Short quiz on evolution


The BBC website has a short quiz consisting of seven true-false questions about evolution that seek to challenge many popular misconceptions. Although I am not a biologist, I do write about evolution from time to time so I took the quiz to see how many misconceptions I had. I got six out of the seven questions right.

But what I want to highlight is the seventh question that I got ‘wrong’. I knew that I would get my response to that one marked wrong even as I answered it. Take a look at the quiz and you will see what I mean.

Comments

  1. Jean says

    I see what you mean and I also got it ‘wrong’. I got the other ones right as they are pretty basic for anyone who has any interest in science.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    6/7 here too, but I got the monkeys question wrong. Surely the last common ancestor would be classified as a monkey, no? Or does “monkey” only mean modern non-hominoid simians?

    I got the last question “right” because…depends on the religion. I don’t see how they are necessarily incompatible. That would mean that no conceivable religion is compatible with evolution, which seems a huge stretch.

  3. OverlappingMagisteria says

    I got one wrong only because I miss-clicked. They seemed to unnecessarily randomize the order of the True/False choices in each question, so my quick assumption that “True” should be on top messed me up.

    I disagree that the last question is marked “wrong.” Religion is a very broad category and is flexible to allow pretty much anything.

  4. Jean says

    Religion is unchanging, unquestioned dogma and faith which is incompatible with science. Evolution is science and based on facts and if new facts contradict our current understanding, the theory is changed to accommodate the new facts. That is incompatible with religion unless your definition of religion is so broad that it becomes meaningless (like atheism is a religion).

  5. jazzlet says

    7/7 because I knew what their answer would be, even though I don’t agree, which was cheating I guess. On the other hand I don’t think it’s really a question about evolution, so I think they are being disingenuous including it.

    Rob@#2
    The last common ancestor of apes and monkeys was neither an ape nor a monkey, any more than a horse drawn carriage is a train or car though it is a common ancestor of both.

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    6/7 here too, but I got the monkeys question wrong. Surely the last common ancestor would be classified as a monkey, no? Or does “monkey” only mean modern non-hominoid simians?

    The fancy thing to do is to define “monkey” as two non-overlapping groups of simian species. The last common ancestor does not fit into either group of monkeys. It’s like the definition of “fish” – using any definition of “fish” which includes all descendants, humans would also be fish. However, I’m with Aronra in that this particular definition of “monkey” is silly, and it should be expanded to include the great apes. It’s highly esoteric trivia in an otherwise reasonable quiz, IMO.

    PS: Religion and evolution can be compatible. You just need a really weak version of religion, i.e. a version of religion without a creator god, or at most a clockwork deist creator god.

  7. Owlmirror says

    7/7 because I knew what their answer would be, even though I don’t agree

    Ditto.

    The last common ancestor of apes and monkeys was neither an ape nor a monkey, any more than a horse drawn carriage is a train or car though it is a common ancestor of both.

    That’s . . . a really bad analogy, especially in this case.

    Look, if you had access to a time-viewer, and could actually see an catarrhine, ancestral to modern monkeys, great apes, and humans, running around some 35-odd million years ago, and weren’t told beforehand what it was, you probably would not say “oh, look, an ancestral catarrhine”. You almost certainly would say, “oh, look, a monkey”. Because that’s exactly what it would look like, tail and all.

    To agree with EnlightenmentLiberal, it’s a matter of a phylogenetically broad definition (“monkey” meaning “a member of the phylogenetic group that includes all modern Old World monkeys, and therefore great apes, and humans”) versus a phylogenetically narrow definition (“monkey” meaning “only modern Old World monkeys and New World monkeys, but excluding great apes and humans”). Which definition you choose would be somewhat arbitrary, and the BBC quiz should not have worded the question such that there was any confusion as to which definition was meant. Rather than “Humans are descended from monkeys”, it should have read “Humans are descended from modern monkeys” (false), or just used a different true/false question, maybe: “Humans and monkeys are descended from a common primate ancestor” (true), to avoid the confusion.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Jean @4:

    Religion is unchanging, unquestioned dogma and faith which is incompatible with science

    Unchanging? Hardly. Hinduism is a very different animal from the religion practiced when the Vedas were written. Same for just about any major religion. And a lot of religious folk have certainly questioned accepted dogma, which probably played a role in whatever changes have occurred. Actually, your statement comes across as rather dogmatic.

    jazzlet @5:

    any more than a horse drawn carriage is a train or car though it is a common ancestor of both.

    Bad analogy, I think. For monkeys/apes, there is physical continuity. It comes down to terminology only. The line leading to New World monkeys split from the line leading to Old World monkeys about 40M years ago. The line leading to apes/humans split from the line leading to Old World monkeys about 30M years ago. At what point is the term “monkey” first applicable to a particular animal of either the NW or OW branch? It all seems rather arbitrary. Still, if there’s an established, accepted and consistent convention, I’m cool with that.

    EL @6:

    You just need a really weak version of religion, i.e. a version of religion without a creator god, or at most a clockwork deist creator god.

    I disagree. You could even have a creator-tinkerer-god who lets things (like evolution) run for a while, then pops in to mess around a bit. But, as some French bloke may have said, “we have no need of that hypothesis”.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Owlmirror @#7,

    Would be possible for you to privately email me? There is something that I would like to discuss with you that has nothing to do with this post.

  10. Owlmirror says

    If you can follow a religion based on the inconsistent and contradictory mess that is the bible, there is literally no reason why you couldn’t add evolution to your beliefs.

  11. Holms says

    7/7, but that last question was a doozy. I only got it ‘right’ because I interpreted it very charitably. I reimagined it as a question asked of religious people, with a slight rewording: does your religion / religious denomination agree that evolution exists? Clearly, some will answer ‘yes’, making evolution ‘not necessarily incompatible with religion’ as asked.

    But really, what an awful question. Either answer, true or false, can be reasonably arrived at based entirely on how the question is interpreted.

    #4 Jean
    Religion is definitely not unchanging. It changes all the time, and always pretends that the current interpretation of texts was evident all along, but that predecessors got it wrong. Thus they try to have it both ways: the word of god is eternal and unchanging, and was thus always a beacon of moral rightness, but our human ancestors were flawed. (Never mind that this admits even current interpretations may well be wrong…) And so the religious maintain the absurd claim that their religion was always on the right side of every historic moral issue that we now take for granted, while usually not granting that same generous interpretation to other religions.

  12. Holms says

    Also, it seems that cladistics definitions are entirely arbitrary. ‘Dinosaur’ is defined to include all descendants, therefore all birds are dinosaurs, while ‘archosaur’ is not, therefore birds are not archosaurs despite also descending from them. In both cases, the term is defined as either not including or including descendants seemingly on a whim. Birds are dinosaurs and not archosaurs because… well, they just are.

  13. Jean says

    Of course religion changes but it claims to have the unerring truth throughout its history. So any follower has to believe that it will never change from now on (whenever ‘now’ is). So it’s not concerned about falsifying itself, quite the opposite, which is what science does to advance knowledge and get a better model of reality. With religion, you get the model and have to fit reality to it.

    And that is a simplification. I also don’t think I have complete knowledge but I haven’t come across any convincing evidence that science and religion are not incompatible. But humans are really good at holding contradicting beliefs and tweaking definitions to get the desired outcome (or simply ignore the contradictions). And I’m not immune to this.

  14. Owlmirror says

    @Mano: I have been having problems with e-mail. I can contact you once everything is straightened out.

  15. Owlmirror says

    ‘Dinosaur’ is defined to include all descendants, therefore all birds are dinosaurs, while ‘archosaur’ is not, therefore birds are not archosaurs despite also descending from them.

    I think you may have this exactly backwards. “Dinosaurs”, as more commonly and more narrowly used, refers to the animals that went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, but when used broadly, includes that subset of dinosaurs which includes avians. “Archosaurs” is a technical term that already refers to the phylogenetically broad group which includes dinosaurs, the avian subgroup of dinosaurs, and crocodilians (and also the extinct pterosaurs, which are confused with dinosaurs by laypersons).

  16. Owlmirror says

    The palaeontologically-minded, when being careful, would qualify by using the phrase “non-avian dinosaurs” or “Mesozoic dinosaurs” when referring specifically to the animals that went extinct.

  17. ionopachys says

    Holms, birds are archosaurs, especially in a cladistic sense. Clades are always nested, and avis is deeply nested in archosauria. Maybe you meant reptile. That’s the confusing factor, trying to apply common words to clades. Common usage does not always conform to scientific definitions. Luckily, language can evolve, so the word “star” can change from “a little point of light in the sky” to “a giant ball of fusing material that brightly glows.”

    Biology can be both better and worse in that way. On the one hand we use words from another, semi artificial language, so monkey doesn’t need to be synonymous with Catarrhini. On the other hand scientific terms gradually become common, like “reptile,” “animal,” “hominid,” etc. Additionally, scientists use common words to try to express scientific understandings, like using “fish” as a synonym for Linnaeus’ taxon Pisces, so that now we say that whales and pollywogs aren’t fish.

    Interestingly, “monkey” and “ape” were perfectly synonymous until English speaking scientists decided to use them to describe evolutionary lineages. They mistakenly thought that howlers and baboons were more closely related than gibbons and baboons, so they redefined the words. Soon, all “educated” folks knew that a chimp isn’t a monkey, and a baboon isn’t an ape. That’s why many biologists are trying to make Reptilia defunct like Pisces, since in a cladistic sense Reptilia would either include mammals or exclude many ectothermic, egg-laying, scaly creatures that we would intuitively call “reptiles”.

    This reminds me. Did John Hawks ever give any real reason why scientists shouldn’t redefine common words other than “it’s wrong”?

  18. John Morales says

    I took a look, I gave up (as usual for me in these quizzes) at the second question. Meh.

    (Such vagueness!)

  19. DonDueed says

    I had no problem answering TRUE on question 7. My father was a Protestant minister (in one of the more liberal denominations) whose faith never wavered, yet had absolutely no problem with evolution. There are plenty of other religious people (including many Christians) in that category.

    I missed the monkey question, but in retrospect the ambiguous wording should have been a red flag. I’m in the camp that says the common ancestor of humans and monkeys was a monkey, or at least would have looked pretty similar to a modern monkey — and not much like anything else.

  20. fentex says

    i got one ‘wrong’, but a different one than anyone else seems to have worried about – I found the question about whether evolution could occur quickly or not confusing because there was no scale to the question, thus it might have been asking if evolution can happen in a generation, which it doesn’t because evolution occurs across populations, not immediate families.

    That 7th question on religion? It’s literally unanswerable because religion is infinitely malleable, so one just makes a choice of whether or not to give the questioner what they obviously expect.

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    Jean @13:

    Of course religion changes but it claims to have the unerring truth throughout its history

    I’m not sure what you (or Holms) mean by “it” here. Maybe you mean the particular set of doctrines that hold sway at a particular time and place. I think of religion (as opposed to organized religion) as what people believe, which is hugely varying at any time or place, and is often in tension with the established authority. See Martin Luther, etc.

    Ramble warning:

    I have the impression that many atheists see religion as some sort of long-term con game, perpetrated by a select few manipulating the many (side note: would these con artists be/have been sociopathic atheists?). I think its a fuckload more complicated than that. In anything we would call a society, commonalities will develop (how we make tools and pots, or plant crops, which bards/pop stars are the coolest, etc). One of those commonalities seems to have been religion. And yes, you’d always have chancers seeing a way to establish a power base using that commonality. Like pretty much any other field of human endeavour. And you’ll always have people challenging the powers that be. But I don’t think that justifies identifying the underlying commonality as a con game, or even a human failing. It’s just a common human trait (which I never shared).

    I also don’t understand the insistence on incompatibility. Yes, there are beliefs which are incompatible with science (young earth creationism, e.g.). But if you’re saying that all religious beliefs are necessarily incompatible with science, you have to show your work. The closest thing to heroes in science for me would include James Clerk Maxwell and Abdus Salam, both devout believers (as well as the atheist Paul Dirac and the probably atheist Einstein). Maxwell had this to say;

    Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative. All fallow land is to be ploughed up and a regular system of rotation followed. … Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden. … Again I assert the Right of Trespass on any plot of Holy Ground which any man has set apart.

    Of course, Maxwell also thought that only Christianity allowed one to properly follow this noble calling, and I think he was stupendously wrong in that. But that is still a beautiful summary of how science should be done, and I’m not seeing the incompatibility with science.

    Salam had this to say at his Nobel acceptance;

    “Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-merciful any imperfection, Return thy gaze, seest thou any fissure. Then Return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze, Comes back to thee dazzled, aweary.” [Surah 67: 3-4]

    This in effect is, the faith of all physicists; the deeper we seek, the more is our wonder excited, the more is the dazzlement for our gaze.

    I love that.

  22. John Morales says

    [OT]

    Rob Grigjanis,

    Jean @13:

    Of course religion changes but it claims to have the unerring truth throughout its history

    I’m not sure what you (or Holms) mean by “it” here.

    Grammatically, “it”=”religion”, as in ‘Of course X changes but X claims to have the unerring truth throughout its history’. There is no ambiguity.

    I think of religion (as opposed to organized religion) as what people believe, which is hugely varying at any time or place, and is often in tension with the established authority.

    Very vague. The Wikipedia entry is much more specific, and in accord with my own understanding.

    Relevant in that the bulk of opposition to the scientific concept of evolution is religiously-motivated. I think Jean alludes to the consequences of the different epistemology of science and of religion.

  23. says

    You know, I didn’t like the quiz for a couple reasons. What is that bit about “evolution cannot happen quickly”?

    Since it’s the change in gene distribution (or trait distribution, in some definitions for some purposes) within a population, by definition it can’t happen in a single individual. They even have a question about that, so I know that they know it. I answered that it can happen quickly, but since “quickly” is vague, I hated the answer.

    Even the “quick” evolution of whatever they cited – was it antibioitic resistance or nylonase? I took this hours ago & didn’t get around to commenting right away – happens slowly enough that even a dedicated scientists would get very, very bored waiting for it to happen in a lab. Bare minimum it would take **hours** and that’s for a short-cycle mono-cellular organism. And recognizing that the shift in genes in the population would take even longer, since you wouldn’t know til later which genes were shifting and how much.

    Sure, it can happen in much less than a human lifetime, but is that “quick”? I mean, what a lousy question! If only they’d ask me if evolution could happen in a single calendar year or something, that would be answerable. But quick? Does that mean snapping my fingers or does that mean before I send my kids off to college? The latter sure feels like it’s coming quickly, but it’s still not remotely comparable to the time scale of a finger snap.

    Anyway, I felt that at least 2 of the questions were so badly worded as to be unfair measures of one’s knowledge of evolution. (and I say this as someone who correctly predicted what the test-makers wanted me to answer, so my score didn’t slip)

  24. Dunc says

    Religion and evolution can be compatible. You just need a really weak version of religion, i.e. a version of religion without a creator god, or at most a clockwork deist creator god.

    Not all religions are anything like the Abrahamic religions. There are plenty of religions where creation wasn’t accomplished by a god, or with multiple gods (and even multiple generations of gods) which have nothing to do with creation. Historically, many religions don’t particularly care about where the world came from. Even amongst those that do have a creator god many aren’t particularly interested in it, preferring to focus on other gods which are closer to human affairs.

  25. lorn says

    7/7 but the last one took some interpretation. Religion and evolution really don’t clash if you see religion as an entirely metaphorical early squat-and-squeeze first attempt at a creation story. Whereas evolution is the evidence based and regularly updated current version.

  26. deepak shetty says

    I got 2 wrong but one I misunderstood and one I genuinely did not know but not the one you refer to.
    I wonder why you got your one wrong though ?
    I interpret that question as can rational people have some irrational ideas or does reason/logic imply incompatibility with any irrational/illogical belief because if so then human beings are all incompatible with reason/logic.

    This is without even going into that many of the eastern beliefs would express surprise at the hostility to evolution

  27. Owlmirror says

    @Crip Dyke:

    What is that bit about “evolution cannot happen quickly”?

    The actual wording was “Evolution can only happen slowly, over long periods of time.” I agree that “long periods of time” is ill-defined, nonetheless.

    Their example answer was: ” antibiotic resistance among bacteria. The first bacterium resistant to penicillin was found a few years after the drug started to be used on a large scale.”

  28. Owlmirror says

    Two more questions that could have been worded a bit more carefully:

      • The giraffe’s long neck is an example of evolution.

      • Evolution can cause an individual to change during their lifetime.

    If a trait like a long neck is an “example” of evolution, then isn’t phenotypic plasticity — which can involve changes during an organism’s lifetime — also such an example? And isn’t an example of evolution something caused by evolution?

    Language, how does it work?

  29. file thirteen says

    7/7 and I had no problem with the 7th question. I think the key word was “necessarily”. Science previously assisted us in realising that the earth wasn’t flat and the sun wasn’t the centre of the universe, and eventually religion came around. If religion could accept those points then it doesn’t necessarily have to dismiss evolution either. And religion is anything you want it to be anyway.

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