The Top 5 Most Irritating Terms In Evolution Reporting
    By Oliver Knevitt | April 17th 2013 01:59 AM | 95 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Oliver

    In a nutshell: I like fossils. But even more than than that, I like arguments about fossils. Which is why my current occupation as a PhD researcher...

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    Evolution is misunderstood by millions.  And, it has to be said, a lot of the time, this problem isn't helped by the way things are reported on the TV or in the news.

    These are the 5 most common terms that, when I hear them used, I die a little. Though their effect is subtle, all of these terms perpetrate common myths about the way evolution works. The sooner they become extinct, the better!

    1. Survival of the Fittest
    Now, this term is something that often gets used synonymously with natural selection. In fact, it wasn't actually coined by Darwin himself; it was first used by Herbert Spencer, though Darwin later came to use it extensively.

    The problem with the phrase "survival of the fittest", in my view, is that it rather misrepresents the way that selection really works. This is because it isn't really the survival of the fittest organism that drives evolution. It's the death of the least fit organism.

    I can see how "survival of the fittest" appealed to victorian sensibilities! Instead of implying a brutal, red-in-tooth-and-claw vision of nature, it implies a striving towards self improvement. Which is, it has to be said, appealing. Unfortunately, it's neither borne out by theory nor facts.

    2. Living fossil
    This is another very appealing term. Below was the best example I could find after a quick rifle through the drawers here in Leicester. It is a maple leaf next to a modernish mapleish leaf (sycamore). [For some much better examples, check out the Living Fossils website.] UPDATE - don't do that, it's a creationist website, as someone has kindly pointed out by email. Does anyone know of a website that showcases living fossils without an agenda??

    It's so appealing because for some so called living fossils really look like just that: like a sorcerer has breathed life into an inanimate fossil. Or that the fossil animal has been there all along, biding its time.

    However, it just doesn't reflect reality. No organism can survive without adapting. Yes, it may well be that their body form seems relatively conservative, but then, it is likely there is a lot of change that we may have missed.

    I think it's very improbable that the same environment would be around for hundreds of millions of years, and even more improbable that the same organism would be able to stay on top of the game for that long. Instead, these organisms have necessarily had to flexible; ready to adapt to the tumultuous changes in the environment over the aeons.

    Richard Fortey advocates the term "survivors" instead; a much more preferable term. These animals are simply very, very successful, and are not some sort of dinosaur.

    3. Missing link
    This is undoubtedly the worst term in general use. There are many, many fundamental problems with this term, as I've written about before, but one the main problems is that a link implies a chain; a great chain of being, with the dumber animals at the bottom and clever man at the top.

    Yet, there is a much deeper reason why I'd like this term to be dead and buried. It is entirely perjorative. It is only used by those wishing to deinigrate evolution. It automatically implies that we are involved in some sort of gigantic join-the-dots puzzle; that we spend our time desperately poring through rocks trying to find that one elusive crocoduck that will fill in our tree and finally legitimize our ill-conceived agenda.

    The reality is that, if anything, it's the other way round. We have far too many fossils and which ones are closer to the ancestral line and which are further is the tricky bit.

    This is the one term that I am willing to issue a full, North Korea style, gagging order on. The main reason is that media reporting is obsessed with this idea. What we're interested in is uncovering the history of life on Earth and understanding how evolution works. We're not simply trying to prove that it happened.

    In summary, we are not missing anything, and we're not looking, thank you very much. 

    4. More evolved/less evolved
    I have to say that, in outreach work that I've done, I've succumbed to saying this. It's just too convenient to say. Instead, however, I prefer the term basal. A lamprey is considered to be a more basal vertebrate than a human because it shares similar characteristics with what we expect the common ancestor of all vertebrates to have. We didn't evolve from a lamprey; we share a common ancestor that is just as distant from lampreys as it is from humans, it only looks a lot more like a lamprey.

    Strictly speaking, we are no more evolved than a lamprey. We are good at we do and lampreys are good at what they do.

    5. Adaptation
    Now, I'm sure that a lot of people will call me a pedant for disliking this term. The problem with using the word adaptation instead of trait or character is that it assumes that it got there via adaptionism.

    It's undeniably true that most important force that shapes the morphology of an organism is adaptation, i.e. evolving them so that they are better adapted to the task required. However, it is not the only force that shapes body parts or behaviours. Often, they are there because of constraints on evolution; they may arise simply in tandem with the evolution of another body part. So, I don't like it because it makes us inadvertently make assumptions about the origin of any character of an animal.

    Really, the people that ruined this term were evolutionary psycholgists, who, it's fair to say, regularly take an overwhelmingly adaptionist view of the human body. The worst example I can think of is the hypothesis that women like pink because it is an adaptation to picking berries. By using the term adaption, it automatically implies that there must be a selective reason for this. Remember what I was saying about survival of the fittest? This is a perfect example of that being misapplied. It is not simply that those who preferred pink were more likely to survive to have offspring; it would necessarily mean that those who didn't prefer pink would have to die. Which is... improbable, to say the least.

    There you have it. Now, I realize that there are probably less serious problems than this in media reporting. The problem is that, the more these terms wash over us by being slipped into the odd news report here and there, we're more and more anaesthetised to their erroneous connotations. If we replaced this with more correct language, we wouldn't have the widespread misunderstanding of evolution that there is currently. Or at least, not as bad.

    It's not particularly a problem for us paleontologists and evolutionary biologists, because we use specialist terminology. For instance, I might describe something as stem group if it's part of a transitional sequence; a term which has a precise definition, meaning we can be accurate and concise when we describe ideas to one another.

    Obviously, journalists can't provide a glossary with every article; it belies the entire point of journalism, namely being to digest a complex story and condense it down to one nice, shiny nugget of information. But there has to be better ways of reporting stories, rather than using these loaded terms.


    Gerhard Adam
    Good post Oliver.  Glad to see you back at it.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Interesting article with which I have one minor quibble. As you phrase it, it is not that the "fittest survive" but that the "least fit die." Not to be pedantic here (but then again that would be consistent with the tone of the article) but what we are saying is that the "fittest survive long enough to mate and raise offspring" or the "least fit die before they can mate and raise offspring." Using your pink example, the ones who didn't like pink would simply need to fail to mate rather than die prematurely. Maybe that means that the men liked pink because it reminded them of berries and thus the women who wore pink were successful at attracting mates.

    Never mind -- just too complicated!

    Isn't that rather a circular definition, i thought the very definition of fitness of an organism is the number of offspring it produces. Seen from there the principle of natural selection follows almost trivially, as the fittest will outgrow the less fit. If pink color lovers produce more offspring than others therefore over many generations they will increase their share of the population.) Or is this idea controversial?

    Generally nobody could disagree with the basic idea of evolution once they understood its definition, it is speciation that is the red flag for the religiously skeptic.

    Gerhard Adam
    You're correct, but even here we have to be careful of context.  Are you talking about fitness within a population [i.e. pink-lovers] or between species in a particular niche?

    In the former case, then those with more offspring [assuming sufficient resources to raise them] will tend to dominate within a population.  However, between species it may be more beneficial to reproduce faster in order to dominate. 

    All of this assumes that there are sufficient resources [and lack of predation] to ensure that the offspring also survive.  If not, then the dynamics can change dramatically.  For example, if one takes two female elephants where one experiences normal birth, but the other consistently bears twins, the latter would likely be less fit, even though she's producing more offspring, because the resources aren't available to successfully raise them both to adulthood.

    As a result, fitness really reflects the greatest number of offspring that survive to also have offspring. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Great to see you back Oliver and another really interesting, thought provoking blog as usual.

    Does that mean we can look forward to another Friday Fossil, that is definitely not a prime example of the survival of the fittest living fossil or missing link that was more or less evolved through adaptation? 

    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at
    Erm, I'm not sure I should bring this up, but I seem to recall that a bacterium was pulled out of some 25-40 myr old Dominican amber and cultured ( Assuming this report is accurate, it appears that it is possible to have literal living fossils. They're just not what most people think they are.

    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry, but that's simply not so.  It is either living or it isn't.  A fossil can't live.  It's age doesn't make it a fossil.

    So, if it is a viable organism, then it is a living organism.

    The notion of a "living fossil" suggests a directionality to evolution that isn't true. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    John Hasenkam
    1. Survival of the Fittest
    Thanks Oliver. I think it is also important to remember that even in the absence of other species an organism will evolve in response to environmental changes. The problem I have with this phrase is the implication that species are primarily competing with one another, whereas what is happening is they are primarily about adapting to the environment which includes other species and many other critical variables. 

    Gerhard Adam
    I think part of the problem is how we use or imagine the term fitness in regular usage.  Most people equate it with be tough, or in physically good shape.  Also, suggesting some kind of physical competition.

    Instead, the "fittest" in this context really means the most "suitable" for the circumstances/environment.  One could also use an argument of efficiency, so that the creature that expends the least amount of energy to achieve the same or better results [for itself or against a competitor] will have the best possibilities for surviving.  Of course, efficiency is really only a factor if resources are scarce enough to warrant competition.

    However that doesn't include the problem of dumb luck, so that the fittest individual can still have a rock fall on them and end a line of fit descendants.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "I think part of the problem is how we use or imagine the term fitness in regular usage"

    That's one of the things that annoys the hell out of me when I read about ET. I thinks it's time for ET to leave the logico-verbal stuff behind. Evolution theorists should ditch words like adaptation, survival, fittest, environment etc. and use neutral expressions like "lambda". The scientific meaning of these neutral expressions should be made clear by their relationships - each expressed in neutral terms, of course.

    Gerhard Adam
    That won't happen, and I'm not sure it would be any less confusing.  Does anyone think that "spin" in Physics refers to an electron spinning like a top?  Or that there are actually colors or flavors?

    Terminology is always and will always be an issue.  After all, what's the point of using something like "lambda" if the terms used to define it are misinterpreted or just as ambiguous?
    Mundus vult decipi
    "Does anyone think that "spin" in Physics refers to an electron spinning like a top? Or that there are actually colors or flavors?"

    The situation in physics seems different to me, because there you have a mathematical formulation that is free of logico-verbal confusion, with Pauli matrices for the spin etc. The verbal formulation is recognized as an imperfect description of the real stuff, which you can find in the mathematical formula.

    "After all, what's the point of using something like "lambda" if the terms used to define it are misinterpreted or just as ambiguous?"

    If you can't define my hypothetical "lambda" unambigiously in other neutral terms, then ET seems to have a very serious problem: it can't be formulated in a neutral scientific language.
    Can it be perfectly objective science if it can't be formulated in a neutral scientific language?
    As I believe that ET *is* objective science, I really would like to see a formulation of it that is completely free of adaptation, fitness, etc. etc. Just symbols and relations, please.

    Perhaps an example of what I'm aiming at. I quote from the OP

    "It's the death of the least fit organism."

    So there is a property of organisms, called "F", which has the interesting property that, taking two organisms O1 and O2, you have either F(O1) < F(O2), F(O1) = F(O2) or F(O1) > F(O2).
    But this can't be correct. You can't compare the fitness of a dolphin and a chicken. The both live in different environments E1 and E2. So it's more like F(O1, E1) < F(O2, E2) etc.
    Or can you only compare two organisms in the same environment? Then it would be F(O1, E1) < F(O2, E1) etc.

    Whatever, in each case F maps organisms and environments on a perfectly ordered field. Which is kinda odd, to me.

    Next step!

    "The least fit organism dies." How to interpret this? What does it mean?

    Take a time T en two moments T < t1 < t2 and assume that F(O1) < F(O2).
    Now assume that N(O1) is the number of O1 etc., and tell me what it means that the least fit organism dies.

    I assume you will have a relationship of the form F(O1) < F(O2) ===> (something).

    Or is the relationship F(O1) < F(O2) <===> (something)? (a double arrow).

    Gerhard Adam
    I don't think that what you're proposing is possible.  It attempts to define biology in terms of a few variables when there may be hundreds if not more.

    For example, fitness may relate to direct competition for resources.  It will also play a role in which species reproduces faster.  It will also relate to susceptibility to disease.  Even if one were to consider a specific species, what does that mean for example when a species depends on commensal organism [i.e. like termites depending on gut microbes].

    Even if you could construct it, I would suggest that it would be impossibly complex.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I understand that fitness is not a function, but an immensely huge class of functions that share a property X.
    If they wouldn't share that property X, they wouldn't belong to the class.
    What is X?
    And if ET cannot define X, then why use the word fitness at all? Using it would be an invitation for confusion, certainly for a non-scientific public.
    Perhaps even the expression "the least fit organism dies" should be avoided when communicating with a broader audience.

    Gerhard Adam
    Again, it depends on the context.  If one is talking about competition between species for the same resources, then the implication is that the species that reproduces slower, or is less capable of competing with eventually go extinct.

    However, one could also discuss this within the context of members of the same species.  So that those with more beneficial traits have a greater chance of surviving and reproducing than those that lack such traits.

    So, in that respect, I agree that "the least fit organism dies" is ambiguous at best. 

    In my view, the real issue that one needs to be wary of is in the potential for assigning human value judgements.  We hear this all the time with things like the coloration of birds or the peacock's tail, when, in reality, we know nothing of the sort.  What attracts the female?  We can speculate and we might find correlations, but that doesn't make them true.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "In my view, the real issue that one needs to be wary of is in the potential for assigning human value judgements."

    I entirely agree. Unfortunately, ET carries an Original Sin, namely the fact that is was framed from the beginning in terms that invite human value judgements. I'm an outsider, but I think it's time to leave the Original Sin behind and replace much of the terminology with a more neutral language.

    You could make communication much easier if you would use "chosen function field" or "hypothetical function field" instead of "environment". A replacement for fitness could be "co-existence potential" or something like that. It would make immediately clear to a layman that "co-existence potential" could (for argument's sake) be interpreted as fitness, but that the real, scientific meaning is different.

    Oliver, I agree that the more/less evolved term is misused; people say it without always being certain. However, I do think we can make such statements. I don't think it is meaningless to say that some species are more evolved that others. Some species (living fossils) have undergone fewer changes than others, no? I'd like that we use those terms with a bit more certainty, but I do think they can be used in meaningful ways.

    PG, I think it would be a disaster to stop using terms like fitness and environment. It would make all communication harder, among scientists and with the public. Total obscuration.

    OK, but can you tell me what counts as an "environment" and what doesn't?
    Can you tell when X counts as an environment and when it doesn't?
    Are the bacteria in your gut your "environment"? Or aren't they?
    What makes the differences between two environments relevant in a particular situation?

    Perhaps ET has clear and unambigious answers to these questions, but if it doesn't, it shouldn't use the word "environment". Using it would be an invitation for confusion.

    Gerhard Adam
    Everything is ultimately in an environment, but may also be an environment for others.  Whether that seems confusing or ambiguous ... sorry, but that's the way it is.  Any line you attempt to draw is arbitrary and subject to dispute.
    Mundus vult decipi
    But why use the word environment at all, if that is the case?

    Gerhard Adam
    Why not?  As long as the context is understood, it's a perfectly valid usage.

    It seems like you're also talking about the perceptions of the general public and I'm not convinced that anything can be done to change that.  I used the example of physics before, and could continue by pointing out that the general public still visualizes atoms as little solar systems.

    The difference is that the mathematics of physics excludes most of them from more detailed discussions and so there is little argument.

    However, the problem in evolution is that most people think they understand it, so they immediately revert back to more colloquial usages and draw their own conclusions.  Perhaps you're right that it is related to terminology, but I suspect they would do it no matter what terminology was used, because they generally assume that the mere act of being alive is sufficient to have an opinion about life.

    After all, despite many efforts, many people still makes comments such as humans having descended from apes. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    I certainly hope people like you don't give up your attemps to "change the perceptions of the general public" :-).

    I think the difference with physics goes deeper. I"ve written about physics for a broader audience. I think they knew that my articles weren't accurate descriptions of physics; that the truth was in the formulas and not in my stories about the formulas. They knew that, whatever they may have understood in my articles, it was only a glimpse of the real truth. And yes, that phenomenom is linked with terminology. Physical terminology simply doesn't invite you to believe that you understand physics when you're reading about it in a popular magazine.

    When a layman (layperson?) reads about the discovery of the Higgs, he comes away mystified by that mysterious thing out there. When you read about the survival of the fittest, you get - if you want it or not - the impression that it's about YOU.

    You really should use a new, more neutral language.

    Gerhard Adam
    I tend to agree, although I would expect there would still be a fair amount of resistance from the general public.  There's a risk of being perceived [especially with creationism] that introducing new terminology is an attempt to elevate the discussion into more of an "ivory tower" dialogue.

    Then again, you should see some of the terminology in philosophy. :)

    Mundus vult decipi
    I don't know about the general public. With creationists, the damage is done, I'm afraid. You couldn't possibly make the situation worse if you go to a more neutral language.

    Gerhard Adam
    Actually I wasn't thinking about converting creationists, but rather that it might open the door to some of their arguments by making the more scientific language seem like subterfuge.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Oh, how I would love that reaction!
    You could always point out that these creationists are committing that most devilish Sin called postmodernism, with all that postmodern language-as-an-instrument-of-power thing etc.!

    I already see it before me in the NYT: "Science 2.0 unmasks creationism as the last stronghold of postmodernism in the US".
    No, make that "French postmodernism". That'll finish them once & for all.

    When you read about the survival of the fittest, you get - if you want it or not - the impression that it's about YOU.

    You really should use a new, more neutral language.

    Maximal and continual replication of the phenotype most optimally matched to its environment.  ???

    I don't see that one catching on in the media any time soon.  Not so much a soundbite as a sound smorgasbord.
    It's a good start, at least for me. Perhap it won't catch on in the media, but the catchy things seem to produce a lot of misunderstanding ...

    The main problem I have with "Maximal and continual replication of the phenotype most optimally matched to its environment" is the expression "matched to the environment". I'm not a biologist, so perhaps I'm mistaken, but in general you're not talking about "the environment" but about a careful selection of certain aspects of the environment, a selection for which you have sound biological arguments. The "matching" is the fact that the interaction between these aspects of the environment and the phenotype is responsible for the maximal and continual replication of the phenotype.

    This may sound a bit trivial and circular, but of course it isn't. It defines what you accept as a biological explanation (the phenotype, these aspects of the environment, and their interaction).

    As far as I understand, the job of a biologist exactly is to give a good scientific explanation why these aspects of the environment interact in such a way with the phenotype that they influence the replication rate; and a good explanation why these aspects are of predominant importance (with exclusion of other aspects) etc.

    Gerhard Adam
    Yes, but the problem is a bit more complicated than that.  We don't want to simply engage in "just so" stories.

    So, we have to identify whether something is an adaptation [i.e. it was selected for] versus merely adaptive [i.e. it just happens to be useful].  Then that also has to be evaluated against how heritable it is [i.e. how much of this trait is due to genetics vs environment; nature/nurture].

    You can see that there are no easy answers and so almost any phrase is going to be subject to a great deal of qualification and misunderstanding.
    Mundus vult decipi
    You can see that there are no easy answers and so almost any phrase is going to be subject to a great deal of qualification and misunderstanding.

    Every time someone uses an existing term for a new concept it creates an opportunity for error.

    Darwin probably caused a great deal of puzzlement to the Royal Navy officers with whom he had contact.  In the Royal Navy, an evolution is a way of performing a naval exercise by the book: adaptation is frowned on.
    Oliver Knevitt
    I half agree. Part of the problem is that it is used so often for the wrong thing that its become a little loaded. For example, it's disingenuous to say that we're more evolved than a shark, and plain wrong to say that we're more evolved than a starfish. We also want to avoid specific references to any organism as being purely transitional, which is what less evolved implies. Though we have many transitional sequences within one species (Sheldon's trilobites being the classic example), it's very improbable that we would discover an organism that lies specifically on a lineage between two other organisms, i.e. being more evolved than one and less than the other. Instead, it's much more likely to belong to a stem group; close to the lineage, but not actually on it.
    It's true that within a clade we have organisms that have more primitive characters that could be termed less evolved, especially when the only characters they have are plesiomorphic, i.e., ancestral. So, I would have no problem describing humans - and indeed, all fish - as being more derived than Pikaia. But I always stick with "derived" myself, which I guess is almost a synonym, except that it specifically implies that an organism has more innovations, or characters. But then again, it means nothing to anyone who's not an evolutionary biologist. All in all, I think more or less ancestral is probably the best way to go.
    PG, we use all sorts of words in biology that aren't rigorously defined. That doesn't mean that they are worse than useless. While we cannot define words like "species", "trait", and "life" (there are many more) so that they please everyone and fit all instances all the time, they are still words that are helpful and would be difficult to do without.

    Oh, I'm not asking for perfect rigor. Even mathematicians are less than rigorous when they talk to each other. Mathematicians in general don't believe theoretical physics is rigorous, etc. So perfect rigor is probably not necessary when biologists are talking to each other.
    But the subject of the OP is communication with a broader audience and claims that we should talk about the dead of the least fit, and not about the survival of the fittest. To understand the difference between those two statements, I need a better definition of fitness.

    This thing is genuinly puzzling me, so I'll go a bit deeper.

    Call F(O1, E) the fitness of an organism O1 in an environment E.
    Call N(O1, E, t) the number of organisms O1 in E at a certain moment t.

    Let's assume for argument's sake that the following holds.

    F(O1, E) < F(O2, E). The organism O1 is less fit than O2 in environment E.

    I assume that
    F(O1, E) < F(O2, E) ===> there is a moment T such that if t > T then N(O1, E, t) ---> 0.
    If O1 is the least fit organism, then it dies out.

    However, does the following relation holds as well?

    If O1 dies out in E ===> F(O1, E) < F(O2, E)

    If it holds, then F(O1, E) < F(O2, E) is logically equivalent with O1 dies out in E.

    If this logical equivalence holds, then fitness could be scrapped from ET without loosing anything. Fitness would not be an "explanation" for the fact that some organisms die out in a specific environment E. It would just be another way to say they do.

    So yes, I need a better definition of fitness.

    It's just that I get the impression that the communication about ET with a broader audience is a mess - a mess of it's own making.
    Evolution theorists should develop a new language for that communication, a language that avoids using terms like adaptation, fitness, environment that are heavy with non-scientific meaning and connotations.
    I understand from the reactions here that words like environment and fitness can have a huge number of different meanings. They're recipes for confusion if you're commucating with a broader audience.

    Attemps to correct "misunderstandings" seem futile to me if better definitions are not available and if the corrections raise more questions about meaning than that they answer.

    Gerhard Adam
    I would urge you to look at "Evolutionary Dynamics" by Martin Nowak for a treatment of what you're asking.  That addresses exactly the type of expressions you're trying to formulate, so that an evaluation of the different types of "fitness" can be assessed.

    For example, you'll see the issues of fitness with respect to reproduction as well as the dynamics which result in a "survival of the fittest", "survival of the first", and "survival of all".

    That may shed some light on your question.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thanks for the tip. I only wanted to illustrate that the word fitness is much too vague and too broad to use in communication with a larger audience. I don't doubt it's OK to use it among biologists.

    When communicating with the public, there is nothing wrong with using "fitness". It is simply a term used in place of "reproductive success", and it is a scalar. That is how most evolutionary biologists think about it (though details of measuring it and using it exists), and I don't see anything complicated about that for the public. Among all the terms used in ET, fitness is one of the easier ones to explain, as I have done many times.

    Gerhard Adam
    Actually I think one has to be real careful in using "fitness".  I can appreciate the necessity of it, but many people immediately conflate "fitness" with "strength".  It's why one hears about the "survival of the strongest" and why people presume that it's a question of strength versus weakness.

    Mundus vult decipi
    What the public do not appreciate about fitness and selection, etc., is that evolution is a stochastic process. I recently learned the hard way that I shouldn't even use that word, but say "probabilistic").

    Because it is stochastic, neither of your two relations hold. Fitness is more of a probability. F(O1)

    What the public do not appreciate about fitness and selection, etc., is that evolution is a stochastic process. I recently learned the hard way that I shouldn't even use that word, but say "probabilistic".

    Because it is stochastic, neither of your two relations hold. Fitness is more of a probability. F(O1) < F(O2) does not imply with certainty that N(O1)=0 at T.

    But also, what is wrong with using a simple word instead of your equations? Seems much more conducive to discourse, no?

    Yes, using a simple word like fitness is conductive to discourse. But I'm convinced that much of the discourse will be misguided.

    The fact that fitness should be framed in probabilistic language actually reinforces the point I'm trying to make: the real scientific meaning of the word is quite technical and far removed from the "everyday" meaning that will conduct to the discourse.
    I also would like to point out that this everyday meaning is not wrong. When communicating with a broader audience, you're confronted with a difficult problem: you should admit that their interpretation is correct, and at the same time you should explain that you're giving the word a different meaning. That sounds like a recipe for confusion to me.

    A similar problem exists in physics. Entropy is often described as a measure for disorder. Which is fine, until you have to explain that (relatively) high entropy states, like a metallic crystal at room temperature, can be very orderly in the "everyday" meaning of the word. Calling entropy a measure for disorder is an invitation for confusion.

    "It's undeniably true that most important force that shapes the morphology of an organism is adaptation, i.e. evolving them so that they are better adapted to the task required."

    Hi Oliver, the quote above is the only bit I have a problem with here. Don't you think, "evolving them so that..." is teleological. One of the biggest problems we have is the misconception that organisms evolve adaptations because they need them. I hope you didn't mean to say that, but it came out that way.

    Great article otherwise.

    Oliver Knevitt
    I agree; it does imply agency, or forethought, even though, semantically, it needn't.
    The problem is that it becomes a bit of a mouthful if you try to be precise, because it needs to be in the past tense, or stated in terms of "traits are selected which" blah blah and can ruin an otherwise nicely put sentence. Evolve itself is a loaded word. People basically think of the movie evolution when you say evolve, rather than a natural, blind, and directional, process.
    All in all I guess we're always treading the fine line between accuracy and precision. Media reporting needs to be accurate but not precise, and it's just a shame that by putting things succinctly it seems to change the meaning.

    If you don't want to suggest agency, forethought, teleology etc., then why don't you use words and expressions that avoid even the slightest suggestion of forethought, agency etc.?
    Perhaps the word adaptation should be ditched completely when communicating with a broader audience?
    I know biologists use "adaptation" without harm when they're talking to each other, but that's a weak argument. Physicists use "fiber bundle on a manifold" all the time, but one rarely sees the expression in an popular article on physics.

    Gerhard Adam
    I would agree with that sentiment.  Adaptation implies agency, regardless of how it is used.  The fact is that they are simply traits that happen to work well enough.  Traits that work better will tend to become more pervasive on the population.

    This is what gives rise to people assuming that organisms are "perfectly adapted" to their environment, instead of recognizing that evolution doesn't have a direction or objective.  An organism only has to be good enough to cope with the environment it is in.  If an organism with better traits arrives, then the original can be decimated [i.e. invasive species].

    Things become even more confusing when one considers the different meanings between an adaptation and something that is adaptive.  Even worse, it sometimes conveys the notion that somehow the organism has a say in how it develops.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I'm a new high school biology teacher and I really want to start out from the beginning avoiding teleological terms, but I'm not sure I can get away from the word adaptation. It was challenging to get my students to understand that something only has to be fit enough. I started out with contrasting the term "survival of the fittest" with a better one, "survival of the fit enough". It helps but it still can imply that something is "suited" to an environment. I'll keep working on the best way to teach this and getting rid of misconceptions.
    I also told them that "nature does the selecting" of adaptations. But I'm concerned that adds agency too. It's still a work in progress for me.

    Gerhard Adam
    I think that it's a concept that is over-explained.  It's easy enough to illustrate by explaining that a selectable trait is almost like having a talent.  Someone may be a good musician, or a good basketball player and in their environment [i.e. band or sports] they can do well.  The better they are, the farther they can go.  However, put them in the wrong environment [i.e. basketball player on football team] and they may go extinct.  Their survival depends on them being able to make due in their new environment.

    Now that might sound like agency, but an individual can't will themselves to be taller.  While they may be able to influence certain things like weight, they cannot manufacture talent out of thin air.  That's the trait that is being filtered by the environment.

    You might ask them to apply the concepts of natural selection to explain why there are no NBA ball players that are 5 feet tall.

    Perhaps that's not helpful, and may be just as confusing ... but maybe it will give you some ideas.

    BTW, instead of "survival of the fittest", I tend to explain it as "survival of the most suitable".  The organism that can best cope with the environment [between groups] will tend to prevail, while the organisms within a species that can best cope will likely reproduce more and their traits will eventually dominate the species.

    Also, if more species are reasonably matched for an environment, then the one that reproduces the fastest will tend to prevail.
    Mundus vult decipi
    'Survival of the fitter' tells them it only has to be fit enough.
    'Survival of the fitter' tells them it only has to be fit enough.
    Unfortunately it implies, in English English anyway, that there are just two individuals in competition!

    I think the important thing is to make it clear that it's survival (to the next generation) of the most (reproductively) fit (genetic traits). I don't see any way that can be packed into a pithy phrase which will save us the effort of explaining stuff.
    Although taken from a work of fiction about Darwin's Beagle voyage, the phrase used by a native Tierra del Fuegan, when asked about his tribes' Creation story sticks with me; (loosely translated) the mystified man responded,"Nature creates nature". Thus, the kernel of the idea for specie-ation through natural selection was planted.

    Great post. Thanks Oliver for sharing this valuable information :)

    Greg M.
    One reason for the persistence of the "missing link fallacy" is an inadequate understanding of the process of permineralization. People assume that fossils are made ready-to-order.

    p.s. Bonus marks to whomever is able to identify the fallacy implied in the video above. Hint: it's one of the five Oliver has written about.
    Begin with this assumption: it's all a joke. Then you will see the humour in everything.
    Gerhard Adam
    I expect you mean the "living fossil" argument?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Greg M.
    Dammit, Gerhard! That one was too easy for you.
    Begin with this assumption: it's all a joke. Then you will see the humour in everything.
    Gerhard Adam
    LOL.  With phrases like "come down to us" and "unmodified in every detail", what did you expect?  :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    Greg M.
    The scariest part is that in the 10 minutes I spent looking for a video on fossilization that wasn't geared towards elementary school teachers, this was the best one I could find. Yikes! :P
    Begin with this assumption: it's all a joke. Then you will see the humour in everything.
    Gerhard Adam
    Yes, that's the difficulty.  It's so easy to drop into colloquial usage and before you know it you're sounding like a creationist.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I can't believe I'm about to do this but... OMG!
    That video is a real bait and switch example of creationist crap. Wow.

    Great to see you again, Oliver!

    The term “Survival of the fittest” was coined by Herbert Spencer, and taken up by Alfred Russel Wallace, who urged it on (a probably reluctant) Darwin.  To see this term in action in late Victorian Britain, here is a bit from “The Sultan”, by that staunch anti-Imperialist, G.K.Chesterton:
    I mean that the colonial ideal of such men as Cecil Rhodes did not arise out of any fresh creative idea of the Western genius, it was a fad, and like most fads an imitation. For what was wrong with Rhodes was not that, like Cromwell or Hildebrand, he made huge mistakes, nor even that he committed great crimes. It was that he committed these crimes and errors in order to spread certain ideas. And when one asked for the ideas they could not be found. Cromwell stood for Calvinism, Hildebrand for Catholicism: but Rhodes had no principles whatever to give to the world. He had only a hasty but elaborate machinery for spreading the principles that he hadn't got. What he called his ideals were the dregs of a Darwinism which had already grown not only stagnant, but poisonous. That the fittest must survive, and that any one like himself must be the fittest; that the weakest must go to the wall, and that any one he could not understand must be the weakest; that was the philosophy which he lumberingly believed through life, like many another agnostic old bachelor of the Victorian era.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Gerhard Adam
    Yes, one can see how readily talk of the "fittest" is transformed into talk about the "weakest".  It has always been a rationalizing argue for those that wish to hold on to power or to justify their place in society.

    Of course, it was precisely this type of thinking that gave rise to the travesty known as "social Darwinism"; a total perversion of evolutionary theory.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Oliver Knevitt
    ZZZZZAP! No more creationist comments please
    Gerhard Adam
    Thank you :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    Oliver Knevitt
    No problem. This is kind of what it feels like when moderating comments on Science 2.0 sometimes:

    "This is kind of what it feels like when moderating comments on Science 2.0 sometimes"

    Ain't that the truth!

    A very interesting and informative article and comment thread: thank you all.

    Darwin himself explained why we should not expect to find "missing link" fossils, but who listens to Darwin any more?

    My own take on evolution is that there are chemicals which interact with other chemicals period.  That's inter action.  The cell constituents including the DNA interact.   They must do according to the laws of physical chemistry.  It is most unfortunate that, being human, we like to speak of these things using terms which can only have meaning to humans.  Survival of the fittest?  No!  Maximal replication of the average component of a population - but that is something I am working on, or will be, once I redo my computer-erased article on Volta. :-)

    I broadly agree with Professor Denis Noble, co-director of computational physiology at Oxford University: "There is also feedback to the genome from the cells, the tissues, the body as a whole and even from the environment. Genetic coding only tells us which protein a gene will make, it doesn't define how much of it."
    Oliver Knevitt
    They've talked about this post over at Pharyngula . PZ Myers has suggested that Darwinism should be added. I kind of agree; it makes it sound beleiving in evolution is some sort of cult, like Larmarkianism or something. Evolution theory has evolved a lot since Darwin. What do people thinK?
    Gerhard Adam
    Most definitely.  Darwinism, just like "evolutionist" is intended as a statement of belief, not science.  Usually I see it when it is an allegation advanced by creationists.  They want so desperately to believe that science is simply another belief system.  Then they feel they have a kind of parity that allows them to argue as peers and that everything is simply a matter of opinion or perspective.

    We don't call physicists "Einsteinists" or [whatever ... it seems physicists names are more difficult to manipulate like that :)].
    Mundus vult decipi
    "Yes, one can see how readily talk of the "fittest" is transformed into talk about the "weakest". "

    An even bigger problem is that "fitness" suggests you're talking about a property of the organism.
    I'm not a biologist, but fitness seems to me a property of the organism AND of all the things that interact with the organism.
    It's basically a property of everything and that makes it meaningless as a general description (although I can imagine you can use it for very specific subsets of the properties of organiss and the things that interact with organisms).

    Gerhard Adam
    Actually you bring up an excellent point regarding evolution.  You're right about it appearing to be a property of the organism, but even worse it leads to the sense that individuals evolve.  Therefore, one sees extensions of this idea into the social realm [i.e. Social Darwinism, etc.].

    The point is that individuals don't evolve, populations do.  As a result, it is the overall properties associated with the population that will determine it's long-term viability.  It's already well known that if a population drops below certain levels, then it is headed towards extinction, so it is completely erroneous to presume that this quality called "fitness" relates only to individuals.
    Mundus vult decipi
    ... and that's why I think misunderstandings will persist until biologists invent a new, neutral language to communicate with science journalists and the broader public. As long as they use expressions like fitness, adaptation, environment etc. people will misunderstand and science journalists will misrepresent ET, and really, you can't blame them.

    ET was originally framed in a certain language, but there's no sound, strictly scientific reason to keep using it. Newton framed classical mechanics in a heavily geometrical language and used words like "fluxion". Today no physicist talks about fluxions, and most would have a hard time reading the Principia. And so what?

    Interesting thread, but my experience scrolling through it was seriously marred by the lower left button that wants to expand into a video pop up window and won't go completely away. It even casts a little shadow right over the text since it abuts the text as I scroll down. This kind of creep into the reading area of the browser window is annoying - any tips on how to get rid of those stupid buttons?

    Greg M.
    My bad! :P
    Begin with this assumption: it's all a joke. Then you will see the humour in everything.
    It's an optional button so you can see the video content without having to leave the site. You can always instruct your browser to block both Google and Yahoo, I suppose. Stupid kids and their 2006 fancy technology...
    Greg M.
    I wish I could claim I was a master troll but I wasn't even aware of this until Isabel pointed it out. I may have inadvertently adulterated a few other articles with bad '80s tunes...
    Begin with this assumption: it's all a joke. Then you will see the humour in everything.
    In fairness, this is not a site that is optimized for a small screen like a tablet or a phone. On a regular screen I had to look to find out what she meant, then I checked to make sure it opened and closed okay - so it is unobtrusive. But on a tablet, or a PC with one of a hundred untested browser types and 10,000 different plugins and options, it's hard to say what might happen - shutting off javascript will prevent it either way.  

    The upside to independent science media is no corporate overlord skewing things editorially and exploiting scientists for free labor to pad the bottom line. The downside is no money to optimize the site as time goes on and technology changes.
    Why does the button have to be there? Why can't you embed the video, or just have a link? I am on a laptop, not that small a screen. I honestly don't understand the purpose, and also why it doesn't annoy other people.

    Maybe it's just me. I hate logos that stay on the corner of a tv screen also.

    Greg M.
    Oh, it's not that bad. Actually, I think it's a rather neat feature. I just feel sorry for the sucker who comes to the site with his/her speakers at 10 and gets an ear-full of Boy George. ;)
    Begin with this assumption: it's all a joke. Then you will see the humour in everything.
    Okay I got rid of it. For now, til something doesn't work because I've disabled everything :(

    The only thing you won't get is ads. :)   Since you are anonymous, all of the super-duper hidden swanky social features of Science 2.0 are not available anyway. So you won't notice anything missing.
    I mean on other sites. Really there are swanky features? Anyway while I am making meta remarks what's with the "400" guests that are always added on to the actual number? No way 400 are dealing with this caaptcha - it just said I was wrong five times in a row- and no it's not me:)

    It shows all readers, not just commenters or logged in writers. I agree captcha is a pain, but so is spam - and spam happens a lot.
    ALWAYS in the 400's? 437, 420, 444, 470, etc. Not buying it:)

    re captcha- I was missing the extra copy and paste step. Didn't even see the button. Wonder how my first comment got through then?

    Regarding "more evolved" or "less evolved": the technical terms "primitive" and "derived" used by systematists and paleontologists are helpful for this. A primitive trait is a trait shared with an ancestor. These terms are context-dependent: they only have meaning relative to an ancestor.

    Knuckle-walking is a useful example to illustrate the context-dependence. Most primates walk using the palms of their forelimbs; when chimps and gorillas walk, their forelimb knuckles contact the ground, not their palms; adult humans are bipedal. Probably the human-chimp-gorilla ancestor was a knuckle-walker. So, when comparing a human and a chimp, knuckle-walking is a primitive trait (i.e., it was present in the ancestor). Relative to more distant ancestors, however, knuckle-walking (and bipedalism) is derived. The way that infant humans crawl on their palms is either a primitive or derived trait depending on the context.

    This precise terminology helps, but doesn't entirely encompass the problem. Given the definition of primitive and derived, our null hypothesis might be that, when we compare organisms A and B (e.g., humans and langurs), each one will have the same proportions of primitive and derived traits relative to their common ancestor.

    So, a question arises when biologists refer to "primitive organisms". Are they just being stupid, or is there some kind of syndrome by which certain organisms have traits that are systematically primitive (or systematically derived), i.e., beyond what we expect from a null model?

    My sense is that most biologists who make phenotypic believe that there really *are* organisms that are systematically primitive and others that are systematically derived. This may not be a correct belief, but certainly it is not an irrational belief. It might have a mechanistic explanation involving some ecological or population-genetic factors.

    Gerhard Adam
    I think the term "primitive" conveys the wrong message.  "Less sophisticated", "simpler", etc. those terms might convey a more useful meaning.

    After all, if we're talking about anything that is older than the current version, there is the implied relationship between them [i.e. old car versus new car].  Yet, it would be more appropriate to consider an older vehicle less sophisticated than it would be to dismiss it as primitive.  I also specifically used the term "dismiss", because that's what primitive also seems to imply.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Define "simple" organism. Dtate explicitly your dividing libne between "simple" and "complex"

    Primitive is bad with organism, okay with a trait but care must be used. It's usually a hypothesis.

    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry, I wasn't more clear.  I wouldn't use the term to describe an organism, but rather a particular structure that was being compared.

    However, even then, the structure would have to be comparable.  For example, I wouldn't compare a hand to a fin for such purposes. 

    It seems reasonable to say that prokaryotes represent a simpler organization than eukaryotes.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Sorry for the typos. I give up trying to cope with commenting on this site. I just commented and I have to fill in my info again! The days of anonymous commenting are over everywhere it seems. I'll have to just sign up for the swanky features one of these days.

    On 2nd thought just want to add irritating term #6:

    When 'animal' is used interchangeably with 'organism' in an article discussing evolution for no obvious or stated reason, as if these were equivalent terms.

    "My sense is that most biologists who make phenotypic believe that there really *are* organisms that are systematically primitive and others that are systematically derived. ""

    Most biologists are as biased as other human beings. If you don't believe me note the size, economic importance, and phylogenetic relationship to humans of the organisms being referred to as simple vs complex, or primitive vs evolved. The idea of evolution as a "ladder" is alive and well in the field despite all the protestations to the contrary.

    yikes your anti-spam ultra annoying technology seems to have a few holes yet, lol.

    When a systematist uses the words "primitive" and "derived", they are not value judgments. Instead these are utterly neutral terms with precise meanings in any given context (e.g., note how primitive and derived are used in this article: If a scientific article refers to something like "the most primitive form of splicing", then it is (or ought to be) referring to the oldest form.

    The question you should be asking is why does "primitive" sound bad to you? If humans used to live in caves, then cave-living is primitive. What's wrong with saying that? Perhaps you believe that evolution implies progress and progress is good, in which case, it follows that primitive implies not good.

    Gerhard Adam
    I don't think it works.  In addition, as has been indicated in several comments, these are also terms that are used colloquially and carry a different value judgement.  As a result, it gives rise to the potential for greater misunderstandings.  At issue, to me, is that primitive is a meaningless term without the correspondingly term of "modern".  In other words, it indicates a movement in a particular direction [i.e. towards modern].  One doesn't move towards being "primitive" without being regarded as moving backwards [even in biological terms].

    Even your comment about cave-living being primitive carries a connotation.  What is it that makes it primitive?  The fact that we don't do it today?  That implies a progression. 

    However, I'll concede your point if you agree that these pictures are also cave-living.  Of course, I have to ask ... where does the primitive part come in?  :)  So I think that this illustrates that such comments are, indeed, value judgements.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Well you can't get away from directionality on a phylogeny. You can say plesiomorphic instead of primitive, but then non-scientists will not be familiar with the term. I think primitive is okay, as long as you are careful to restrict the term to traits, but again in most cases it is still a hypothesis. there is still much controversy surrounding the ape-like or human-like traits of the MRCA of humans and chimps for example.

    Modern is indeed incorrect if you are contrasting two extant taxa or traits of extant taxa. The term 'derived' is much better. As I mentioned earlier, derived traits, or rather character states of traits, can be and often are losses and/or simplifications.

    Gerhard Adam
    Well, that's the problem isn't it?  Even denoting a history implies a directionality and is partially responsible for the nonsense about missing links.

    I understand that some terms are simply unavoidable given the subject being examined, but this suggests that even more care is required in general discussions.  As you just saw in the previous post regarding cave-living, it is almost too easy to drift into a value judgement about such things.

    Also as indicated in the article, this usage gives rise to the "living fossil" argument, so that these current creatures are designated as some "primitive" organism.

    I'm not disputing your specific requirement that it should only be used for traits, I'm just pointing out that it rarely is.
    Mundus vult decipi
    @Arlin: If you are addressing me, I understand how the term is supposed to be used. And yes you are using it correctly, referring to traits and not to the organisms themselves, and only doing so after careful phylogenetic analysis. I was responding to a comment about organisms.

    My exact words were " okay with a trait but care must be used."