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Planet Earth

Popular Misunderstandings of Evolution, Take Twenty

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJanuary 9, 2006 11:31 PM


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I have already confessed to you about a serious, debilitating weakness of mine: I like to watch crap action movies to let my mind rejuvenate itself after I've been working for a while. I don't care how bad they are, as long as they're well produced, and as long as they allow me to escape. Some people do drugs. I do DVDs.

And so it was that I recently found myself watching a recently released movie called The Cave. Here's the film's website. And now allow me to spoil the plot: It's about experienced cave divers who take on a gig in Romania that winds up being more dangerous than even they could have imagined (and cave divers take insane risks regularly as it is). You see, a few decades earlier, a group of people were sealed in this cave, and through some means--it's not clear, something allegedly involving a "parasite"--they started evolving. Super rapidly. Suddenly, within a matter of decades, these human beings had turned into huge, flying, swimming versions of the creature from Alien, with adaptive echolocation to boot. And when the cave divers swim into their lair, can imagine. Yum yum.

The movie dresses all of this up in scientific language, trying to take itself seriously on the subject of evolution. And in fact, it plays right into a common popular misunderstanding: That "evolution" means that creatures in new environments suddenly develop whatever attribute it is that they need to get by. Otherwise known as Lamarckism.

In fact, of course, we know that evolution does not simply give you whatever you need in a pinch--mutations are random, and most are harmful to boot. And the larger the scale of the mutation, the more likely it is to be deleterious. So it's no surprise that what happens in The Cave is scientifically impossible--but what's more interesting is how common it is for such misunderstandings of evolution to sprout up in popular culture.

A couple of years ago I wrote a Washington Postcommentary about the film X-2: X-Men United, which also misunderstands evolution in a similar way: The mutant X-Men simply spring into being, suddenly and miraculously, their powers already fully formed and intact. In a sense, a similar misunderstanding of evolution was also depicted in The Lord of the Rings, when Gollum descends into a cave and comes out years later a totally different creature, having adapted to his surroundings. (Of course, that was a fantasy story, magic was involved, and no scientific-sounding evolutionary mechanism was explicitly mentioned, so it's somewhat less analogous.)

In one sense, I guess we should be glad that evolution has made its way into popular culture, even in a bastardized form. But in another sense, I can't help wondering whether a poor popular understanding of science feeds into these widely broadcast misunderstandings of what evolution is and how it works.

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