Field of Science

Myths of Evolution: I

I 'belong' to a Creation-Evolution debate group on Facebook. Probably 'follow' is a better word than belong. My reason for joining was to see what arguments were given from the other side in the hope that I would see some nuanced discussion/rationales for creationism. Of course, what I see is the general troll-level argument you get on any website. Essentially the Ken Hamm approach to science and biology. It being the internet, I am not surprised and don't generally participate (hence the 'follow' as opposed to 'belong'). Hell, I'll even admit to providing troll-master-level responses to some creationist posts, albeit with you know data and shit.

My ultimate goal in joining this group was to hear from the other side and potentially use that as a jumping off point for some posts where I could provide some information for others who may have the same questions or be thinking along the same lines. Because the Facebook posts are essentially the equivalent of 30 year olds living in their parents' basement complaining about Lady Gaga's stomach during the Super Bowl halftime show, this goal hasn't come to fruition from my end. Still I saw this recent post which made me cringe from the potential waste of a young mind. Also, it reminded me of the culpability of teachers and scientists who teach a linear version of the history of life. Here's the post and associated picture (the picture is fairly well known):
It seems finding evidence against evolution is child's play. One of my friends told his young daughter that some people believed we evolved from apes, and her immediate reply was, why aren't there still ape-men today?

Sadly, if the story is true a father lost a teachable moment and my experience is that those don't come around as often as you might expect. Anyway let's break this down:
  1.  'It seems finding evidence against evolution is child's play.' Sure, it seems like finding evidence is child's play, but reality doesn't work like that. It seems like the earth is flat. I bet if you ask an uneducated child to draw the earth, they would not draw a sphere unless they were taught is was a sphere previously. It seems like a volume of water wouldn't be larger when it was frozen, but I wouldn't but a full glass of water in the freezer if I were you. It seems like the sun moves across the sky not that the earth is spinning beneath it. Actually finding examples that discount the 'seems' approach to understanding the universe is in fact child's play.
  2. 'some people believed we evolved from apes' Hell, let's go all the way and say some people currently believe we evolved from an ape-like ancestor. It's not a past tense kind of thing. Some people believe a male was specifically created by a god ~6000 years ago and a woman was cloned from his rib (apparently without a Y chromosome). I would be more comfortable if I could write it as 'Some people believed a male was specifically created by a god ~6000 years ago and a woman was cloned from his rib.' I left off the snarky part because this is now a historical comment and I'm not going to call out people who didn't have the benefit of current knowledge.
  3. 'her immediate reply was, why aren't there still ape-men today?' I don't have a problem with this question being asked, although I highly expect that either the question wasn't asked this way or that the set up was different (shorter version: I believe the entire story is a lie). The fact that the daughter said 'ape-men' when the premise never uses the term suggests it is fabricated or at least embellished. Regardless, let's say she asked this question or one very similar. This should not be the end of the story but the beginning of the story. As a father, teacher, even simply a member of the human species, I would redirect her and use it as one of those infrequent teachable moments. For example, 'that's a great question, but maybe we should back up and ask why some people believe that'. This of course requires some honesty and openness on the part of the father, which based on the post is not apparent. Essentially if we want to obtain more knowledge about the universe as it exists, we need to ask for evidence and to evaluate it. In the absence of time or energy, we should in fact defer to experts who have had the time and energy to ask for, evaluate, and potential obtain the evidence.
Second, the picture is objectively factually wrong. There are m(b)illions of humans (shown on the right). Of course the default human is a white man, because of course it is. However, there are not millions of the ape-like ancestor on the right, because they are all dead. The picture suggests we evolved from modern species still in existence, which is not how evolution works. This is why you don't get to have Sunday dinner with your great great great grandmother, she's dead. But you can have Sunday dinner with you cousin 5 times removed.

Here is a more accurate picture:
 (Tangent: there are not millions of chimpanzees left, there's much less than a million, there are not a million of all the non-human apes (chimps, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans) combined on the planet, this is a sad.)
Third, there is blame to lay at the feet of scientists, teachers, publishers, etc who at least subconsciously promote the viewpoint shown in the first picture. For example, a google search for 'evolution' reveals a majority of pictures like:
From the Front Range Forum
Searching for 'diversity of life' shows most pictures similar to this one:
The issue is that evolution in these panels is shown as a linear pathway from one form to another culminating in humans. We are amazing organisms, but are we any more amazing than a moss, which can harness the light of the sun to pull carbon dioxide out of the air to make food? Are we so much better than bacteria that can breathe rocks? We are not the culmination of evolution, all other life is at at least as evolved as we are. A strong argument can be made that most organisms are more evolved than we are as they have much shorter generation times and thus reproduce faster than we do.
The rebuttal picture I included is much more accurate because it shows that modern chimpanzees and humans evolved from a common ancestor. Based on general looks, the common ancestor may compare better to the chimpanzee, but both the chimpanzee and human are as distantly related to this common ancestor as you and your sibling are to your great grandmother.  (In fact, we can make that  picture more accurate by including another branch coming off the lineage leading to the chimpanzees that ends at the bonobos.

If you're going to discuss evolution and try to explain it to others, please use branching trees, especially those that do not implicitly suggests humans are the most evolved (at the pinnacle of a tree or at the edge). Here's a great example of a tree showing human evolution:
A less egocentric view of evolution
(I know humans are at the top, but notice the y-axis is a timeline. The things at the top still exist, the chimpanzees and humans, the organisms further down are extinct.)