Evolution and Mass Media

In an effort to generate more content for my blog, I am posting an edited version of a paper I wrote as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. This paper briefly considers how misrepresentation in television, movies, comic books, and video games can reinforce or contribute to a general misunderstanding of the Theory of Evolution. As always, if you have any questions or comments about anything presented here, please feel free to offer feedback in the comments below.

Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.

– Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000)

The Theory of Evolution is one of the most well-known scientific theories, and it serves as the backbone of modern biology. It informs our understanding of where Humanity as a species originated, and can even assist in speculating about where we might be heading. Unfortunately, despite the widespread recognition of Charles Darwin‘s and Alfred Russell Wallace‘s most famous theory, it is often misunderstood and misinterpreted by the general populace. One reason for this misunderstanding might result from the numerous ways evolution is misrepresented by mass media, including popular television programs, movies, comic books, and video games. Mass media often perpetuates two of the most common misconceptions regarding evolution; the first involves the idea that evolution only works in a forward motion and is driven by some sort of purpose or goal, as opposed to a series of small changes that occur to a population over a period of time. In addition, television programs, films, and comic books also perpetuate the popular misconception that Homo sapiens descended directly from monkeys or apes, rather than clarifying that humans and apes simply share a common ancestor (Fig. 1). Unfortunately, this misunderstanding is cyclical; misunderstanding leads to misinterpretation leads to misunderstanding. Additionally, one must also take into account the use of artistic license and/or exaggeration for comedic effect. With this post, I briefly outline the Theory of Evolution and attempt to explain how it is thought to work. I then examine some of the ways that mass media has misrepresented or misinterpreted this idea, and consider how such misrepresentations can contribute to and/or reinforce misunderstanding of the theory by the public at large.

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