Climatology and evolutionary biology are perhaps the most misunderstood of all modern scientific fields. Both seem to consistently appear in the media in the form of misinterpreted sound-bites, provoking slightly futile and circular discourse. In the case of evolutionary biology, the media coverage gained by the development of punctuated equilibrium is a particularly telling example.
Punctuated equilibrium is a macro-evolutionary concept developed by Neil Eldredge and the late Stephen Jay Gould. Their theory stipulates that species remain morphologically stable over long periods of time, with intermittent bursts of evolutionary activity. In contrast to the more conventional idea of phyletic gradualism, which proposes that evolutionary rate remains constant, punctuated equilibrium explained that gaps in the fossil-record are not a problem for evolutionary theory as Darwin suggested. Rather, Gould and Eldredge postulated that gaps in the record may in fact represent rapid leaps in morphology over evolutionary history. Although slightly innocuous in the field itself, some media outlets leapt at the opportunity to apply Gould’s work to undermine evolutionary theory, claiming that Darwin’s original theory is now subject to significant doubt. But in reality, Gould’s developments weren’t totally ground-breaking: They by no means disproved natural selection, and a scientist called Simpson reached similar conclusions some 30 years before. Nevertheless, the more conservative media ran with headlines indicating that some kind of paradigm shift had occurred: “Recent studies spark revolution in interpretation of evolution” (Gould, 2007; Rensberger, 1980). Since the media has such an influential role in informing the public of scientific developments, it seems likely that many adopted this warped perception of evolutionary biology.
In the case of climatology, the main misunderstanding seems to stem from failures to acknowledge the importance of the average. Indeed, there’s a frequent cliché amongst climate change sceptics today: “It’s freezing outside, why are those climatologists warning of climate change?” However, variation in temperature occurs on multiple scales due to the Earth’s skewed rotation on its axis, and the nature of its orbit about the sun: It varies over the course of the day as the face of the Earth comes round to meet the Sun, and it varies according to seasonality as the pitch of the Earth exposes the surface to differential sunlight. To account for inevitable variation in temperature according to temporality, climatologists take regular measurements over the course of decades. These measurements are taken in the same place every time to ensure temperature change according to geography is accounted for. It’s this series of measurements that is used to calculate average change in temperature, and they show a consistently increasing trend. Regardless of these efforts, powerful politicians in the Committee of Science, Space, and Technology in America continue to claim that climate change is a conspiratorial myth. (Stewart, 2014)
However, in reality, is it actually the case that climatology and evolutionary biology are more frequently misunderstood than other fields? Astrophysics and geophysics are similarly complex, but it’s very rarely heard in the media that the Sun orbits the Earth, or that tectonic plates aren’t actually real. So if the two fields are no more misunderstood than any other, why is it that we get the impression that they are? Is there something else going on here? In part, it’s possible that what we see of the two fields is just an artefact of their increased coverage in the media. Or put more simply, if misunderstanding is never expressed, then there’ll never be an opportunity to note or recognise it.
All of this pondering leaves us with another question: Why all the media coverage? Well, in terms of climatology, slightly apocalyptic discourse concerning climate change will always resonate. Moreover, the threat of climate change to nation-state stability is astronomical, particularly in poorer regions of the world where the infrastructure for adapting just doesn’t exist. But for evolutionary biology, significant coverage is a little more difficult to pinpoint, and we must become quite conjectural to build any kind of conclusions. I think primarily, evolutionary biology invokes a fixated fascination in the media due to its contradiction of firmly-held dogma: religious fundamentalism, and the superiority of humanity. Perhaps this point may be taken further, because it’s possible that this conflict reinforces reduced uptake of evolutionary biology, in that it’s easier to just misunderstand the field, than it is to totally change your perspective on life. In fact, we can also examine this confliction with dogma in the context of climatology, when we proffer that it realistically means the end of free-market economics. Indeed, Klein (2014) writes that climate change scepticism is inextricably linked to a realisation that dealing with the problem means tailing back on economic growth.
So where does scientific dissemination of climatology and evolutionary biology go from here? After taking into account the fact that conflicting dogma partly block their uptake, it’s tempting to conclude that the key is to discourage religious fundamentalism and free-market economics. However, it seems there is a far better way of solving the problem. Don’t highlight the problems with one world-view, but stress the advantages of another; stress that acknowledging climate change means we can steady this planetary ship before it’s too late, and that recognising evolutionary biology provides humanity with a hauntingly beautiful connection to planet Earth.
By Joseph Millard, MSc Biodiversity and Conservation
Gould, S., (2007), Punctuated Equilibrium, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Klein, N., (2014), This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate.
Rensberger, B., (1980), Recent studies spark revolution in interpretation of evolution, New York Times, 4th November.
Stewart, J., The Daily Show – Burn Noticed (2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPgZfhnCAdI
Image taken from: http://greenmonk.net/2010/01/07/what-if-we-create-a-better-world-for-nothing/