DEPARTMENT OF BIOLOGY
Misconceptions About Evolution
Origins of misconceptions
Perhaps, "misconceptions" is a poor term; "preconceptions" might be better. In general, these are understandings that we develop because they make sense based on what we know. If we know about bowls, chariots, and fire, but not about stars and planets, then we may develop an understanding that the sun is a fiery chariot being driven across the bowl of the heavens.
The persistence of misconceptions is illustrated in A Private Universe, in which students reveal that they retain their misconceptions even after instruction to the contrary. If we know that the earth orbits the sun, then we may invent the understanding that summer is the time when the earth is closer to the sun, and winter is when the earth is farther from the sun, because it makes sense. This understanding breaks down when we think about the fact that the seasons are opposite in the northern and southern hemispheres, but this doesn't seem to dislodge the misconception. Indeed, conflicting information seems not to matter very much for some of us. I had one student who stated that because the earth rotates on its axis, we have winter when the United States is facing away from the sun, and summer when the US is facing toward the sun. This student happily held this notion in one part of his brain, while simultaneously holding the reason for day and night in another part of his brain. One explanation, two different phenomena, and never the twain shall meet.
Instruction often fails to dislodge misconceptions, perhaps for the same reason that it is possible to hold the same explanation for two different phenomena. We are easily able to compartmentalize our knowledge. We can learn new things, and compartmentalize the new information in the "stuff we learn for school" part of our brains, where it may never interact with the "stuff we know about the world" part. Often, after instruction, we forget the "stuff we learn for school" and fall back on the "stuff we know about the world."
The challenge for teachers is to bring the misconceptions to the forefront, under conditions in which they fail utterly to explain something that is of sufficient importance to the student that the student will be forced to abandon the prior understanding. Then, the second challenge for teachers is to replace the old understanding with a new, accurate understanding.
One of the difficulties with learning evolution and its underpinnings is that it is easy to replace old understandings with new, but inaccurate, conceptions.
The following pages are an attempt to identify some of these misconceptions. Many of the misconceptions are well known, and have been publicized widely. Others seem to be less well known. Some are ones that I have gleaned from my own work with students. If there are misconceptions of which you are aware, but that I have not mentioned here, please feel free to contact me.
A Partial List of Misconceptions that are Relevant to Learning Evolution
Note: Not all of these have adequate descriptions at this time. As we produce additional descriptions, we will provide links to them here.
The Underpinnings of Evolution:
Genes are some kind of mystical particle that carries a trait
Changes in DNA are somehow different from "mutations"
Individual animals "mutate" into something else (so "transitional forms" are individuals caught in the act of changing). OSO
Adults can mutate
Mutations cannot accumulate
Mutations are always deleterious
How Evolution works
Evolution is a theory about the origin of life. 2
Natural selection gives organisms what they "need." 2
Natural selection acts for the good of the group 3
Species spontaneously change into new species 5
When a species evolves, every individual changes at once
When a new species evolves, the old species no longer exists
Evidence for Evolution (and arguments used to refute evolution):
Evolution is a theory in crisis and is collapsing as scientists lose confidence in it. 2
Gaps in the fossil record disprove evolution. 2
Evolutionary theory is incomplete and is currently unable to give a total explanation of life. 2
The theory of evolution is flawed, but scientists won't admit it. 2
Evolution is nonscientific because it is tautalogous 3
If you disprove evolution, creationism wins by default 1
Complex organs, such as eyes, cannot evolve 5
The probability of a complex structure evolving is the same as the probability of each of its parts evolving all at once and assembling immediately
Results of Evolution
Implications of Evolution:
Religion and Evolution:
Evolution denies the existence of God. 3
Teachers should teach "both sides" and let students decide for themselves. 2
Evolution is itself "religious," so requiring teachers to teach evolution violates the First Amendment. 2
3. http://www2.evansville.edu/evolutionweb/misconceptions1.html [University of Evansville EvolutionWeb; no longer operational]
OSO. additional pages developed for this site
last updated: Jan. 16 2009