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Darwin Day Speaker Says Public Misunderstands Evolution

Misconceptions people have of evolution lead them to believe males are the workers in every species and that some species are more advanced than others.

That’s according to Dr. Marlene Zuk, professor of ecology at the University of Minnesota and tonight's speaker at Duquesne University’s annual Darwin Day lecture.

She said people often see progressive evolutionary charts in biology books, ones where fish evolve into reptiles, then reptiles to mammals.

“And then eventually you end up with human beings kind of being at the pinnacle. And the implication is that everything’s been evolving towards human beings and then once we got people, ‘phew!’ we were done, we made something that was perfect and then we can stop,” said Zuk. “But the problem is that everything that’s on earth has been evolving for exactly the same amount of time because we’re all here now.”

Zuk said it’s inaccurate to think of evolution as having a goal in mind because there’s “not been anything that’s designing it to have that goal.”

She said people also associate animal actions with those of people, and it is natural to think your dogs are “just acting like little people.” But individuals shouldn’t reinforce their own beliefs about animal behavior by failing to studying it.

Zuk said people often see social insects, like ants and bees, and believe the workers to be males. She said this is the main problem in “Bee Movie” staring Jerry Seinfeld.

“The problem is that Jerry Seinfeld just has the wrong equipment for playing a worker honey bee because he’s a male,” said Zuk. “All the worker honey bees that you see going from flower to flower, and making honey, and pollinating crops, and doing all that other good stuff are all females.”

She said this is due to society painting the workers in life as male.

Zuk, who is the author of Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World, said there’s a lot we can learn from insects and their behavior.

“Insects, for example, can learn lots of complicated things even though they have brains like the size of a sesame seed.”

Zuk said the size of their brains leads to questioning the purpose of a big brain. She said, if insects can perform such complex actions with small brains, we need to study what larger animal brains lead to behaviorally.