To help address public misunderstanding of evolution, we must find alternatives to anthropomorphic terminology, and I have some suggestions. In this issue Jacques Dubochet asserts that a major reason for the lack of public acceptance of evolution is a fundamental misunderstanding of its core concepts: many people think of evolution producing modifications with an aim, e.g. ‘eyes in order to see’, ‘legs for walking’, rather than in terms of directionless variation, and natural selection without motivation, design or strategy. And yet the latter two concepts are used by many biologists at some point when discussing evolution, be it in the scientific literature or in popular books. The conceptual problem is even deeper: for example Richard Dawkins cast evolution in the guise of a ‘blind watchmaker’ in his book of the same name, a concept that, whilst successfully communicating one aspect of evolution, might reinforce the notion that evolution works towards producing a particular entity with a pre-defined use: in this case a watch. The problem here is that the watchmaker (a defined professional), even if blind, must know the aim to which he is working, in order to be able to assess the success of his, albeit random, work.
It is about time that we stopped such anthropomorphic terminology and thinking, and confronted the likelihood that – far from being ‘excusable shorthand’ – it is an important contributor to a false impression of evolution among many non-scientists. I feel that much of the ‘excuse’ for using terms that evoke will, direction and strategy in evolutionary processes is a problem of finding the right words; or at least of not falling so easily into the anthropomorphisms that we use in other realms of experience.
A banal example shows how an apparently trivial change in words can radically change perceived meaning: to accomplish metabolic process X, enzyme Y evolved a specificity for Z. In an objective scientific sense, we should phrase this as ‘in accomplishing X, Y concomitantly evolved a specificity for Z’. It is that innocent little word ‘to’ that transforms the meaning, giving enzyme Y the essence of ‘will’ – ‘to’ being short for ‘in order to’, or ‘with the purpose of’. Purpose can only be exercised by a supernatural entity in this situation.
There have even been meetings organised under titles such as ‘Molecular Strategies in Biological Evolution’. This and other examples impose a fallacious sense of direction of causality in evolution, and that is completely consistent with a common misconception of evolution facilitating organisms towards certain aims or goals. Another concept that arises from the ‘anthropomorphisation’ of evolution is the ‘problem’: in other words, an organism or system evolves towards what we, retrospectively, identify as a barrier, or ‘problem’ that had to be ‘solved’, and we wonder how it was overcome. Nature doesn't solve anything. ‘Evolved towards’ is another trap: we can only say ‘towards’ in retrospect. The system cannot actually evolve towards anything. So I have a few suggestions (see box).
|Evolution old-speak||Evolution new-speak|
|How nature solved this problem (X) …||How evolution resulted in…|
|This invention of evolution…||This product of evolution…|
|Thus mechanisms had to evolve to…||Thus mechanisms evolved in which…|
|Or: Thus mechanisms evolved that…|
|Organism X adapts to a changing environment.||Organism X evolves, remaining successful in a changing environment.|
|Organism X evolved to exploit niche Y||Organism X evolved and occupied niche Y|
|Structure X is perfectly adapted to perform function Y||Structure X very efficiently performs Y|
|Structure X is designed to perform||Structure X performs Y|
|Evolutionarily stable strategy||Evolutionarily stable behaviour|
|Organism X maximises its…||Organism X is selected for a maximal…|
|This entails the necessity of…||This involves…|
I believe that a large part of our difficulty in avoiding the invocation of agency and direction in evolutionary processes is our persistent inability to define natural selection in terms of physical laws and processes. The spread of information theory into biology would, in my opinion, greatly help. In the meantime, anthropomorphic terminology in evolution might persist just because scientists like using it. But it is one of the worst things we can do, given widespread public misunderstanding of the fundamental principles of evolution. And I bet that it even leads scientists themselves astray sometimes…