So you want to talk about evolution?

So you want to talk about evolution?

Yamini Srikanth



These are some big bones! I was standing in the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Manitoba, Canada. The bones laid at my feet were of the Triassic Giant. It stretched seemingly endlessly from one end of a long room to the other. The little plaque read “21 meters”: however, this seemed like a gross underestimate. Sterile, white light played upon the bones, highlighting every nook and cranny. 

I was thirteen years old, fresh out of middle school, with the assured self confidence that the world revolved around me.  At that moment, I felt my thirteen years pale under the same white light.  Those were some old, old bones. For the very first time, I began to appreciate the scale of the Earth.

Image: Shonisaurus sikanniensis, Royal Tyrrell

It was somehow easier to understand how big the Earth in space is. A planet, billions of people from hundreds of countries, and an Equator that’s thousands of kilometers long. It wasn’t so easy to understand how old it was. Billions of years is an unimaginable quantum when I had existed for only thirteen of them.  

Somehow, this huge and primordial reptile impressed upon me what my biology teacher could not. Life looked very different then; it had changed, morphed, and flown from one form to another. Some DNA that existed eons ago ended up in the birds in the sky and the whales in the ocean. Evolution, which previously seemed abstract and distant to my experiences, became tangible. 

Why bother writing about evolution? 

An evolutionary perspective may be the key to understand increasingly “new” diseases. It can help us better understand the nature of different diseases and navigate the different strategies a microbe might use. Additionally, it can help us critically examine our own nature in responding to the threat of a pandemic - do we respond with kindness and altruism, or is it every person for themselves? Is there an evolutionary drive behind self-preservation, and can we overcome it? 

Another consequence of the vanishing wild is that of overwhelming loss. We live in the midst of the 6th mass extinction. The scale of devastation that industrialization and capitalism have caused is on par with the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction. Our actions are causing losses equivalent to a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid slamming into Mexico. 

It is imperative that we face the devastation that we are causing to our planet through climate change and remedy the damage as swiftly as possible. Doing so without an evolutionary perspective is impossible.

Common Misconceptions to Avoid When Writing About Evolution

Evolution can be a contentious theory. It’s discussed often, but often incorrectly. There are four common misconceptions to stay away from at all costs when writing about evolution. It’s important to critically evaluate your work and ensure you don’t invoke any of these common misconceptions. 

  1. Humans “came from” apes

    Everyone’s seen that infamous image of an ape gradually shifting from four legs to two. It gives the impression that humans evolved from monkeys or apes. Although they are close relatives, we only shared a common ancestor. This lineage split into two: one of these evolved into gorillas and chimps, the other into our early bipedal ancestors. 

Image: Female human evolution

  1. Certain humans are “more evolved” than others

    The origins of the human race are an understandably fascinating aspect of evolution. However, colonialism and racism have woven problematic undercurrents into our understanding of human evolution. The “Out-of-Africa Theory” suggests that humanity has a common origin in Eastern Africa, and we slowly migrated across the world. Humans residing in different geographic regions experienced different stressors - sunlight, cold, winds, etc. This led to differentiation in physical characteristics, particularly skin color. 

    Human groups that remained in Africa exhibited less notable change in physical characteristics. This has led to the assertion that these groups are “less evolved.” This is categorically untrue. Differentiated physical characteristics are simply an outcome of different environmental stressors. All humans across the world evolved, and continue to evolve, in a manner of ways. No group is “more evolved” than any other. 

  2. An organism can evolve to do something 

    People often think that an organism can evolve with an intention. A fish evolves to avoid a shark. A flower evolves to attract an insect. 

    Evolution is an inherently random process. Some organisms, with certain traits, survive better than others. The outcome of evolution - what we see as excellent mimics or beautiful camouflage, wasn’t from the organism fulfilling a plan. It’s simply that the less excellent mimics or worse hiders died, and the better ones survived. Emphasizing the idea of the population rather than an individual can help avoid this misconception. 

  3. Evolution has an “ultimate goal”

    Life has existed for ~3.8 billion years. In this time, many complex organisms and structures have evolved. Complex organisms like humans exist, but so do simpler ones like algae, bacteria, yeast and fungi. These simple ones do just as well as we do in terms of surviving. Each organism has its own specific environment wherein it excels at surviving. Putting a human next to a hydrothermal vent probably wouldn’t go very well, but an archaean would do just fine. Evolution has no end goal. There’s just one goal that every species tries to fulfill - to survive!

Doing it right:  Strategies that enable effective communication

So now that you know what not to do, let’s talk about what to actually do. Discussing the discovery in methodology makes it much less of an abstract. Another important consideration is to avoid overstating the significance of a discovery or development. Not every new paper is the definitive answer to an evolutionary problem, and that’s okay. They’re still fascinating in their own right. 

Evolution, as a subject, is also pretty vast, covering a wide array of concepts. For a true and complete understanding of evolution, you need to know everything from molecular biology to population genetics. Thankfully, a science communication piece is much narrower in scope. Try to pick and choose all the relevant concepts, and minimize the number of new concepts you invoke within the piece. Not every concept is relevant to every piece. I wrote a piece on how ecosystems that are highly similar often result in the same evolutionary outcomes. Although I could have discussed everything from how genes mutate to all examples of convergent evolution, I restricted the piece to a few key concepts. 

Evolution also spans a variety of scales. The genetic makeup of populations of one species can change. Two organisms can evolve together. A number of species may undergo macroevolutionary processes like mass extinctions. Identifying the most relevant scale for your piece, and describing the evolutionary concepts that are specific to that scale can do a lot to minimize confusion. This fascinating piece in Nautilus describes how African elephant populations are gradually becoming tuskless as a response to poaching. Although the scale at which we observe changes is the population, the article addresses only the underlying genetic cause. 

There’s also the problem of too much scale. When understanding the history of life on Earth, it’s difficult to accept the vastness of it all. Highlighting the progression of time can help. Actual years are useful, but it doesn’t seem to vary much once the number crosses into the millions. Six hundred million years ago feels just as far away as two hundred million years ago. Contextualizing the same time in terms of human generations can help. 

Lastly, stick to the strict definition of evolution. The term is used in a variety of other contexts, but stick to a single definition within the same piece. 

Although the number of guidelines I’ve outlined in the article might seem daunting, don’t be afraid! 

The key thing to remember is to let your specific topic guide you. Restrict yourself to what’s relevant, and don’t bother with what’s not! Sticking to the topic also helps you choose the scale of what you’re describing. You can also make it concrete by describing the scientific methods specific to your topic. The internet is also a wonderful library of resources, with simulations and analogies widely available. Additionally, having a rough understanding of different scientific methods in evolutionary biology aids both the communicator in grounding the piece, and the reader in understanding the piece. 

As tricky as it can be, talking about evolution is vital. Life in the 21st century means contending with evolution from the very big to the very small. Everything from tiny viruses to vast, planetary-wide extinctions are shaped by evolution. 

Useful resources:


Edited by Neha Kumari

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