Communicating Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Alexandria, Sunday 15 November 2009: An ape gradually changing into modern man is the most common image associated with evolution. ‘The Missing Link’ is probably the most overused phrase when significant fossils are discovered. At best both are inaccurate; at worst they are feeding the public evolutionary myths. This is the view of Elsabe Brits, a journalist at Die Burger Newspaper, South Africa who has banned both from her newspaper. But Elsabe is not just a stickler for accuracy; there is more at stake when reporting on evolution. ‘These images and phrases reinforce false ideas of evolution; evolution is not linear as the image suggests; creationists use the fact that there are missing links to suggest that the theory of evolution is unproven’. New Scientist comes in for heavy criticism from Elsabe for a recent and deliberately provocative cover that claimed ‘Darwin Was Wrong’. Of course the article itself was about the mechanisms of evolutionary theory not overturning it completely. But the cover was widely used by intelligent design and creationists to support their arguments. Science magazine receives praise for its detailed and accurate reporting of the discovery of Ardi. Although even the ‘exemplary’ presentation of the research by Science, could not prevent its misinterpretation by some journalists with Al-Jazeera claiming ‘Ardi Disproves Darwin’s Theory’.

With Darwin’s Theory of Evolution still being misrepresented in the media, how did Darwin’s ideas fare 150 years ago on the publication of ‘The Origin of Species’? Professor James Secord, University of Cambridge, UK has examined how the actual physical means of communicating in the late 19th Century were instrumental in the development and acceptance of Darwin’s theory. In Darwin’s day the increasingly mechanised Post Office enabled his frequent exchange of letters discussing his ideas (there are now 15000 recorded letters). This provided the key means by which he could develop his ideas and refine his theory of evolution. Once Darwin’s theory was published as the Origin of Species, the explosion in publishing alongside developments in transport enabled rapid distribution of such printed materials. However it was not Darwin’s book itself but reports of his ideas in the Periodical Press that led to the rapid and widespread dissemination of Evolutionary Theory. Professor Bernard Lightman, York University, Canada points out people are not passive receptors of ideas and those who reported on Darwin’s work in these periodicals, influenced the views of the reader. Darwin’s ideas were also presented at a time of great change and it is now hard to unpick whether the reception of his ideas were as much to do with reactions to the increasing influence of the western world rather than the ideas themselves. Lightman highlights a further factor, that something was quite literally ‘lost in translation’ of ‘The Origin of Species’ with consequences for its interpretation and acceptance in non English speaking countries. The picture of how the word spread on evolution and why in some cultures it was deemed far more acceptable than in others is complex. But what is clear is that the theory of evolution is still widely misunderstood even today.

Elsabe has developed her own guidelines for reporting on evolution, a kind of aide memoire for journalists:
Explain the basics – again
Debunk the myths and untruths about evolution
Use other disciplines – genetics
Refrain from using confusing graphics and widely used terms (creation, missing link, survival of the fittest, design)
Beware of creating confusing words
Give a short explanation of all terms
Give examples