Is evolution a difficult subject to understand?

This is a question specifically for the biology teachers/lecturers/professors among you.

I’ve been wondering lately about just why so many really bad arguments against evolution get so much traction. Arguments such as “if we evolved from apes then why are there still apes?” or “what use is half an eye?” or about cats turning into dogs, or about crocoducks, or about Scrabble tiles being dropped on a table and producing Shakespeare, and so on. These are all arguments that just show that the people making them haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

But it occurred to me — could these misconceptions be due to evolution being genuinely difficult to understand on a purely technical level?

I thought this because these bad arguments and misconceptions have parallels in one particular aspect of the software development world with which I am very familiar. In recent years, software has increasingly been developed using a tool called Git, which keeps a complete history of how your codebase has evolved over time, and this can come in very useful for things such as tracking down bugs or branching and merging. However, a lot of programmers had a lot of difficulty adopting an evolutionary view of their codebases, seeing the benefits, or even conceptualising the idea. As a result, these new techniques and tools met with quite a lot of scepticism in many enterprise settings at first, while those of us who saw their benefits were often dismissed as noisy fanboys.

So here’s my question. Do you find, when you’re teaching, that your students have any particular difficulties in understanding the “nuts and bolts” of how evolution works?

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I wonder if it is less because of the difficulty of the subject - - and more because Evolution is quite vulnerable to distortions and mockery.

The over-arching aspect of Evolutionary Theory is quite dramatic and amazing … and so it lends itself to be abused by the melodramatic Vandals of the world…

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Yes, but is it vulnerable to distortions and mockery at least in part because people have difficulty understanding it?

Misconceptions about evolution aren’t unique to the creation/evolution debate. Take a look at the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Threshold” for example — it has Paris and Janeway evolving into salamanders in three days and then being reverse-evolved back again by being bombarded with antiprotons. That episode makes the crocoduck look positively erudite by comparison.

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I think this is a very important observation, James. I don’t teach a great deal of freshman-level biology, but I know this is where many of our Biology majors get their first detailed introduction into the concepts of evolution. I routinely teach a Genetics class which is typically about 4-5 semesters into a student’s education. There are details and features that I still need to fill in, but many of the students have a pretty good handle at this point. But this is 2-3 years into an undergraduate education of intense study. It is not surprising at all that people from other walks of life develop an interest in YEC, read a few paragraphs from Ken Ham or Kent Hovind (or Cornelius Hunter as we have seen in a recent thread), and are led to believe that the theory of evolution is scientifically untenable, held together only by the tenacious denial of the atheistic science community. After all, these people are good Christian men and women that speak authoritatively. Surely they know and understand what they are talking about, right?? (facetious emoji)


It has been my experience that you have hit the proverbial nail on its proverbial head. The leadership is afraid of evolution because they fear it leads to a loss of morals and draws people away from the church.

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And surely they would never, ever lie or mislead, right?

As many of you know I homeschool my kids. We have read a lot of elementary and middle school level science books and watched a lot of BBC nature documentaries. I have spent maybe a total of two weeks with them specifically studying evolution, and probably a month or so on the basics of genetics (Mendel and the peas, meiosis, etc.)

My son, who is in fifth grade, decided to write a science fiction story in his free time. He won’t let me read it, but sometimes he tells me what is going on in the story. In his imagined alien race, he has described to me how a certain percentage of the population had adapted to be able harness some energy source that the planet core gives off because they lived underground, so when some cataclysmic event happened, and destroyed most of the organism’s main energy source, the ones with the adaptation were the only ones to survive. He has referenced a vestigial organ that explained their weird anatomy. He has explained how something or other was different earlier in the evolution of their species but the environment changed so now they are different. For the most part, I am pleasantly surprised how he seems to have fairly unconsciously internalized many of the basics of biology and applied them to his imaginary world.

So, no, I don’t really think evolution as a concept is that that hard to understand, at least at the basic level. I think lots of people put up mental blocks to understanding it based on conditioning they have been exposed to in their subcultures. But I think if those people did not have to unlearn wrong concepts, they would find evolution as intuitive as my 10 year old finds it.


The principle of survival of the fittest isn’t too difficult. Understanding what happens at the molecular level is where things get considerably more complicated. You do bring up a good point, though. Mental blocks can certainly be part of the difficulty, especially when people are confronted with the false option of siding with the Bible or siding with atheistic science.

(minor edit for clarity)


Except that people often think that fittest must mean being the strongest, the meanest, the most aggressive. Anti-evolution people like to play up this misunderstanding so they can link evolution to Hitler. But fittest can also mean being the most cooperative, being fastest to run away, having the best camouflage to avoid being eaten, or even providing the most nurturing parental care.


Some of these misconceptions probably draw their strength from our lay-person desire to latch onto pithy phrases, such as “goo to zoo to you”. Then we fail to want to dig any deeper. Even so, simplification is a necessary educational tool to the extent that it successfully and succinctly gives an overview of a concept, but then it is also prone to be laden with inaccuracy and misconception. In the case of that phrase, it is misleading in that it implies that abiogenesis is included as part of the theory of evolution (the “goo to zoo” part). So while decidedly less pithy, “single-celled organism to zoo to you” would be a step toward more accuracy. But that in turn still promotes the “evolutionary ladder” misconception. [hence the misunderstanding over apes turning (or not) into humans] So perhaps it should be “first cell to zoo which includes you” would be the most accurate yet. I won’t hold my breath that Ham adopts my new catch phrase, though. Probably not catchy enough. Education rarely is.

[edits and improvements added]

“Evolutionary theory seems so easy the almost anyone can misunderstand it”

  • by the late philosopher of science, David L. Hull. Nature (377)494 - 12 Oct 1995

This is very true in my case as well. If Kent Hovind had spent half as much time explaining evolution as he did making fun of it, I might not still be trying to figure it out at age 31 (clearly he didn’t understand it that well himself).

Tribalism > Truth, unfortunately.


Thanks for your feedback, everyone.

One thing that I’ve noticed about all this is that YECs and scientists have completely different concepts of what exactly is meant by “evolution” in the first place. The definition given on the Wikipedia page about evolution seems very precise and carefully defined, and refers specifically to a process: change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations.

On the other hand, YECs tend to use it in a much broader sense to mean not just the process itself, but its overall results (molecules to man), the timescale involved, and a whole raft of philosophical or religious considerations associated with it. More informally, they often use the words “evolution” and “evolutionist” as a passive-aggressive umbrella term for anything and everything in science that they don’t like. I sometimes wonder if this causes a lot of confusion in the minds of many Christians.


From my perspective, evolution as a scientific theory is a vast simplification of an incredibly complex field. With the simplifications comes a plastic treatment, so that when other (non biology) scientist try to take it seriously, we often encounter vague statements mixed with outlandish assertions, which include suggestions such as doubters are ignorant, sceptics are wrongly motivated, and the granddaddy of them all, “you have not read real scientific stuff, and come up with a better theory”.

Simplifications by their nature can appear easy to understand, but they are often used to hide large areas of the unknown.

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[edited content] You regularly disparage the work of the scientists in these fields and then complain about how your critiques are received.

Because I do understand evolution, I interpret “evolution as a scientific theory is a vast oversimplification of an incredibly complex field” to mean “I have barely read anything about evolution.” This can be fixed. Recommended readings are probably easy to find throughout this site, but I am always happy to provide references to materials at any level.

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Hello, this is my first post here.

I find that many students bring the misconception that evolution is like a line or ladder, not like a tree or a plant.


I also find that films and tv create misconcepcions. Such as the Star Trek you write about, and X Men mutants, and many others.

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Welcome to the forum, Roberto! We appreciate your comments and look forward to getting to know you better. I take it from your comment that you are involved in teaching.
Indeed, many do have misconceptions, some through lack of knowledge, some thought false “knowledge” presented by those who disagree with current scientific thought. Hopefully, through kind and gracious dialogue, we can gain understanding based on both scientific knowledge and the ultimate Truth.

Most people don’t understand the difference between abiogenics e.g. life appearing where no life was present and evolution, how life changes over succeeding generations because of changes in DNA.

Compare the evolution of a person over time and people over generations. If there was set of photos taken of me every 6 months for my first 70 years one would be hard pressed to decide where “child” ended and “adult” began.

If, on a future “dead” earth, a space alien dug up bones of all ages from humans, chimps, and gorillas, he might conclude that the bones were from 1, 2, 3, or more species.

Every time a “missing link” is found, it creates a new gap in the chain. That would be like a person having photos of me as new born, 12 years old, and 75 years old and then finding another photo.

Individuals don’t evolve; populations evolve.

I don’t think any trained person would mistake a human skeleton for a chimpanzee one, and so forth. These three species are very different from each other. Right at the entrance to the Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History, a visitor sees skeletons of a human, a Neanderthal, and a chimpanzee. All quite different. Juveniles of the different species are also quite different.