Annalee Newitz rounds up scientists' ten least-favorite misused scientific concepts, from "proof" and "theory" to "natural" and "learned versus innate." The thing that most of these misconceptions have in common is that they're very profitable: clouding the idea of "proof" and "theory" helps oil companies sell climate denial (and were the go-to tactic when tobacco giants were claiming that their products didn't cause cancer). "Natural" is a label that helps sell woo. "Learned versus innate" is a great way to justify crappy policies as being somehow "innate" to our species (see Love of Shopping is Not a Gene).
8. Survival of the Fittest
Paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill says that people misunderstand some of the basic tenets of evolutionary theory:
Topping my list would be "survival of the fittest." First, these are not actually Darwin's own words, and secondly, people have a misconception about what "fittest" means. Relatedly, there's major confusion about evolution in general, including the persistent idea that evolution is progressive and directional (or even deliberate on the part of organisms; people don't get the idea of natural selection), or that all traits must be adaptive (sexual selection is a thing! And so are random mutations!).
Fittest does not mean strongest, or smartest. It simply means an organism that fits best into its environment, which could mean anything from "smallest" or "squishiest" to "most poisonous" or "best able to live without water for weeks at a time." Plus, creatures don't always evolve in a way that we can explain as adaptations. Their evolutionary path may have more to do with random mutations, or traits that other members of their species find attractive.
10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing [Annalee Newitz/IO9]Next post