True Things About Evolution

I was looking for a particular post of mine, and ran across this one from back in 1999. “The Patterson Challenge” refers to a lecture given by Colin Patterson in which he asked his audience a question. This incident has become a favorite quote of antievolutionists.

I’ve been putting a simple question to various people and groups of people. Question is: Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing that is true? I tried that question on the geology staff at the Field Museum of Natural History and the only answer I got was silence. I tried it on the members of the Evolutionary Morphology Seminar in the University of Chicago, a very prestigious body of evolutionists, and all I got there was silence for a long time and eventually one person said, “I do know one thing — it ought not to be taught in high school”.

So when it popped up again in a forum I was participating in, I took the opportunity to answer the original question.

True things about evolutionary theory
Wesley R. Elsberry (
Tue, 9 Nov 1999 11:26:29 -0600 (CST)

Art Chadwick writes:

AC>Those are fancy (and oft repeated) words. Let me issue you
AC>the Patterson challenge: tell us one thing you know for
AC>sure about the theory of evolution…other than that “it
AC>shouldn’t be taught to high school students”

Patterson’s challenge was broader, asking whether anyone knew any one thing about “evolution” to be true.

Let’s see… true things about evolution. That would make an overlong list. I’ll just give some of my favorites.

– Inheritance is particulate, not blending.

– Inheritance is not perfect. Changes can and do happen in heritable information.

– More organisms are produced than can be sustained under prevailing ecological conditions.

– Those heritable variations which correlate with differential survival of organisms tend to have higher proportional representation in the population.

– The distribution of traits in a population can be influenced by chance effects, such as population bottlenecks and sampling from a limited pool of variant.

– Fossils are the traces of organisms that were once alive.

– Fossil forms show that extinction of species happens. Certain fossils represent organisms common enough, large enough, and distributed in areas where if they were present through the present day could not have been overlooked.

– Fossils are distributed in a stratigraphic pattern indicating change in fossil assemblages over time.

– Fossil assemblages show that mass extinctions have happened at widely different times in the earth’s history.

– The canonical genetic code is consistent with the theory of common descent.

– Patterns of differences in sequences of proteins and heritable information support the idea that these differences have accrued since the time of a last common ancestor.

– Evolutionary interrelationships have been used to advantage in medical research.

– The principles of natural selection have been used to advantage in computational optimization and search.

– Species have been observed to form, both in the laboratory and in the wild.

– A novel symbiotic association has been observed in the laboratory.

Well, that should get us started, anyway.


Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

One thought on “True Things About Evolution

  • 2010/04/26 at 7:58 am

    Plus, Patterson was talking very specifically about Ernst-Mayr style “evolutionary systematics”, i.e. where you place two critters in different genera because you “know” that they are “different enough” and have “different ecological niches”, whether or not the groups are monophyletic. It was a minor episode in the cladistics wars, elevated to legendary status in the fevered minds of creationists…

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