Worst. Analogy. Ever

I’m all for activism and outreach, but what does this quote mean: “Teaching science without evolution is like teaching sentence structure without the alphabet.”

I was ready to address the flaws from a science literacy framework, but brainlogist is much better (emphasis added):

As a scientist, I’m terribly disappointed in the quote that opens this post. It may seem like it’s clever, highlighting the fundamental importance of evolution by relating it to the “basic” units of the alphabet; unfortunately, the analogy falls apart completely, and in fact a bit self-destructively, once you know a little bit about the science of language.

Sentence structure (syntax) has nothing to do with the alphabet.  There is no natural human language whose syntax depends at all on an alphabet.  Moreover, there are numerous examples of languages (say, the Chinese languages) that have no alphabet, but whose syntax can still be described.

Alphabets are arbitrary ways of encoding the sounds of language in static, visual form.  What’s worse, alphabets are invented by humans as a tool for recording language. It’s a dangerous analogy to make to suggest that evolution is invented by people.

Let me hazard another analogy in the same form as the quote above “Teaching science without teaching evolution is like teaching calculus without Roman numerals.”

Although the intent is noble, and the video is otherwise one of the best I’ve seen for conveying fundamental importance of evolution to science, the rampant misinformation people have about linguistics is always disappointing.

(For the people at home playing “irony bingo”: syntax is an evolved capacity of the human mind, whereas alphabets are intelligently designed…)

Ha! Love the closing.


  1. Hilarious. I think brainologist captures it well. Two additional things:

    1. I’m guessing that, even if the analogy had somehow been correct, you probably still would’ve taken issue with that quote because of the way it uses the word “science”, right? I think you’ve said before that you can teach a lot of science (physics, engineering, analytical chemistry, etc.) without really teaching anything about the theory of evolution. Maybe they could’ve said, “teaching molecular biology…” or “teaching evolutionary biology without teaching evolution is like…” But obviously that would make the quote lose a lot of its punch. The way the quote is worded makes it sound like all branches of science are somehow fundamentally shaped by the theory of evolution, perpetuating a monolithic view of science. But when you watch the video, you realize that sub-disciplines within genomics, biology, physiology and medicine are primarily in view.

    2. I had a similar reaction to your post when I read the first few pages of the otherwise great book, “Only A Theory” by Ken Miller. At one point, he says something like, “Properly explained, science is nothing more than organized common sense”. Like you and brainologist, I’m all for activism and outreach, and I actually think Miller’s book is one of the best attempts I’ve seen for conveying the fundamental importance of the theory. But come on. In his earnestness to convey its importance, he over-elevates science by using a definition that makes no sense.

    1. Thanks for your comment Omair. You guessed it right…the analogy loses its punch if it’s stated accurately. i.e., “teaching evolutionary biology without teaching evolution is like…” And that’s ignoring the linguistics stuff that makes it a bad analogy to begin with! And you’re right, the monolithic view of science is what I most oppose.

      I have to check out that Ken Miller book. Regarding that quote about organized common sense…that is actually a theme that comes up all the time. The interesting thing is that the opposite idea (that science is special and esoteric, and only scientists can comprehend it) also crops up all the time. So throughout history, you see different scientists simultaneously arguing for these two very different ideas.

      IMHO, neither of these two ideas are really addressing what science “is”. Rather, they’re addressing how scientists should publicly speak about science. In certain contexts, certain scientists find it useful to portray scientific activity as what anyone can do. In other contexts, it’s more useful to portray it as something special and amazing that only the initiated can engage in.

      Anyway…this is getting long enough. Thanks again.

  2. Whoa, whoa, whoa, I only just fully read the closing statement. I must have missed the part in parentheses before. WHAT??!! Syntax and the alphabet are both learned, and I would not call either of them “an evolved capacity” nor “intelligently designed”. If brainologist is making the argument that alphabets are “invented by humans” then isn’t the comment about it being “intelligently designed” contradicting that argument? Is there something I’m missing here?

    I won’t go into the “syntax is an evolved capacity of the human mind” comment… there are lots of problems wrong with that one too.

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