Warning: I am not a climate scientist. To say that Freeman Dyson is a highly respected scientist is an understatement. Over his 91 years, he has made seminal discoveries in mathematics and physics; written evocatively (and provocatively) on what it means to be a scientist, the role of science in society, and the culture of science; shared the fruits of his imagination about possible future discoveries and their implications for humanity; and generally offered up one fresh and unexpected view after another on topics from space travel to genetic engineering and beyond.

By all accounts, he’s a modest and funny man, a loving husband and father, and a continued source of inspiration to his colleagues at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. However, since 2007, he’s been purporting to be the voice of “moderation” on the topic of climate change. Casting himself in the role of objective, outside observer, he has declared that climate scientists are caught up in their own hype, in love with their own models, and distracting society from ills far more important than climate change.

I wish that he were right. It would be swell if climate change were really not a big deal. But he’s not, and it is.

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Although evolution education often focuses, appropriately, on the evidence—fossils, embryos, homologies, genes, etc.—one of the most compelling categories of evidence we have is ignored: evolution in action. We have seen evolution happening—not just the results or effects of evolution, but the process. Read more about it in this week's Misconception Monday!

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Last week I made a case that origins-of-life research doesn’t usually fall under the evolution umbrella. I offered my analogy that the first spark of life was a bit like a baton hand-off from chemical evolution to biological evolution. Today, I’ll get into some aspects of the topic that tend to evoke the most, well, heated and let’s say spirited discussion.

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I’m going to admit that I’ve been procrastinating on fulfilling this reader request for a while now. As any of you who are writers can attest, the hardest things to write about are those that you know a lot about and those that you know very little about. The sweet spot is somewhere in between, where you don’t have to worry about overwhelming your audience with details and yet you know enough to make things interesting. Unfortunately, this topic is both something I know too much about and something I know too little about. Strange, I know, but it’s true. Still, James Colbert requested this topic; it’s certainly right up this blog’s alley; and, well, I aim to please. So here we go.

Misconception: Evolution is a theory about the origins of life.

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It’s getting harder and harder to come up with new misconceptions to cover here. Not because there aren’t more out there, but because misconceptions about evolution overlap significantly and we’ve covered enough of them now that finding one in virgin territory is getting more and more difficult. As a result, I’m looking everywhere for inspiration. At lunch last week, I found some—two young mothers in an adjacent table were discussing their children’s eye color. Where did the baby get her blue eyes? one wondered. The other said that she thought she remembered from school that if one parent has brown eyes and one has blue eyes, the children should all have green eyes, not blue, so they declared it a mystery. I looked despairingly at my husband, but he whispered to me, “just eat your food.”

 

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(MichaelZahniser - via Wikimedia Commons) In which the common wood frog launches us into a discussion about complexity: what is it, has it been increasing over evolutionary time, and if so... why?

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Full disclosure: I ran the four-part (newly renamed!) natural selection misconception diagnostic because my idea well had run dry. I was hoping that by retreading some old misconception tropes, I would get inspired. Imagine my delight, then, when Larry Moran gave me an idea for this post in the comments.

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If you followed along in the comments to Part 1 and Part 2, you will have noticed that a few readers, particularly John Harshman, brought up a very good point: that the “Evolution Misconceptions Diagnostic” should really be called the “Natural Selection Misconceptions Diagnostic.” As Harshman pointed out, using “evolution” in the stead of “natural selection” is itself a misconception, one I covered early on in this blog. I relayed this comment (as well as another about a particular question on the diagnostic, which I will cover below) to the folks at UCMP, which hosts the diagnostic on its site. They agreed and will be changing the name. Hooray! Well done, readers.

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Reading over comments from part 1, it seems most of you did pretty well. I was also delighted to hear from one teacher whose AP biology students all scored 100%.

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