Oh god yes yes

Oliver Knevitt has compiled his Top 5 Most Irritating Terms In Evolution Reporting. Read it, science journalists! They are:

  1. “Survival of the fittest.” Up yours, Herbert Spencer!

  2. “Living fossil.” What does that even mean? Do you really think modern coelacanths look anything like the ones from 100 million years ago?

  3. “Missing link.” It assumes a chain, and implies it’s broken. And worse, it’s always getting used when a scientist discovers a new transitional form!

  4. “More evolved/less evolved.” Darwin himself rejected this view, and it’s also one that makes no sense. A clam is as “evolved” as I am.

  5. “Adaptation.” Ooh, interesting choice. Adaptation is real and important, but journalists do tend to overuse it and apply it inappropriately. There are people who’d call male impotence an adaptation.

I’d add “Darwinism”. We aren’t using Darwin’s model anymore; he had no accurate notion of how inheritance worked, for instance — genes and alleles, the stuff of most modern theory, are not present anywhere in his works.

“Darwinian” is also problematic. It does have a specific, technical meaning, but it’s often applied thoughtlessly to every process in evolution.

Let’s also add the usual yellow journalistic trait of turning everything into a “revolution” or a complete disproof of all that has gone before. Asking the question, “Was Darwin Wrong?” is stupid and misleading. Claiming that evo-devo or epigenetics or genomics or molecular biology will completely “revolutionize” or overturn antiquated notions or throw the entire field of evolutionary biology into complete chaos are also nonsense — so far those sub-disciplines have reinforced and modified appropriately an understanding of evolution that was forged in the 1930s. If something really revolutionary comes up, you’ll know it because the mobs of excited scientists flocking to the new idea and turning it into significant advances in our understanding will make it obvious.


  1. dianne says

    Can I add another? “Good gene/bad gene (or good trait/bad trait)”. Genes are “good” or “bad” depending on context. There is no definite “best” adaption that fits every species and environment.

  2. frankensteinmonster says

    Survival of the fittest less evolved living fossil missing link adaptation :p

  3. glodson says

    I like the “More evolved/less evolved” thoughts. It tells me that some people seem to think that Pokemon has a realistic take on evolution.

    Nevermind that it was intended to be a virtual bug catching game, with all that implies about the transformations of the Pokemon.

  4. says

    #1: Even the habit of announcing, “Scientists have found a gene for [complex phenotypic trait]” is incredibly annoying. No, they haven’t. They may have found an allele that contributes to it in some particular genetic background.

  5. says

    What about “lower life forms”?

    Otoh, survival of the fittest isn’t that bad–or that good. It’s closer to correct than a lot of the implicit teleology in evolution reporting (“less evolved” etc.), in any case.

    Glen Davidson

  6. Michael says

    4. “lower or primitive animals/species” instead of animals having retained more plesiomorphic character traits.

  7. saguache says

    I can’t wait until the term “sexual selection” starts popping up in the media. Well developed theory with plenty of demonstrable evidence will immediately become perverted by the perverts.

  8. robro says

    I would add the word “design” to that list. I see it in reports about evolution and biology frequently, sometimes even used by scientists. The word connotes an intentional act, and therefore a designer. This can be confusing to the general population particularly in the context of all this “intelligent design” mumbo-jumbo.

    I would second avoiding any of the several forms of “revolutionary” discovery I see in science journalism. In this vein are stories touting “curing X” where X is any disease that kills us, cancer being just the most common. All this panders to the publics graving for big news and the publishers quest for more eyeballs on the page rather than reporting science.

  9. Scott de Brestian says

    “Do you really think modern coelacanths look anything like the ones from 100 million years ago?”

    Well, yes, that’s exactly how it’s always been presented in the popular media I’ve read — modern coelacanths were basically identical to those from millions of year ago. If that’s not the case, I’d like to hear more.

  10. robro says

    And this just in: “Survival of the Fittest” Now Applies to Computers. A press release from Stony Brook University no less. Note how the article opens:

    Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” originally referred to natural selection in biological systems

    A quick trip to the Ppppfff would have confirmed that it’s Spencer’s theory, not Darwin’s. Don’t they teach fact checking?

  11. mobius says

    I read an article in the New York Times this morning on the recent genetic profile of the coelacanth. In the first paragraph there was this…

    …the colonization of land by fish that learned to walk and breathe air…

    Learned??? Really?

  12. says

    “Do you really think modern coelacanths look anything like the ones from 100 million years ago?” Well, they must have looked something like a coelacanth–I realize they are only in the same family as fossil coelacanth–because didn’t Prof. Smith recognize it straight off when Marjorie Latimer showed him the skin? It’s really too bad she couldn’t get anyone to preserve the whole body for her.

  13. jamessweet says

    Yeah I cringe every single time I read the first four. The last one, yeah, it is indeed an interesting choice… I probably would have left it off, because in this case it’s not a word that is the problem, it’s a concept (panadaptationism) that is the problem. With the other four, the phrase or word is just inherently bad.

  14. WharGarbl says


    What does that even mean? Do you really think modern coelacanths look anything like the ones from 100 million years ago?

    Um… yes?
    I thought that’s what make “living fossils” so fascinating, the fact that due to some combination of environmental variables, they’re so successful (or at least successful enough) that those species essentially stopped adapting (selective pressures forced them to stay as they were).

  15. cag says

    Darwin is to evolution as the Wright Brothers are to the Airbus A380. Laid the groundwork but, unlike religion, vastly improved by others.

  16. marcoli says

    #1 and #2 are commonly used by scientists, not just journalists. These two are really not irritating, in my opinion, just over-used without enough attention paid to important qualifiers.

    For #1 there really is selection against the less fit. We should always add though that it is far from 100% efficient, and genetic drift (mutation without selection) is very important also.

    For #2, none of the extinct coelacanths look identical to the species alive today, but some (not all) were pretty similar to the modern species. The term ‘living fossil’ is very over-used, and ignores details, but I think it is understandable.

  17. w00dview says

    What about “lower life forms”?

    This drives me up the wall. Lower relative to what? Us? The “lower/higher life forms” construct is just the secular version of humans being created in God’s image and being given dominion over all life. It is masturbatory “ooh we are the height of evolution, we are such special snowflakes!” Couldn’t a shark with it’s exquisitely honed senses of smell, hearing , sight and electrical detection be the height of evolution in terms of ultimate predator? Couldn’t the extreme specialisations in castes within ants, bees and termites be the height of social evolution? Couldn’t the birds of paradise be the height of sexual selection? We are just another branch of the tree of life. We are unique in some (not many) aspects but we share culture, tool use, play and even empathy with a plethora of so called lower animals. And when you properly understand how they live in their environment and face the daily challenges of survival they might not be as “lowly” as they first appear. Seeing evolution as a ladder of progress cheapens the wonder and complexity of the natural world just as much as goddidit.

  18. A. Noyd says

    I had an anthropology teacher once who also hated “survival of the fittest” and preferred “survival of the marginally adequate.”

  19. Johnny Vector says

    Slightly tangential, but my sooper-favorite goes like “Now we know that [trait X] is 27% genetic and 73% environmental.”

    Cause you can calculate anything with a 2 x 2 matrix.

  20. thisisaturingtest says

    “Survival of the fittest,” I think, is the worst, because it’s parroted so often by people who don’t understand that that’s a description of an outcome only, not a goal.

  21. umkomasia says

    I agree that the term “living fossil” is often problematical. But as a paleobotanist I can tell you that Ginkgo today looks just like Ginkgo 100 million years ago. It certainly has undergone genomic evolution, but it looks the same as it did then, and it lives in similar habitats.

  22. WharGarbl says

    My problem with “survival of the fittest” is that it implies a binary event.
    If you’re not fit, you go extinct, if you’re fit, you prosper.
    Of course, “reproductive success of a species is proportional to its fitness to the environment” just don’t have the same ring to it.

  23. hhanover says

    This is not original. It’s all the fault of the scientists. We should refer to things more tentatively. Like the Lamarckian misconception was somewhat corrected by the Erasmus Darwin misconception which was somewhat corrected by the Darwinian misconception which was somewhat corrected by the Neo Darwinian misconception. Open ended ness is scientific, certainty is fundamentalist. You would think I should have had more out of Deutsch, but that’s still pretty good.

  24. mothra says

    ‘Missing link’ has always grated on my nerves. First, because it does hark back to the ‘great chain of being’, an Aristolelian philosophy (not science) secondly, it conveniently obscures the fact that any member of a population of organisms that leaves descendants is a transition form, and thirdly, the phrase is usually coupled with ‘unexpected’ or ‘overturns previously held views’ etc. This hype implies a shallowness or tawdry nature to the very diligent and painstaking work of paleontologists.

  25. anteprepro says

    certainty is fundamentalist.

    Damn you statistics! You tell me something has a 99.5% chance of being true? Well what are you, fucking Fred Phelps? Come back when you are little more humble, Mr. Confidence Interval!

  26. gillt says

    I have to say that, in outreach work that I’ve done, I’ve succumbed to saying this. It’s just too convenient to say. Instead, however, I prefer the term basal. A lamprey is considered to be a more basal vertebrate than a human because it shares similar characteristics with what we expect the common ancestor of all vertebrates to have. We didn’t evolve from a lamprey; we share a common ancestor that is just as distant from lampreys as it is from humans, it only looks a lot more like a lamprey.

    This is a trivial distinction and creates confusion. The last common ancestor to humans and lampreys is basal. The term basal has the exact same problem in that it implies primitivity (primitive features, lower position on a tree) so shouldn’t refer to current/extant organisms, even if that current organism “looks” more similar to its common ancestor. The take-home message should be that lampreys, regardless their appearance, are still around happily evolving through time with the rest of us.

    “Do early branching lineages signify ancestral traits?” published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20(3): 122-128 (2005)

  27. says

    I think the very word “evolution” was mis-chosen at first. While in English or Chinese its etymological meaning can be ignored or even unnoticed, we speakers of romance languages are afflicted by the unavoidable notion that it comes from “EX+VOLVERE” (damn you FtB for not allowing the “small” HTML tag), which means “unroll”, “unravel”. Even when understood as a metaphor, it does imply that it is a preset phenomenom, a kind of “development” (whose etymology, btw, is much alike).

    Even worse, the word “evolution” seems to imply not only that it is preset, but also that it is reversible (the word *”involution” is an obvious antonym) and that it is a “positive” trend, adding to the teleological myth. And all kinds of weird ideas from otherwise well meaning people come from there, like the ones mentioned by PZ in the OP and such notions as that evolution has a direction, that it is predictable, that it can be stopped, that things like (anthropogenic) extinction or exotics invasions are “natural” and therefore unavoidable.

    I wish they had retained the old word “transformism”. It is clunky, but less misleading.

  28. says

    Off topic: Also damn you FtB for assuming users are so stupid they cannot “this” when they mean it and therefore all my "denotative quotes" were changed to “emphasis quotes”. Bad. (There, I tricked it. Yay for NCRs.)

  29. Amphiox says

    I agree that the term “living fossil” is often problematical. But as a paleobotanist I can tell you that Ginkgo today looks just like Ginkgo 100 million years ago. It certainly has undergone genomic evolution, but it looks the same as it did then, and it lives in similar habitats.

    Is the bark the same color? Are the leaves the same shade of green? Do the roots have the same texture?

    We only know that the parts that fossilize look “the same”.

  30. says

    I think the very word “evolution” was mis-chosen at first.

    That’s why Darwin avoided it at first. When it became obvious that it was going to be used for the process anyway, he capitulated to the inevitable.

    Glen Davidson

  31. umkomasia says


    Is that supposed to be a rebuttal of my point? Of course we don’t know every aspect of the fossil plants. We don’t know every aspect of most modern plants either. But we have a lot of Gingko fossils and they look the same in all the major observable features, so it’s a reasonable hypothesis. The fossils and modern examples also live in similar habitats as well. If you want to actually learn about it rather than making smart quips, read this book:


  32. David Marjanović says

    “Never say higher or lower”
    – Darwin, scribbled in a margin in the 1840s, IIRC.

    Well, yes, that’s exactly how it’s always been presented in the popular media I’ve read — modern coelacanths were basically identical to those from millions of year ago. If that’s not the case, I’d like to hear more.

    Well, 100 million years ago there were giant ones and toothless ones… look up Mawsonia and Megalocoelacanthus and Diplurus and Axelrodichthys and Libys. And Laugia.

    240 million years ago, there was a pretty wide diversity of shapes. Have a look at Rebellatrix and Whiteia.

    330 Ma ago it was even wider. Allenypterus might blow your mind.

    as a paleobotanist I can tell you that Ginkgo today looks just like Ginkgo 100 million years ago.

    Don’t exaggerate. Its leaves are much less divided, and it has larger and fewer fruits per twig. There was a paper in Nature or Science on this at least 10 years ago.

    There are lots of illustrations of Archaeopteryx sitting in an extant Ginkgo biloba. They’re all immediately recognizable as wrong, and not just because Archie was a really crappy percher.

    A lamprey is considered to be a more basal vertebrate than a human because it shares similar characteristics with what we expect the common ancestor of all vertebrates to have.

    Bullshit. When applied to tips as opposed to nodes, and often even when applied to nodes, “basal” means “far away from the clade I’m interested in at the moment”, nothing more.

  33. ChasCPeterson says

    I read the list here then clicked over to the link…I have comments.

    when I hear them used, I die a little. Though their effect is subtle, all of these terms perpetrate common myths about the way evolution works. The sooner they become extinct, the better!

    uh, without reading further, “adaptation” has no place on that list.
    Why, he actually uses the word in the ‘living fossil’ section!

    using the word adaptation instead of trait or character

    Ah, that’s the problem? The problem there is the misuse, not the term. Do I sense a Gouldian vibe?

    the hypothesis that women like pink because it is an adaptation to picking berries

    Oh look, our old friend the pink berry thing. Never gets old. So another thing he doesn’t like is flagrant panadaptationism. Again, not a problem with the term, thanks anyway Gouldians. And no, evolutionary psychology has not “ruined the term”. It’s the term for the very real concept it labels!

    The problem with the phrase “survival of the fittest”, in my view, is that it rather misrepresents the way that selection really works. This is because it isn’t really the survival of the fittest organism that drives evolution. It’s the death of the least fit organism.

    wut…gah! wow, that’s almost as wrong as the misconception being debunked, imo.

    It is not simply that those who preferred pink were more likely to survive to have offspring; it would necessarily mean that those who didn’t prefer pink would have to die. Which is… improbable, to say the least.

    Same thing. The guy doesn’t seem to really understand selection. It’s hardly about life-and-death at all; it’s about (in fact, it is) differential reproduction.

    So, the only one of these I have any fondness for (besides ‘adaptation’, I mean) is ‘living fossil’. In two cases, at least, for different reasons.
    One is the coelacanths. First, to answer your question, yes I do think the the modern ones look a hell of a lot like fossil ones, don’t you?

    But that’s not the reason: the point with coelacanths is that they were long and well known as fossils, and only as fossils, and were thought to be extinct for I forget, but at least 65 million years, before anybody (other than local East African fishers, of course) knew they were still alive. And that’s cool. It happened only 75 years ago, so I think “living fossil” is apt.
    The other case like this I can think of off the top of my head are the monoplacophoran mollusks, which showed up alive in 195(googles)2 after (sez here) 380 million years!
    I mean sure, in both cases the old and new are different species and biochemistries and nucleotide sequences, whatever. Of course. But here it’s the lineage that counts as a ‘living fossil’. imo.

    Second, horseshoe crabs, for prety much sentimental reasons. When I was a kid in NJ, my favorite place in the world was the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. (Still is, one of ’em.) Loved all of it, but one specific memory is a large slab of limestone with a single small exquisite fossil, of a horseshoe crab maybe 8 or 10 cm total length. But you could see its tracks in the rest of the slab (from Solnhofen? I think?) and retrace its last walk. And it was so cool to me that here was not only a fossil animal from the past turned to rock (cool enough), but also its behavior recorded in the rock, and the last behavior of its ancient life (if Solnhofen, like 150 million years ago). It brought that particular ancient individual to life in my mind even more than the dinosaur bones and the giant turtle etc. (the slab’s still there, btw)
    But, plus, I knew horseshoe crabs from the shore, living ones, and I even had a dried exoskeleton of a little one on a shelf at home. So, for me horseshoe crabs have always been ‘living fossils’.



  34. says

    I grant you the inaccuracy of “missing”, but I’ve always liked the chain/link imagery, we’re all linked, we’re all family. (And could never understand the people who don’t want to be animals/ part of nature. Why should we alone not “belong”?)
    Are we allowed other gripes? You know the tree of life animation. Beautiful, awe-and-wonder inspiring etc. But this springing apart of the “branches”? When it’s got to be pretty fuzzy and disorganised, and you can only trace a “tree” through it looking back. (I guess that brings up “species”…)

  35. chrislawson says

    All of those can be OK if used correctly except for the “more evolved/less evolved”, which is just wrong, wrong, wrong unless you are comparing creatures from vastly different times in Earth history.

    My favourite example of evolutionary misunderstanding was in a ST:TNG episode where the crew of the Enterprise start “devolving” into “primitive” life forms…which is bad enough, but made even more risible by the fact that one of the crew turned into *a freaking spider*, which isn’t even in the human ancestral line. This means he “devolved” to the Pre-Cambrian stage, then ran evolution forward again and turned into a gigantic spider (even though such a creature would be physically impossible).

  36. redmann says

    That super intellectual, awesome philosopher, scientific genius Vox Dei has decide you have thrown Darwin under the bus

  37. Menyambal --- son of a son of a bachelor says

    “Missing link” comes from an old view of life, called the “chain of being” and has nothing to do with evolution (which may be why we can’t find one). It’s like ragging a Christian about Egyptian gods.

    As for the linked author’s problem with “survival of the fittest”, I say that in most species, there are only two survivors out of a big generation’s worth of births—objecting to the narrowness of the term is just silly. I’ve only objected to the idea that only physical fitness, such as strength of muscle, counted in fights for dominance, and I usually rephrase it as “survival of those most suited”.

    As for us humans being “more evolved”, we’ve dropped our generation rate ‘way down since becoming larger, while the little critters have been knocking out new chances for evolution every year.

    BTW, the little early mammal in the vid really reminded me of my dog—I need to go mock him for being an evolutionary throwback.

  38. David Marjanović says

    from Solnhofen? I think?


    has decide you have thrown Darwin under the bus

    Newsflash: Theodore Beale talks about things he doesn’t understand. Also, sun setting in the west this evening, and experts predict it’ll rise in the east tomorrow morning. Film at 11.

  39. Amphiox says

    re @39;

    The old “chain of being” idea had no “missing” links (all the links were accounted for). The “missing” link idea came about when proto-evolutionary thought started to percolate into the older ideas and people tried to shoehorn the new ideas into the old worldview. It is the misshapen bastard offspring of an attempt to mate incompatible ideas.

    An early foray into accommodationism!