Dear BBC: Yes, we are descended from monkeys. And no, evolution and religion are not compatible.

Yesterday I wrote a bit about the BBC’s new seven-question “Test your knowledge of evolution quiz” (quiz here, my posts here and here), which was (and is) larded with ambiguous questions and wrong answers. They’ve now changed the irrelevant religion question (#7), which originally said, “Evolution and religion are incompatible. True or false?” (the answer was “false,” of course). It now reads “Evolution and religion are not necessarily incompatible. True or false?”. Now that’s a confusing double-negative question, but the answer still touts compatibilism:

Well, we all know that the Beeb is soft on faith (note their “daily affirmation,” or whatever they call the prayer they broadcast each morning), so it’s no surprise. But the question itself palpably does not test one’s knowledge of evolution. It tests whether one is soft on faith. Depending on your definition of “incompatible,” either answer could be right.

Further, they now say that “evolution is not about the origins of life”. First, that’s not necessarily true, since life emerged from nonlife through an evolutionary process, probably involving something like natural selection on combinations of chemicals. But the statement itself implies that if one does consider the origin of life as part of evolution, then evolution is incompatible with religion.  Now why is that? Presumably because evolution is incompatible with the origin story told in Genesis I and II.  If so, then evolution does become incompatible with religion, since Genesis also tells the story of how animals and plants came to be. This is a real confusion on the part of the BBC. At the very least, they have to admit that the story of life—and methodological naturalism—are incompatible with religion.

Further, the Beeb changed the question without any indication that it did so. It was my impression that when a journalist changes an article, the change from the original piece must be indicated on the piece, as an addendum. That’s not done here: more irresponsible (and sneaky) journalism.

At any rate, the question below is still alive, as shown by the tweet below it:

Matthew, Greg and I all think the Beeb got it wrong here. If you’re a strict cladist, you might say that, no, humans did not descend from monkeys; but under the common usage of “monkeys”, yes, our common ancestor would have been recognizable as a monkey.

But the BBC wasn’t thinking of cladism here; it was trying to refute the old creationist trope: “If humans descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”

Here’s a refutation of the BBC’s answer as tweeted by a paleontologist:

 

I’ve enlarged the phylogeny so you can see it.

Finally, one more plaint. The answer to the question, below, even as given by the BBC, is ambiguous. For the answer notes that, if you define progress as “improved abilities to survive and reproduce” under exigent conditions, then yes, evolution does result in progress. It’s only not progressive when you define progress as “getting more complex”, “getting more like humans”, or moving toward some specified goal. The whole question and answer is deeply ambiguous and, like most of the other questions, the BBC should have deep-sixed it.

They missed a good chance to educate people about what evolution is and what the theory says.

50 Comments

  1. Paul Beard
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I had no difficulty getting a perfect score, but it was from my knowledge of the BBC not evolution.

  2. Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I had a feeling that quiz was going to annoy professor ceiling cat! Their science coverage is regularly thin and annoying.
    The “Daily affirmation” is called “thought for the day” and humanists/atheists have been nagging them for years to have a non-religious one. I dont know why humanists would want to have a bland vanilla piece of brain sop as well as all the major religions…but I guess it would be equality

    • Posted September 26, 2018 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      Well, I think humanists could provide something that was far less of “a bland vanilla piece of brain sop”. On the lunchtime today, Joe Simpson (of Touching the Void fame) was talking about what it means to be human, He was wrong in some of the things he said, but it was far less platitudinous than most of the “Thoughts for the Day”.

      But in any case, in a country that is 52% non-religious, they main point is that it currently gives undue prominence and privilege to religion.

      /@

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted September 26, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think that’s quite true. They have a “Prayer for the Day” at 05.43 each morning, which is listened to by about 10 people, most of whom have only tuned in for “Farming Today” at 05.45.

      “Thought for the Day” is on at about 07.50 and lasts up to three minutes. It is delivered exclusively by faith-heads, for which it is much criticised. (Based on the stats of the number of adherents of each faith in the UK, there are proportionately far too many Catholics, Sikhs and Jews, but let that pass).

      The best approach to TftD is unrestrained mockery: see here http://www.platitudes.org.uk/platblog/index.php

  3. GBJames
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this one, PCC[e].

  4. Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Thanks – it got my BP up!

  5. Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I think the quiz was build up around several common misconceptions about evolution. One of them is ‘If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?’ In that sense the question nicely explains this misconception: we did not evolve from (extant) monkeys, we share a common ancestor.

    I got a perfect score because I realized how the quiz was build up and because I am familiar with these misconceptions (I have had several discussions with creationists).

  6. Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    true

  7. ankersten
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    The “prayer” you refer to is “Thought for the day”, broadcast at about 0750 GMT each weekday morning. It lasts a couple of minutes. At http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5bxBSyCZvhXMzJtsZg5lSsP/regular-contributors is a list of regular contributors. It seems like a fairly even-handed distribution, at least among the major faiths. There are 12 Christians and eight non-Christians (i.e. 60% of the regular contributors are Christian, although two of these are writers who may actually be Christian but this isn’t stated in their blurb). Religious Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are also represented.

    This, however, doesn’t feel right. It seems to me that whenever I come across these broadcasts, it’s almost invariably a Christian speaking. Going to the websites list of broadcasts over the last 28 days at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00szxv6/episodes/player, the ratio is 19 Christian broadcasts to nine non-Christian ones – i.e. just over two thirds of the broadcasts are Christian. Of these, five slip under the radar because the speakers are introduced as secular, like “writer and broadcaster”. It only becomes obvious from the last third or so of their broadcasts that they’re actually Christians in disguise, when they start dredging up what Jesus or the Bible say or some other such Christian propaganda.

    All of this, of course, completely ignores anything even humanist, never mind atheist, which neglects a significant proportion of public opinion. I’m not sure what the Beeb is aiming at here, but if I were a rampant conspiracy theorist I’d suspect the promotion of a generally religious and specifically Christian agenda. I’m not, so I’m sure the beloved Beeb must be as completely impartial as it makes itself out to be, all evidence on this score to the contrary.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      You have forgotten about A Prayer For The Day which is broadcast at 05:43 hrs seven days a week on Radio 4. You will see a link to it in my comment below [Comment #7].

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted September 26, 2018 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      There are 12 Christians and eight non-Christians (i.e. 60% of the regular contributors are Christian, although two of these are writers who may actually be Christian but this isn’t stated in their blurb). Religious Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are also represented

      The excruciating Anne Atkins & Rhidian Brook are indeed both Christians = 70% of the listed contributers

    • Posted September 26, 2018 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Maybe it’s the Christians you notice more because they’re more objectionable than the other faiths.

      Jewish speakers seem to me to be more accessible to a secular audience.

      /@

  8. Michael Fisher
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    BBC RADIO 4 – RELIGIOUS PROGRAMMING [some of it]

    [1] On BBC Radio 4 seven days a week
    05:43 A Prayer For The Day
    Around 105 seconds of faith-based bafflegab from a range of loons, liars & the many earnest loobys. HERE is a gallery of contributors with their bios & mugshots. Please take the time to look at the link to appreciate the breadth & depth of this legalised deception.

    [2] BBC Radio 4 A typical Sunday morning. Here’s Sunday 30th September – us anti-theist atheists can praise the ash-black slug

    06:00 News Headlines
    06:05 Something Understood
    Cultivating Kindness. Suryagupta, chair of the London Buddhist Centre, asks if kindness can be cultivated.
    06:35 The Living World
    The World’s Largest Slug. Lionel Kelleway is in Dartmoor looking for the ash-black slug with John Walters.
    06:57 Weather
    07:00 News and Papers
    07:10 Sunday
    Sunday morning religious news and current affairs programme, with Edward Stourton.
    07:54 Radio 4 Appeal
    Gyles Brandreth makes the Radio 4 Appeal on behalf of Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity.
    07:57 Weather
    08:00 News and Papers
    08:10 Sunday Worship
    Harvest Festival. Harvest Thanksgiving from Christ Church Cathedral, Lisburn, Co Antrim.
    08:48 A Point of View
    Weekly reflections on topical issues from a range of contributors.
    08:58 Tweet of the Day
    Kitty MacFarlane the Eel and the Heron.

  9. David Evans
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I think “Thought for the Day” adds up to maybe 15 minutes per week on one radio channel. There is usually at least one 30-minute science program on the same channel in any given week. Stretching the definition of science a bit I can see, this week:
    Costing The Earth (environment, usually with some science content)
    BBC Inside Science
    More Or Less (about numbers and the way they are reported, often with some elementary statistics)
    Penguins (one of a series on natural history)
    So it’s easy to find much more science than religion.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    … if you define progress as “improved abilities to survive and reproduce” under exigent conditions …

    The conditions needn’t be “exigent,” need they? Only sufficient to impose a selective pressure on the population?

    • Posted September 26, 2018 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      exigent = “pressing; demanding” [NOAD]

      So, if they enough to impose selective pressure they must be pressing by definition, no? 😉

      /@

      • Posted September 26, 2018 at 10:22 am | Permalink

        * they are enough

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 26, 2018 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        I think “exigent” connotes a greater sense of urgency. “Exigent circumstances” allow law enforcement officers to enter a residence without a warrant in some situations. The Toba catastrophe, I think, imposed exigent evolutionary conditions. 🙂

    • mikeyc
      Posted September 26, 2018 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Hmmmm. Very lawyerly of you. I am pretty sure he means it in the sense of “current” rather than “pressing” or “demanding”.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 26, 2018 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        Yeah, it was; I didn’t mean to make a big deal about it.

  11. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Clearly written!

    Thank you PCC(E)!….

    Oh, sorry … “thank you” BBC quizmeisters, because, without this quiz, none of us would’ve enjoyed the discussion on Why Evolution Is True – The Website.

  12. Divalent
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Although natural selection (by definition, I think) results in “improved abilities to survive and reproduce”, the question actually asks about evolution in general.

    Drift can result in alleles that are less adaptive replacing more adaptive ones, although the odds of it doing so in any particular case decreases with (among other factors) the magnitude of the negative effect.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 26, 2018 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      Evolution also results in extinction of vast numbers of species. None of the extinct species should be considered “improved”, IMO.

      • Divalent
        Posted September 26, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        Ya, you are probably correct, in that sense that, for example, if you think of a species that becomes adaptively more specialized under current conditions over time due to factors such relative environmental stability, etc (and so become less of a generalist in their habitat), they might end up more at risk of extinction should their environment change. But I think you have to view “improved” in the context of the question as referring to the current situation.

  13. rickflick
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I can’t be too critical. I’ve always gotten good feelings from some British religious programming. For example:

  14. MikeBend
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Really really nit-picky. I’m a lay person with three years of college-level evolution courses. The Beeb’s answers to those two questions strike me as not being THAT bad.

    But I grant that the questions are ambiguous.

    It depends what your definition of “monkey” is.

    It depends what your definition of “progress” is.

    Picky, picky!

    They’re saying humans haven’t evolved from extant monkeys. You’re saying something more sophisticated, that “monkey” today doesn’t mean the same thing as “monkey” several tens of millions of years ago.

    They’re saying “progress” doesn’t mean goal-oriented. You’re saying “progress” means different things to different evolutionists.

    At least they didn’t say Eve came from a rib.

    • MikeBend
      Posted September 26, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      I forgot to say: Evolution and Religion Be Not Compatible.

      Evolution and Religion are like–well, Protestantism and Taoism. Or, better yet, Islam and Judaism.

      They can’t agree on shit.

      • Posted September 26, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        Yes — religion is not compatible with religion!

        Which reminds me about the story in _Ethics_ by Simon Blackburn about a high-powered interfaith panel discussion.

        Each speaker took turns to explain some key ideas of their faith – Buddhist, Hindu and so on – and the response from other panel members was always along the lines of: “Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great.” The same response greeted the Catholic priest who talked of Christ and salvation, but instead of being pleased with their enthusiasm “he thumped the table and shouted: ‘No! It’s not a question of if it works for me! It’s the true word of the living God, and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to hell!’”

        “And they all said, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great.’”

        h/t Julian Baggini in _The Guardian_

        /@

  15. Posted September 26, 2018 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    This monkeys thing has me puzzled. So our LCA with monkeys was a monkey, or monkey like. Similarly, I suppose our LCA with chimps was chimp like. Is there any reason this should be so? For example, why shouldn’t the LCA be more like us than like the other species?

    • Posted September 26, 2018 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Well, none at all. If we were modern monkeys, it could be.

      /@

      • Posted September 26, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

        Yes, of course. I am looking for some general principle that governs this. I guess it has to do with how long identifiable body plans have been around. Monkey-like species have been around longer than human-like species, so the monkey-human LCA was monkey-like, etc.

    • garman
      Posted September 26, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      That LCA with the monkeys would also be human-like. But, a different example, our LCA with the elephants would be more shrew-like and in many ways unlike a human or a elephant.

      • Posted September 26, 2018 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

        I’ve got no problem when the LCA looks nothing like either of the descended species. But if the LCA of humans and elephants looked like an elephant, as in the case of the monkey-human LCA which looks like a monkey, then I’m puzzled. My point is that both descended species have had equal time to evolve and change.

  16. Steve Gerrard
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I agree on the question of being compatible with religion.

    On the monkey question, I find the point that we share a common ancestor with the New World Monkeys at the Crown Catharrhini stage 31 million years ago to be weak tea. The point is we didn’t evolve from chimps!

    As for progress, I agree with GBJames that with 99% of species extinct, progress is at a best a relatively short term claim. Species come and go, and the overall trend is just a squiggly horizontal line showing that life goes on, with lots of ups and downs.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted September 26, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      As for progress, I agree with GBJames that with 99% of species extinct, progress is at a best a relatively short term claim. Species come and go, and the overall trend is just a squiggly horizontal line showing that life goes on, with lots of ups and downs.

      I would say the graph of complexity/time of organic life on Earth over 4 billion years has gone from zero in an upwards trend [new niches] with various peaks & plunges [mass extinctions] ~ so I agree broadly with you both. “We” [life on Earth] have completed 80% of the journey – in a billion years it will be eternally back to zero for our corner of the Milky Way. Unless we pull our finger out & go colonising of course.

    • Posted September 26, 2018 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      “we didn’t evolve from chimps”

      But that’s not what the question asked!

      /@

  17. paablo
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Weird, I’m pretty sure I chose “False” on the religion question AFTER they had changed it and it was still counted as correct.

  18. FB
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    The BBC should have included the question:

    Has evolutionary science proved that the origin story told in the Bible and the Quran is false?

    The answer: True.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted September 26, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Good one!

  19. Posted September 26, 2018 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    “But the statement itself implies that if one does consider the origin of life as part of evolution, then evolution is incompatible with religion.  Now why is that? Presumably because evolution is incompatible with the origin story told in Genesis I and II.” 

    Not sure about your answer to “Now why is that?” Isn’t the issue more that if the origin of life is part of evolution then evolution renders any version of creationism unnecessary. That might make it incompatible with religion, but I don’t see that why “the origin story in Genesis” needs to be singled out. Or is that just a guess on your part as to what the BBC had in mind?

  20. Posted September 26, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I think that the we-actually-didn’t-evolve-from-monkeys trope didn’t start as a way of coping with the why-are-there-still-monkeys argument. It has the reassuring message that we weren’t descended from horrible icky dirty disgusting monkeys but, thankfully, from Something Else. Something that, if we saw it walk by, our brains would immediately identify as a monkey.

  21. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted September 26, 2018 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    That quiz was bloody awful.

    evolution is not about the origins of life

    That ship sailed at least two years ago if not before, at least 3 papers have been published that phylogenetically describe the universal common ancestor lineage [starting with https://www.nature.com/articles/nmicrobiol2016116 ].

    Now those papers derive from the same group, so you can always note that they are arguable and not necessarily factual. But the idea that evolution science has never been applied to emergence of life is no longer supportable.

  22. Posted September 26, 2018 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, maybe you should save your ire for Dr. Kover.

    Yes, the BBC could do better, but this piece was infotainment rather than a journalistic article, and the writer’s copyediting likely introduced additional errors, but the core faults are common to her online resources for teachers, especially the Common Misconceptions page.

    /@

  23. Posted September 27, 2018 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    New world monkeys or old world monkeys. Does not matter, on the chart we are descended from neither. They are fairly recent by comparison.

    Maybe it depends on what your definition of “are” is.

    And about the definition of religion. The west defines religion as a belief in a supreme being that created and interacts with us humans. The definition of religion could be something other than that. To many people it is. They are religious but do not believed in such a supreme being that interacts with us. But they still believe in something that gives life meaning. Some other. And that is not incompatible with evolution. Necessarily.

  24. Diane G
    Posted September 27, 2018 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    sub

  25. Posted October 26, 2018 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    The monkey question may be rooted in the recent campaign among evolution researchers against paraphyletic groups (i.e. having a common ancestor but excluding some of its descendants). This campaign is a pet peeve of mine.

    Recently, I wrote a text about reptiles. “Reptiles” used to designate “amniotes minus birds and mammals”, and everyone was OK with this. Now, to make reptiles monophyletic, they equate them with sauropsid clade, i.e. cold-blooded mammalian ancestors are excluded while birds are included.

    I wanted to know how small the smallest dinosaurs have been. Launched a search, Wikipedia claimed something like 3 grams, I read the small font… Those turned to be – guess it! – hummingbirds! WTF? (Sorry.) If I wanted the smallest BIRDS, I’d write “birds” in the search window!

    • GBJames
      Posted October 26, 2018 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Maybe if you searched for “extinct dinosaurs” you would have gotten the answer you sought!

      • Posted October 26, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        Only if extinct tiny birds fossilize poorly!


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