But there’s also a formidable secular issue in evolution education and I think it’s far too often overlooked and underestimated:
Even after evolution’s accepted, it’s commonly misunderstood, mistaught, and misapplied.
Getting things wrong is bad enough, but scarier ramifications occur when wrong-headed evolutionary thinking, based on what or who is "favored" or "fittest," is used to support apathy or to justify hateful and violent behavior between humans.
So let’s think about how we throw around those f-words. Especially in the presence of children!
Let my people evolve
Whether or not they realize it, people speak of a trait or an individual being favored by Mother Nature (a.k.a. “selected for”) in the same way that religious folks talk about some people being "chosen" by God.
No, I don’t think it’s intentional.
But I do think that there's a real link: Whether or not you believe that there's a God and s/he favors people, it's easy to transfer that thinking onto Mother Nature and to have her favor things too.
Something must be doing the selecting... natural, sexual, or otherwise. Something with agency.
And not only that, but that something might like me a whole lot! And it may like me more than my drunk, tacky neighbor! Because that's logical. I really am better than my drunk, tacky neighbor. And something bigger than me should recognize that.
Whether it’s God or Mother Nature or the universe or whatever you want to call it, that agent deems me better than someone else and I love that. And I neeeeeed that.
If you cling to this belief that only the favored are special in the eyes of a God-like Mother Nature, then evolutionary thinking can give rise to the same sorts of tribal and societal conflicts that derive from religious beliefs.
We need to disassociate nature from "Mother Nature" which is an entity with agency and intention.
Nature can’t favor anything. It’s our limited vocabulary that leads us to say so. And saying so tempts us to think so.
Any which way but lose
Darwin incorporated Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest” into his work, which helped him to paint the evolutionary landscape as one rife with conflict and combat. And it certainly has a lot of that.
"Survival of the fittest" brings to mind the fastest gazelle or the tallest giraffe or the busiest bee or the spiniest sea urchin or the pinchiest lobster. But that’s an extremely limited view of the world.
Most organisms are not the _____-est!
Are you the _______-est in anything or at anything?
Now, okay, you got me fair and square: I’m a tree-hugging liberal.
But I’m also a highly competitive person who was raised in the southern U.S. in the 1980s, who is a former captain and coach of various sports teams, and who doesn’t believe in giving every child a ribbon at a track meet.
So hear me as the latter when I say…
Evolution isn’t about the winner.
The winner? The fittest? Nope. Think “survival of the fitter.”
Many individuals, not just the winner, the best, or the ____-est, pass on their genes to the next generation. Those individuals that do not pass on their genes (the evolutionary losers, if you must), those individuals are out of the game, along with their genes. All the rest, not just the ________-est or the winner, are still in the game!
We're used to games like running races or basketball with one winner or one winning team. This analogy doesn't apply to evolution.
Instead of “survival of the best” think “survival of the good enough.”
This change in wording can change your thinking and it reminds me of the difference between saying “early man” and “early humans.” When I hear “early man” I imagine only prehistoric adult males and "early humans" fixes that by adding females and juveniles to my head movies.
“Survival of the fittest” may be even more accidentally exclusive than “early man.”
***So let's phase out “fittest” and let's phase out "favored."
Let's work on censoring these f-words and, when they must be used in historical contexts, let's be mindful of their power to not only mislead and limit our evolutionary understanding but to also support racist beliefs and behaviors.
Just because Darwin said these f-words, does not mean that they're necessary or correct. Origin of Species should not be treated as holy text. There’s no such thing as blasphemy in science.
And I bet Darwin, as sensitive as he was, would have dreamt up a better language for evolution and selective mechanisms by now. But since he can't, why don’t we?
Coming soon... another f-word: Forwards (a.k.a. progress)
 Have you seen this map of the hate groups in the U.S.? Have you studied history? Religion isn’t the only route to superiority. Among these hate groups, you're bound to find misapplications of evolutionary theory, like "social Darwinism" and the like.
 This is similar to how our limited vocabulary leads us to say that silverback males are "securing paternity," which then leads us to incorrectly assume that they know the concept of fatherhood in the sense that humans do. Read more here.
 But none of any of this would be here today if there wasn’t also very powerful cooperation at all levels of size and complexity within the biosphere. For more on cooperation, see the book The Mermaid’s Tale by Ken and Anne (of this very blog!)
 There's that tree-hugger rearing her frizzy-haired head.
 No text should be treated as holy.
 Even the f-words of evolution could be rescued from cuss-dom if the evidence supported it.