Believing and understanding

Larry Moran criticizes a dramatic Youtube video that purports to show how evolution works. He asks if we think this helps or hurts the cause of evolution education. Speaking as an evo-devo guy (forgive me, Larry), I’d also say it hurts. Without understanding the mechanisms of morphological change underlying the simulation, it’s useless. It doesn’t explain anything about the roots of the variation it’s demonstrating or the principles of the propagation of genetic change through a population — funny faces shift generation after generation, with no explanation given. It asserts change without showing how. That is not science.

This is also where I have problems with the Nisbet/Mooney thesis. I presume this kind of simplified, cartoony presentation is what they think we need more of, and that scientists ought to just swallow their pride arrogance and go along with the “framing”…but there’s a point where simplification and flash become the antithesis of good science. I don’t want people to believe in evolution, I want them to understand it.

Would the cartoon help them believe? Maybe.

Does it help them understand? No.

If you want to grasp the goals of scientists (and, tellingly, the goals of atheists), you have to understand that distinction between believing and understanding.


  1. says

    you have to understand that distinction between believing and understanding.

    Agreed. I try to avoid believing in anything – I’d like to understand, and failing that, to trust that some other person does understand.

  2. Russell says

    PZ writes:

    Without understanding the mechanisms of morphological change underlying the simulation, it’s useless. It doesn’t explain anything about the roots of the variation.

    When Darwin wrote, he also didn’t understand how variation occurred. In every scientific field, there are facts that are observed that lack an explanation, either because the causal mechanism behind them remains an area of research, or because the fact seems primitive. That also happens in presentation, as an artifact of teaching. “Oh, we’ll get to that later.” Or, “you’ll need to study X to understand that.”

    Of course, that’s no excuse for having modern chimpanzees evolve into other modern primates. :-P

  3. Colugo says

    What are the views on Richard Dawkins’ biomorphs, Karl Sims’ Block Creatures, and other kinds of digital organisms and artificial life – are these useful for informing the public, training students, and/or scientific research?

    Karl Sims’ block creatures

  4. MarcusA says

    “I don’t want people to believe in evolution, I want them to understand it.”

    This quote gets to the crux of the matter. The message to creationists should be about education more than the specifics of evolution. Biology education is the great litmus test for general education. Make people interested in education and evolution will follow. The curious mind cures itself of delusional thoughts.

  5. says

    I think the video sucked, but mostly because it didn’t make a lot of sense. It’s ugly as well, and things move way too fast for me to have any real concept of what’s going on.

  6. says

    Why oh why are we always expected to play to the lowest common denominator? I’m with PZ and Stephen Jay Gould on this one: Make science accessible to the public, but never compromise on good science by over-simplifying or ‘spinning’.

  7. says

    I can understand what the video was trying to do but I think because it doesn’t go in to the detail you mentioned it opens itself up to criticism which will probably hurt the cause.

  8. says

    Let me put the contrary view.

    One of the things I tell the students at the beginning of senior-level physical chem. is that they will shortly be learning that many of the things we taught them in Freshman Chem. are actually false. You really can’t do equilibrium calculations in solution using concentrations. Hybrid orbitals are much less useful than we pretend they are. The van der Waals gas law doesn’t work, even for nearly-ideal substances. Etc. Those ideas were introduced for heuristic purposes; they have some connection to the truth, and help you understand more advanced concepts, but they aren’t actually true. You can’t get to tetrahedral carbon simply without hybrid orbitals, for example, but nobody doing electronic structure theory uses them.

    So, yeah, a simulation of evolution that skips the bits that biologists regard as important isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it gets the basic ideas of natural selection and population change over time across. Remember, when trying to communicate evolution to the American public, we’re not starting from zero, we’re starting from -10; from a set of myths maliciously disseminated by the fundamentalist Christian community.

  9. Russell says

    PZ writes, and I mostly agree:

    I don’t want people to believe in evolution, I want them to understand it.

    The problem is that science is large. Very, very large. How much of science do we expect even scientists to understand, outside their own fields? I doubt more than a small minority of biologists understand Gödel’s theorems. In fact, I think one would be optimistic to think that the majority of people with graduate degrees in math and computer science understand them. Personally, I would not claim to understand quantum mechanics well, despite an undergraduate and graduate course in the topic.

    And for people who aren’t scientists? Only a small minority could explain what a chromosome is.

    Yet… you want people to understand evolution?

    It’s good to want things. :-)

  10. says

    This is how I interpreted the video: It wanted to show that the arbitrary distinction between microevolution and macroevolution doesn’t exist, which some creationist like to make (accepting the former, discarding the latter). And if this video was only made to illustrate the point that “(micro-)evolution” over many generations can/will likely end in speciation.

    Now, of course this is only an illustration, not a proof or anything.

    What about the iconic picture for evolution that shows an ape-like creeate slowly evolving into homo sapiens, in 5-10 discrete steps. I see thi video in the same category as that picture. It doesn’t proove anything, and the picture itself does not make you “understand”, but in the right context, it helps to illustrate a concept. And if you can illustrate it well, it’s going to stick.

    Pictures/Illustrations by themselves don’t teach fundamental uderstanding either, but in the right context, they work wonders. Maybe all that is missing from the video is context.

  11. Great White Wonder says

    That video was poorly designed. I got the point but the presentation was mostly baffling and raised more unnecessary questions then it answered.

  12. says

    I also found that video inadequate.

    One thing that most simulations, or at least demonstrated simulations, don’t do, is add structure. They can vary a set of predefined parameters, but they don’t go further than that. In creationist terms, they demonstrate microevolution and not macro evolution, and for once, you can define the difference: macro adds new parameters, micro only adjusts their values, and most simulations do the latter (it’s a heck of a lot easier to program).

    Of course, we know what the biological mechanism for “macro” evolution is, its just harder to demonstrate with an animation or simulation. Unfortunately, animations like this one may simply end up reinforcing the idea that evolution can only make tweaks to an existing structure.

  13. says

    Exactly. I had no idea what that video was about. I think they thought they were “simplifying.” But it didn’t make any sense.

  14. caynazzo says

    I agree with PZ. I’m a science writer and scientist, and constantly run up against editors who want my pieces tainted with that distracting human interest angle everyone seem’s so fond of. Call it the Oprah curse. I want to write and communicate science, not Mrs. Bartleby’s personal struggle with diabetes. However, it is a way to put the science into context, make it identifiable.

    However, it’s my assumption that people are generally believers not understanders. If you can’t wrap the science in the comfy personal interest story, you settle on the “wow” factor with flashy lights and wicked cool images. You create a spectacle and hope a little content breaks through the noise.

  15. Sonja says

    People who don’t yet understand the concept of time (i.e. IDists) might get something out of watching this video.

  16. says

    The video didn’t strike me as “dramatic” so much as cheesy and condescending.

    It shares an ideological underpinning with those “how to behave” filmstrips from the 1950s.

  17. MadHatter says

    I just cosponsored Nisbet as a speaker for a joint Communications-Biological Sciences lecture, and we had a very interesting discussion. He doesn’t advocate overly simplistic explanations, but he wants biologists to think more about how to communicate with non-biologists. Personally I think there is very little good science writing aimed at the general public. For example it does little good taking an authoritarian stance on evolution with someone who does not accept your authority, and in fact has another authority (religion). It is easy for such people to see such a debate as one authority vs. another, so why shouldn’t both be presented? That would be an example of a poor way to frame evolution.

    But as someone who has spent many years teaching biology to non-biologists, and evaluating and field testing all manner of explanations, I did not find anything particularly special about U-tube video.

  18. says

    The video did explain one common question among people who don’t understand evolution (and one common canard tossed out by IDists). Why don’t we ever see dogs giving birth to cats? To a naive reader, this is a good question. The fact that the variations that one would see from generation to generation would tend to be small helps to explain at least one aspect of how evolution works.

    I don’t mind the video. Sure, it’s oversimplified, and in some ways incorrect, but it answers some questions of the naif.

  19. Joe Shelby says

    Harbison: is Physics any different when freshman Mechanics teaches Newton, all of which has to be unlearned as you get into relative and quantum physics?

    THAT is why science also teach about standard deviations and measures of “acceptable uncertainty”. That is why we teach science as the scientific method and how it allows for acceptable uncertainty. Then the 17th-19th century approximations of science, good up until you get into certain particular details (the very big or the very small, in physics), had to be replaced. If anything, what has replaced them is also utterly wrong beyond a certain error threshold, and something else must replace them at that point. But they’re right enough within an acceptable range.

    For example, while learning Freshman physics, much is taught on the Newtonian assumption of “perfectly elastic collisions”, which are inherently not the case, but to get to the point of correctly modeling inelastic collisions requires a lot of electro-magnetic properties for details that are, at the Freshman physics level, negligible. Every Mechanics test I ever had in high school and first year physics stressed “elastic collisions” and “ignore friction” (until it too was taught).

    So it all depends on how it’s taught. If it’s presented as absolute fact, then it’s something that must be unlearned and the apparent contradiction becomes a weapon by the anti-science crowd. If it’s taught (as physics was taught to me) as an acceptable approximation that doesn’t account for all details, then one can accept the change as one reaches the point of learning about those details.

    So too, I now see your point, biology.

    The question then becomes what is “enough” understanding at the right levels of education. Chemistry has it’s approximations at the middle school, high school, freshman, and graduate levels. Physics certainly has its own as well.

    Here’s the important bit: so does biology.

    The problem is that the “controversy” surrounding evolution as a political tool has so tainted the school systems that the local schools ignore the acceptable levels of understanding and exposure that the school science committees, supported by scientists and educators at the collegiate level, have standardized on. There is no reason a 7 year old can’t understand Darwinian natural selection, and more importantly common descent. No reason at all.

    Except politics.

    And politics has so damaged this nation’s understanding of biology that we are reaching this point of having to feel like we have to start over at the “cartoon level” with the whole country, because if we try to just start over with the current generation, their ignorant parents and local school administrators, all driven by religiously influenced politics, will resist and the cycle of ignorance continues…

  20. says

    The Boston Museum of Science used to have an abstract simulation of evolution in which graphic features, mapped to some abstraction of traits with fitness advantages against a battery of equally abstract perils would run for however many generations you cared to watch. The user could interact by an initial choice of traits and by periodic input to vary the mix of perils. The damn little wiggly icons would morph one way for a while and then if you changed any of the selection pressure parameters, they’d start morphing in some other direction.
    I was hypnotized by it. I felt it confirmed things I already knew about the theory but I have no idea what portion of the patrons “got it” or even liked it. It was mothballed years ago. nowadays whatever hardware it took [perhaps a mini] would be outperformed by your Treo so it ought to be a free java program…but I have not seen one.

    I once modified Conways “game of life” to support competeing populations but it is such a simplified substrate that years-long runs on massive systems might be needed to get to mix-n-match self replication…if it could happen at all.

    The basic ideas of evolution have of course had many successful applications in programming and other non-biological domains but do those successes model clearly enough for acceptance of the ideas by general audiences? Probably not.

    Abstraction is not simplification and simplification is not abstraction. What would really impress me would be an abstraction that did not start from the point where the equivilent of DNA, transcription and mitosis already were givens but rather those feats of biochemistry had to emerge from even simpler abstractions.

  21. Joe Shelby says

    One paragraph was edited into incoherency, so I’ll rewrite it:

    THAT is why science also teaches about standard deviations and measures of “acceptable uncertainty”. That is why we teach science as the scientific method and how it allows for acceptable uncertainty. Then the 17th-19th century approximations of science, good up until you get into certain particular details (the very big or the very small, in physics), can be replaced in students minds as they get older. If anything, we are pretty sure that what has replaced them is also utterly wrong beyond a certain error threshold, and something else must replace them at that point. But they’re right enough within an acceptable range.

  22. says

    You know, as a lay person I found the first part of the film confusing, because it doesn’t at all clarify why the changes were occurring, though I thought the cartoon style claymation would be catchy for kids… and I could EXCUSE that, but the second part, which shows humans evolving from chimps was problematic. I think we need to be very clear that although we are evolved from primates, we aren’t evolved from chimps, but that they are our evolutionary cousins. Not that I find anything particularly offensive if we WERE evolved from monkeys (or apes) mind you, just that it’s the kind of oversimplified nonsense that creationists latch on to, and it still presents humans as some sort of evolutionary pinnacle, instead of just another animal on the tree of life.

  23. Jeff Chamberlain says

    I wonder if “understand” is too broad to be helpful, and whether “belief” is always appropriately modified by an implied “mere.”

    As an amateur, I “understand” some evolution — but not at a level that a biologist would, and it is surely neither possible nor expected that an amateur would “understand” evolution at such a level. I “understand” how internal combustion engines work, but I’m no mechanic.

    And I “believe” lots of things I don’t “understand” in any detailed way, and I’ll bet everyone else does, too. This is not a bad thing, provided that the grounds for the belief aren’t bogus (and providing that I’m not expected to “understand” them for some operational purpose). I have little real undestanding of much of the genetics Dr. Myers writes about, but I believe him when he describes the findings.

  24. Whimsical Monkey says

    I disagree. I found the video to be an interesting visualization of the phenotypes of a simulated population. Could it be better? Yes, but make your own! Improve it, evolve it! Science needs to make students want to find out more, and I think this video may do that. Relax, you old white guys. Make room for a little diversity in how science is taught.

  25. AL says

    In the sidebar on YouTube, the author explains what the video is supposed to be about. He is claiming that evolution is an intrinsic part of any system in which you have diverse self-replicators and a selection mechanism acting on them. So in other words, he assumes these things are already present in the system, thus why he didn’t explain anything about genetics or the environment, or many other details.

    He then goes on to show how this simple setup can produce dramatic change over long periods of time.

    So in fairness, the video was meant to address a particular detail, not be a full-blown documentary series on evolution itself.

  26. efp says

    As an educator (in physics), I certainly strive for understanding from my students. But as a public strategy, I’m with Russel and Jeff above. Understanding is hard work. Hardly anyone that’s not a scientist or educator is going to take the time to understand evolution, or quantum mechanics, or chemical equilibriums.

    It’s not belief I would like to shoot for so much as trust. When someone’s car breaks down, they go to a mechanic. When they get sick, they go to a doctor. Why don’t they trust biologists when it comes to the origin of species? Or geologists when it comes to the age of the earth? Or physicists when it comes to the history of the universe?

    Because there are very profitable organizations who benefit from them believing otherwise. I think this is the reasoning behind the big push if “Nature of Science” education. It doesn’t seem to be working.

  27. says

    Ok, so it wasn’t executed perfectly – it loses points on clarity, it glosses over a lot of important detail, it does appear condescending in some ways. But it does a fair job of portraying the *scope* of evolutionary time and change. Getting that one concept across creates a pathway toward larger mindshare on evolution.

    As others have pointed out, half of America rejects evolution, and most of the remaining half that buys in are fuzzy on the details. So first we build the footpath to true understanding with video clips. We can pave and widen it later.

  28. Joe Shelby says

    Of course, the use of the word “believe” it itself problematic because it ignores the reality of how science works and how scientists accept the evidence.

    They may use the word “believe” in a layman’s way to describe how they accept the conclusions of other scientists and the community as a whole, but really the proper word I think is “trust”.

    I don’t “believe” a damned thing a scientist tells us in a book or a published paper. I *trust* that the scientific process followed by the authors and reviewed by people with similar experience and verified by others through experiment is accurate. I trust the process, so I trust, to a degree of acceptability for my own application, that it is correct.

    I don’t want people to “believe” evolution. I do, like PZ, want them to understand it to an acceptable degree, or at least a degree to where they understand it can’t possibly be to blame for any of the evils of the men of the world. I want them to trust the science and that the scientists who study it and write about it know what they’re talking about.

    I want them to understand that even when the science, and scientists in particular, have been wrong in the past, that it is science that corrects our understanding, not trumped up lies by religious writers or corporate flunkies with political motivations.

  29. Kseniya says

    Yes… Creationism not only plays to the lowest common denominator, it feeds on it (or tries to). But what does “lowest common denominator” mean in this context? I think it means, “Pretty much anybody who doesn’t have the hard-earned scientific background to truly comprehend the mechanisms behind evolution and the mountains of detailed evidence that support the theory.”

    We all know the primary creationist tactic is the appeal to incredulity and emotion. It say, “This can’t be possible – I mean, just lookit! Besdies, who’s your daddy: some dirty old monkey, or God The Alimightly Father?” while fastidiously avoiding any questions that start with the words How or Why. What we need are materials and presentations that counter-balance this tactic, that illustrate the truth and beauty of evolutionary process while providing some basic insight into the How and the Why.

    Though this particular video may not be quite on the money, the intentions are good and the direction is positive. If at first you don’t succeed…

  30. Scott Hatfield says

    Here’s a general problem. Any video that shows morphing individuals or images that are likely to be interpreted as morphing individuals is likely to mislead, since what evolves is not individuals, but populations. But (unlike Darwin) most people don’t employ population thinking; as Mayr notes, they often carry some sort of typological notion about species.

    It’s a serious challenge for young people (and laypeople in general) to not think this way! Even a wonderful effort like PBS’s ‘Evolution’ series is vulnerable. There are ‘morphing’ segments in this program, animations with whales and hummingbirds that, if context is not provided, will mislead: the student will think that a wolf-like creature literally becomes a whale….SH

  31. says

    I don’t want people to believe in evolution, I want them to understand it.

    I think you have put your finger on a far larger problem, one grossly exacerbated by the modern trend in primary and secondary education to “teach the test.” Teachers give the answers. Students get the answers. Nobody asks questions. Schools sell answers, not thought or knowledge. Standardized testing as THE measure of a school’s success (and funding) leaves little room for understanding, rather than simply believing the answer is “b”.

  32. Rich says

    You don’t need pathetic level of detail just-so stories unless you’re a witch like Kristine.

  33. MartinC says

    The real value of the scientific method is that it is the best means we have yet devised of counteracting sophistry in regards arguments about how the natural world operates. That is the reason why the Gish gallop fails and why Intelligent Design supporters cannot publish.
    That said I think there is a serious questionmark over how to get the evolutionary message across. Like a lot of scientists I have serious problems about this video but in reality it isnt aimed at me. Its aimed at the sort of people that think evolution is all about random processes, and in that sense it has some positive value (I still hate the end part where a chimp evolves into a hippy!).
    I prefer the following two videos, still not perfect in terms of integrating environmental conditions to the end outcome, but still a lot better than the one we are debating.

  34. Mooser says

    If I had the temerity, which I most definitely do not, to suggest a line of arguement which may prove sucessful against God-bots it would be: do not deny attempt to prove or disprove the existence of God, instead try to get the God-bot to prove that he believes in God. In otherwords, don’t say “There is no God”, instead say “Of course you don’t believe in God, You are just going along with what you feel is in your interest. Prove to me you believe in God, cause I don’t think you do”.
    In almost every case where I have used this technique, the God-bot has ended up admitting that their belief in God is totally conditional! That is, they say they believe, because doing so confers advantages, or they think it will. Try it today, and you’ll see how well it works.

  35. notthedroids says

    IDers will claim the video does nothing to refute ID’s claims.

    Regarding the video, I prefer my pop-science videos to be a little quieter and more thought-provoking.

    Like Powers of Ten. The original seems to have been removed from youtube, but here is the Simpsons version:

    [Is this the clue to which state Springfield resides in?]

  36. MikeCaptnKidd says

    This video was excellent, precisely because of what it DOESN’T explain.

    In a 3 minute video, to a scientifically illiterate audience, it communicates an huge amount of information. To people who understand the concepts, it looks incredibly simplistic and innacurate, but it’s the simplicity that makes it work.

    Consider your typical high school graduate, non-scientist ID believer. No understanding of how evolution actually works, but they can appreciate the argument that we see cow and dog breeding all the time, but never a new “kind”. Case closed, evolution is make-believe.

    This video explains a few key points. Perhaps most important is the number of generations. Not great-great-great-great grandchildren, but immensely long periods of time. Given all that time, a whole bunch of micro-evolution becomes macro-evolution, without a dog ever giving birth to a cat.

    Oh, and geographic isolation may be important. Ah, so that’s why, if we evolved from apes, there are still apes! Apes were in one square, we were in another, then we got back together. It makes sense.

    And finally, the big point…if that works for teddy bear faces, it can work for primates the same way. Hmmmm.

    All in all, that’s a huge amount of new concepts to hit someone with in 3 minutes. How the changes happen, and what environmental pressures drive them, is beside the point…the point is that microevolution and population separation, over enough time, can make new “kinds”. Adding extra info would just make it confusing, and it would be less effective. I think this simplified communication is a good example of the type of thing professional biologists have trouble doing. When you know so much, it’s easy to forget what simple concepts trip up people who don’t understand the most basic starting concepts.

    Now, if it were a one hour show, or a 200 page book, those would be great things to add.

  37. Jason F says

    As others have noted in this thread, expecting the public to “understand evolution” rather than just “accepting it” (“believing” may not be the proper term) may be asking too much.

    Does the general public understand tort law? What about the corporate tax code? Quantum physics? HTML code? Diesel mechanics?

    People tend to “understand” what they need to understand, and hire experts to understand the rest of it for them. Heck, we even do that in science with a myriad of sub-disciplines.

    Does the guy on the loading dock driving the forklift need to understand evolutionary biology? What about your accountant? Or the guy cooking your dinner?

    They’re about as likely to understand evolutionary biology as you are to understand how to run a loading dock, do corporate taxes, or make a souffle.

    Now, the other side of this is that I do think it’s reasonable to expect anyone who criticizes evolutionary biology to understand it. If someone is going to lobby a school board to “teach the controversy” or actually be on a school board and push that position, then yes, they’d damn well better know what they’re talking about.

    To the rest of the public, it may be reasonable to say “If you’re interested, please ask questions and I’ll do my best to answer them. Otherwise, trust that the scientific community knows what it’s doing.”

  38. MikeM says

    PZ, I really think you hit the core of why people become religious. It takes about 5-10 minutes to explain Christianity, tops; try to explain how, say, photosynthesis works in 5-10 minutes.

    Now, try to explain how organisms evolved mechanisms that allow photosynthesis to work in 5-10 minutes.

    Good luck.

    People are fundamentally lazy. It is just so much easier to accept “God did it” than it is to actually figure out how things work. If there’s a short-cut, people will take it. “God did it” is just so easy.

    It’d be fantastic if someone could figure out a way to explain natural selection in 5-10 minutes.

  39. Steve_C says

    Maybe some people just need to read some books…

    here’s a review:,CST-BOOKS-evolution01.article


    Wilson does for evolution what Steve Levitt does for economics in his book Freakonomics. The similarity is not coincidental, given that many of the key concepts of economics, such as the role of competition in the marketplace, have their roots in the same intellectual soil that gave rise to Darwin’s theory.

    Evolution for Everyone deserves to enjoy the same success as Freakonomics. It is ultimately a deeper and more informative book than Freakonomics and, in its own way, every bit as lively and provocative.

    Evolution for Everyone is built around explaining the relationships in everything from groups of molecules to groups of people, especially the balance between cooperation and individual self-interest; evolution applies to societies, not just individuals.


    By David Sloan Wilson

  40. says

    I think the Nisbet and Mooney article’s point about ‘framing’ is not so much about the distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘inderstanding’ as it is about presenting issues to people in a framework whose importance they accept.

    If evolution is framed inappropriately, many people won’t take the trouble to consider it seriously. So we have to work on the framing problem before we can succeed at the understanding problem.

  41. kmarissa says


    I think a big part of this is that it’s so much *easier* to just “have faith” than to learn. When you think about it, the precepts of Christianity are pretty confusing. If you really try to understand them, they don’t make much sense (Okay, so Adam and Eve were punished for doing wrong before they knew right from wrong, so God cursed all their children for it, but then he wanted to forgive them so he made a virgin pregnant so his son could be born and killed, in order to let God forgive the people he had cursed… and etc). The point is, you don’t HAVE to understand Christianity (or any religion, really). All you have to do is say, “God works in mysterious ways,” and have *faith* that God knows what he (she? it?) is doing.

    Learning is hard; faith is easy. Much much easier than actually understand anything. That is, except for a handful people out there who like to ask questions and find out the answers just a bit too much.

  42. ice weasel says

    Speaking as someone who is not on the side that needs convincing here that video was beyond lame. I watched half of it and besides the visuals only attentuating my ADHD, I have no idea what was supposed to be happening there.

    Bad idea. Do it again. And this time, actually explain something.

  43. N.Wells says

    This is another video created by CDK007, isn’t it? Many of his or her earlier efforts have been fantastic, and are typically wonderful, clear, simple, presentations that offer a easy visceral understanding of complex arguments. I’m very envious of CDK’s ability to pare complex presentations down to a bare minimum.

    The animation under discussion is not so great, but he’s trying to build off animations like this one, which I think is much better:

    He (or she) has done a bunch that I really like:

    This one is a little less light on its feet but it has a nifty use of Hovind to illustrate mutation:

    and a little funnier and less sciency

    I’m not too keen on all the music as it seems to make watching the video less of an intellectual exercise and more like watching an ad, but complaining seems very petty given the general high quality of the presentations. We need far more of these, so I’m more than willing to give a pass to the one under discussion.

  44. Sastra says

    I was much more pleased with the video than I thought I would be after reading your review of it. I thought it managed to get across some key concepts behind some major misunderstandings — and as for being quick and confusing, young audiences weaned on MTV are unlikely to have problems with the constant flash. I had feared that this was another “watch one species morph into another species” show — which only succeeds in convincing people that individuals themselves evolve, and that there is a goal to the process. I do agree with others that that bit at the end, where chimps turn into other modern primates, may have undid the good of the earlier bit.

    However, I thought the most glaring drawback was the title: “Evolution for IDiots.” No, no, no. Snide little nicknames do not belong in an educational video aimed at the people you’re calling names — or those who aren’t sure of the subject. It not only looks amateur, it will turn off an audience composed of folk who don’t know the reason for the hostility, and tend to give respect to those who show it.

  45. N.Wells says

    Sorry, I missed MartinC’s reference to CDK’s animations earlier in the thread.

  46. Caledonian says

    Most people are believers instead of being understanders.

    We need to get over the idea that the majority ought to rule and tell the mindless minority to sit down and shut up. Least-common-denominatorism is what led the U.S. from being the most-informed and politically-active country in history to our present state.

  47. thwaite says

    Given Scott’s comments (#30) I had to watch the video to see if it really could *entirely* omit a population perspective. I agree strongly with Scott that this is foundational to understanding evolution.

    I don’t see that that the video omits it. The four populations in differing environments … seems OK. Although the conceptual flow from that to the sequential generations is, um, fuzzy. By the way, WTF is a “logical” population? Maybe “local” population? – that’s too much detail.

    I see the intuition they’re striving to build. But I don’t know that a naif would see it.

  48. says

    If you want to grasp the goals of scientists (and, tellingly, the goals of atheists), you have to understand that distinction between believing and understanding.

    How telling I find that, as I consistently hear from believers that if I ‘only understood’ what they were talking about, I’d do a complete about-face & become a soldier in their little army.
    But they insist I don’t, regardless of how I can demonstrate clearly that I do comprehend their inanities, or that comprehension isn’t agreement.

  49. says

    I always say “Evolution is not for you to believe in. Evolution is a fact if you believe in it or not. It is a fact if 100% of the world doesn’t believe in it”.

    If everyone thinks the moon is made of cheese it doesn’t make it true.

  50. says

    This is what I write on my blog:

    I think I’ll stop the movie [when showing it in class of science-fearing adult non-majors taking BIO101] a moment before the first chimp appears. Until that moment the animation, though not 100% accurate, and quite oversimplified, is GREAT for a visceral understanding of evolution. We can debate neutral selection and population sizes, but that is what we do. For a regular citizen uninterested in science, this brief movie is sufficient to “grok” evolution. This is a great example of “visual framing” (as opposed to language-based framing). You don’t have to tell all the science. You dont’ have to have your science 100% accurate. But you hit a nerve, and you end up with a convert. Nothing more is needed, though if anyone gets interested, there is plenty of information out there.

  51. sparc says

    If evolution is framed inappropriately, many people won’t take the trouble to consider it seriously. So we have to work on the framing problem before we can succeed at the understanding problem.

    I would concede to that point if we were talking about new discoveries rather than a 150 year old proven theory. Indeed, much of Darwin’s own writing was framing evolution with examples that laymen could grasp.

  52. Kseniya says

    What is a “logical” population? Well, I’d say the film-makers have borrowed a term from computing here.

    The populations are logical as opposed to physical, as in logical disk vs. physical disk. No tangible (physical) locational or environmental attributes or conditions have been attached to the populations. The divisions between populations in the film are arbitrary and abstract, and are made only to demonstrate how isolated populations diverge. The film makes no attempt to impose any real-word type of explain on how and why the populations are isolated from each other because, for the purpose of this film, all that matters is that they ARE.

    That purpose may have been better served by a less esoteric term, like “hypothetical” or “sample” or “imaginary”…but there it is. XD

  53. Deb says

    ” but the second part, which shows humans evolving from chimps was problematic. I think we need to be very clear that although we are evolved from primates, we aren’t evolved from chimps, but that they are our evolutionary cousins. ”

    I can’t believe more people aren’t jumping all over this! This part of the video cancelled out anything beneficial gleaned from the beginning of the video!

    I can just see ID-iots watching this video, all enthralled until the very end, where they slap their knees and say “See? They are trying to say we evolved from the damn monkeys!!!”

  54. Don Cox says

    It would be useful to have an animation that starts with three or four identical primitive primates, and then shows them each morphing into a different type of modern primate (including man).

  55. says

    I liked it. I think being critical because it didn’t explain enough is misguided. Scientists and lay people steeped in this stuff would be more comfortable with a long lecture about the processes and the details and the exceptions and the latest research, and that’s fine. But that’s not who this is for.

    The video is very good at showing (rather than just telling, which is the way a movie is better than a lecture) three things. First that the basic processes of evolution are familiar everyday things: death, reproduction, and how children are similar but different from their parents. Second, that if you repeat this process over a very, very, very large number of generations you start to see differences. And finally that there is no distinction between so-called micro- and macro-evolution.

    I know some commenters have argued that macro-evolution really is something different and that this simulation didn’t have the capacity for it. Maybe not but that’s not the point. The types of genetic changes associated with macro-evolution are indistinguishable at the generational level. The child with the novel crossover duplication that will lead to a whole new protein pathway still looks and acts just like its mother. It’s never a matter of dogs giving birth to cats.

    The condescending tone was probably not helpful, and the bit with the morphing apes made me cringe. But the tone can be changed and the application of the lessons from the simulation to real biology can be improved. As a work in progress I consider it a good attempt.

  56. says

    I recently got a response for the creator of the video to my critique of it. It reads as follows and can be found here as well;

    ” I think u r missing the point.

    evolution vs creationism isnt a scientific battle, its a PR battle.

    The creationist target people with no scientific education. If you say, well im not gonna dumb this down such than an idiot can understand it, you dont have to be a great strategist to realise you will never reach the target audience.

    Damn straight I knew exactly what i was doing when i made this vid. I could have included the code, the genetic drift fitness and all sorts of other shit, but the target audiance wouldnt have understood a word.

    Get with the programme! this is not a scientific debate among academic peers, you are not trying to win the hearts and minds of scientists, you are trying to win the hearts and minds of idiots with no scientific understanding.

    let me follow on by saying that there really arnt that many photos from 1 million years ago.

    Creationist make a big song and dance about ‘the only evidence that we came from primates is imaginary drawings’.

    Taking these two factors into account I did the best I could.

    This is not a scientific paper, its 2 mins of vid.
    I could have made it explicit, but then it would not have reached the target audience.

    Its like bein critical of those vids where one animal morphs into another cos evolution works over multiple generations, no one creature changing.”

  57. Carlie says

    Huh. I was about to defend it a bit, having finally watched it, but since the creator of the video was so…eloquent, I think I’ll just let him/her speak for him/herself.

  58. Caledonian says

    If you say, well im not gonna dumb this down such than an idiot can understand it, you dont have to be a great strategist to realise you will never reach the target audience.

    The target audience is idiots? Why exactly do we want them to come over to our side in the first place?

  59. thunderfoot says

    Some interesting comments on my vid fellas!

    The vid was not targeted at biologists, but at those who dont understand evolution.

    This vid was made to target at three common creationist arguments against evolution.
    1) evolution by chance is impossible
    2) I believe in micro but not macro evolution
    3) if we evolved from monkeys, why are there sill monkeys?

    The vid is the output of an evolutionary code I wrote. This is not a scientific publication. I do not include the code, the details of how it works etc. For the purpose of the video this is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is a logical system is set up where there is reproduction with variation and selective attrition from the environment. This is explicit and has none of the ambiguities of biological systems.

    This vid never says its gonna try to model life and I really dont understand why so many people have judged it as something it doesnt claim to be (strawman?).

    It is what it says, a logical system in which there is reproduction with variation, and environmental attrition. These are properties of life as well as this logical system.

    Between generation variations are so small to be essentially undetectable. Over 1000 they are not.

    As for the monkey morphin, regrettably there are not many picture of our primate ancestors from 1mn yrs back.
    I would have thought that this was a rather obvious practical limitation, and hence the tail end of the vid was a metaphor to show that the difference between us and our sister species are not that great.

    Personally I would be very happy to see someone make a vid. that better explains evolution to people with no scientific knowledge in less than 3 mins!

  60. thunderfoot says

    Just to be clear about the intellectual level of the people you have to convince, these are some comments posted on the above video.

    ‘Evolution works real good on a computer program.How many years does a dog or wolf,or any land animal for that matter, have to swim before it grows fins.Evolution is a fairy tale for adults.Praise God.’

    ‘When did the soul “evolve”.I take it you disagree with Genesis “God made them after their own kind”.’

    ‘1 Corinthians 15,500 eyewitnesses saw Jesus after his resurrection. How many eyewitnesses have seen macro-evolution? Praise God.’

    ‘If any of the thousands of vital organs evolved, how could the organism live before getting the vital organ? Without a vital organ, the organism is dead–by definition.’

    ‘If a reptile’s leg evolved into a bird’s wing, wouldn’t it become a bad leg long before it became a good wing? How could metamorphosis evolve?’

    ‘The coma should have been a period. 500eyewitnesses saw Jesus after His resurrection.They not only saw Him, they talked with Him and learned from Him.Most were still alive when 1 Corinthians was written so if it was a lie don’t you think someone would have said something? Praise God.’

    -I somehow dont think addition of the details of genetic drift in small populations is gonna be a decisive factor!

  61. Kseniya says

    The target audience is idiots? Why exactly do we want them to come over to our side in the first place?

    Ummm…strength in numbers? Like it or not, it’s how the world works.

    Yes, and furthermore:

    Because many of them vote. Because some of them will be enlightened. Because some of them will take what they have learned and use it to teach and influence others who have fallen under the spell of creationism for lack of information. Rinse. Repeat.