Science TED-Ed

Myths and misconceptions about evolution: A TED-Ed lesson about the subtleties

Posted by: Emmie Le Marchand

Evolution. The concept surrounds us — it’s a standard part of science class, it’s routinely thrown out as explaining our actions in relationships, business and behavior — and yet, so many people hold subtle misunderstandings of what Darwin’s theory actually means.

In this animated TED-Ed lesson, educator Alex Gendler gives a primer on the hard-to-grasp vocabulary of evolution, explaining what is really meant by the terms “survival of the fittest,” “genetic mutation” and “evolutionary purpose.” Overall, Gendler reminds us that evolution is not about us as individuals: natural selection occurs at the cellular, genetic level, not the organism level. She also gives assurance that animals are not evolutionary useless if they die before reproducing — and explains the evolutionary reasoning behind why humans crave pizza and doughnuts over vegetables.

Ultimately, what Gendler’s lesson teaches is that evolution is not controlled by some higher mechanism — there is no predetermined plan of progression. “Evolution proceeds blindly,” she says, “creating all of the diversity we see in the natural world.”

Comments (22)

  • Annisa Lala commented on Apr 1 2014

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  • Tito Fuente commented on Feb 12 2014


    If you’re interested in concepts like this, I would recommend reading up on the evolution of the feather or the eye. There are bountiful sources on these that help shed some light on how structures can be co-opted to perform novel functions (e.g. feathers) or how complex systems can slowly develop over very long periods of time with intermediate stages still functioning (e.g. eyes).

  • Estela Estela commented on Feb 12 2014

    I’d like to see something added about epigentics. Inheritance is affected more than just by the DNA our parents transfer to us via the reproductive process.

  • Michael Alexander commented on Feb 12 2014

    This still doesn’t address any of the debatable issues that I’ve come across. If on a fundamental level natural selection progresses “step by step by step.” How does that really make the huge jumps that we see from cells to molecules to organisms. For that matter, specially adapted equipment. I’m sure one animal wasn’t just born with a tail one day and used it to swim. (In other words, irreducible complexity) How can one account for the complex equipment that at a very basic level has many inter-working parts? Not that I don’t believe evolutionary principals exist within a species sub-set, but I see too many holes to convince me that evolution can be responsible from getting from molecules to man…

    • C W commented on Feb 14 2014

      Irreducible complexity has been thoroughly debunked, the idea as a whole purposely exempts itself from recognizing well established and proven evolutionary mechanisms.

      Not one example that has been brought forth of something that has been claimed as “irreducibly complex” has been able to maintain that claim – commonly cited examples are: eyes and the bacterial flagellum.

      Creationism (or its ridiculous attempt at re-branding itself as “Intelligent” Design) has nothing going for it other the zealot like fervor of religious peoples support. No evidence supports it and all hypothesis that try to latch themselves onto it have been thoroughly debunked. Its a pipe dream of those trying to push religious ideology in schools, and when they cannot accomplish it by doing science – you know because science has to work – its attempted through the political process.

      • Michael Alexander commented on Feb 14 2014

        Hmm… Thanks for the info, however you didn’t really say much. The example I was thinking of was the bacterial flagellum. So I’ll research that more and I’d rather not just take your word for it that it has been “de-bunked”. I also did not mention any type of religious ideology for the very reason that you spent about half your reply arguing against it. Nor intelligent design or creationism. Let’s leave that out of the thread because I’d rather not get someone else’s agenda’s involved.

        So I’m still contending that the evolutionary processes makes perfect sense within the subspecies. I’m willing to even go as far out on a limb as to concede that man and chimp may have had common ancestry. However the fossil record still has very many holes when it comes to intermediary evolution. Also even Darwin had trouble fitting in certain fossil evidence into his theory (see Cambrian Explosion). The time span just doesn’t fit the evolutionary model. Why in just one isolated era did we all of the sudden find so much diversity?

        • Tito Fuente commented on Feb 20 2014

          The Cambrian Explosion diversification is indeed still a puzzle to be solved. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that it “doesn’t fit the evolutionary model,” just that it is not a well understood period of time. As an analogy, I hardly think one would call into question cell theory because we haven’t yet discovered the “cure for cancer.” Unknowns are a part of the scientific process. We have to look at the big picture. The evidence from multiple, independent sources (fossils, geographic distribution, genetic relatedness, etc.) all converge on support for the evolution of life.

  • Katie G commented on Feb 12 2014

    Watching this, I felt like it was a little condescending. Yeah, I know “natural selection” doesn’t mean any force is actively selecting genes. It’s just a figure of speech that’s convenient to use. These are all facts we learned by 9th grade. It’s certainly still educational and helpful to those who need it, though.

  • Tito Fuente commented on Jan 31 2014

    In response to a couple of the comments here: we DID evolve from apes. Humans ARE apes. I don’t think saying something analogous like “sharks evolved from fish” would have elicited the same response. I think what the comments were hyper-correcting for is the misconception that we evolved from chimpanzees or any other modern species, which indeed is not the case. But I don’t think the author of the video suggests that at all.

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  • Jason Vandehey commented on Jul 12 2013

    Great video right up towards the end where the non-scientific stuff was thrown in as “fact” or maybe “examples”.

    I love the pictures of the Giraffes. Maybe it needs a large disclaimer “Not to scale, did NOT happen this way”.

    And the last few seconds showing Ape -> Caveman -> Modern Man. Also fictional. No scientist believes that Apes are a descendant of Man. Even modern “Evolutionary Scientists” will tell you that “Apes and Man had common ancestors”, but are not in series. Maybe a chimpanzee would have been better?

    My point: A fun animation is not science if it is not scientific.

    What gives???

  • commented on Jul 12 2013

    The video is great because it is very clear, but there is one thing… At the end, — and I know this is very likely unintended — there is a progression from dark ape to light-skinned modern man. I have two problems with that.

    1) We did not ‘evolve from apes’ but had common ancestors.

    And 2) (and this is the BIG one) — even if the creator of the video did not have any racist intentions, portraying evolution as a progression from dark & primitive to light & civilized is problematic because it reinforces an old, common stereotype. AND another misconception (which this video might want to clear up).

  • commented on Jul 12 2013

    Republicou isso em Curiosidades na internet.

  • commented on Jul 11 2013

    Reblogged this on JeanClaudePitre.

  • commented on Jul 11 2013

    Republicou isso em Mundo da Pesquisa.

  • commented on Jul 11 2013

    Reblogged this on Meandering Student and commented:
    Here’s a ted talk which accurately depicts the general misconception of evolution theory. How many of you out there know these too, and what misconceptions in science do you encounter on a daily basis?

  • commented on Jul 11 2013

    Reblogged this on Gabriel Rega and commented:
    Desvendando os mitos da evolução.

  • commented on Jul 11 2013

    A reblogué ceci sur Tsukiinu se fait une nouvelle vie.

  • commented on Jul 11 2013

    Reblogged this on living for science and commented:
    Had an extremely arduous debate not long ago about evolution vs adaptation. I love the breakdown that this video provides…and I love the heck out of TED.

  • commented on Jul 11 2013

    Reblogged this on The gifts you love to get...