Friday, September 2, 2011

Of woolly rhinos and evolution.

I cringe whenever I see an article like this one, just because I know they serve as a magnet for the craziest of creationists. The title "An Ice Age Beast Evolved to Beat the Cold" is the same tired metaphor that leads people to think animals are actively planning and changing their bodies to take their next evolutionary step towards perfection. In this case, we have a woolly rhinoceros strategizing in the highlands of Tibet to survive as temperatures drop and glaciers advance.

Although it might make a great movie, it has little enough to do with the reality of evolution. Simply put, everything is random to some degree. At one time, the woolly rhinos resided in the cool high altitude environment of the Himalayas. At the same time, a wide variety of animals were residing all over the world. As temperatures went down and glaciers grew, many of these animals went extinct. Some animals' habitats shrank, while others' habitats took over more area. The woolly rhino was one of the species that were lucky enough to find themselves with a huge increase in habitat due to the lowering temperatures.

I also cringe at the use of the term 'cradle' because it implies that someone has put these species in a safe place until they're ready to grow up. It also implies that the earliest woolly rhinos were the infant stage of the later adult species. The "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" idea, while often true, is by no means universal. Also, it plays into the fallacy that evolution is somehow striving toward a goal, and that later species are more advanced and better overall.

Please, journalists, quit using the metaphors and sensationalized headlines for science matters, especially evolution. Don't contribute to the ignorance of the masses.

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