5 Common Misconceptions About Evolution

Person drawing human evolution on chalkboard.

Martin Wimmer/E+ / Getty Images

There is no doubt that evolution is a controversial topic. However, these debates lead to many misconceptions about the theory of evolution that continue to be perpetuated by the media and individuals who do not know the truth. Learn about five of the most common misconceptions about evolution and what is really true about the theory.

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Humans Came From Monkeys

Chimpanzee holding keyboard.

Gravity Giant Productions / Getty Images

We're not sure whether this common misconception came about from educators over-simplifying the truth, or if the media and the general population got the wrong idea, but it's not true. Humans do belong to the same taxonomic family as the great apes, like gorillas. It is also true that the closest known living relative to Homo sapiens is the chimpanzee. However, this does not mean humans "evolved from monkeys." We share a common ancestor that is ape-like with old world monkeys and have very little connection to new world monkeys, which branched off the phylogenetic tree nearly 40 million years ago.

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Evolution Is "Just a Theory" and Not Fact

Scientific theory flow chart
Wellington Grey

The first part of this statement is true. Evolution is "just a theory." The only problem with this is the common meaning of the word theory is not the same thing as a scientific theory. In everyday speech, a theory has come to mean the same as what a scientist would call a hypothesis. Evolution is a scientific theory, which means it has been tested over and over and has been supported by a lot of evidence over time. Scientific theories are considered a fact, for the most part. So while evolution is "just a theory," it is also regarded as fact since it has plenty of evidence to back it up. 

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Individuals Can Evolve

Two generations of giraffes

Paul Mannix / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps this myth came to be because of the simplified definition of evolution being "a change over time." Individuals cannot evolve—they can only adapt to their environments to help them live longer. Remember that natural selection is the mechanism for evolution. Since natural selection requires more than one generation to occur, individuals can't evolve. Only populations can evolve. Most organisms need more than one to reproduce via sexual reproduction. This is especially important in evolutionary terms because new combinations of genes that code characteristics cannot be made with just a single individual (well, except in the case of a rare genetic mutation or two).

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Evolution Takes a Very, Very Long Time

Bacteria colony
Muntasir du

Is this really not true? Didn't we just say that it takes more than one generation? We did, and it does take more than one generation. The key to this misconception is organisms that don't take very long to produce several different generations. Less complex organisms like bacteria or drosophila reproduce relatively quickly and several generations can be seen in days or even just hours! In fact, the evolution of bacteria is what leads to antibiotic resistance by disease-causing microbes. While evolution in more complex organisms does take longer to be visible due to reproduction times, it still can be seen within a lifetime. Characteristics like human height can be analyzed and seen to have changed in less than 100 years.

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If You Believe in Evolution, You Can't Believe in God

Evolution silhouettes ending with a man holding a cross.

latvian / CC-BY-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

There is nothing in the theory of evolution that contradicts the existence of a higher power somewhere in the universe. It does challenge the literal interpretation of the Bible and some fundamentalist Creationism stories, but evolution and science, in general, do not strive to take on "supernatural" faiths. Science is just a way to explain what is observed in nature. Many evolution scientists also believe in God and have a religious background. Just because you believe in one, doesn't mean you can't believe in the other.

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Scoville, Heather. "5 Common Misconceptions About Evolution." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/common-misconceptions-of-evolution-1224618. Scoville, Heather. (2021, February 16). 5 Common Misconceptions About Evolution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/common-misconceptions-of-evolution-1224618 Scoville, Heather. "5 Common Misconceptions About Evolution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/common-misconceptions-of-evolution-1224618 (accessed June 1, 2023).