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The Misunderstood Awards seek to accolade those champions of the human soul who have, either through hard work or mere brightness, advanced human thought and philosophy beyond the limits in which they lived, just to be held by common sense as having said and argued something completely different from what they believed and proposed.

This year the award goes toooooo:

Charles Robert Darwin

There is no finality in Darwin’s idea of evolution.

Charles Darwin’s impact upon the natural sciences is undeniable, but most allusions to his theories are simply mistaken. They tend to say “evolution” does exactly what he said it didn’t.

The misunderstanding i am talking about might seem too subtle at first. It appears when evolution is said to act directly, as if it had an opinion or a plan.

For example when one says: “the Zebu cattle evolved a hump in order to store energy”. It did not. It did evolve a hump. And this hump does indeed store energy. And those two facts are certain to have influenced in the history and distribution of the Bos primigenius indicus, making them more likely to survive in places with rigorous dry seasons. But no one ever thought: “uhm, as this species is going to live in dry lands it must have a way to store energy”.

Darwin’s contribution was not the idea of evolution per se, but actually showing that the natural system could work on it’s own, without intervention from outside, developing better ways to deal with harsh environments along the successive generations. This process was not more arcane than the relation between death rates and reproduction rates.

So, evolution does not DO anything, it does not create animals and it does not give forms to them. If we are not strict in this distinction, we are back at the “God made them as they are” idea of the world — we only substituted God with Selection, both playing exactly the same part.

And in a way, they do play similar parts, but the natural selection idea is a more complex one!

Now adding debasing to misunderstanding, people start to think about natural selection in causal terms. That is, they talk about evolution as a linear process, which can only have one possible result. They think that species could not have had any different form without suffering extinction. And also that every form that exists in nature is perfect a priori.

This couldn’t be farther from Darwin’s own view of the world. Nature is a complex system. It is full of improvisation. Full of imperfectness. (See the giraffe, stupid animal). Always in change, always in transition.

But the mistake becomes even more dangerous than that. Pretty soon, people start ascribing all sorts of moral judgements to evolution. Defending eugenics is just a part of it, what worries me is people thinking the world is a place where creativity and curiosity are luxury, reserved for moments in life when you are “away from the struggle for survival”.

Those mistakes are not exclusive of uneducated people. You sometimes can find them in biology classes and ecology textbooks.

Curiously, Darwin published much more than the single book “On the Origin of Species“, and he also addressed lots of other issues. Sadly, his single most famous idea has become prey to a misreading that follows prejudices our culture maintains despite the clearest evidence, a misreading that goes completely against the original idea.

And for that, Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) is the winner of this year’s Misunderstood Awards!

[This is for my sister, whose birthday is today. She ought to have written this. It would be better in her words. If she ever wants to do it, she is free to steal my words. And if she do, let’s hope she doesn’t do better than i did, let’s hope she does it much better. (I actually think that is one situation like Popper on a train station saying that his idea of refutability was so banal that no one would ever want to read it.)]



  1. Excellent analysis. I sometimes don’t know who abuses and misinterprets Darwin more—-contemporary scientific thinkers or contemporary religious fundamentalists. In any given science article in any given newspaper (i.e. The New York Times), you’re liable to see all kinds of sloppy language concerning “evolution” or even worse, “Nature”.

    I think God, Darwin, and History are the three worst excuses for some of the stupidest decisions in the history of humankind.

  2. Hi Little Pârhcio (have had an “h”, but I dont remember where…),

    This text is good. I have done some things different, but is good. And the idea “Darwin is the winner of this year’s Misunderstood Awards” is funny and real.

    But now I need to go back to Caixa. Thanks for the remind (do this word exists?)! And I´m sorry for lazzy (isso é preguiça ou atraso? nunca sei, só sei que se aplica a mim várias vezes… – mas acho que é preguiça, o que deixa as desculpas erradas, mas tudo bem, vc entendeu.)

    P.S.: Do you see that my english is so much better? heuaehuahe I wrote it alone and not much lowly.

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