Dictionaries and Encyclopedias Can't Always Be Trusted

In the Oxford Concise Science Dictionary we find the following definition:

evolution: The gradual process by which the present diversity of plant and animal life arose from the earliest and most primitive organisms, which is believed to have been continuing for the past 3000 million years.
about which Dr. L. Moran had to say:
This is inexcusable for a dictionary of science. Not only does this definition exclude prokaryotes, protozoa, and fungi, but it specifically includes a term "gradual process" which should not be part of the definition. More importantly the definition seems to refer more to the history of evolution than to evolution itself. Using this definition it is possible to debate whether evolution is still occurring but the definition provides no easy way of distinguishing evolution from other processes. For example, is the increase in height among Caucasians over the past several hundred years an example of evolution? Are the color changes in the peppered moth population examples of evolution? This is not a scientific definition.
Standard dictionaries are even worse:
"evolution: ...the doctrine according to which higher forms of life have gradually arisen out of lower.." - Chambers

"evolution: ...the development of a species, organism, or organ from its original or primitive state to its present or specialized state; phylogeny or ontogeny" - Webster's

These definitions are outright wrong. Both seem to have the idea that evolution makes organisms more complicated, and better. (But surely blind cave fish are simpler and less capable.) And "higher" and "lower" imply value judgments. Science isn't in that business.

Encyclopedias don't seem to be any better. Many of them manage to state Darwin's theory as a tautology, and they don't seem to know about most of the evidence.

Last modified: 4 August 2001

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