I was watching a three part BBC documentary called “How to Grow a Planet” about the role of plants in the evolution of life on Earth, when it struck me, once again, that the English language hasn’t really developed a suitable lexicon to describe the evolutionary process effectively for the scientific layman.
I’d noticed this before with documentaries from David Attenborough and, in fact, nearly every documentary I’ve seen which has anything to do with Evolution.
When trying to describe the development of life on Earth through Evolution, the presenters are almost always forced to use language which sits uncomfortably with the concepts being explained.
Let me give you an example of some of the language used:
Design. There seems to be no alternative to the group of words which imply that the Evolutionary process itself has taken on some anthropomorphic ability and developed sentience, so as to be able to plan, design, attack, counter-attack, adapt and modify. Of course this is an untruth. The Evolutionary process has no consciousness: it has no ability to think, design, create or adapt. The Evolutionary process describes a series of accidental occurrences which by chance mean that mutations in a life-form end up being beneficial for that life-form. These changes are then passed on to its descendents and become part of the life-form’s hereditary identity. There is no plan in the process. It is a simple accident. In effect, all life on earth is the deformed, mutated by-product of its more pristine ancestors, the by-product of chance and accidental deformations.
Adaptation. This word is used to describe the outcome of mutations which have lead to an organism having better suitability to survive in a given environment. But the organism did not adapt. It has no ability to adapt. It cannot think, or plan or change. The word is trying to describe the fact that a freak mutation, which arose by pure chance, gave the organism more chances of surviving to the next generation.
Collective words are often used to describe the response of a whole species to a threatening situation, as if the species as a whole had a collective consciousness and a corresponding ability to do something about perceived threats. It doesn’t. Remember, plants, animals and other organisms are all individuals. Even animals which do live and work in collectives, such as ants, bees and termites are ultimately just individuals. No life on earth has a collective brain. No group of living individuals on earth can collectively make decisions to change its physical characteristics or DNA for the benefit of the whole group. Individuals don’t know that their whole species is under threat. Very, very few individual organisms have the ability to respond to situations by purposely changing their physical form, or by deliberately changing their DNA sequencing, let alone that of their offspring.
From the script of How to Grow a Plant we have phrases like:
“Plants…created an atmosphere.” No they didn’t. Each plant just made oxygen – the overall result is an atmosphere, but plants did not create an atmosphere. It came about as a consequence of their individual respiratory processes. Using the creation verb in the active voice confuses the explanation.
“Plants took a a barren rock (the Earth) and transformed it into the home we know today.” Again plants did not actively transform anything. They have no ability to think, plan or purposely create. The planet was transformed as a result of the life processes of plants.
“A seemingly arbitrary event…” in relation to bacteria absorbing one color of light rather than another and hence appearing green instead of purple. How seemingly? It is definitely an arbitrary event, at least in terms of Evolutionary Theory.
“How the green bacteria did this is so complex that scientists are still grappling with the details.” Again the green bacteria did not ‘do’ anything. The changes they underwent were a product of chance mutations. No external force caused these mutations, either. They were just chance changes.
“Chemical Warfare.” The occurrence of chemical deterrents in plants, which make them unpalatable for insects and herbivores to eat, is described as a form of chemical warfare, but, in fact, plants have not chosen to go to war against the organisms trying to eat them, they just happen to have inherited characteristics from their parents which make them untasty. There was no belligerent intent on the part of the plant, nor on the part of the whole species of plants. A grass plant can’t decide to grow silica-based spikes to make it less palatable to its predators. Any such change happens purely by chance. The end result seems to be have been planned and coordinated, but no, it wasn’t. It just happened with no over-arching master plan or intention to better survive.
Grass did not decide to become more flammable so as to cause raging fires, which destroy its natural competitors, the trees. Nor did trees decide to create chemicals which suppress grasses from growing under their canopies. It looks like it was planned, but Evolutionary Theory says it was all a series of chance changes which led to the situation.
I’m afraid that presenters who use the English language the way described above are doing Evolutionary Theory a huge disservice. To describe Evolution, they choose words which have a heritage pre-dating modern scientific developments and which are loaded with unscientific connotations. They predominantly use verbs in the active voice, when a more accurate representation of the Evolutionary process can almost always be achieved by using the passive voice. The use of the active voice ascribes human characteristics to a decidedly un-human process. These language choices make it sound like the Evolutionary process has supplanted God as the creator of the world. They merely replace a ‘mythical’ creator with a more palatable ‘scientific’ one. Yet, when they use words this way, they still do not describe Evolution, they describe Creation.