What Is The Most Misunderstood Idea Ever?  


by Ed Brayton

Longtime friend of Dispatches Ron Brown asks an interesting question at his blog: What is the most misunderstood idea of all time? He offers an initial suggestion that the most misunderstood is Descartes’ famous statement cogito ergo sum, but I think his second idea is even more misunderstood:

* That evolution is driven by random chance. While genetic mutations occur at random, natural selection is the exact opposite of randomness.

* That evolutionary theory or Darwin himself ever argued for eugenics. Evolution is a theory of what is, not what ought. Further, in On The Origin of Species, Darwin specifically spoke against human eugenics.

There are so many misconceptions of what evolutionary theory means or requires that I would nominate this as the clear leader for the most misunderstood idea ever. Very few people understand what the theory of evolution is, what it entails or how it happened. How often do you hear people ask, “If we evolved from apes (or worse, monkeys), why are there still apes?” Anyone asking that question doesn’t have the first clue how evolution works, yet it is staggeringly common. There are more myths and false perceptions of evolution than any other idea I can think of.



This is from an article by Ed Brayton.  Very thought provoking question.  I hear people say things that require a second, even third or fourth take. You just want to reach over and hit their reset switch. You know, the one that is blinking bright red between their eyes. And hit it hard.

I agree that evolution is probably the most misunderstood, but quantam physics is a close second, if not tied with evolution.

On the social side, feminism is an idea that is completely misunderstood by most people. Also race, as in there isn’t any, except the human race.

Anyway folks, what’cha think? Anything is fair game.

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Replies to This Discussion

I think the first misconception is that evolution is a theory - it ain't. Evolution is a demonstratable, defined, and measurable PROCESS, just as metabolism, ecological succession, growth and development...etc are processes. The theories are directed toward individual mechanisms of those processes (ie: puncuated vs continous evolution). The correct characteration is the theories of the evolutionary process.

The quantum world is poorly understood by the average individual. It is mysterious, very strange and defies “common sense”. As a consequence, it is used to legitimize every dumb shit idea that comes down the road – and if you don't believe - you just don't have an open mind.

First off they misunderstand that evolution is both a theory and fact.  Then then don't understand what a theory is.

Evolution is a misunderstood idea that I hear very often. All the ideas you mention are misunderstood or just not understood at all.

I will keep thinking on this one and see if I come up with some other ideas. Just thought I'd put a little something here while I am thinking further on this.

I think that the idea of atheism should be up there in the top five. A lot of theists seem to have a terrible time with the concept.  As for me, I'm reasonably up to speed on Evolution I think. I know nothing about quantum physics, but I could probably get the basics if I put my mind to it. 

I think most people understand what it means to be an atheist, regardless of whether they agree with it or not.  But there certainly is that small portion of mankind that simply cannot get it.  These are the ones who will make arguments like "since atheists talk about god so much they obviously believe in god", or "why do atheists hate god?"  They are so galvanized in their faith that the very idea of god not existing cannot register in their brain.  Though extremely frustrating, they are a relatively small minority and probably not eligible for a top five slot.

I dunno, man.  I think they could be a good 15% to 25% of the population, here in the US.  I think you're discounting the number of crazy fundamentalists, from oversampling of sane, rational people, in your social circle.

I hate to think that high of a percentage of the US is that mentally impaired.  I literally think of that as a mental impairment, as it involves a genuine inability to understand a basic concept.  You could be right though - perhaps the southern half of the country is far more ignorant than I give them credit for.  I guess I'm basing my opinion on the cross section of bloggers/commentors that I regularly encounter on non-atheist sites.  I argue and debate with many theists on line, but only a small percentage of them have this insurmountable roadblock in their thinking.

I guess I'm basing my opinion on the cross section of bloggers/commentors that I regularly encounter on non-atheist sites.

Ah, yeah.  There's your biggest problem.  You're looking at the people who can express a coherent thought, when forming your perception of Christians.  That'll definitely cause a major sampling error, when you're forming your opinion based upon the elite (such as they are) of the Christian right.

It's not so much north/south, as much as it's urban/rural.  Rural Pennsylvania is pretty scary, too.  Hell, that's where Rick Santorum found sufficient support to be elected to Congress, four times.

 Mark Twain astutely reasoned:
“Never argue with stupid people; they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

Been there before.  I've learned that most religious discussions are not worth jumping into.  Now I limit my interjections to pointing out the most inarguable facts - like "if you were born in the ME, chance are you would be praising Allah and the Qu'ran with the same sincerity and devotion you have for the god and the bible right now, and you would have the same scorn for the bible that you have for the Qu'ran right now."  It's hard to argue against that.

I have limited experiences talking to religious people since becoming atheist, but when I used the argument that you would be a strong (name the religion) if you were born into it, with my sister, it did not seem to phase her. 

I think that's because mormons are taught that they are the intelligent ones that can see the truth, appealing to the ego.  When I was mormon, I was convinced that if I were born into another religion, I would not take too many years to see it was wrong and find the truth in mormonism. 

I suspect most religions are like that.  They appeal to our egotistical side.  The side that thinks we're smarter than most.

This splendid question requires some thought. Early homo sapiens didn't understand fire, but once "captured" and used for their purposes, fire became a necessary friend, even as it held the possibility of destruction. Early humans didn't understand falling water and its potential power. They eventually learned how to utilize it, even as it, too, held possibility of destruction. 

Humans didn't understand how nature works and invented religions, all around the globe, different stories but dealing with telling stories to explain birth, death, seasons, stars and these stories became codified into scriptures. 

Science and enlightenment developed in Egypt, only to be put out by religion, in the Middle East, only to be defeated by religion, in Europe and America, only to be fought against using religion. The litanies supported sexism, racism, classism, etc.

Individuals, then small groups that grew in size, then masses of people reversed the principles of sexism, racism, and classism. The scriptural-thinkers hang on with their nails, scratching to stay in dominance and use scripture to rationalize their position. Many don't realize scripture is the work of humans, there is no deity, humans have no prescribed purpose or meaning, and some seem to be willing to do whatever is necessary to keep the cloak of protection that their deity provides. 

Therefore, to me, " "What Is The Most Misunderstood Idea Ever?" is the realization that humans have the responsibility and power to define their own purpose and meaning, for good or ill. That we come into the world innocent of what life involves and learn through example and reasoning what works and what doesn't. Humans have the capacity for good and evil with no one to redeem them and no heaven or hell to reward or punish. Humans have the capability to imagine, explore, examine, and ask the tough questions. Humans are one or two genes away from apes, and yet that small amount of DNA or RNA, enables us to "remember" the future and live as if we matter. 



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