It isn't always easy for reporters to convey complex scientific theories to a broad audience when they have a limited number of words to work with. But that doesn't excuse the cringe-worthy errors that repeatedly appear in articles that describe the basic ideas underlying the theory of evolution.
Just last week, for instance, an article in the Dallas Morning News — which, ironically, was discussing the debate over creationism — opened with this sentence:
Most scientists believe Darwin got it right: Single-celled creatures evolved into complex ones, a process of natural selection and genetic adaptation that over eons turned a primordial swamp into shape-shifting cells, into ape-like primates, into people.
Wow, so much wrong packed into 36 words. Where to start? With the colorful description that makes us sound like we descended from shape-shifters? Or perhaps the failure to comprehend that the central focus of the theory of evolution is not life's origins, but how life changed after its origin. (Darwin himself observed that the origin question, though important, had no bearing on his thesis. "It is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life," he once wrote, observing that nobody had dismissed Newton's laws of motion because he had failed to explain "the essence of the attraction of gravity.")
Yet, such basic misconceptions pop up more frequently than they should after 150 years of getting to know this theory. Another personal favorite of mine appeared last December in the Washington Times:
Just about a third of Americans say the notion of human evolution — that people formed over a period of time from apes, or fish, or the like — is ridiculous, a survey from the Pew Research Center found.
People formed over a period of time from apes, or fish, or the like? That's barely a step better than Mrs. Garrison's lesson on evolution in South Park.
One of the most common errors I see is the statement that "humans descended from apes." (No, we shared a common ancestor: How hard is that?) Anyway, Stephanie Keep over at the National Center for Science Education offered a challenge to readers: Can you demonstrate that a basic definition of evolution can be both concise and correct?
I invite our readers to do the same in the comments section: Rewrite that dreadful opening sentence in the Dallas Morning News, using 40 words or less. Let's show them how it's done.