18 September 2015

The Failure to Communicate Evolution

EVOLUTION IS IN THE NEWS a lot these days. Buzzy scientists, like waspish Richard Dawkins, make stinging attacks on Creationists, who respond in kind: The God Delusion versus The Dawkins Delusion. In the US something like a pitched battle is going on in some places, where creationists want to replace science in schools with a literal reading of the Bible.

When evolution is a self-evident fact, and I think it is, why are so many people unconvinced by it? Building on my work on the psychology of belief I'd like to use problem of communicating evolution, or more precisely the problem of failing to communicate evolution, as a case study.

In my essay Facts and Feelings I set out my take on Antonio Damasio's model of how we process new information. Presented with some new item of information we evaluate the likelihood it is true. As per Justin Barrett's theory of belief, discussed more recently, we make these decisions based on fit with existing non-reflective beliefs. In any situation we will usually have a range of facts (items of information we consider to be true) and we have to judge which information is relevant to the situation, and which information take precedence in determining our course of action. I called this salience. Not everything that makes sense is salient; and not everything that is salient makes sense. 

A few hundred years ago in Europe, everyone knew that God created the world and this seemed to make sense to the vast majority. It was also deeply salient because the existence, omnipotence and omniscience of God were always important factors in understanding any situation and deciding how to act. The Church was the final authority on these matters and had adopted an earth-centric model of the universe. All the "heavenly" bodies, the sun, moon, planets and stars, orbited the earth. And then the situation began to change. Astronomers observed, for instance that the orbits of the planets were very difficult to explain if they orbited the earth and simple it they orbited the sun instead. And the orbits were ellipses rather than perfect circles. They saw that some "stars", visible only with a telescope, orbited not the earth or the sun, but Jupiter (the moons of Jupiter). Old sureties began to break down. Scientific Empiricism started to come into it's own. Knowledge based on closely observing the world began to supplant knowledge gained through abstract or theological speculations. Astronomers, using nothing but simple telescopes and patient observation, changed how we see the world and our place in it. Later with more sophisticated telescopes they introduced more paradigm changes. Now we know that our sun is an average, nondescript star in a fairly ordinary galaxy. One star out of 100 billion stars, in one galaxy out of 100 billion galaxies. Of course some of this knowledge is inferred. But the whole package has been observed so often that there can be no doubt that this is the case. It's as obvious a fact as that Cambridge is a town (population of about 120,000) in the United Kingdom, a country of population ca. 65 million.

A simple view of this change is that this shift in our understanding happened simply because the empirical knowledge was more true than theology. But my model suggests that it must also have been more salient to the people concerned. Why was astronomical knowledge more salient? I'm no great historian, but it seems to me that the Roman Catholic Church was starting to lose authority at around the same time. Martin Luther died in 1546. The key figures of the astronomical revolution were Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543), Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601), Galileo (1564 – 1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630). The concerns that led to the forming of Protestant churches probably helped to provide an environment in which the observations of astronomers would be taken more seriously. The world was changing in others ways as well. Christopher Columbus (1450 or 51 – 1506) and Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547) were busy expanding the Spanish Empire and enriching Spain immeasurably around this same time, while Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the earth. This was also the time of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo, the beginning of European involvement in slavery, and so on. The Renaissance is in full swing and along with it the rediscovery of ancient Greek Humanism.

Truth is relatively simple considered alongside salience. What makes a truth salient, is tied up with psychology, culture, and politics. I will argue that the problem of evolution is complex, because the truth of it is not self-evident to many, there is massive competition in terms of salience, there has been a failure of empathy in communicating evolution. 


Empiricism, science, has progressed in leaps and bounds since the 17th Century and the telescope. One of the great milestones in the progress of knowledge about the world was the publication of the On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1849. Of course this book did not, in point of fact, explain the origin of species, nor did it speak of "evolution", but Darwin subsequently did write about evolution and his name became synonymous with the theory. It was to be almost a century before a plausible theory of the origin of the variation upon which natural selection worked. This came with the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick, Franklin, Watson & Wilkins, and the subsequent identification of sections of DNA called genes which encode the structures of proteins that a new more complete Darwinism was born which explained both variation and natural selection at the level of genes. 

The theory which combines genetics with Darwinism is sometimes called NeoDarwinism (the term is pejorative). NeoDarwinism is often referred to as The Theory of Evolution, but it really should be A Theory of Evolution. In fact I do not think it is the best explanation for the emergence of new species, nor is it a complete description of heredity and variation. Recent discoveries in epigenetics forced a reconsideration of the NeoDarwininan account of genes. Genes are not passive carriers of information, rather the genome as a whole is actively responding to the environment. For example, the amount of food available in one generation can affect how genes are expressed in a subsequent one for example. Also the genome of our symbiotic microbiome is many orders of magnitude larger than our own and can strongly affect our bodies, to the point where it has been called our "second genome". Study of the interactions between us and our symbionts has been slowed by the dominance of the NeoDarwian view which tends to see everything in isolation. This reduction of heredity to the "selfish gene" was what prompted me to refer to Richard Dawkins' popular explanation of genetics as "Neoliberalism applied to biology". In fact Neoliberalism is libertarian and utilitarian in character and these are both class-based ideologies. (See The Politics of Evolution and Modernist Buddhism).

In my view the best explanation of the origin of species is one with almost as long a pedigree but one which, though having greater explanatory power, is less fashionable. The Theory of Symbiogenesis is closely associated with the late Lynn Margulis whose seminal 1966 paper, under her married name Lynn Sagan, On the Origin of Mitosing Cells (note the implied connection with Darwin in her title) showed that mitochondria were once free living bacteria. However well known this idea is today, it was originally rejected by the mainstream, and Margulis's ideas were marginalised. Margulis saw evolution as "community ecology over time", as a process which included elements of competition and war amongst species or genes, but was primarily driven by elements of cooperation, symbiosis, and combination. I agree with her assessment that Darwinian evolution, with its basis in metaphors of war and later selfishness, appealed to male scientists more than Symbiogenetic evolution which appeared too feminine.

However we describe the mechanism, it seems clear that species evolve from common ancestors and that all life on currently found on earth has a common ancestry, and that the process of life evolving has occurred over thousands of millions of years. No other explanation can fit all the facts. And yet some religieux, particularly fundamentalist Christians, refuse to accept these facts. Some Christians maintain that the Bible is a factual account of the history of the Earth. Why is this belief so tenacious? How can such people refuse to believe in evolution? I think there are a number of reasons, for example I see weaknesses in the theories that leave loopholes; a failure to create appropriate salience; and a failure to establish an empathetic connection.


Theoretically a infinite number of monkeys working over an infinite time span would eventually reproduce Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace, by accident. The time required to produce a novel by random typing is so very long that the probability might as well be zero. But this deeply counter-intuitive idea is central to NeoDarwinism. In this view random mutations are the source of variability, and survival of the fittest weeds out variations which are not viable. It's as though we were to start with the children's book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and introduced random typos and printing errors over a million printings. We don't expect War and Peace to emerge. We expect the text to become less and less comprehensible and eventually to become random gibberish. We expect this, and it is precisely what we observe happening in copying. Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts being copied in Nepal are literally gradually becoming incomprehensible because the scribes cannot (or do not) properly error check. It so happens that the most recent manuscript of the Heart Sutra to be identified was discovered by me in a digitised collection from Nepal. This manuscript is rife with errors, omissions and additions. Over about 280 words in Sanskrit, my edition has 140 footnotes, so that on average every second word is problematic. As it is, the manuscript is only readable if we know what it ought to say. On it's own it is already gibberish, though with enough surviving elements to identify the text it descends from. The second law of thermodynamics (entropy) tells us that all closed systems should become more disordered over time. This is what happens at the level of chromosomes and cells. They gradually lose coherence and become more disordered, so that replication errors give rise to cancers for example. To date replication errors in ageing cells have never been observed given rise to rejuvenation. Errors wreck the process of replication, and mutations are vastly more likely to give rise to errors than viable code. We can call this the replication problem

So how does mutation drive improvements in the genome? The idea is that some small proportion of mutations enable an organism to better fit it's environment. And we do see some adaptive variations. The classic example, from texts when I studied biology, is the white moths that sometimes throw up a black individual. In the 19th century everything gets covered in soot and white moths are obvious and eaten by birds, while the rare black variety survive and become the dominant type. But then in the 20th century there's a big clean up and the situation reverses. The white moths come back because in this case white is the dominant gene. The argument is that the different versions of the gene for colour in the moths are the result of mutation and that environmental factors make one more adaptive than the other. 

In order for a mutation to be passed on the individual carrying it must survive and breed. But the vast majority mutations are deleterious (are cancer causing for example), and to be passed on the mutation must occur in gametes (ova and sperm in animals). Even given vast scales of time involved in evolution, this is all very counter-intuitive. The replication problem is a loophole. Any theory of evolution which allows for random mutation to be the driving force, is just not convincing because it is counter-intuitive. Presented with NeoDarwinism as The Theory of Evolution, plenty of intelligent and right thinking people conclude that it too unlikely to be credible. Lynn Margulis argued that while the NeoDarwinian account of evolution might account for variability with species, it did not account for the emergence of new species.

On the other hand, of course, we do see variability in genes. Such variations are apparent in humans for example and have formed the basis of the out of Africa hypothesis - the idea that all modern humans migrated from East Africa ca. 75,000 years ago to colonise every continent is partly based on tracing variations in genes in mitochondria and on the Y chromosome. But these variations are necessarily tiny and are not sufficient to define new species. The gene, or complex of genes, does the same job in all it's variations. Despite quite widely varying physical features, there is presently only one species of humans on the planet, a rather unusual occurrence in the history of hominids. Which brings us to the next loophole, the problem of observing speciation

The scientific literature on the emergence of new species is sparse, and often inconclusive. This is not helped by the fact that we have competing and contradictory definitions of what a species is. Summaries of this literature [1] produce what seems like a relatively small number of candidate cases where speciation seems to have occurred, but many of the examples are not due to the mutation of a gene, but to hybridization and polyploidy (mutation in whole chromosomes by doubling or tripling). Where two populations have diverged to the point of being unable to physically mate or produce viable offspring it is usually from artificial stress placed differentially on two initially identical populations in a laboratory. In the wild, the London Underground Mosquito its thought to be a naturally occurring example. However as Lynn Margulis notes with evident satisfaction (Symbiotic Planet, p.7-8) in an earlier, similar case with Drosophila fruit flies it was shown that what changed was not the organism, but its bacterial symbiont. Indeed from Boxhorn's summary it is not always obvious what has caused the phenotypic change. In most cases of so-called speciation, no gene mutation has been identified, nor has anyone gone back to alter an identified gene in the origin population to artificially produce a new species, though of course we have altered many genes in many different organisms. These would be a minimal requirements for confirming that speciation was due to the mechanisms proposed by NeoDarwinians. Since very few people are interested in symbiosis, changes in, for example, gut bacteria are seldom investigated and cannot yet be ruled out in most of the promising cases. Given the centrality of speciation for the theory of evolution there is surprisingly little research aimed at identifying and replicating the mechanisms of speciation.

Worse, the sources for these 'facts' are not freely available, and the vast majority are not qualified to assess how true they are since they are couched in jargon it takes years to learn. Science journalism further muddies the water because it frequently opts for sensationalism over solid results. Journalistic standards are very much lower than those of scientific publications. And here the specific problem is that journalists repeatedly report variation as though it is speciation. And it is not. Such easily refutable speculations help to undermine the case for evolution, help to make it seem less plausible to those who have a vested interest in a religious view. The lack of widely cited and well replicated cases of speciation is a major failing of evolutionary science.

Another loophole left by NeoDarwinism we can call the incremental problem. This is the argument that something like the eye could not have evolved one step at a time because it is far to complex. This is partly a failure of imagination. We cannot imagine the steps required to go from a single light-sensitive cell to a complex eye with specialist organs like a lens, eye muscles, various fluids, specialised nerve cells and so on. The number of potential steps is enormous and the tiny variations which might accumulate are difficult to put together into a coherent picture. Big numbers are just abstract concepts for most people and have no kind of real life analogue: we struggle with geological time periods especially. "A million years" has more or less no meaning to most people. Thus the evolution of complex organs through random (undirected) mutations in genes, is also counter-intuitive. 

So, even though I am educated in the sciences and have studied evolution, and even though I believe evolution to be self-evident, the details of how evolution works are far from clear to me. A good deal of the detail seems counter-intuitive as it is commonly explained. NeoDarwinism in particular seems a less plausible explanation of speciation than Symbiogenesis. A minor point in favour of Buddhism is that it does not conflict with the basic idea of evolution, even though the cosmology and cosmogony that many Buddhists cite is incompatible with a scientific worldview. On the other hand, for a Young Earth Creationist there are all these loopholes, all these weaknesses in the theories of evolution—the replication problem, the observation problem, and the incremental problem—that make it easy for them to shrug off evolution as a theory. And they have a strong emotional attachment to the competing story in the Bible that means that there is competition for what is most salient in the discussion of what life is and how it changes over time.


Scientists aim for objectivity. This makes sense. It allows us to get insights into reality by triangulating the observations of many observers. Each observer brings an element of subjectivity to the observation, but by combining the observations of many observers over repeated observations we can eliminate a good deal of what is due to subjectivity. If we observe dispassionately it makes the process more efficient. This approach is sustained in communicating science in official publications. The language is impersonal and favours passive constructions e.g. "the animal was observed to eat an apple." Just the facts. But contrary to the old saw, the facts do not speak for themselves. In ordinary life we rate the importance of information by the emotion that it elicits in us. Those of us who are excited by concepts and science are quite rare. Without any sense of how relevant these facts are, we struggle to assess their salience. We're even puzzled as to why scientists are excited by them and want such huge amounts of money to study them. Recently there's a trend towards funding research on the basis of how much revenue it will generate. I see this as a direct symptom of the failure to communicate the salience of research. Left to their own devices politicians fall back on what they do understand.

Now compare the way that fundamentalists communicate their version of events. The message is accompanied by strong emotions, and these are reinforced by communal rituals, and by peer networks. Preachers not only tell us the facts as they see them, but they communicate both verbally and non-verbally that this is most important thing we have ever heard. The message is simple, clear, and repeated often; and it addresses our most fundamental questions about life and death. The religious message could not have more relevance. One's immortal soul is at stake. And for most people an immortal soul is an intuitive concept, unlike evolution.

It is not so hard to see why some people don't feel any real conflict over what to believe and reject the theory of evolution. It is communicated in such a way that it has little or no salience for them. It is not communicated in a way that demonstrates how important it is to know this. If a person does not value this kind of fact up front, they are not going to be converted by an appeal to intellect. But there is also a countervailing force. When we begin to unravel someone's religious faith we undermine their worldview in many ways. Not simply their view on God's role in creation, but their felt sense of the God's presence; the importance of God's commandments in morality; the whole concept of the afterlife and how it will play out for the individual; the rationale and coping strategies for dealing with adversity; the sense of meaning and purpose that helps them deal with a life working in a bullshit job (and all that goes with that); and so on. It's not that they should simply give up believing in God and will be better for it. We have no reason to think that undermining someone's faith would do anything but harm to them. The wholesale conversion of Westerners to atheism is no doubt a big subject for debate, but to my mind it has created generations of nihilists and hedonists, who threaten to undo much of the progress made since the European Enlightenment through short termism and the individual pursuit of pleasure, wealth, and power without any thought for other people. That one of the main responses to this nihilism is a further retreat into Romanticism is not helpful either. I'm pretty sure that Neoliberalism is not better than Christianity as an ideology.

Even for the average atheist its can be hard to see why believing in evolution is important. Believing or not believing has little or no relevance to how we live our lives: how we work, shop or play. It doesn't make us better people. It won't make us live longer or be more prosperous. There's no reason we should care about evolution. The reason any of us know about it at all, is that eggheads insist that we learn it at school. Which brings us to the third problem.


One of the characteristics of the current public debate on religion is hostility. Many prominent atheists now embrace the sobriquet militant. Just as in the theory of evolution, the metaphor most often invoked in these discussions is war. What might have been a discussion or a dialogue, or a dance even, is now a battle. Wars are decided by annihilating the enemy or forcing the survivors to capitulate and lose everything. Verbal exchanges are not aimed at creating understanding, or even communicating facts now, they are aimed at taking positions, landing blows, at undermining opposing positions, and at destroying opposition. Stepping into this theatre of war carries with it the threat of attack. This metaphorical war sometimes erupts into literal conflicts, and in the USA not a few court cases. Not surprisingly in situations where both sides are expressing considerable illwill, there is little actual communication.

There is a good sized body of research on what makes for good communication and how to persuade people of your point of view. Indeed the study of rhetoric dates from ancient Greece. None of this research, nor even common sense, suggests insulting your interlocutor or their beliefs as an effective strategy. Despite this, some of those who lead the secular charge in the war on religion, completely ignore all of this valuable research, and resort to insults and accusations. This issue is much more tense in the USA where Christians themselves are more militant (having been mobilised to political awareness by the political right in the late 1970s). But I think scientists have to have the courage of their convictions. Why are the scientists not using science to inform their rhetoric? Could it be that they lack faith in science, or is it that they don't even consider that they might be poor at communicating? Do leading scientific secularists not observe the results of their actions, reflect form hypotheses and test them? They do not seem to as far as I can tell. They preach to the converted and damn the heretics to hell, as it were. 

The strategy of scientists, presenting people with a series of facts with no clear statement of values, leaves people cold. "Coldness" is part of an extended metaphorical dichotomy relating to our inner life: EMOTIONS ARE HOT; INTELLECT IS COOL. Rational arguments are cool, but purely intellectual people are often perceived as cold. Other phrases which draw on this metaphor are: "He is a cold fish", "She gave him the cold shoulder", "She was frigid". A cadaver is cold to the touch. Warmth is the characteristic of life, warm-blooded animals maintain their body temperature above ambient and thus radiate heat and feel warm to touch. (The use of "hot" and "cool" in reference to Jazz is another story, one I'd love to go into sometime, but a digression too far for this essay). In the Capgras Delusion one can recognise loved ones, or in one recent case one's own reflection, in the sense of seeing and identifying all the details, but a brain injury prevents the connection of the visual details with the emotional response that typically goes with familiarity. The person with Capgras cannot understand the disconnection and typically confabulates a story that the loved one has been replaced by a replica.

On the whole human beings are not moved by bare facts. But it's worse than this. On the whole we see people who try to communicate solely in terms of facts extremely negatively; as cold, unemotional, uncaring, and inhuman. The whole point of the Mr Spock character in Star Trek was that his emotions were just below the surface and constantly threatened to burst out. And even if they did not his apparent coldness highlighted his limitations in dealing with humans, and acted as a contrast to the hot-blooded impulsiveness of Captain Kirk. They were a team that only really functioned well together. And on the contrary people who emotionally communicate a clear sense of values can often get away with being completely irrational.

It's interesting that nature documentaries are a clear exception to this cold style of communication of science. TV producers know that the audience are drawn into their work by drama and intrigue. The facts have to be woven into a narrative which creates an emotional resonance. David Attenborough is a master of this. His documentaries draw the audience in by portraying life as a drama with archetypal characters. This enables the audience to identify with the "characters". This was also part of the fascination with Jane Goodall's work on the chimps at Gombe stream. Her approach of using names helped us to come into relationship with the chimps, to glimpse ourselves in their games, loves, and struggles. And perhaps this dramatic style is a hint to those who would communicate about evolution to a wider audience? We want to know, above all, why we should care about evolution. 

I began writing this essay just after reading Richard Dawkins book Unweaving the Rainbow. In the preface he evinces surprise that his book The Selfish Gene convinced people that he was a nihilist who saw no value in life (he describes people as machines). People apparently often ask him how he even gets out of bed in the morning with his bleak outlook on life. Unweaving the Rainbow is his attempt to show that he is anything a nihilist, that he is alive to the wonder and mystery of life and the poetry of the universe, and is fully convinced that we all should be awed and amazed simply to be alive. He tries to tell the reader that curiosity and fascination with life is what gets him out of bed in the morning. I suggest that part of the problem with The Selfish Gene as literature was that it was not consciously concerned with communicating a sense of values, though I would say that it did unconsciously communicate the values of Neoliberalism. I'm ambivalent at best about his writing and opinions, but no doubt Dawkins has values. However, these values are unspoken in much of his intellectual work, precisely because the academic ideal is to emotional content of communication: the myth of the objective, dispassionate point of view. This has real value in the pursuit of science, but not in communicating to ordinary people. Unweaving the Rainbow appears to be trying to address this point, though I suspect given the low profile the book has in his oeuvre it is rather too oblique. Also a good chunk of the book resorts to being rude about the people he seems to most want to convert to his views; religious believers. He just can't seem to help himself. Whatever his merits as a genetic scientist, Richard Dawkins seems not to understand people very well.


We tend to blame religious people for their failure to embrace evolution. On the contrary I say we can lay the failure to communicate evolution squarely at the door of scientists. They have education and access to the resources, but they squander them. There's a movement in the UK to promote the public understanding of science which is doing great work. Choosing good communicators like David Attenborough, Jim Al Khalili, or Alice Roberts to front TV shows and make public appearances is helpful because they humanise the communication. It doesn't hurt that some of them are very attractive as well as intelligent, but the key to their success seems to be their personal enthusiasm for, and ability to speak clearly on, their subject; and their ability to help us understand why what they are talking about matters. 

The success of any communication between two people depends on their being empathy between them at the outset. If what we are trying to communicate is counter-intuitive then we have a difficult job to show why the idea is still plausible. If the people we are trying to communicate have an emotional investment in some other explanation, then we can improve our chances by trying to understand their values and concerns and addressing them. None of this is rocket science. And the people who are doing the communicating are scientists.

As with Buddhism the process and ideals of science are, generally speaking, admirable in the abstract. But the people involved introduce an element of imperfection. The perfect instantiation of science or Buddhism has yet to arise. Tolerance is called for. Both of religious believers and of scientists, even if we do expect more of the latter. 



1. Speciation:
  • Boxhorn, Joseph. 'Observed Instances of Speciation.' The TalkOrigins Archive
  • Stassen, Chris. Some More Observed Speciation Events.  The TalkOrigins Archive
  • MacNeill, Allen. 'Macroevolution: Examples and Evidence.' The Evolution List. evolutionlist.blogspot.com [draws on Boxhorn; the comments on this blog post are well worth reading as well!]
  • Zimmer, Carl. A New Step In Evolution. The Loom, Science Blogs. Observations of bacteria evolving a new metabolic pathway. 

Margulis, Lynn. (1998) The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Basic Books.
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