Even greeting cards teach bad science

Most anthropologists are used to seeing greeting cards…and commercials…and movies…etc… that mistakenly label chimps as monkeys. It’s annoying but I am used to it now (though for a good discussion of the problem of using chimps in movies, correctly identified or not, see Jason Goldman’s post). If it bothers you as well, I suggest you buy the fantastic children’s book Furious George Goes Bananas: A Primate Parody. Every time The Man calls George the gorilla a monkey, some other person explains to him why gorillas are apes, not monkeys. This is very satisfying reading.

I won’t go into detail here, but there are several differences between monkeys and apes.

Brachiating Gibbon photo by Troy Thompson. Creative Commons License

This Gibbon is showing you what brachiation, swinging below limbs, looks like. Gibbons are apes.

Some of the obvious traits are their modes of locomotion (most monkeys walk on the tops of branches or on the ground similar to a cat; apes swing underneath or knuckle walk on the ground), and the fact that apes don’t have tails, while monkeys do. Additionally, when apes first evolved, they successfully out-adapted monkeys in several habitats. The Miocene Epoch (23-5.3mya) is often called the Age of Apes. So even though there aren’t many apes left today, their history is unique from monkeys. And their unique adaptations set up the potential for our ancestors to eventually evolve into Homo sapiens.

Today I was thrilled to find a greeting card that correctly called a chimpanzee an ape (amid several others that called chimps monkeys)…but I was then devastated to see a TERRIBLE card about evolution and cavemen that is probably the most scientifically problematic greeting card I’ve ever seen.

Here’s the great Chimp card:

Ape in a Sheet: 'Go Ape Sheet for your Birthday'

Ba dum bum

Hehehe. I love it. It is clever and scientifically correct. And look at the ape’s cute opposable big toes!

And here is the TERRIBLE caveman card:

First, the cover:

Caveman Greeting Card with rock art

“To fully understand the modern male, consider the effects of millions of years of evolution.”

Closeup of Caveman Card, Caveman face

A close up of the ‘ancient man’ reveals really baggy eyes, giant eyebrows and lots of scraggly facial hair. He appears to have a receding hairline, but no brow ridge. I can’t tell if he’s holding a fur up to cover his bald head (the first toupee!?) or if he’s playing with his luxurious unkempt hair. Maybe it is hard to sleep in a cave, so he’s really tired?

On to the inside:

Caveman in Cave thinking of beer and women

Inside of Caveman Card

“Of course, evolution is just a theory. Happy birthday to someone who’s one in a millennium!”

Before we get into the MASSIVE problems with that text, let us examine our more detailed picture of our ancient man and his thoughts.

Apparently ancient men DID live in caves and create rock art. They left stereotypical bones around the cave (can a biologist tell me if any animal actually creates a bone like the cartoon dog-bones seen here?), along with a few identifiable ribs. We can presume he is Paleolithic. The bow and arrow on the wall, along with the fact that they’ve stuck him in a cave rather than a village, are our best clues. Our caveman is CLEARLY wearing a skin-colored unitard (look at his wrist) – I had no idea that was common in ancient days! Because of that we can’t tell how hairy he was, since he’s covering it up. He also wears ancient leather vibram running shoes over his GIANT FEET. This makes me assume he is one of the Flores ‘hobbits’. Our ancient man is then casually wrapped in furs (presumably from the animals we can see in the cave art). There’s quite a variety of rock art in the background – I see people with bows and arrows (any archaeologists want to give us information on the regional origins of these particular styles of rock painting?). Yet our caveman has regressed back to having a wooden club. The club actually appears to be covered in bark, so this is serious OLD SCHOOL clubbing. And it must just be for decoration – I would assume a used club would get dinged up and have evidence of wear. But our caveman just lounges around in his fur blankets playing with his hair and thinking of:

Anatomically Modern WOMEN. IN CLOTH BIKINIS. It makes sense that she is Anatomically Modern, since we also have rock art in the picture and our male also appears fairly modern – while there is some speculation that Neanderthals (however you choose to define them) may have made rock art, the general consensus is still that most rock art was made by AMHs. Since the bikini is made of fabric, it must have been woven.  We have woven materials going back tens of thousands of years, but that fine a weave probably requires  linen or wool, which means we need DOMESTICATED sheep or flax. So she must be from THE FUTURE! THE NEOLITHIC! As far as I can find, the earliest evidence of textile production comes from about 8500 years ago, in the Middle East and later in Turkey.

And then there’s his other thought:

BEER. Beer made from barley (or wheat). Again, those last two are domesticated plants.  You can make plenty of other fermented beverages, but that is clearly a beer. In a glass stein. The earliest evidence we have thusfar for fermented beverages is about 9000 years old, and that’s from China, so it’s made of rice. And a glass stein that nice wasn’t going to be around until the Twentieth Century. So Yes! The future! First the Neolithic, now the Modern Era!

So my initial conclusion is NOT that this is a card that denigrates men and implies they care about nothing but booze and sex, but instead it is a card that says ‘men: always looking ahead!’ Right? That’s what they’re going for, right? And the Flores feet are just a slip up in an otherwise, very reasonable card.

Sigh

As for the statement at the top of the card, I don’t know what point they were trying to make with it. Do you think this card is pro or anti-evolution? Regardless, it is a very problematic statement to see on a Hallmark Greeting Card.

For those who are unaware, the ‘Evolution is just a Theory’ statement is one of the most common and incorrect statements about science I hear on a regular basis. I broach this topic within the first two weeks of class and constantly reinforce the correct terminology throughout the term, to help students understand how scientists use the term theory.

When a scientist says something is a theory, that has a very specific meaning. Steven J Gould does a nice job of explaining what a scientist means when s/he says ‘theory’:

  • “Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome.” – S.J. Gould 1981

We see evolution happening all the time. One of the most obvious ways we see evolution occurring is in viruses (though they are just RNA, the principle is the same as in organisms with DNA). Why do we need to create a new flu shot every year? Because, as the flu replicates and passes itself around among people across the world, mutations occur. Replication is not perfect 100% of the time. The vaccine you take is a small dose of the virus – you put it in your body and you produce antibodies that can protect you from the virus. Then when the larger dose of the virus appears (as your child sneezes on you, lets say), your body already knows how to defend itself against this particular flu virus. But as the virus continues to be passed around among humans, and continues to replicate itself, mutations develop. Eventually the virus becomes so different from the one you got vaccinated against, that your body won’t recognize it anymore and know how to protect you, so you need a new vaccine for the new version of the virus. Because the virus evolved over the year.

So Evolution IS a fact. Evolutionary Theory means something different. It is the attempt to explain the big picture. There is much more to evolution that simply mutations and selection. We now know that the non-gene portions of our DNA, which we called ‘junk DNA’, actually play a big roll in how we develop. That junk DNA influences the genes near it. So our explanations for HOW evolution works have changed. But that doesn’t change the fact that evolution is happening. We have fossil evidence. We have genetic evidence. We have comparative biological evidence. And we can watch viruses, bacteria, and rapidly replicating eukaryotes to see how that change occurs, and improve our big picture explanations. And we still have lots of questions about how evolution leads to speciation events – how quickly can mutations pile up? How much impact can one mutation have on a species? What makes one squirrel population decide that another squirrel population is just not mate-able? These are all tied to the big ideas about HOW evolution impacts species. But they do not negate the very clear fact that evolution DOES impact species.

The conversational word ‘theory’ is really equivalent to the scientific term ‘hypothesis’.  When a scientist says ‘I have a hypothesis about something’ – that means they have a testable idea to explain what is going on. Then they will collect data to see if they can support or refute that hypothesis. Over and over again. When you test something a lot of different times, and in a lot of different ways, and you can’t refute it, then you can start to develop theory to explain why you are seeing what you do.  But that means the idea has so much support you are now trying to explain the big picture you can see with all of the data you have collected.  So to say ‘Evolution is just a theory’ doesn’t make sense to a scientist. That’s like saying ‘Evolution is just so widely supported through multiple lines of evidence that we have developed explanations to pull all this data together and explain how all the pieces fit together so well’.

So UGH. This card makes me SO MAD. I think I’m going to send an e-mail off to Hallmark about this one. Feel free to do the same if you want to. The UPC is 610290038371.

Keep your eye out for other good/bad science greeting cards. If anyone has a memorable one, I’d love to hear about it!

And next time you catch yourself saying ‘I have a theory about why the Cardinals have a lower win-loss average than the Mets right now’ – stop yourself and rephrase it ‘I have a HYPOTHESIS about why the Cardinals have a lower win-loss average than the Mets right now’.  Then figure out what data you need to support your hypothesis, collect and analyze it, and if it supports your hypothesis, test it on other teams that have had similar records in other seasons. And if it still works in all of those situations, then you can try to create a ‘Bad Season Theory’.   *

References Cited:

Stephen Jay Gould, “Evolution as Fact and Theory,” Discover 2 (May 1981): 34-37

* At the time of this writing, my Mets are .560 and the Cardinals are .540.  As soon as this changes, Dr24hours is totally entitled to rub it in my face, but for now I and my Mets remain TRIUMPHANT.

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