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The language of evolution

November 7th, 2006 · Posted by Skuds in Technology · 4 Comments · Technology

Since I have been feeling in a bit of an iconoclastic mood lately I thought I would have a small pop at Richard Attnborough.

A new series of Planet Earth started this week and as you would expect it is compelling viewing and a remarkable acheivement: a nearly perfect collision of the wonder and majesty of nature and the technology and perseverance of the programme makers.

But there was one tiny thing which irked me.

In a segment about penguins Attenborough was talking about how the male penguins incubate the eggs and said how the male carefully positions himself over the egg and hides it in a special pouch to protect it from the elements.  That wording ('special pouch') just grated as it seemed to imply some sort of direction or purpose to evolution. In a word (or two) it seemed to imply some sort of intelligent design.

Now as we all know, or should do, evolution is a random, hit-and-miss process with far more misses than hits and the use of such phrases is like the thin end of the wedge of creationism.  I am totally sure that Attenborough does not agree with creationism in any form, but such forms of words creep into the subconscious and inadvertantly give some credibility to the creationist theories.  Sometimes you will hear a presenter or scientist talking about some amazing creature or plant and say that such-and-such a feature evolved 'in order to' perform some function and that is the same sort of slip.

OK, it is easier and quicker to say than "a random mutation turned out to give some small survival advantage and got passed on to future generations and eventually it evolved into this feature which turned out to be ideal for this purpose" and its a habit a lot of people have slipped into. I think it is similar to the anthropomorphism which often creeps into nature programmes.

Maybe I am a bit sensitive on the topic but I think the pouch should have been called 'convenient' or 'fortuitous' instead of 'special'.  However its a small criticism – the other 99.9% of the programme was brilliant.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • E Bungle

    surely the hit and miss element makes it even more special? if he’d said purpose built then that is edging into creationism.

  • Rob Glover

    I don’t think David Attenborough need shy away from using words like ‘special’, or ‘specialised’ when describing niche evolutionary adaptations. I don’t see a design inference in that wording. I’d rather he use straightforward words like those, the alternative – avoiding them – is surely to cede these words to creationists, who already leap gleefuly on the use of ‘design’ if anyone uses it as convenient shorthand to explain something in nature.

  • Skuds

    Maybe it is just me then…

    Chambers online does give the first definition of special as “distinct from, and usually better than, others of the same or a similar kind; exceptional” which is OK.

    The second definition is “designed for a particular purpose” which is the one which I was thinking of.

    I could argue that using a word like design as a convenient shorthand might well be convenient, but can leave people more receptive to the concept of purpose in evolution.

  • Andrew

    Yeah, it’s tricky to find unambiguous language, but I guess that’s what scientific terms are for. Tricky when trying to make an accessible documentary, I guess.

    Anything’s better than March of the Pingwings, though. No mention of anything even vaguely related to evolution, there.