An Evolutionary Biologist Answers Christine O'Donnell's Question About the Missing Monkey-Humans

O'Donnell's Oct. 15, 1998, appearance on "Politically Incorrect" with Bill Maher.

On Friday night Bill Maher showed a clip on his HBO program from his former show, Politically Incorrect, in which Christine O'Donnell, now the Republican Senate nominee from Delaware, declared, "Evolution is a myth." She went on to ask, "Why aren't monkeys still evolving into humans?"

O'Donnell's perspicacious question had me questioning the whole vast scientific consensus (or should I say conspiracy???) on evolution. So I called Douglas J. Futuyma, distinguished chair of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. He is the editor of editor of the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, and has served as president of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the American Institute of Biological Sciences. Below is what he told me in response to O'Donnell's question:

To imply that if evolution were true we should see monkeys turning into people shows not much knowledge of biology. Clearly Ms. O’Donnell is not very knowledgeable on this subject.

We did not evolve from monkeys as such: they are a living organism. We evolved from a common ancestor. If you go farther back, we evolved from the same ancestor as all vertebrates.

All of those changes have taken an extraordinarily long time. Even a single change in a species takes a very long time. For example, there is evidence that some humans in Africa and Europe have evolved ability to drink milk as adults without lactose intolerance. That change clearly took thousands of years to occur as one generation of species replaces another. One genetic type has to survive better or have more babies. That process of replacement takes hundreds or thousands of generations. So you don't see evolution over your lifetime, even if the change were slight.

If you compare us to our closest relatives, chimpanzees, the changes are significant. It took 5 to 6 million years. No biologist has any expectation that monkeys would change into anything but monkeys over our lifetime.

Surely O'Donnell would have an equally sophisticated response to Futuyma. Alas, her campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but perhaps they can have a public debate? I'm sure it would be very illuminating.

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