting, and therefore there is no theory of natural selection.”


  • I think that in addition to the above points, there’s also sort of a taboo on uncertainty in the popularisation of evolution as too many writers seem to be obsessed with fighting creationists. It’s more acceptable to write openly in popular literature that many things are unknown about, say, quantum mechanics or relativity, or chemistry, but saying the same about evolution seems to imply that the “evolutionists” are “losing”. Personally, I’m tired of this requirement to be careful about getting quotemined by creationists, since that becomes a bigger problem to our communication that creationism itself. Furthermore, this warlike atmosphere is quite condusive to polarisation (eg. selectionism vs. neutralism), which is harshly detrimental to real progress in any field. Instead of listening to and analysing various competing ideas, people, especially public figures, tend to pick a side and stick with it, lest creationists suspect we’re not actually so sure. Of course, they often can’t distinguish the uncertainty about the validity of an entire field/theory vs. uncertainties about the details, but I think it’s more important for us to serve the -willing- and the educated first and foremost, and if we do that well enough, perhaps the overall social atmosphere will become more accepting of us, even if just slightly…


  • To my mind, the fact that evolution is so often summed up in one or two sentences makes people more susceptible to believing they understand the science. Those descriptions, being purely qualitative and involving no technical terminology, cause people to more or less trick themselves into thinking they understand the theory. This falls in line with Hull’s comment that: “Evolutionary theory seems so easy almost anyone can misunderstand it”.
    Of course, regardless of how technically correct the 1-2 sentence summations are, they can never be more than a superficial description.


  • Vinicius Waldow

    Dear Gregory,

    Looking up for the original reference to the famous phrase by David Hull, I found it:

    “I doubt however that the difference between evolutionary theory and relativity theory that Bulhof mentions has much to do with Darwin’s being in touch and Einstein out of touch with the general dispositions of their respective ages. Rather it stems most probably from the extreme difficulty in even misunderstanding relativity theory. Evolutionary theory is so easy almost anyone can misunderstand it.”

    – David L. Hull (1974) Darwinism and Historiography. In: Glick T.F. (ed.) The Comparative Reception of Darwinism. University of Chicago Press, p. 389.



    Vinicius Waldow


  • Argon

    Regarding the source for the Hull quote…
    It’s the last sentence in a book review by David L Hull.

    David L. Hull
    Nature (377)494 – 12 Oct 1995
    Title: “Universal Darwinism”
    Book review of: “Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theoary and the Second Darwinian Revolution” by Gary Cziko)


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