Tuesday, September 15, 2015

On the origin of misconceptions

Here is a column article of mine that was published in the Zululand Fever newspaper last year in response to a letter from a reader who was responding to a previous opinion piece about evolution I had penned.

I think it is still relevant in light of the many misconceptions that have risen from the announcement of the newly discovered homo naledi bones at the Cradle of Humankind.

On the origin of misconceptions

There are many misconceptions about the sciences and I find that facts can be twisted to suit a certain group’s beliefs. But reality has this nagging tendency to not bend to the will of those who choose to misrepresent it.

I am referring to instances I am usually exposed to where some people subscribe to misconceptions disguised as scientific facts. These misconceptions, I have observed, seldom come from people who have actually read the scientific concepts they refer to and often their references are authoritative accounts from people who themselves are non-scientists.

Here I am referring to a letter published in the Zululand Fever last week (1 August 2014) in which a Mr. S. Naidoo made some categorical mistakes in his inferences about the theory of evolution. First of all, having explicitly excluded religion from the discussion, Mr. Naidoo delved into the world of science and proceeded to explain why evolutionary scientists are racist zealots.

Whilst I cannot comment much on that, I can comment on the science. For one, I cannot find any historical references where the world famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, was said to have racist intentions on voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle en route to the Galapagos archipelago in the 17th century.

Mr. Naidoo supports his “evolution is racist” theory with the idea that evolution infers a difference in the races, more specifically that black people are less evolved that white people. No. the scientific theory of evolution does not at all say this. Also, it is not true that the scientific theory of evolution means that one species begets another.

A common question people ask is “if we evolved from apes, why are they still around?”  That is a fair question but it is unfortunately followed by “this proves that evolution is wrong.” Evolution does not mean that “we came from monkeys”. According to the theory of evolution we share a common ancestor with our ape and monkey cousins.

A number of people are not too happy to be associated with our hominid cousins - sort of like that drunkard uncle you don’t want your friends to know about.  You cannot erase the DNA evidence that links you to such relatives just because they are always naked and they swing on trees. The ape cousins, that is. Not your uncle.

Naidoo then talks about "true science" and explains how species do not change from one to the other. And he is right, because that is not the theory of evolution. To better understand what evolution means, no one column article can do it justice, but to use an example I usually use, let us consider this gedunkanexperiment.

Imagine a herd of species of antelope on a veld. Now, if some natural barrier were to suddenly prevent the two halves of the group from meeting for several generations, each would adapt to the unique conditions on each side of the barrier, provided conditions do change respectively.

Now, if they were to somehow overcome the barrier to meet again and find that they look different, would we then have new species?

Species are defined as a group of organisms whose offspring are able to interbreed. That means that their babies can have babies. Now, let’s say that these two antelope groups try to get it on and we find that any two individuals (one male and one female from each group) are unable to interbreed; we would then say that they are now two different species.

From one species, came two. Not one species changing into another when the urge strikes it. That is not evolution. Another important aspect of Darwinism is that individuals do not choose to “evolve”, it is those individuals who happen to be best suited to survive conditions being dished out by nature that survive. This is what we call evolution by natural selection.

This information is not bound in some sacred texts hidden in some fortress under the section “Forbidden Knowledge: 300-399”, but is science that is easily available at public libraries and reputable bookstores. Just ask for the Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin and your effort at actually reading the book and enriching your mind on what evolution really is, should open your mind to reality.

I am not saying Darwinism is cast in stone as there are still gaps in the science of it. But the beauty of it is the overwhelming evidence that is written in the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of “non-believers” and the scientifically literate alike. On the origins of the universe; whether it was created by God or happened by accident, no-one can say for sure.

I applaud those who apply their minds in considering the question anyway instead of dogmatically sticking to one idea.

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