Why you should use the word “evolution” if that is what you study

How often do you hear people say evolution when that is actually what they are working on? If you do not use the word, then some people will not get the connection of your work to this unifying theory. If people don’t hear the word, they will think it is not a central and important concept. If they do hear it all the time it is appropriate, then it will become more normal and people will understand this important process because they will have heard of lots of examples. If you use the word, reporters picking up your work will be more likely to use it.

I am particularly reminded of this right now because of its general absence in the discussion of the Ebola virus epidemic, and because of its complete absence in the titles at the retreat I am at for Washington University’s Molecular Genetics and Genomics and Computational and Systems Biology retreat at lovely Cedar Creek in New Haven Missouri.

A researcher in our group, jeff smith, pointed out that with Ebola clinicians say adapt, change, modify and the like and not evolve when that is clearly what they mean. Why? Evolution is what is going on, and certain kinds of evolved adaptations by the virus are our biggest fears. Use the word.

I really don’t know why evolution is absent at this retreat. Is the topic missing among the blizzard of completely mechanistic talks? Is there a subtle pressure not to use the term even when it is appropriate? Maybe people just didn’t think about it. I know we did not in titling our own poster, but I’ll try to be more aware next time.

Keith Blanchard has a great piece on why you should stop believing in evolution. His basic point is that it is not a matter of belief. We don’t believe in blue, we don’t have to believe in evolution. It is a fact that is demonstrated and does not need belief. The more broadly we use the word when it is what we mean, the easier it will be for the public to understand this process that explains life.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Outreach, Presentations and seminars, Public Communication, Science writing for the public and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Why you should use the word “evolution” if that is what you study

  1. Totally agree with you about saying evolution when that is what it is. It’s jarring to read things like “the bacteria developed antibiotic resistance”.

    As for belief: One believes that evolution happens based on the evidence. There is nothing there to suggest anything about faith, which is obviously why people have a problem with the word. We all use ‘believe’ meaning based on evidence about other matters, and no one ever complains about it then. Why should we about evolution? I believe that living organisms have evolved and are being evolved because I accept the evidence that it is so.

    On top of that, it is wholly unspecified what one means by phrases such as “believe in blue” and “believe in evolution”. Please replace with “believe that blue is a good color for jeans”, “believe that many people see blue”, and “believe that evolution is a good scientific theory to explain evolutionary events”.

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