Oceans on evolution: you’re doing it wrong

This is another archival repost from the old blog — this one from December 2008.

So, BBC TWO’s Oceans: marine ecology’s answer to Time Team. I get as excited by marine biology as the next nerd, and you don’t have to remind me of the importance of conservation. Somehow, the BBC have even made me feel cynical about these.

In Zanzibar, the team meet Coconut Crabs, and in a typical race-against-the-clock encounter, they have to do some superhero act or other. Meanwhile, the voiceover explains to us that these land crabs are a “species in mid-evolution”. Chez Watt?

Of course, Coconut Crabs are “mid-evolution”. But, just as an advertisement pointing out that this product does X suggests that that product does not, a voiceover stating that this species is “mid-evolution” gives the impression that the species’ mid-evolutionary status somehow sets it apart from the crowd. What extant species is not “mid-evolution”?

Perhaps Coconut Crabs are described as “mid-evolution” because they exhibit a singular rapid observable change, or show diverging populations, or some other interesting phenomenon that I have not thought of? I don’t know. Curious to find out more, I looked on Wikipedia. I learnt that Coconut Crabs can not live in the water — their gills have gone, and in their place are branchiostegal lungs. According to Wikipedia, these organs “can be interpreted as a developmental stage between gills and lungs”. Chez Watt? Didn’t they even think to check their own article on “developmental stage” to check whether the sentence meant anything?

This nonsense is all caused by people assuming that they know what evolution is. To the BBC TWO voiceover writer, evolution is a progression — from microbe to sea dweller to land crawler to globalised post-industrial biped. The Wikipedia editor knows that in the great chain, gills evolve into branchiostegal lungs, and the next step must surely be lungs “proper” like our own. Thus, in a single paragraph one can explain that these crabs are a living transition between sea and land, and also explain that the crabs cannot live in the water, and not even notice that one is talking purest drivel.


How long have biologists been correcting this error, now?

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