I am a pro-science guy and I believe in evolution. That said, it seems to me from watching the Discovery channel and reading popular science articles that it is easy to get carried away explaining things based on evolution to the point that we forget what evolution is in the first place.† Evolution is natural selection working on random mutation. Here’s an example from the NYT (hat tip: ZD sidebar) demonstrating how easy it is to slip from sound scientific reasoning into poppycock:
Monogamy evolves when stable couples are more successful at rearing offspring than, say, a female on her own, or a family group. Judging by the low frequency of monogamy in nature, this is rarely the case.
The reasoning here is based on the notion that if something would be selected for by natural selection, it will therefore arise in nature. That, of course, is ridiculous. To illustrate, here is a statement based on identical logic:
The ability for humans to breathe fire evolves when fire-breathers are more successful at rearing offspring than, say, non-fire-breathers. Judging by the low frequency of fire-breathing humans in nature, this is rarely the case.
Just because some trait would be useful, it does not follow that evolution will ensure that this trait “evolves.” I was going to say that this sort of mistake would never be made by an actual scientist but arises when non-scientists try to write popular science articles. Then I looked up the bio for the author of that NYT article.
Olivia Judson (born 1970) is an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London. Judson, who is the daughter of science historian Horace Freeland Judson, was a pupil of W.D. Hamilton. She graduated from Stanford University, gained a doctorate from Oxford, and worked for some time as a journalist before becoming a research fellow at Imperial College London. (wikipedia)
Am I missing something, or is this just another example of how easy it is to muddle the details of what evolution really explains when you spend all day opining about it.
† Kiskilili’s post is also relevant to this point.