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The Battle-Ready Version of Evolution is a Lie

The Battle-Ready Version of Evolution is a Lie

We do know that evolution is not equivalent with natural selection, right?

Author: Trevor Quirk/Tuesday, February 17, 2015/Categories: natural history, environment

If Darwin Day (Feb. 12) was intended to rouse a little scientific euphoria, I bet it also reinvigorated a fallacy all too common in the understanding of evolution. To wit, that it is synonymous with natural selection. Even scientists outside the field of biology have adopted this vulgarism from time to time. So here's a simplified refresher of some of the widely-recognized "mechanisms" that constitute evolution as we know it.

Mutation Bias:

At the molecular level, certain mutations are more likely to occur than others, independent of selectional pressure.

Neutral Genetic Drift:

The change of frequency of certain alleles (gene variants) within a population due to random sampling errors.

Genetic Hitchhiking

An random effect in alleles caused by recombination at the molecular level, changing the frequency of an allele, which in turn affects the evolution of the population.

Gene Flow: 

The effect on the gene pool from immigration between populations.

Natural Selection: 

The passive process which arises from the facts that heritable traits vary within populations, that traits advantageous in the current environment will persist in the population, while useless or disadvantageous traits are less likely to endure in the population.

The above terms are textbook evolutionary biology, and there are other credible ideas out there, too, like the umbrella term "Molecular Drive." Speaking of textbooks, the unfortunate reality of the sociopolitical debate over what sort of credibility public school systems should assign the theory of evolution and whether such a theory should be juxtaposed with ideas like intelligent design or unadulterated biblical creationism (also the reality that the natural-selection-not-equivalent-to-evolution truism can be found on websites like should not encourage us to vulgarize and oversimplify our understanding of evolution, as it so often does, in order to make it battle ready.

For example: Calling evolution a "fact" is an unproductive and silly category error. It's not. It's a theory, a rich and sophisticated logical structure through which we interpret and organize the facts of  our experience. This correspondent is not going to scuttle its nuance and complexity and, yes, problems simply because cynical politicians like Scott Walker "punt" the subject when it's raised, or because many people in this country don't "believe in evolution." Whatever that's supposed to mean.


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