Is evolution a myth?!

Using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human? for Intro to Anthropology 2021 after reading What is Anthropology? we read “Anthropology, Science, and Storytelling.” This segment poses an interesting question. Is evolution a myth?

From there, we went on to discuss more about how Evolution is Life in Process. One key idea that carries us from this class to the next is the importance of understanding what a scientific theory is:

Scientists speak of a scientific theory only when they are able to link up a series of testable hypotheses in a coherent manner to explain a body of material evidence. Scientific theories are the combined result of sifting data, testing hypotheses, and imagining how all the resulting information might be put together in an enlightening way. Scientific theories are taken seriously because they account for a wider range of material evidence in a coherent, persuasive manner even though their hypotheses remain open to testing and possible falsification. (28)

Is evolution a myth: Resources

I have previously taught this section of the textbook in 2016 and 2017 as are we failing our children on evolution? In 2018 I taught it as Science and Storytelling together with “The Evolutionary Enigma of the Human Eyebrow” by Penny Spikins on Sapiens

Partial Transcript

We read module two, which is called, “Anthropology, Science, and Storytelling.” In this textbook, I think it’s funny Lavenda and Schultz title all their chapters in the form of questions. Even a lot of their sub-sections in their chapters are questions like: what is anthropology? Chapter 2 is a question: “Why is evolution important for anthropologists?” This is a question that you have never asked yourself, and you probably don’t care about. It’s funny that all their titles have questions in them, many of which you probably have never even pondered before. That’s fine, but it’s weird.

They also have four modules. They’re just these little sections about science and methods. They tend to be more boring than the other parts of the textbook, if that’s possible. This one may be our most interesting module, and some of you seem to think it was interesting. For this one I’ve come up with a question that would probably get me in trouble if I asked it too loudly, especially around the Science building: Is evolution a myth? I almost made that the title of my web page, but I was worried that all the trolls might come get me: he’s saying evolution is a myth! Either the good trolls or the bad trolls; there’s no good trolls, but anyway.

I’m going to pose this as a question, is evolution a myth, because we start out with this guy. The first thing we are talking about, science and physics and evolution and the origins of the universe. We start out with a Desana or a Tukano depending on what you’re going to call a person from this Amazon region playing panpipes. What the heck is a guy playing panpipes doing in here? (23)

(auto-generated begins)

Why do we start with that what’s he going to tell us it was like this story about her son and like all the different meanings behind that and was supposed to represent like a different myth than the other example he gave right after okay. It’s a story that this guy played panpipes right is we’re going to compare two different versions of how the universe came to be one of them is more fun the dishonored story is a lot more fun to read there’s the sun. The sun does some stuff. It’s cool. Then, there’s the physics story, which I couldn’t understand at all right. We compare these two. We find out that both of these are stories they’re stories about the world one of them is told by a guy playing well. I don’t know if he was the actual teller, but let’s just assume he’s playing panpipes. Then, telling us a good story about the sun. The other one was written by some physicist who is trying to bore us all in a textbook. So, both of these are stories. If we go on from there. A lot of you got into this part of things and I wanted you to right it’s a good it’s a good interesting way to start out that both of these stories are myths whoa, but only in the anthropological sense of the word myth. So, Lavenda and Schultz here give us the definition or the anthropological use of myth, which is quote stories that recount how various aspects of the world came to be the way they are that’s on page 24 in that little box that says myth right. So, both of these are stories about how the world. The things in it came to be the way they are. In the anthropological use of the term myth they’re both myths now to an anthropologist in this sense we are not trying to decide, which one of these myths is ultimately true or false we are simply recording that they are stories about the way the world is it’s something that we read or we think or we talk about. It makes our life meaningful it makes it make sense to us it makes us make sense of the universe

but, but before we start saying oh okay evolution’s a myth the sonic creation story’s a myth there’s all kinds of myths about the world. We need to be careful here because then they introduce an idea, which is what makes a story or a myth if you want a scientific story and in that sense they are not equally scientific stories about the world. We have to be careful here because if you’re going to be a scientific story it has to match up with our observations and evidence about the world it has to correspond with what we can observe about the things we know in the world and if it doesn’t correspond to our observations. The evidence that we can gather. We need to reject those ideas that don’t fit those observations. We need to reject or get rid of them if we want to keep being scientists and have a scientific story it doesn’t mean you have to throw it away forever you just need to it can’t be part of the scientific story. As robin and children like if ideas about the way the world works can be shown not to fit our observations of the universe then the scientists must reject those ideas regardless of the consequences and invent better ones. You have to get rid of the ideas that don’t fit then we covered a better idea that better fits your evidence now I may ask a very good question in your post, which is what are those regardless of the consequences right what might be those consequences of rejecting an idea that doesn’t fit and I would say here that people get very attached to their ideas. You might have a professional interest in pushing your idea maybe it’s made you some fame maybe you’ve been able to publish something and rejecting it might have some professional consequences it might also have financial consequences. I’m thinking about let’s say your hypothesis is that some ingredient is going to cure a disease. You have to try and test that hypothesis. It doesn’t work your hypothesis falls apart. The funder takes away the funding from your lab and those are the consequences. There can be a lot of consequences most of them when we’re talking about scientific research or probably mostly professional consequences you don’t want to keep holding on to you can’t keep holding and pushing bad ideas if they’re not fitting the world you eventually have to discourage them. But in certain cases let’s say if we’re talking about things with a financial interest there can be financial consequences as well. There may also be social consequences in trying to discard certain ideas as not scientific. I want to pause here also to say that it’s important to note that we are always trying to come up with good ideas and better ideas to describe the evidence we have. Some of you fell into a despair he said how long you ever know you can’t ever know nothing could be proven nothing could be known oh my gosh don’t despair don’t despair there’s good evidence out there. There’s some good ideas. We may not have conclusive proof we’ll never be able to take a time machine and go back to the age of the dinosaurs. We do have evidence of the ideas. We have scientific debate. We can say things about what we think happened in the past. As we go along we’re going to try and make those ideas better and better fit the evidence a lot of the evidence just isn’t there not every creature as we’ll find out wants to be a fossil. In fact, most creatures want to not be a fossil that’s why they’re alive right. A lot of evidence is going to be gone, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can say about the past we’re just coming up with good ideas to fit the evidence that we have. Don’t despair don’t fall into a malaise that nothing can ever be said it’s important to know that we are we do have some good evidence for the stories that we have now this is a funny question this was probably the first time that you learned and read this story about the scion. The creation I mean unless you’re from that part of the Amazon, which don’t probably not maybe if you want to say. Why didn’t you learn this story in school yes

[Music] true and why how to say why would you care right who cares I mean it would be fun to learn. But there’s no reason to learn it why don’t. We need to learn it

it’s a myth that makes sense in a certain place. We don’t need to learn it to learn about the origin of the universe right now let’s

just subtly think about this for a second

i think what Lavenda and Schultz are trying to do here in my opinion, is to introduce subtly something that some of us in school were told is a controversy the idea of creationism or that there is a controversy between creation and evolution. Some people are like now we should teach creation in school or teach the controversy. We don’t I mean obviously we should learn about people’s customs and religions and myths and beliefs that’s great. We’re going to do that in this class. We don’t need to do that in the sense of having it be a scientific story

so I would say in actuality there is not really a scientific debate there is not a controversy between creation and evolution one story fits the evidence of what we know about the world. The other doesn’t fit. It’s a great story like the dishonest story or like other wonderful creation stories and myths all over the world they’re great, but they’re not scientific stories they’re not scientific myths now there are a lot of debates within science is always debating . People get confused sometimes because people are debating each other based on the evidence, but there are some things that are basically settled that are they’re not really up for debate. This is one of them this is not a controversy anymore this is not a scientific debate. If you were from the Amazon if you want a dishonored person I’m not trying to change your myth I’m not trying to tell you your beliefs suck right I’m not there’s no gain to me from trying to say that your myths are terrible they’re great it’s the same here what I want you to know is the scientific explanation that best fits our observations of the world right because a lot of times we get these really weird caricatures of evolution. Then, we say well that can’t be true I’ll tell you one that I grew up with I’ll come up on this it’ll be an essay topic for one of your exams I was when I was growing up I was told

i saw monkeys in South America

if evolution is true why aren’t those monkeys turning into people

when I was a kid that was a pretty powerful argument I was like oh that’s true can’t be right then. One of the things that you might think or keep in mind as we look at the study of evolution is let’s look at what’s being asserted by evolution instead of some of these weird how to say caricatures crazy ideas that people use to knock it down. I’m not interested I like I said I have no interest in upsetting people’s beliefs I am quite sensitive I grew up in a very how to say creationist environment and I’m not interested in that saying that, but I am interested to know If you can understand why science has come to these conclusions what is up for debate and what is basically settled. So, um

i say that because I would say in recent years I have been getting some essays a few months in that say well I couldn’t really read that chapter because of creation and I’m not I’m not I’m not trying to upset anyone I’m not trying to change beliefs I mean we can have our these stories are still super interesting. They’re super important to us. They tell us things about the meaning of life. That’s great I just want you to be able to understand where we’re coming from on the scientific part of things about how we are ideas that fit the world. Let’s go into more how science works the issues of house the scientific method, which you’ve probably learned in grade school or something the hypothesis and all the come up with a hypothesis. Then, you have to do something about it. I want to start with what they call, “the alien the aliens hypothesis. Let’s say we have some fossils in a certain settlement. We say well wow maybe creatures from another planet came and with their advanced technology put. These things here or artifacts or temples or pyramids or something people have proposed ideas about alien technology in various parts of the world whenever they find something that doesn’t seem to necessarily be correspond to what they think is going on all of a sudden these aliens ideas come up now the thing about the alien hypothesis is at first when you say, “well, this bone or this artifact or this pyramid or these heads were put here by aliens that’s something. You can test or. You can go in and say all right fine let’s look for some evidence let’s find the evidence that aliens put these artifacts or fossils or whatever it is you’re looking at here now when we when we say that I want to pause here and say what science often does is we attempt to falsify a hypothesis. Sometimes we say prove your hypothesis it’s it’s almost impossible to prove a hypothesis what you mostly do is try to falsify it in the sense of you try to disprove it. If you can’t disprove it then you’re like this is looking good this is looking like a good hypothesis. What science can be very frustrating because a lot of times all the major publications in science are disproving ideas that we once had and you’re like well these guys can’t prove anything well that’s the way science works it works by you come with a hypothesis. Then, you try to falsify it or you try to find evidence against it now in the case of the aliens

you know I mean people have tried to find evidence of this it’s not like it wouldn’t be super cool to find it right we would be that would be awesome if we could find some evidence here, but most of the time all the time the hypothesis of aliens planting fossils or artifacts has not been supported by evidence. If there is no evidence we can basically say that the hypothesis is falsified that it doesn’t really work have we disproved it entirely no who knows maybe they went somewhere else, but at least in all the instances we’ve found so far, we have not proved this hypothesis we’ve always falsified

now if the people pushing the aliens hypothesis turn around and say, “well, the reason you can’t find the evidence is these aliens are super clever they backdated all their technology. Then, they erased their fingerprints. Then, they scooted out of town before we could observe them. The fact that you can’t find anything is just evidence of how tricky and clever they are whoa now what Lavenda and Schultz say is if that’s your hypothesis

that you can’t find evidence because the evidence was erased or whatnot then you don’t have a scientific hypothesis anymore. I like I said you haven’t definitively disproved that there are aliens or that aliens have visited the earth. If you if you keep going and you say the reason we can’t find evidence is because they’re too clever for us then you’ve come up with a statement that as Lavenda and Schultz say holds no scientific interest now one of you wanted to know if it holds any interest well sure it’s still interesting it’ll sell books and sell websites and get a lot of clicks if you put it up there it’s a good clickbait title it’s still interesting, but it doesn’t have any scientific interest anymore now lexi has an an interesting question here because this is an example of a hypothesis that doesn’t have any evidence and is probably false. She asks are there hypotheses that there’s no evidence for, but are probably true. There are some I later on I will tell you about the hypothesis of a Coastal Migration Route into the Americas that people from Asia one of the ways that they took to get into the Americas was by taking the coast the basically sailing down the coast the problem with this hypothesis though is that the sea levels have risen. Basically obliterated all the archaeological sites that might be there. The people that support this it’s very difficult to find evidence for it. Some people call it a safely non-falsify hypothesis I think it’s a good explanation for why we see artifact assemblages at various places in the Americas as early as 15,000 years ago it seems to make sense that people were maybe coming down the coast. However, it’s hard to support. It seems like a true thing, but who knows will we find evidence for it later. Maybe. It’s one of those things that is. There can be two kinds of hypotheses ones that are probably true, but don’t have evidence and in that case you still is like well we’re not sure if we can call it a scientific hypothesis. Then, there’s others that are crazy and don’t have innovation. In that sense we know that you’re just trying to do to get your web clicks in you’re in science fiction you’re not in science now in some ways I think. I don’t know if you have heard this term intelligent design. I think that in some ways what Lavenda and Schultz here in the same way. They were subtly responding to creationism . This is their subtle response to something that got popular for a while, but I haven’t heard of it much lately, but back a few years ago people would say they wouldn’t say they were creationists anymore they say oh I believe in intelligent design. It was a great it’s a wonderful thing because if you say you’re a creationist people look at you might like you might be not. So, bright. If you say I believe in intelligent design then you attach the word intelligent to yourself and you’re like whoa that sounds smart intelligent design the idea of intelligent design was wow look at how complicated the world is look at how many things that are difficult to explain look at how it all seems to fit together and play nice with each other there must be a designer. The idea is because the world is complicated. We haven’t been able to explain everything there must be some designer behind it. They left that open who they wanted you to be would it be who it does it didn’t matter. It acted like it was it had this flair of acting like it was a scientific hypothesis the problem is that you can’t it’s a it’s again a non-falsifiable hypothesis it’s simply looking at the world and saying we can’t well this thing we can’t figure out. There must been some ultimate designer that we haven’t discovered yet. But there’s never been there’s never been a hypothesis that has been a non-falsifiable hypothesis that results in people thinking, “aha, yes there must be a designer behind the human eye the designer behind the way that humans walk, which is causes a lot of back pain as well whoever the designer was for humans walking around. We need to get a hold of that person and get them to rethink the human design

After that Lavenda and Schultz talk about the idea of a theory and a scientific theory. Again, this is responding to debates within our own society. It’s a debate that has arisen because of a as somewhat of a contrast between the way we use the word theory in an everyday setting. The way scientists use the word theory. The way we use the word theory in an everyday setting you may know some of these people they come into your room late at night maybe a little bit imbibed. They say I have a theory and you say go to bed don’t want to hear your crazy theory the way we use the word theory is often to indicate that we don’t know what’s going on that we don’t have much evidence. We have some theory to explain it these days if somebody says they have theories you look at them like they might be a little bit nutty. In fact, we often hear today about conspiracy theories, which has further taken this word off in a totally different direction because conspiracy theories. People who call themselves conspiracy theorists are spouting things that are obviously wrong, but that’s the way the word has evolved in everyday use it’s very different from the way scientists use the word theory the idea of a scientific theory it’s not only very different it’s almost become the opposite of the way it’s used in popular life what is a theory in science

page 28 Lavenda and Schultz say scientists speak of a scientific theory only when they are able to link up a series of testable hypotheses to a coherent manner oh in a coherent manner to explain a body of evidence. Basically, what they are saying is that the word scientific when the scientist wears the word theory it’s a big jump it’s a big compliment if you have a theory because what happens if you have a theory it means you’ve you’re above the level of hypotheses it links together a lot of testable hypotheses and puts them together with a large amount of evidence. When scientists use the word theory it’s about something that explains big things about how the world works like I said it’s almost the opposite of the way we use the word theory. You may have heard of some theories such, as the theory of gravity

such as atomic theory right these are things that are explaining whole systems in the world they’ve been tested in various ways again. We don’t completely understand how gravity works. We have some good evidence that it seems to be working most of the time. The theory of gravity atomic theory these are big things that help us out to explain what’s going on in the world. The same with evolutionary theory. In the old days. I don’t know if these are still people thought they got a law passed in some states they put a sticker on the textbook that said evolution is a theory. The idea was that people would see that in the everyday sense and say it’s just a theory crazy theory yes evolution is a theory. But in the scientific sense, which means whoa we have something pretty big here something good something that’s explaining a lot of the word world. So, be careful with that at the same time

at the end of this chapter Lavenda and Schultz go into what are called science studies and some of the anthropological and other work that has been done on science itself because I think it is important. At the same time I’m trying to tell you that sciences is trying to come up with better ideas that fit the evidence. That you have to reject those ideas. There’s a process. There’s a scientific method. This is all important. We also have to understand that science is not insulated from society it is not insulated from a society that is the way it is. So, science responds to financial incentives science can respond to social incentives. It is part and parcel of it is connected to politics it is connected to economics it is connected to the world it is not just done in a vacuum. We have to understand that because sometimes we make science out to be a religion or drop down from God as well and no science is done by people it’s done in the world and what science studies do does is to look at well how does how does science work how does it how do scientists do their work do they always do this pure scientific method stuff and every time the evidence doesn’t fit they’re like “ah good I’m throwing out that hypothesis and coming up with a new one here I go well sometimes we hope that’s how it works, but sometimes people stick with hypotheses long after they should have thrown them out they stick with them for again personal professional financial reasons. They don’t discard them even though people are arguing against them. So, science studies explores how science works it’s been linked to something called laboratory ethnography (30), which was made famous by Bruno Latour who’s discussed here a bit not an anthropologist or allied to an anthropologist an anthropology program in the sense of you may have seen this word in the first chapter ethnography is usually what we used to describe as going out to other societies doing fieldwork and writing about them and bringing that back that account like the dishonest creation story that might have been part of a an ethnography, but here is an example of people who can who would do the same type of observations in a laboratory. They might observe people in an industrialized society or in the lab society to try and figure out well how does how does science work how does it make sense of the world how do these stories exist.

What science studies does for Lavenda and Schultz, and for many anthropologists is to provide an a more accurate view of what science and scientists are up to show how science is connected to society. Hopefully we can then also improve science because it’s important to understand if we understand how people acquire biases, for example, or get stuck to certain ideas and won’t give them up they can help us to improve the process of science. They say it provides a more accurate if less exalted view and by less exalted I think they just mean sometimes we have this idea that these pure scientists are going into the lab with their methods and nothing can stop the scientific method. The next thing we will have the cure for everything I mean science has had its ups and downs and every time we invent something to let’s say the racing to antibiotics, for example, great wonderful we love antibiotics they have been very extremely helpful, but every time we use them we find ourselves in an evolutionary race with the bacteria, which are also trying to evolve and evade the treatment. I mean it has it’s it is part of society. There are always trade-offs in any advancement that you might have there. You need to be aware of the issues at hand when you do that.


Using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human? for Intro to Anthropology 2021 after reading What is Anthropology? we read “Anthropology, Science, and Storytelling.” This segment poses an interesting question. Is evolution a myth?

From there, we went on to discuss more about how Evolution is Life in Process.